switching back: the 2011 macbook air

UPDATE: I’ve just posted some updates on the state of Ubuntu on the 2011 Macbook Air.

With my old Dell laptop starting to suffer some physical wear and tear, I figured it was time for an upgrade. I couldn’t find a solid PC laptop that fit my needs, particularly in terms of portability and battery life, so I made a potentially controversial decision — I chose the brand-new 13″ Macbook Air. I won’t be using it for music-making, but after using it for work over the last week, I’m definitely happy with my choice.

I had sworn off Mac laptops for a few reasons: Apple’s power supplies and slot-loading DVD drives have always given me trouble, and my Macbook Pro ran very hot at times. Thankfully, the new power supply design seem less fragile, the Air has no DVD slot to worry about, and while it does howl a bit when working hard, that’s preferable to getting super-hot.

It’s also surprisingly quick — its 1.7Ghz i5 CPU outpaces even my 3Ghz Core 2 Duo desktop, and the SSD makes everything feel snappy. The Intel video isn’t brilliant, but it’s fast enough for most indie games, and even for a bit of Civilization IV or Left 4 Dead 2 on low-quality settings.

The Air’s fixed hardware is definitely a departure from my easily-serviceable old Dell, but it does help it to fit both a powerful system and a lot of battery in to a very light and slender frame. I wouldn’t want it to be my only computer, but it’s great as a portable extension of my desktop and home network. I’m sure I’ll have to give up the whole machine if it ever needs repairs, but with Time Machine backups configured (using my Ubuntu file server), I don’t really have to worry about losing data.

Mac OS X is, well… it’s Mac OS X. It has its advantages: it’s very well tuned to the hardware, making the most of the multi-touch trackpad, resuming from suspend in a second or so, and lasting a good seven hours on battery with a light load. It’s also great to have access to things like Steam. On the other hand, it’s still a bit annoying as a UNIX compared to Ubuntu, the Mac App Store is a shambles, and having to hack the OS just to stop it opening iTunes when I press my keyboard’s “play” key is completely asinine.

However, the reality is that I spend 99% of my working day using Firefox, Chrome, Thunderbird, a text editor, and a bunch of terminals, and Mac OS X meets those needs just fine. (For the record, I’ve been using TextWrangler and iTerm2.)

Ubuntu on the 2011 MBA

Ubuntu running, in a fashion, on the 13" 2011 Macbook Air

The Air can run Linux, too, though it’s not terribly usable yet. The trackpad works in mutli-touch mode after some hacking, but there’s no power management, and the Intel driver doesn’t work with the built-in display, so you’re stuck with unaccelerated 1024×768 video. The wireless works, too, which makes it unique among current Mac laptops, though only in 2.4Ghz mode.

I generally think it’s a bad idea to buy a Mac to run Linux, since the hardware is odd enough to cause these kinds of problems, but it’s always nice to know that I can run it if I need to. There’s a thread on the Ubuntu forums with all the details, and one post in particular that has a script to install patched keyboard and trackpad drivers.

7 thoughts on “switching back: the 2011 macbook air

  1. Pingback: 2011 macbook air linux update | woo, tangent

  2. After running the set-up script, I can say that Ubuntu on my 2011 MBA 13.3″ runs better than on any other machine I’ve own (two sony vaios, an emachine, some even older ones).

    I don’t think stock advice that “Linux is a pain on the Mac” is relevant. Run the setup script. Good to go. And name some hardware that doesn’t work?

  3. The setup script does a great job — thanks for putting it together. I didn’t expect that I’d actually spend much time using Linux on the Air, but since getting the video working I’ve actually spent much more time in Linux than in OS X. There are still some minor niggles, such as the trackpad “feel” issues and the lack of keyboard brightness control that I mentioned in my more recent post, and the occasional failure of the keyboard or trackpad to work properly after booting (restarting X fixes that), but they’re definitely minor issues.

    My comments about Linux on Macs were general, and I still think it’s good advice: if you want a machine to run Linux, it’s best to get a machine that’s known to run it well, and those machines usually aren’t Macs. Every current Mac laptop other than the Air has no working wireless networking under Linux right now, for example, and that’s not an easy thing to work around.

    I configured my old Dell Latitude E6400 with hardware that would run Linux well, and it did: everything worked out-of-the-box on the then-current version of Ubuntu without requiring any hacking or configuration.

    I guess the best advice to give is that you should never expect Linux to run perfectly on a new machine, Mac or non-Mac — you should do some research and find out what hardware works and what doesn’t. You might still decide that it’s worth dealing with a few hacks for a while so that you can get a brand new system with very fresh support (like the Air), but at least you’ll know what you’re in for.

  4. This is where I heard that:

    https://help.ubuntu.com/community/MacBookPro8-1/Natty#Wireless

    Wireless does not work out-of-the-box on any current Macbook Pro (those being the only Mac laptops currently available other than the Air), and there is no “simple fix” to get it working: the solutions are to use ndiswrapper, which is a clunky, unstable hack, or to install a new kernel and an experimental new version of the b43 driver. FWIW, the b43 driver option has only existed for a couple of weeks — when I was looking at this stuff in detail a few weeks ago, before buying my Air, the ndiswrapper solution was the only one available.

    I did suggest that it’s not the best idea to buy a Mac to run Linux, but I didn’t assume anything — I did as much research before my purchase as I could, and that’s something I’d always recommend, whether you’re buying a Mac, a Vaio, or a Dell. I’m glad for both of us that Linux runs as well as it does on the Air, but it could so easily have been much more painful if Apple had just upgraded its wireless chipset to the same model used in the Macbook Pros, for instance.

  5. MacBookPro8,1 is not “every current Mac.” Anyway it doesn’t matter. It takes time to write code for new hardware. There is nothing special about Mac. Contrary to the advertisements, its just another laptop. (However, it is a good deal given the specs, so I bought one.)

  6. That page covers the 8,1, 8,2, and 8,3 revisions of the Macbook Pro, so yes, I’m pretty sure it does cover every current Mac laptop apart from the Air.

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