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.
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.
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...
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.
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.