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Can an 11 inch Macbook Air be useful for CAD professionals?

Yes it can! Once was upon a time, the Macbook Air just barely more than an “iPad with a keyboard”, but the 2013 Macbook Air remains ultra-light while becoming a full-fledged mobile computing solution for professionals.

Apple's 11" Macbook Air

The Macbook Air is a 1-kilo wonder

Extreme mobility for professionals

Personally, my work life is very mobile. But I need power too. So much of the last decade has been a good for my back as I toted 17” notebooks around the globe. I recall the first time I saw an “Air”.  I was sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for a Lufthansa flight with another traveler across from me with his new Macbook Air.  It was cute... but with a so-called hard drive having a capacity smaller than the memory installed in most workstations of the day, it was no more interesting than any other toy would have been.


Not any more.


New speed, performance, and capacity for 1 kg

While it might be true that relative to the powerhouse notebook workstations you can lug around today, the specifications might still seem toy-like, but  the 2013 Macbook Air models shipping today have the latest 4th Generation Intel Core i5 & i7 CPUs (what we all know as the Haswell CPU microarchitecture), 8 GB of memory and modern, fast SSD storage of 512 GB. Hmmm, and in a slick design weighing in at essentially 1 kg.


Now let's be clear : this won't replace your mobile workstation, much less you desktop system. But the features and performance of the new Macbook Air makes it a real solution for the mobile professional on the road needing more than a tablet but less than a full-blown desktop-replacement mobile workstation.


Today, I use my tablet to do the simple tasks for which that fellow traveler in Paris used his “toy” Macbook Air : email, internet, and Skype. And while tablets are useful devices, they just cannot handle everything you need to do as professional on the road.

The size of the Macbook Air and the Macbook Pro is simultaneously the source of their benefits and drawbacks for each

Comparing the performance of the 2013 Macbook Air to the 2011 Macbook Pro - what are the benefits of each?


I drive my Macbook pretty hard and while my 2 year old 17 inch Macbook Pro was in the shop for repairs last summer, I opted for an alternative Macbook Air to get me through the repair cycle and to add a much lighter, much smaller travel option. Let me share with you the surprises and the differences I discovered.




Macbook Air

Thin and light with performance : perfect for the road

Will the tablet run all your company's remote applications? Can you launch your CAD program on your iPad – just for a fast update? Can you synchronize your project files and work on them on the road with your tablet? No. Of course not.


So I continue to travel with my 17” Macbook Pro. I inflict a lot of abuse on my notebook, but still it travels with me everywhere – a back-strengthening exercise – just because I need to edit and return an email attachment, update the web site, or edit some photos for an article. This isn't really heavy lifting for my 17”, but my Macbook Pro is my office,  so where I go, it goes.


Enter the new Macbook Air. It's built on the same Intel 4th generation Core platform Dell chose for the new Precision T1700 SFF workstation. For one or two days out of the office, this one-kilo wonder can do the job. Photoshop or AutoCAD, sure. A bit of documentation updating, no problem. Hook into the company's remote servers, of course.


Our tools are always changing : software, hardware, connectivity. I like that about our industry.  Often times the changes are for the big ticket items which make the impossible possible, other times it can be for the simple tools that improve the ins-and-outs of day-to-day life. The new Macbook Air can make your day-to-day life easier and definitely, lighter...


Macbook Air running Premiere Pro

The Macbook Air has a 64 bit operating system and can run Adobe's Premiere Pro

Applications count : does the Macbook Air run CAD and design applications?

CAD professionals have the same needs as other enterprise employees and more. The Macbook Air OS X operating system is a 64 bit operating system which can do the job for designers, engineers, and architects. Many CAD and design applications like AutoCAD, ArchiCAD, and the entire Adobe professional tool set run natively on Mac OS X, and Apple's Bootcamp program and others allow you to install Windows on the same system for those situations where it is unavoidable. With 64-bit power, professional tools, and Windows support as well, a designer or architect should have very few needs unfulfilled.


I'm running the Adobe Creative Cloud tools every day on my new Macbook Air and, even with only 4GB, the  performance has been fine for a 1 kilo wonder. Even relatively heavy applications like Premiere Pro run reasonably well. If you are running 2D or basic 3D CAD applications, you should have no problems finding a Macbook Air configuration that suits your needs for a couple of days on the road.


Run high end applications on the Macbook Air

Run high-end applications on the Macbook Air

Configurations : display size, memory, and SSD storage

The Macbook Air has four standard configurations and there are three basic variables professionals will want to play with when customizing their ultra-light road-warrior : display size, memory, and SSD storage.


For perspective, the lowest possible configuration is an 11", 1366x768 resolution display with the Haswell architecture, 4th generation Core i5 processor, 4 GB of memory and a 128 GB SSD for storage. The highest possible configuration is a 13', 1440x900 resolution display with a 4th generation Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 512 GB SSD for storage.  Where your choice falls in the Macbook Air product selection depends quite naturally on your own needs and desires while on the road, but for me personally, as I am already configured for extreme, albeit heavy, mobility, I decided to resist the urge to over-configure my Air and selected the 11" model with 4GB, an i5 and a 256 GB SSD drive. This standard configuration is just one step up from the lowest possible configuration. While the i5 processor and the 4GB of memory will, realistically, do the job of standing in for my Macbook Pro while I am on the road for a couple of days, the 128 GB of SSD storage was just to constraining for my needs.


I can imagine others making the choice for the top-of-the-line configuration, which, to be honest, doesn't fall too far short of a well-configured Macbook Pro from just two or three years ago.  If your currently using exclusively a fixed workstation for work and have relatively high demands while on the road, this option provides a great value.


Some may scoff at the meager resolutions on these Macbook Air notebooks, but consider that the 11" model will drive it's own 1366x768 display and a second external monitor at 2560x1600 in a dual monitor configuration. Consider as well, if you have been an architect for a few years, that a resolution of 1280x1024 was "high-res" not all that long ago. I'm sure that many of you remember those days.


Last-but-not-least, the new SSD drives in this generation of Air provide snappy performance. While the cost per GB of storage remains higher than a conventional hard drive, the performance is excellent, the weight is less, and the reliability is higher. 


Summary : a full-blown professional tool for the road

The bottom line : for essentially the weight of a full-sized tablet, you can have a full-blown professional tool while on the road. The Macbook Air doesn't even try to be your primary workstation as a design professional, and it never will be, but it can be a great companion for professionals on the road.  The combination of mobility and performance is incredibly hard to beat.


AutoCAD storage and Ram

yes, 8 GB of RAM works fine for AutoCAD. 128GB SSD works, but pay attention to all of your needs. I find 128GB to be a bit tight on storage unless:
-- it is a "single-use" system
-- you carry around an USB drive

The USB drive can be useful for holding project data. Make sure it is USB 3.0 for the speed. Then you can work directly from the drive. It defeats the purpose of having a super tiny Macbook Air, but it is useful if you need to do project work from more than one computer.

And remember to backup your external drive as often as your Mac.


Will autocad still run fine on a 128gb storage? 8g ram

Sean, agree with you about the portability. Please check the spec on your 2012 Air. I think you'll find that the Air will be a dual-core rather than a Quad core. Here is the spec for the 11" and the 13" Airs from 2012.

I have the 2013 and really like it. It works great and I have the absolute minimalist machine to handle those moments when I don't want to carry my MB Pro. I upgraded only the SSD and the little Air runs like a champ. It is great for traveling light. And Sean you are right about airplane seats!!

11" MacBook Air for CAD

Roughly 10 years ago, I forced myself to be content with a smaller screen by working from a laptop in lue of huge desktop systems with 17 or 21 inch displays. I've met many CAD technicians that can't understand how I am able to work with the reduced screen real estate. In the type of work I do it is absolutely necessary because, I spend most of my work week in airports, planes, passenger seats, restaurants, coffee shops and libraries.

I've owned my share of PC based laptops; however after realizing that I was wasting so much time and money maintaining Microsoft junk I finally switched to Mac OS. The smallest Mac at the time was the 13 inch MacBook; which was a whole lot smaller then all of the clunky laptops on the market at the time. I finally ended up with several Airs over the years. My latest is the 2012 11 inch Air 8GB of Ram, quad cores and 256GB SSD. This machine is a monster in a little package. The small screen is absolutely essential on a plane; once the seat in front of you reclines on a typical laptop you're out of business for the rest of the flight.

You may ask, do I have to switch to Autocad Mac? No, I use VMWare Fusion and Windows 7. I have AutoDesk Design Suite Premium; all of the software runs fine (ie: 2014 Autocad, Revit, 3D Studio Max)

I don't recommend keeping a Desktop Workstation. My workflow doesn't work with switching between two machines. There is always something I need from one of them that is not on the other. (Yes, I have a network.) I do recommend a Thunderbolt Display, Bluetooth Keyboard, Mouse and USB Hub so that you can dock your Air at the office.

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