Is this the perfect travel notebook?


I’m never done. I have this endless (and expensive) quest to find the ultimate travel gear. Now sadly, I have to work within my own means and budget so this isn’t so much about the “ultimate-at-any-cost” item, unless, perhaps, I get lucky and it is! Then I’ll consider myself very fortunate that the ultimate of any device fit into my budget.

Let me give you some background on the laptops and notebooks I’ve traveled with. Remember the Compaq 1700 series? I had one once, I think it was a Pentium II. It went with me to many parts of Asia, including the Philippines. Later, trying to pick a lighter computer, yet one that I could still do some work on, I had a Sony TR-2 (which was stolen here in the USA and replaced by a Sony TR-3AP). That went with me all over the world too. Hong Kong, Macau, China, Thailand, the Philippines. By the time the Sony became obsolete, I was gaming heavily and I bought a Dell XPS 1530 with the (silly) idea that I would game with my online friends during downtime on vacation.

Let me take a very brief moment to say that the idea that you are going to game, worse RAID, is quite possibly the worst-idea-ever. Don’t do it. I quickly realized that once I was overseas, that no matter how “hard core” a game player I thought I was, it was quite possibly one of the worst ideas for how to spend any down time while on a vacation across the world. The laptop, however, was very good at editing movies and photos and did help to keep youtube and the blogs updated, so I have no regrets with that purchase. It served me very well, at the cost of carrying eight or more pounds of weight, once you factor in the power supply, mouse, and other various accessories. That weight, however, had it’s cost and it got to the point where it was limiting. On my last trip, I carried a DSLR, point and shoot, camcorder, flash unit, accessories and tripod. Together, my load was 20-25 pounds, just in gear. Going every day, 12+ hours a day on tour or trying to move efficiently from one boat to another, it really wore on me (and here’s the key) to the point that it wasn’t fun any more. I also realized I’m getting older and lugging around a couple dozen pounds of gear hurt. I knew that for me to be move around freely, get on and off buses, jump from boat to boat (did that in Tonle Sap in Cambodia) and just generally travel more comfortably I’d need to lighten up my load. With that in mind I tried carrying my wife’s atom powered netbook. While it was fine for light e-mail and surfing, it was quick to show it’s limitations when asked to do photo editing or video editing. Even trying to play a video clip was pretty choppy.

So, once again, I found myself looking for the perfect travel notebook. I wasn’t searching too actively, but kept up on all the new computers coming out.

Key things that it needed for me were:

  • light weight
  • powerful enough to edit movies and photos
  • wi-fi (though pretty nearly all devices have it now)
  • large enough to be useful, as small a form factor as possible otherwise

As I was keeping my eyes open for something that fit the bill, Apple came out with the MacBook Air. I was surprised by how light it was. At the time, the Gen 1 MacBook Air was the smallest, lightest computer in it’s class (of course there were netbooks, but for full computer power and a decent size screen it was the lightest). Still, I felt that the 13″ was a bit too large to be worth switching. So I waited.

Then, this year, Apple released the second generation MacBook Air and they had an 11″. I stopped in at the Apple store and picked one up, held it in my hands, felt how incredibly light it was and was sold on the size and form. Will it edit video though? I had to go think about it. The more I thought, the more I wanted to give it a shot, so finally, breaking down and digging deep into my lint lined pockets, I coughed up the cash for the best equipped 11′ at the store. Powered by an i7 processor with 4 GB of RAM and a 256 GB solid state drive, the computer seems so far to be quite zippy. I have not actually tested video editing on it yet, however I will do so shortly and post on it.

My first impressions are that the size didn’t disappoint once getting home. It still feels small and light and compares quite favorably to the iPad2, being pretty much what one would expect. A little bigger and a little thicker and a tiny bit heavier. Certainly, if I am going on a trip and want to edit photo and video I would not hesitate to pack Air, based on size and weight.

Earlier, I said that I had an XPS 1530. That became an XPS 1330, as the 1330 had problems and my daughter traded me for my working 1530… The 1330 has a couple problems. The spring on the left click button on the trackpad has failed and currently the webcam doesn’t work. However, this would be my travel computer (yes, semi-broken and all) had I not bought the Air.

The weight of the XPS is about 4lbs vs about 2.4lbs for the Air. It’s not double but when you pick up one vs. the other it sure feels like double the weight. The Air, being newer and having faster…well faster everything… is naturally a faster machine and there’s no long wait for it to boot up or do things. If there’s anything my experience with the iPad 2 and the MacBook Air have sold me on, it’s solid state drives. I didn’t look at them as worth the price, and still feel there’s quite a bit of room for them to get cheaper, but I understand the value now. It’s value you can feel, not just an advantage on paper.

It’s been busy here and all I’ve really been able to do thus far is play with it a little bit. But here’s my initial impression. It’s quite a capable computer and I’m hoping that my movie editing will go smoothly on it (perhaps a task I can get done in the next few days), but I’m optimistic. Form factor and weight considered, it’s already a win, as I have no complaints at all in that regard.

There are some things I notice right away that I wish Apple had seen fit to include. The biggest is the complete lack of a security hole. Because I travel, I want to be able to strap it to a desk in my room so I can go down to breakfast and not worry that it’s going to walk out of my room. having nowhere at all to secure it is harsh. That puts me in the position of having to drop it in the room safe (or suitcase) every time or bring it with me. Not an insurmountable task, but still it’s “one more thing” to do each and every time I leave the room. Another is I miss not having a biometric device built into the wrist rest. Barring the introduction of one in future macs, perhaps they could include facial recognition (should only be a software upgrade!) into the OS so that the built in webcam can save entering the password each time you wake the computer from slumber.  Still neither of these things are game breakers in terms of features and one of them can be easily added by Apple, or via a third party, so I’ll be hopeful.

So far I’m happy and will continue to test it as time permits here and look forward to the real test… out there!

update: 3/2013 It’s still my travel computer. Storing photos, editing pictures and movies to upload to my blog or youtube on the go, it does everything I’d want 🙂