Applications in the Air

I've always been in love with the MacBook Air: from the day Steve Jobs pulled one out of an envelope (i.e. the day when it was still ridiculously overpriced, underpowered, and equipped with a measly 80GB of non-SSD storage) I knew that one day this beauty—or rather, one of its descendants—would be mine. I like my gadgets small, especially when they are equally capable as their bigger siblings.

Fast-forward to 2014:

It's a white box!

It's a white box!

Needless to say, this wasn't a snap decision. Like any good nerd, I first went through an extensive mental process of justifying the purchase: I didn't simply want a MacBook Air, I needed one to be able to do my job properly. (In fact, it was a miracle that I had gotten this far without one.) This meant finding that highly specific use case that wasn't already covered by (a) my MacBook Pro, (b) my iPad, or (c) my Asus Eee PC 1005HA-H. Fortunately, as I was in the midst of this arduous task, John Siracusa said: Justification, schmustification: just go ahead and buy the damn thing.

With the hard part out of the way, it was time to enter stage two of the pre-purchase fun: the configuration. First of all, was this the right time to buy a MBA? The MacRumors Buyer's Guide suggested that I should Buy only if you need it but that was a bridge I'd already crossed. There had been whispers of a twelvish-inch version with a Retina display but I actually prefer the 11-inch form factor—recall that I like my gadgets small—and Retina is a bonus, not a must. Moreover, Broadwell didn't seem like it was coming any time soon, so there was little point in waiting for the increase in battery power that this tick is supposed to bring. In short, all signs started pointing to 'yes'.

Step two: the configuration. That I wanted an 11-inch Air rather than a 13-inch one should come as no surprise by now. Similarly, deciding on the right amount of RAM was a breeze (always max out the memory), but the CPU took some more pondering: was the upgrade from a 1.4 GHz Core i5 to 1.7 GHz Core i7 really worth 150 euros? Would I be doing anything so CPU-intensive on this machine that the difference between the two configurations would even be noticeable? In the end I opted for “better safe than sorry” and chose the i7, especially when AnandTech’s testing revealed that the i7 (surprisingly) was more battery-efficient under light usage. As for the hard disk, the MacBook Air standardly comes with a (non-upgradeable) 128GB SSD and that’s also what I went for. An upgrade to 256GB wouldn’t have meant I could fit all my stuff and any upgrade higher than that is so prohibitively priced that it wasn’t even on the radar.

All of which extensive preambling brings me to the actual topic of this blog post (no, we weren't there yet and yes, there is one): moving from from a 480GB MacBook Pro to a 128GB MacBook Air meant I couldn’t follow my usual upgrade path of restoring from a Time Machine backup. Instead, I had to go all Dan Benjamin and configure the Air from scratch. That in turn was a good incentive to take stock of what applications I really need/use in daily life, and which ones I can happily do without. I’ve listed them below, split up into "no-brainers", "trusted companions" and "flotsam & jetsam".


Dropbox: Dropbox has been indispensable in my work life since the day I first installed it. Everything I am currently working on or involved in—be it related to teaching, research or fun—is in my Dropbox-folder. Thanks to their "invite a friend, get 250MB extra storage space"-policy I’m currently up to 10GB of free storage, but this is a service I’d actually consider paying for if I really needed more space. Almost all of my collaborations involve Dropbox in some form and the fact that all these files are also accessible on mobile or in a web browser has saved my ass on many an occasion.

TextExpander: such a simple idea, so incredibly useful. I have a bunch of general-purpose snippets (names, greetings, etc.), often create temporary ones for repetitive tasks, and have loads of application-specific ones (e.g. for writing LaTeX or HTML). Over the past couple of years, TextExpander has saved me many an hour of typing time.

Things: true to my INTJ-personality, I’m into making lists, to do and otherwise, and in this respect I’ve been a heavy Things-user for several years. It is simple yet powerful and it syncs extremely fast and reliably across all my devices. There are times when I want to make even more detailed overviews and lists—the J-portion of his personality is strong with this one—and I consider switching to Omnifocus, but I always end up sticking with Things.

TotalTerminal: no, I'm not a Unix-ninja who lives and breathes the command line and thinks GUIs are for pussies, but there's something super-convenient about having a Terminal only a single shortcut key away at all times, regardless of where you are or what you are doing, and I find myself using it basically every day.

Trusted companions

Texpad & BibDesk: my go-to LaTeX-editor and bibliography manager. Texpad is being actively developed (there's an iOS-version as well) and keeps adding stuff, but for me the killer feature is how it lets you see the LaTeX-version and the pdf-output side by side. BibDesk is basic, no frills, but rock solid (although it drives me nuts that Cmd-F doesn't mean "search" like in any other well-behaved Mac-app).

MailMate: I've been having a love-hate relationship with Apple Mail lately, and as I was setting up my mail accounts on the Air and Mail started hogging the CPU and sent the fans spinning, I decided it was time for an alternative. After a brief search (and influenced by an overview article from Macworld) I settled on MailMate, and haven't been disappointed so far: it is rock solid, eminently customizable (with keyboard shortcuts for just about anything), very energy efficient, and has great support. My only gripe is that it doesn't support POP (minor annoyance) or Exchange (medium annoyance), but neither of these was a dealbreaker.

BBEdit: I'm not a programmer by any means (I only know a little bit of Python), and so BBEdit, the programmer's text editor par excellence, is probably a bit overkill for me, but when I use it, I always love it. It is perfect for preparing large files with raw data—amazingly powerful find and replace!—and can open many different types of files without clutter or hassle.

Remote Desktop: when you're one of a handful of Mac users in a mostly Windows environment, Remote Desktop is a very useful app to have. I use it mainly to connect to the university's file servers.

Tweetbot: my favorite Twitter client for Mac (and iPhone for that matter) these days. Elegantly designed, fully featured yet intuitive to use, and it syncs well: what more do you want?

DaisyDisk: this is one of those apps that I rarely use, but whenever I do, I'm very happy to have it, and on a space-constrained MacBook Air it is a valuable addition. DaisyDisk allows you to keep track of and manage disk space in an elegant and intuitive way. Bought it based on a Daring Fireball sponsorship and have not been disappointed.

Chrome: this was a close call, in that Chrome was originally going to be in the "Flotsam & jetsam"-list: I wanted to make the Air a Flash-free, Google-light safe haven. After a few weeks, though, I caved and installed Chrome: sometimes it's just darn handy to have Flash available. Moreover, all things considered, Chrome is a very good (and superfast) browser, and more generally, it's always useful to have more than one browser around.

Skype: more or less the same story as with Chrome: to repurpose a famous Jobs quote: I think Skype is a bag of hurt. Half the time, it works poorly, if at all, and it is a tremendous battery and CPU hog. However, I was in a pinch, needed to have a conference call with a co-worker, and neither FaceTime nor Google Hangouts worked, so a quick Skype install was required.

Flotsam & jetsam

Microsoft Office: in case you wonder, I don't like Office.Really don't like it. Seriously. Me no likey. So with the Air forcing me to start from scratch, I decided it was time to say bye-bye to Redmond. Most of my own writing has been switched over to LaTeX (and TextEdit for notes and brainstorm-style texts), so that part was easy. Slightly trickier were (a) non-LaTeX co-authors, and (b) functioning in an Office-centric environment, but as it turns out, a combination of Google docs and Pages/Numbers goes a long way.

TotalFinder: this is a case of 'obsolescence through OS X-update': I was using Totalfinder mainly because it gave me tabbed browsing in the Finder, but since that has now become a system feature, I no longer had a need for this app.

Echofon: superseded by Tweetbot, for the reasons outlined above (the main one being OS X/iOS-sync).

iStat menus: this one was briefly in the "trusted companions"-category, but I got tired with it quickly. I've long used and liked this app as a dashboard widget (called iStat Pro), and so when I saw there was a similar app, I decided to try it out on the Air, but was disappointed: it often took too long for the app to display up-to-date info, and—quite ironically—it proved to be fairly resource intensive.

This concludes my overview. Given that my app usage tends to fluctuate over time, I might revisit this list occasionally, but for now, it provides a nice picture of what applications I have (up) in the Air.

  1. Just a quick example, whenever the fans on my Mac start spinning, I open up a Terminal window, type top -o cpu, and immediately see what's causing the trouble (usually iTunes or a pending software update).

  2. Well, half geek half nerd.

  3. Ok, technically that is not literally what he said, but it sure sounded like that to me at the time.

  4. In the meantime, Apple has actually upgraded the Airs, but they’re relatively minor spec bumps and I’ve already had several weeks worth of fun from mine, so no regrets here.

  5. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since the first version of the Air: Apple’s SSD-prices are still unreasonably high.

  6. Yes, I know that Dropbox is not a substitute for backups, and so have several other backup mechanisms in place.

  7. In fact, when I encounter a file type that I haven't seen before and that my Mac doesn't know how to open, my first option is always to try BBEdit.

  8. For a long time, Chrome was my primary browser as it was clearly faster than Safari. Since the scrolling issues in Mavericks, though, I switched to Safari and have not looked back.

  9. Yes, I know that streaming video is bound to tax the CPU and the battery, but when I use FaceTime or Google Hangouts, the effect seems less pronounced.

  10. For instance, I'm currently pretty heavily invested in R and RStudio, and am beginning to enjoy the taste of Caffeine, but that's food for another post.