A Bit of History and The “New” MacBook Air
This week saw the release of Apple’s new MacBook Air. Spec-wise, it’s not really all that advanced compared to the Apple laptops that preceded it. It has a 1.4GHz or 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor for the 11 inch model (1.86GHz and 2.13GHz for the 13 inch) with flash memory instead of a traditional hard drive. Now think about that for a second. We’ve entered the 4th quarter of 2010 and Apple just released a new laptop (it’s not a netbook) with the lowest clock speed since they switched to Intel processors back in 2006*
I was reading the forums at MacRumors (thread link) just after the new MacBook Air was announced and some posters were surprised (to put it mildly) that Apple is using such old processors in their new computers. I thought about the history of Apple’s processor use and I think Moore’s Law in relation to consumer-based computing is slowing down. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. The keys are “inexpensively” and the size of those transistors. We’ve hit limits. The Core 2 Duo processors use 65nm and 45nm processes, while the new Intel Core i7, i5 and i3 use 45nm and 32nm processes. It’s very hard to get smaller than 32nm. So when the MacBook Pros debuted in May 2006, they were all dual core. The individual processors couldn’t get faster (they couldn’t pack more transistors onto the chips), so Intel put 2 cores on the same chip. The Mac Pros sit at the extreme with up to 12 cores available (6 cores on 2 processors) with clock speeds of only 2.93GHz per core. Remember when Steve Jobs promised a 3GHz G5 “within a year” back in June 2003? The direction of the industry fundamentally changed due to physical limitations.
But 2 interesting things happened. The netbook and the iPad. These things use really slow processors. But no one minds. They’re selling like crazy. The batteries last long and the devices do what consumers want. That’s why the Air is designed the way that it is. It does what consumers want in a netbook-sized device with computing power more similar to a regular laptop. Anything extra adds to the price and probably isn’t needed for most consumers. Of course power users will complain because the device is not made for them. But complaining on forums is all they know how to do. Your older computer is probably just fine for what you’re doing. It just needs a little help.
How To Bring Your Older Computer Up To Speed
Last week a friend asked me to take a look at her laptop because Flash wouldn’t load and all she really used the laptop for was email, Facebook, YouTube and Hulu. Based on her description of this old thing, I was expecting an iBook G4 or similar. She was convinced that she needed a new laptop and was worried at the possible cost. I was suprised, it was a first generation MacBook. I got Safari to properly install Flash by deleting the Safari preferences. Then I went on to tell her that her computer is fine and is plenty for what she needs. Here are my suggestions to anyone in a similar boat. These only really apply to Intel based Macs. PowerPC stuff really is too old for most things, the big one being video playback. I still keep a G4 tower around for an old After Effects plug-in, but that’s it. At least get an Intel.
1. Maximize your RAM
She only had 1GB of RAM in her MacBook. You can’t realiably play Flash video with only 1GB or it will start to stutter after awhile. Max out what your computer can handle. This is mostly geared toward laptops though. Maxing out a Mac Pro can get expensive so keep that in mind. The max RAM for MacBooks and MacBook Pros range from 2GB to 8GB depending on the generation.
2. Get a Solid State Drive
As I wrote in a previous post, my 2.5 year old MacBook Pro feels like a brand new computer after adding an SSD. In day to day use such as email, launching apps, web surfing, it’s faster than the Mac Pros and newer MacBook Pros that I use everyday. When you go with the SSD, don’t just copy over your old drive (since SSDs are typically smaller, you probably can’t). Use this time to purge the stuff on your drive you no longer need. Install the OS from scratch and reinstall your apps from their original discs and installers. This will make the speed increases even more dramatic.
3. Keep at least 10% of your hard drive free
Maybe even 20%. OS X needs space for temporary files. Your computer will keep your file system mostly defragged if you keep 10-20% of space free. On a 320GB drive, thats 32-64GB free. A lot of my service calls are for computers that are totally locked up because the hard drives are completely full. A bigger hard drive will give you a performance bump if your current one is too full. If you get an SSD for your laptop, I suggest pulling out the DVD drive and putting in a second hard drive for more space. I have a 75GB SSD in my laptop with 16GB currently free, and a 320GB hard drive that’s mostly empty.
4. Be gentle and clean the darn thing!
I can’t believe how much people abuse their computers. If they knew how fragile the things really were, they wouldn’t slam the screens down, toss them around, eat over them, leave them in a freezing car overnight, let their cats curl up on the warm air intakes (I’m not kidding), etc. Remember how much your computer cost new and treat it that way. People are amazed when they see my laptop and I tell them how old it is. I have working 2000 Powerbook Pismo too if you want to see that. People are also amazed that I don’t put any of my electronics in cases like my MacBook Pro or my iPhone. If you don’t have a case, then you learn to be gentle with your electronics. Putting something in a case gives you a license to be abusive and I’m sorry, they look stupid. My iPhone was thicker than the phone it replaced and I wasn’t about to double its thickness again by putting it in the packing tape front and plastic condom back that AT&T was giving me for free. They said “everyone is getting them”. They also frequently scratch and damage the surface of the device when particles get caught between the device and the case. No thanks.
5. Batteries need to be replaced
I’ve griped about this before. I’m now on batteries 3 and 4 with my Jan 2008 MacBook Pro. These particular models are horrible on battery use. Apple fixed this problem with the most current MacBook Pros by redesigning the battery and making them non removable. But in working on other peoples computers, I realized how few people replace their batteries when it’s time. They don’t think to replace the battery when it won’t hold a charge anymore. They think it’s time to replace their computer. No No No! Most batteries will last about 2 years, which is the same timeframe that most people believe computers to last. This is definitely one of those areas where the throw-it-away aspect of our society has taken over. Get a new battery. They’re only $100 or so.
6. A failed component doesn’t mean you have a failed computer
I can’t tell you how many times I heard of people getting rid of their computers because the screen broke, or the DVD drive wore out, or most commonly, the hard drive failed. These are cheap components in a $2000 machine. The only times I’ve told people to ditch their machines is either because of a logic board failure, or multiple component failure. In both of these cases, the repair cost is too high compared to the replacement cost. Pretty simple. Think of your computer as you do your car. You need to do regular maintenance** and some minor things just need to be replaced every once in awhile. I just got a new water pump for my car. It was a $100 part. Did I get a new car? Of course not. Now if I would have ignored the temperature light on my dash, driven the car until all the coolant leaked out, cracked the engine block, paid a tow company to bring it to a garage to tell me the engine block was cracked, yeah, I would have needed to buy a new car. Instead, I saw the temp light come on, I pulled over and smelled almonds (the smell of coolant). Saw that the water pump was cracked and leaking fluid. Let the car cool down, then drove it over to a garage, gave them my shop manuals and told them the water pump was cracked.
Sorry, I went off on a bit of a tangent there.
7. Think about how you’re really using your computer
This post doesn’t really apply to an After Effects artist or a RED cinematographer in regards to their main work computer. But I think it applies to their personal laptops and probably 90% of computer users out there. We’re not in the age of exploding clock speeds anymore, and our day to day use of computers has reflected that. If you think about how you’re really using your computer, you can probably get by on a lot less. Or at least, get by on what you have for longer than you thought. As I wrote in my SSD article, I feel that my Jan 2008 MacBook Pro now has a greater useful life than I thought possible before, just by flowing the rules I outlined above. In our current economy, we can’t afford to hold on to the consumerist mentality of the last decade (use it up and toss it). We need to get back to the way previous generations used technology. My grandma used a VHS tape rewinder so her VHS deck wouldn’t wear out prematurely. That deck lasted 2 decades before my grandpa replaced it with a DVD player. I think it still worked. And so will your computer.
I try to keep my articles as technically accurate as possible. Please let me know if I’ve written or quoted anything incorrectly.
* The May 2006 MacBook Pro was available in 1.83 and 2.0GHz Core Duo configurations and the first MacBook Air in January 2008 was available in 1.6 and 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo configurations.
** Although, this concept still eludes some people. My dad told me a former employee of his bought a new car and didn’t have an oil change done for tens of thousands of miles because he was told by the dealer that there’s no scheduled maintenance for the first 100,000 miles.
Edited to update processor speeds for new 13 inch MacBook Air