MacBook Air 11.6″. Some real world usage notes

MacBook Air profile

Hey folks. So I picked up one of Apple’s new MacBook Air notebooks. I had been wanting a more portable computer than my trusty tote-able 2008 MacBook Pro and the new 11.6″ form factor was mighty tempting. I did spring for the BTO 4GB RAM upgrade, but I opted to stick with the stock 64GB hard drive.

My first impressions are, like a lot of other reviewers, that despite its relatively slow clock speed the machine is fairly snappy and capable of doing more than just writing and web surfing. Yes, you can do real work on this thing. You just might have to have some patience during certain tasks.

After using it for about a day, installing programs, copying files (WIFI only) and running some usage tests I’ve come to two principle conclusions:

  • For CPU-intensive computational tasks, the 11.6 model is a bit of a laggard (blame the slow CPU)
  • But for usage involving many open applications and background tasks, the thing flies (thank the SSD)

Some Numbers

No usage summary would be complete without a few benchmarks, so I put together a suite of tasks to compare the performance with the other Macs in my house. The contenders:

  • 2010 MacBook Air 1.4Ghz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 64GB SSD
  • 2008 MacBook Pro 2.4Ghz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 200GB HD (5400 RPM)
  • (some tests only) 2006 iMac 1.83Ghz Core Duo, 2GB RAM

The tests included start up time, video encoding, misc usage tasks and working a Parallels 5 virtual machine to do some geospatial analysis.

The Tests

Start up time

  • Winner: MacBook Air, by a lot
  • It was more than thirty seconds difference so I stopped counting. I could probably start the Air up twice before the Pro even reached the login screen.
Parallels 5: Boot identical virtual machines:
  • MacBook Pro faster by ~3sec
Parallels 5: Launch ArcMap 9.3 GIS software inside VM:
  • MacBook Air faster by ~15 sec.
  • I did this one twice and the result was the same both times.
Parallels 5: Suspend VM:
  • Tie: virtually no difference
Parallels 5: Wake VM:
  • MacBook Air by 1 sec
Parallels 5: ArcMap: Spatial Autocorrelation analysis
  • Spatial Autocorrelation analysis is a computationally expensive process of searching for clusters of similar values inside geographic data. This task was run on a feature set of 3700 observations.
  • MacBook Pro by 59 sec
Parallels 5: ArcMap: High/Low Cluster analysis:
  • High/Low Cluster analysis is similar to Spatial Autocorrelation analysis. This task was run on the same feature set.
  • MacBook Pro by 60 sec
Parallels 5: Reboot of VM:
  • MacBook Pro by ~2 sec
Launching Safari with Parallels and Aperture open:
  • MacBook Air by ~25 sec
Wake VM with Safari and Aperture open
  • MacBook Air by ~10sec
Create a Par2 set from 110 MB of files:
  • MacBook Pro by ~10sec
Python script (time to task completion):
  • I’ve written a Python script that loads, parses and analyzes my iTunes XML file (~56 MB).
  • MacBook Pro: 40.5 sec
  • MacBook Air: 64.0 sec
  • iMac: 59.8 sec
Handbrake CLI video encoding
  • Convert a 1.7GB HD-Photo JPEG .MOV from my digital camera to a 900kbps mp4 using ffmpeg
  • MacBook Pro: 74 fps (fan kicked on)
  • MacBook Air: 47 fps (no fan)
  • iMac: 43 fps

Subjective Analysis

From the numbers we can clearly see that the faster processor in the 2-year-old MacBook Pro makes a big difference when crunching numbers. In all the CPU tests, the Pro performed the task in about 66% of the time as the Air. The real surprise (and disappointment) is where the Air barely keeps up with a 5-year-old iMac using an older chip architecture in the Python and Handbrake tests. (Though I suppose it shows that a 1.4 C2D can do the work of a 1.8 CD, which I’m sure helps with heat and power consumption).

One thing to note though, is that despite all the intense processor usage, the Air barely got warm. During the video encode test, while Handbrake was doing its best to max out both cores, the Macbook Pro’s fan kicked on to full speed after about 1 minute. The Air on the other hand stayed cool and quiet the entire time. This bottom comfort is something my lap and legs are sure to appreciate.

But what the Air lacks in raw power, it makes up for in responsiveness. It’s hardly possible to get it to hiccup, even when running tasks in the background. I was able to use Aperture to edit some RAW photos without any significant slowdown while copying 6 gigs of files to the Air. Kernel_task was chugging away at ~50% usage in Activity Monitor without any noticeable effect on the overall system performance.

And this is where productivity gains will be made with the Air. In all the tests above, the processes running were the only active applications and that’s rarely how I work. I often have multiple browser windows open and Mail and who know what other apps going simultaneously. Look at the Safari launch test. With both Aperture and Parallels open, the Air launched Safari almost instantaneously while on the Pro it bounced in the Dock for 25 seconds. Similarly, Parallels’ disk-based performance (waking the VM) slowed significantly when other programs were open competing for resources. If the Air can keep the dreaded beach ball from the showing itself, then I will be a happy, less frustrated Mac user.

iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central

Part of the iTunes Sorting Debacle Series

  1. iTunes 7.4.2: No Change in Sorting behavior
  2. iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central
  3. iTunes’ totally effed up sorting

Apple has really screwed up with the new sorting behaviors introduced in iTunes 7.3 and it’s making a lot of people seriously unhappy. And, honestly, I’ve NEVER been mad at Apple for anything in my 25+ years of history with the company (annoyed at times, but never mad), but the more I think about this the more pissed I get. For those just joining the story, Apple released version 7.3 to accompany the launch of the iPhone. Included in that release was a new, completely arbitrary rule set for sorting Artist, Album, Composer, Genre, etc tags.

Quoting myself:

Starting with version 7.3, numbers and other non-alphabetic characters are sorted to the bottom of the list. My default view now shows Aalborg Symphony Orchestra at the top. 2pac now begins after the Zs and iTunes suddenly doesn’t even know how to handle artists whose names begin with punctuation. It starts !!! after songs that don’t have anything entered into their Artist or Album tags!


iTunes now ignores the non-alphabetic leading characters and sorts based on the first letter or number it finds in the name. The program now treats fields that are all punctuation as if they are blank, as if they have nothing typed in at all. And guess what else? It passes that behavior to the iPod.

At first, it seemed that the issue was a bug, but as revisions came out, it became clear that this new behavior was intentional. Indeed, an Apple support document created July 11, 2007, explains the new scheme as if everything is hunky-dory. The odd thing about this is that there is no rational explanation for it. Before 7.3, iTunes used case-insensitive ACSII as its basis. It’s a decades old standard that all electronic devices use.

Symbols > Numbers > Letters. That’s the order the entire Western world has been using for all of modern memory. Look on any computer’s desktop and that’s how you’ll see files arranged. Hell, even the 131-years-old Dewey Decimal System sorts numbers before letters. Perhaps more bizarrely though, is that this behavior only appears to affect the first character in the music tags. Playlists and second character sorting (unless the whole field is made of punctuation) still seem to use the ASCII method. Say whaa? If you’re going to screw up a standard, you might as well be consistent with your screwery.

Seriously, this abrupt abandoning of established convention brings Apple closer to Microsoft’s behavior regarding standards. Could you imagine if, on a whim, Apple suddenly changed the way Safari renders web pages to its own specifications, rather than W3C standards, perhaps in order to accommodate the iPhone? That’s how bad this is.

So far, the suggested workaround is to use the Apply Sort Field command to manually restore normal sorting, a process that is cumbersome, tedious, counter-intuitive and shouldn’t even be necessary. In my case, I’d have to apply it to 150-200 albums and gobs of composers and I’m not about to waste my time doing so. Alternately, you can downgrade to iTunes 7.2.

I am not alone in my ire. Others in the passionate-about-iTunes community are equally upset at this development. Here’s some choice reactions from several threads around the net.

Code Monkey at iLounge forums:

It’s not just a “strange” decision, but a downright moronic one. First off, anybody bright enough to use a computer knows that symbols and numbers sort before alphabetical characters. Second off, what was the whole point of introducing the ability to customize sorting in 7.2 if they were just going to turn around and bork it with 7.3?

GadgetGuru72 on the Apple Discussion boards:

Thanks. I am familiar with all the suggested workarounds.

However, I shouldn’t have to use a “workaround” to get a “1” or a “?” to sort before the letter “a” any more than I should have to use a “workaround” to get the letter “a” to sort before the letter “b.”

Amen to that.

Andrew Wiggins in the comments to another iLounge article:

I’m extremely irritated that the numbers vs. letters order has changed. This has messed up with my established order for albums that I was very pleased with.

Comment at engadget: (sic)


they have changed the Digit order, when you sort column be accending, so all those people who had there music sorted by Artist with bands like +44, 65 Days of Static and 30 seconds to Mars ect… will now find that in that mode they are liseted at the bottom after your XY and Z’s (if you have any) Thats just annoying, why the change?

The rampaging horde at Digg:

The sorting in iTunes 7.3 is totaly screwed. Apparently numbers now come after letters.

This was by far the most annoying thing in the update. Brackets and parentheses are ignored in sorting, too!

WTF are they thinking?

well, I did notice that the sorting on the iPod is the same way. Numbers come after letters.

In any case, stupid.

The numbers after letters thing is what really gets me. It’s completely f’ed my entire library.

Comment at Neowin forums:

I really dislike what they did to the artist ordering. That alone makes me want to downgrade

Comment at MacRumors forums:

The 7.3 update is what caused the error in sorting (numbers and symbols after z.) I was hoping the 7.3.1 update would fix it, but it sounds like it doesn’t.

Originally Posted by ryry919 View Post
not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but when I opened iTunes back up after the update I noticed that all of my artists that are a # (IE: 311, 3 Doors Down) are all now at the end of the iTunes artist sort rather than being at the top, before the A’s like it used to be.

anyone know of a way to change this back? is there anything like how you can either view you contacts in address book for first, last or last, first? just wondering.

I downgraded my iTunes to 7.2 for the time being.

Someone’s LiveJournal

Dear $deity why? Why would they do that?

Everybody knows its punctuation->[0-9]->[Aa-Zz], anything else is heresy!

And so on. I’ll add more as I run across them.

For now, the only way to get “standards compliant” sorting back is to downgrade to iTunes 7.2. I’ve done this already and until I see a version that restores standard procedure (or at the very least offers the option of using either scheme), I will not be upgrading to any future version of the software. That basically means I’ll never buy an iPhone or any other product that requires a subsequent version of iTunes. I’ll probably save myself some money that way. If you don’t have an iPhone, I suggest that you do the same. Download for Mac. Download for Windows.

In the meantime, though Apple’s traditionally not very responsive to customer feature complaints, it never hurts to try:

Cue hard drive failure… Now

Like clockwork, each January means the end of Christmas decorations, the onset of the full desolation of winter, learning the motor-memory of writing a new year and, of course, a sudden, massive hard drive failure. Every year since 2001 it has happened to me, always to my external music drive and always in January.

It’s quite comical, if you have the right sense of humor.

Then it should not have been a surprise to me that, once again, right on schedule, my music drive crashed last night. I was politely updating my iPod, having devised a new experimental listening scheme for the new year. As it would take several minutes to copy the several thousand songs, I decided to have a quick shower.

When I returned, I found my desktop in an unusual state. iTunes was no longer running. Mail and Safari were quit as well. The three FireWire volumes that I normally have mounted (including the music one) were missing and LaunchBar’s command area was active, as if the computer had been restarted.

I had no idea what caused that state of affairs, and still don’t. But I sensed danger, so I decided to do my own restart, which went smoothly enough. Until it was time for the external drives to mount. Two of them did; one of them didn’t and I’ll let you guess which one.

Disk Utility was of no help, failing immediately. It could see the drive, but attempting repair resulted in a message similar to “The underlying task failed on exit.” Whatever the problem was, the drive’s directory looked like it was in bad shape. Fortunately there is a god whose name is DiskWarrior. This diagnostic deity has raised many drives from the dead and after a few minutes, he had raised one more, rescuing my music from binary oblivion.

From there, the iPod update went well, other than about 40 songs that did not make it back from Hades. However, having gotten accustomed to these failures, I’ve become the king of backups. Twice nightly, Synk, the handiest little backup program I know, copies my music volume and other important data to a dedicated backup disk. Some quick drags-and-drops and even those handfuls of missing files were replaced.

Though I still don’t have a clue what caused the malfunction, I gotta say that the experience really wasn’t that bad. Much better than past years. However, despite all my preparations, this is one New Year’s tradition I would rather not repeat.

And even though I didn’t have to make full use of mine, remember that lesson kids: Backup Backup Backup.

iPod security note: Owner Info.txt

owner info on ipod

Hopefully your day-that-happened-to-be-Christmas was full of family togetherness, holiday cheer, and of course, lucrative acquisitions. And once again Apple’s iPod dominated the retail scene. While sales figures aren’t out yet, I think there’s a strong possiblity that a new iPod was among those acquisitions ilounge claims more ipods sold in 2006 than 2001-2005 combined.

So, in the interest to providing security for all those iPods newly given and received, as well as those that have been hanging around, here’s a quick tip that will help to ensure the safety of your mp3 player in the event it becomes separated from you. It makes use of the iPod’s Notes feature and is something I’ve done with each iPod I’ve owned since I got my first one nearly five years ago has it really been five years?.

This procedure works for all iPods with a screen and the principle is simple. Drop a text file with the name Owner Info.txt into the Notes folder on your iPod. To do this, the iPod must be mounted as a drive on your desktop, which you can do by selecting Enable Disk Use from iTunes.

On Windows, use Notepad to create the file. By default, it saves a text file format, which is required for the note to work. On Mac OS X, use TextEdit, but make sure you must select Make Plain Text from the Format menu before saving.

Inside this text file, type a short message about to whom the iPod belongs and ways to contact you: email, phone, website, instant messenger, etc. You can even include a physical address in hopes that some kind soul will mail it back to you or drop it off in person. In this case, it may be wiser to use a work address or P.O. box if you have one; you probably don’t want any nefarious types knowing where you live.

click to see full size.

When you’re finished with your message, save it with the filename Owner Info.txt into the Notes folder. On your iPod, browse to Extra > Notes > Owner Info.txt and you’ll see your message displayed on screen. Should you lose your iPod, the person who finds it can read your message and contact you to return it.

If you ever sell or give your iPod away, make sure you change or remove the file.


Of course, this isn’t a fool-proof suggestion. It’s primarily designed to help honest people return a lost iPod and, to a certain extent, help buyers of second-hand iPods identify stolen property. If any would-be thieves are savvy enough, they can easily delete or change the Owner Info.txt. Though, once you save your file, you can always turn off Enable Disk Use to set up a roadblock. Even if someone resets the iPod by linking it to a new iTunes library, your owner message will remain intact.

Additionally, if you use a case with your iPod, drop a small slip of paper behind it with the same contact info. Then you’ll have one more avenue of protection in the event of loss or theft.

Hopefully though, the more people who do this, the more standard it will become. If this practice reaches a critical mass, like luggage tags on a suitcase, people will automatically know where to look to contact an iPod that’s lost its owner.

iTunes 7 sync problems and large libraries on external drives

Update: This problem seems to have been addressed in a recent update to iTunes. The program now stops looking around 100 missing files before giving the warning dialogue. So if you’re having this problem, make sure you’re using the latest version.


One of iTunes 7 handy new features is the “sync problems” warning. The screen pops up whenever you try to sync your iPod with your iTunes library and song/video/podcast files cannot be found. Previous versions of iTunes only let you know there was a problem; iTunes 7, however, helpfully tells you which particular files are missing.

It’s a nifty function for tracking down errant files that iTunes has somehow lost or forgotten about. or which you may have accidently deleted. But that helpfulness can cause problems in certain instances.

You see, I have a rather large iTunes library: 14,000+ songs that take up ~78GB of hard disk space. So I keep all my song files on a dedicated external hard drive, a hard drive that isn’t always turned on.

In previous versions of iTunes, if song files could not be found when attempting to sync your iPod, you would just get a warning about a single missing file, but all your recent play stats (play count, star ratings, last played) would still be updated from the iPod into the main iTunes library.

However, when doing the same thing in iTunes 7, the program begins to compile its detailed report. In my case, if the external library is not mounted on the desktop and i try to sync my iPod, iTunes then starts trying to find all 14,000+ missing song files.

The program seemingly freezes (the dreaded beachball) while it is processing all those missing files. The only options are to wait for it to finish (which takes more than an hour on my Intel iMac) or force quit (and lose any stored play count and last played data from the iPod). I found this out the hard way, twice, before I realized what was going on.

So, just a quick word of advice: if you’ve got an external library, make sure it is powered on and mounted before opening iTunes.

Migrate Your iTunes Library from Windows to Mac (and keep your ratings, play counts and date added)

Note: This article was written with iTunes 7 in mind. However, the principle holds for moving comparable versions (ie iTunes 6 Win to iTunes 6 mac) or for moving upstream (iTunes 6 to iTunes 7). Also, the procedure should work for moving your iTunes library from one computer to another, Mac-to-Mac, PC-to-PC, or any combination of the two. You can even use this method to clone an iTunes library from one computer to many others.

windows iTunes migration
Apple’s market share has been growing dramatically. Many observers attribute that growth to the introduction of the Intel-based Macintosh as well as the so-called “halo effect” of the iTunes-iPod phenomenon. If you’re one of those users who have made the switch from Windows to Mac OS X because of said halo then you probably have already established an iTunes Library (with valuable hours spent creating playlists, rating songs and increasing play counts).

It would be a shame to lose all that hard work and data when switching platforms. Fortunately, it is a rather simple* procedure to move all your music to your new Mac while preserving all that precious, gooey metadata. Some guides say to export your existing library to XML and re-import it one the new machine. But that’s a bit complicated and it doesn’t really work. Since both the Mac and Windows versions of iTunes use the same file format for the library file, all you need to do is copy the library files from one computer to the other, while making sure iTunes doesn’t forget where the songs are located.

Continue reading

Finding Statistics About Your iTunes Library

iTunes logo with graph

Anyone who has been reading the tunequest for a while knows that statistics, numbers, figures and graphs have played a large part in its progress. In fact, it was the discovery that 10% of my songs were responsible for 49% of my total play counts that prompted me to set out on this endeavor in the first place.

To this day, I’m still surprised by the lack of sophisticated options available for gathering and analyzing iTunes’ stored data. That XML file has been a statistical treasure trove since the day it started recording star ratings and play counts. You’d think that in the four years since, there would be a more mature market of programs to choose from.

However, 2006 has actually seen some positive developments in that regard. While there is still no killer app for iTunes stats, there are a number of solutions for parsing your XML file and learning more about your music, and yourself.

Continue reading