Pour One out for the MacBook Air: Apple's Workhorse for Photographers Left for Dead

Pour One out for the MacBook Air: Apple's Workhorse for Photographers Left for Dead

Apple’s MacBook Air isn’t long for this world. When Apple announced its new lineup of MacBook Pros in October, absent from the update party was the MacBook Air. In fact, Apple quietly removed the 11-inch model from the website around the same time, leaving only the 13 inch to soldier on for the time being. It's not a good sign for photographers invested in the Apple ecosystem (that’s a lot of us) looking for a road-warrior laptop.

MacRumors points out that it has been more than 700 days since the MacBook Air’s last update in 2015. That’s an eternity in tech years and an oddity from Apple, which normally refreshes its products yearly (when they want to keep them relevant). This effectively makes the MacBook Air the walking dead.

Why the Air Was Great for Photographers

The MacBook Air line has been a solid choice for photographers for a long time. The 11-inch model tucked neatly into a camera bag and packed all the features you’d expect in a full computer, at a time when most of the PC competition was hawking underpowered netbooks as the Next Big Thing. I tried to make a go of making an Acer Ferrari One my road machine, complete with a solid state drive and RAM upgrade, but while it was a serviceable Photoshop/Premiere Pro machine after all of those upgrades, it didn’t compare to the out-of-the-box elegance and functionality of the MacBook Air. It was, in fact, the Ferrari One experiment that paved the way for me to enter the Apple system for my photo and video work, which up until 2010 was an all-PC workflow.

The 11-inch air eventually paved the way for a loaded 13-inch model, which is still my workhorse laptop when I’m away from my iMac. It’s just enough power to run everything Adobe I can throw at it and some Final Cut Pro X as well. Since everything I shoot with uses SD or MicroSD cards, I haven’t really had to pack any gadgets when I travel as it’s all built in.

Once the entire Air line is retired, however, this leaves photographers with fewer choices when they’re on the road. You either have the MacBook or the MacBook Pro. While the MacBook has a nicer Retina screen compared to the Air, its lack of any sort of ports aside from one USB-C port and a headphone jack means limited options without adding an adapter like this one, featured on Apple's website.

You'll need one of these to connect anything useful to your MacBook

And even then, after spending $49, my SD card slot isn’t back. An Apple web designer must have realized how embarrassing this is because there isn’t even a clear link to buy this adapter where it’s mentioned on the MacBook page, I had to copy and paste the name into the search bar just to find it. If you wanted to use any USB-C accessories while charging your laptop, you’re out of luck unless you buy some sort of adapter that gives you more than one USB-C port.

Speaking of charging, I can’t even think of how many times my chargers and laptop have been saved by MagSafe when someone’s stepped on the cord or I’ve dropped my Air (one time was while it was stacked on top of a table that was on top of a couch trying to reach a projector in the ceiling, and it didn’t miss a beat). Even though Apple made an infuriating change between generations of MacBook Airs that meant my older 11-inch Air can’t use the same MagSafe charger as my 13-inch Air, at least they all were MagSafe.

I’m also a little bit bitter about the death of a “real” keyboard. I haven’t spent an extended amount of time with the new “butterfly” keyboard on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, but what little time I did spend was unpleasant; I wouldn’t want to type this article on it.

The MacBook Pro situation is a little bit better in that you get two or four USB-C ports depending on configuration, but you still need a goofy, overpriced adapter to get the basics such as HDMI, SD, and USB back.

Apple Marketing Senior Vice President Phil Schiller said the decision to remove the photographer-friendly SD card slot was because it was “cumbersome” to have the card sticking out. If anyone ever had a problem with that, I’d really like to know in the comments.

Apple's Power Play for the Money of Power Users

Shaking up the lineup also forces the photographers’ hand toward the more expensive MacBook Pro. Eliminating the Air means that the more powerful Core i5 and i7 processors will be MacBook Pro only. With the Air, you can get a good chunk of the computing power of a MacBook Pro (within spitting distance of a 2013 model Pro when the option boxes are checked off) while giving a little bit in the way of graphics capability, some ports, and that glorious Retina display. I speak from experience, carting around a 15-inch previous generation Pro with all the trimmings for work alongside my Air.

When hooked up to an external monitor, there’s little difference in day-to-day use and a small difference for heavy-duty photo and video work. My MacBook Air has edited tons of wedding photos, videos, and even a 4K video in a pinch. My job had me working with 50-megapixel Canon 5DS files on-the-go, something both computers — Air and Pro — handled well.

When the choices are only the MacBook or the MacBook Pro, as all indications from Apple seem to point to, power users won’t have a middle ground to choose from.

MacBook Lineup’s Future?

The MacBook Airs that are left right now are the lowest price of the trio: $999 for a base model versus $1,299 and $1,499 for the MacBook and MacBook Pro, respectively. With the connectivity you get from the Air, it’s still a great choice for photographers, and perhaps maybe even a better choice for those (like me) who are waiting and seeing if the MacBook Pro can catch up to the Windows side when it comes to power, price, and connectivity.

What are your thoughts on portable photo-editing solutions? Is it time for the Mac faithful to move on (or back) to Windows? Is this a sign that Apple has forgotten about the photographers helped bring it back from the brink?

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46 Comments
Sean Shimmel's picture

Funny how late 2016 into 2017 has so swiftly swayed my loyalties from Apple. Rational, airtight arguments aside (one way or the other), they've transformed for me into a clunky, excuse-making lagger. I finally moved to Windows

Joe Towner's picture

A friend broke a SD card in half when the laptop slipped out of his hand. But I still think there's a need for ports besides the USB-C on the larger laptops.

Peter Brody's picture

There are SD card slots on Windows laptops where the SD card sits almost flush, just like they do in cameras. There would be no way for a card to break in half, or even at all. If the card sticks out that much on the MacBook Air then it is a lousy design choice on Apple's part.

Alvaro G's picture

A laptop with a notoriously shitty screen was a workhorse for photographers? And no one is saying you should get the 2016 MBP, just get the older model with ports and SD reader, which is more than sufficient, specially if you made do with an Intel M processor.

Peter Brody's picture

The 2015 MBP is now apparently hard to find.

The MacBook Air doesn't use an Intel M processor.

Peter Brody's picture

Interesting. I thought it was no longer for sale on the site, outside of refurbished models. Pretty pathetic that Apple doesn't clearly state that it's an older model for those who may not know. Then again they don't do that for the Mac mini and Mac Pro. In fact they still call the going on four year old Mac Pro "new." Unethical crap.

Peter Mueller's picture

Even though you can still buy the "2015" MBP it has no discrete graphic card. For me this would be a no-go.
I have a 2016er 15" fully spec'd and I am happy with it. My only gripe is the steep price (way more expensive here in Germany) and the 16GB of RAM. Otherwise I love it because it is faster than my late (fully spec'd) 2012 iMac.
I like the keyboard more than my previous 17" (late 2011) MBP.

If I previously had a MBP (2015) I probably would not have upgraded. I would have waited for the "2nd Edition". But my 2011 MBP could not handle 5DM4 and PhaseOne files properly without serious lag (which was painful for an art director to watch on the shoot)....

Alvaro G's picture

Well, the recommendation was for someone for whom a MBA was enough, and the 15" 2015 MBP does have a discrete graphic card.

Peter Mueller's picture

I was just commenting on my personal preference. For someone coming from a MBA it might be enough.

Concerning the discrete GPU on the "2015" rMBP it depends on which one you mean:
http://www.apple.com/shop/buy-mac/macbook-pro/15-inch

The new "old" 2015 rMBP which is sold along the 2016 rMBP has NO discrete GPU anymore (see screenshot).

The old "old" 2015 rMBP which you might get used on Ebay or in retail stores from 2015 batches is of course still equipped with a discrete GPU. But it is harder and harder to get.

Felix Wu's picture

Yeah MBA screen isn't suitable for photo editing. There's a noticeable difference when compared to other higher Mac.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I have an iMac for the heavy duty stuff, but after a wedding or portraits, I send off a few quick edits from the MBA and people love it. Also, when shooting for colleges and universities, they usually want quick selects after a game or event and it's nice to have a portable setup that doesn't take up space in the bag the way the MacBook Pros of the same vintage did (the new ones are thinner, yes, but make too many compromises for me). The screen is plenty good enough depending on the kind of work you do.

There's a difference, but depending on your genre of photography, it may not matter as much.

Alvaro G's picture

You didn't read my comment—you can still get the 2015 MBP. It's available to buy from Apple, ports and SD reader and all. It's way thinner and lighter than the non-Retina MBPs from 2012 and before. No compromises.

Le sashimi's picture

Can't see any "genre of photography" where exposure and contrast are not the most basic adjustments, and which TN LCD screen technology royally f*cks up depending on any slight shift of viewing angle.

Le sashimi's picture

yup, exactly. Oldschool TN screen, shittiest display technology around, worst usecase being photography work... First time I read MBAir could be in anyway related to photo work.

Kyle Medina's picture

"You'll need one of these to connect anything useful to your MacBook" (Adapter) Wrong! Just go buy the appropriate cable you need. You don't need adapters, just a new cable.

Peter Brody's picture

Well, you will need an SD card adapter. And of course the MagSafe port is also gone.

Kyle Medina's picture

SD card reader is the only legit complaint. MagSafe is mute point. You can go on without it.

Peter Brody's picture

The MagSafe port can not be dismissed away by simply saying you can go on without it. Clearly there is great utility in that common sense design. It has saved many MacBooks from destruction. Your chances of going on withoutit are less now than with the MagSafe port.

Kyle Medina's picture

Sure you can.

Peter Brody's picture

Ok, you convinced me. 🙄😉

Peter Mueller's picture

I funded the MagNeo on kickstarter. If this project finally really "kicks" in - they are still redesigning it - and it works properly the "magsafe" issue is gone for me and I have the additional advantage to put a magsafe on both sides of the macbook.

Nate Reese's picture

well technically you can carry dozens of cables with USB 3.1 connector on one side and all the necessary connectors on the other. If they exists.

But imagine oridnary day of DIT .. I meet photographer, get to know if he is using USB 2.0, 3.0 or FW camera and his backup drive - probably USB3.0. (4 cables)
Than I go to production and ask for backup HDDs for agency - usually two USB 3.0s but sometimes Thunderbold (4 cables). I go look which EIZO do we have (2 cables).
I`ll go talk to electrician to give me power cable extension so I can charge my Apple (1 cable), than I`ll plug in my Wacom (1 cable), card reader in some cases (1 cable).
Production is asking me to put one Eizo for clients (2 cables+extention).

So I`m carrying 14 USB 3.1 cables just to be sure I can cover this job ... so yep I need reductions, it is much easier to carry one USB hub and some universal reduction. At least till USB 3.1 is standard

Kyle Medina's picture

"14 USB 3.1" What? You're already way over what any laptop has in USB (3/4), terrible example. You're going to need hubs regardless.

ronnie yeoh's picture

I think they took their design cue from the trashcan Mac where everything has to be attached via cables. This is stupid for professionals out in the field. And what's with making it thinner and thinner still? It's now too thin to have the more useful ports that we need. Give us back the ports, Apple!

B.P. Able's picture

I loved the MacAir I used to have. It was exceptionally portable and capable for image editing and some audio/video. They seemed to be making the Pros smaller so it seems natural to dump the Airs. But even if they continued the the Air line they would have gone to a single port...USB C.

Apple's view, right or wrong, is that all things are moving to wireless, therefore fewer ports are required. This sucks for professions to some extent. But then how long should they support older physical media and which types? Built in SD is useless if you shoot with CF cards....I only used CD cards at the time, so a wasted port.

Also the current pro and air difference in weight for the 13" is only .06 lbs. And the Pro actually has smaller dimensions than the Air.

The addition of the touch bar thing still seems like a gimmick, but maybe that is just because I haven't used one.

I would really like to see Apple focus on building more powerful systems for professionals.

ronnie yeoh's picture

I believe you're right about Apple moving to wireless. If only Apple would collaborate with, for example, Canon or Nikon, to build a seamless and wireless transfer protocol. Not what these two have now but the next generation. Right now, all of them have only wifi and slow Bluetooth. Is there a new wireless that Apple has that we don't know about? What if we are able to shoot photos or video and the files are sent to the MBP at close to real time, and over a longer distance? Then they have reason to build thin and light MBPs. If only the camera manufacturers have the same vision.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Technically speaking, you can set up something like the 5D Mark IV to function like the old cameras with a WFT, where it will transfer photos directly to a folder on your desktop through a direct wireless connection.

I used the feature twice while demo'ing the camera at Canon. It works, more or less, but it took far more steps than it should have and it was so complicated that I couldn't for the life of me tell you how I set it up to do that now.

You are right that a collaboration between the companies would make this all easier, but I think all sides are reluctant to open up their software and hardware to competitors (and make no mistake, with their iPhone cameras and "shot on iPhone" ad campaigns, Apple is viewed as a competitor by the major camera companies).

Adam White's picture

I saw this shift coming in 2012 when they introduced the Retina display. Gone are the days of being able to upgrade your machine when needed. I use the 2012 MBP to this day and a Early 2008 Mac Pro workstation. I will have to eventually upgrade to a windows environment if Apple continues to shun professionals in the photo/video fields. Do not want to learn a new OS all over again. But will if I have to so that I can keep my clients happy.

They pretty much handed over the reigns to Windows late last year with their new Surface pro desktop an have continued to do it in their portable line of laptops. Sad bad Apple, you have now become the Wicked Witch of the West for your die hard users.

Ryan Mense's picture

My MBA was probably my favorite computer. Only got rid of it when I upgraded to the D800's 36 megapixels and it noticeably couldn't keep up like it used to.

Undrell Maholmes's picture

I see them using the iPad pro's to replace the air in a sense. I use the current 12inch model for photography and its great. Also, Affinity has previewed their new app coming for iPad pro that ridiculously amazing for photographers. Just google it and see for yourself. But as for now, there are enough iPad apps to do anything you need to do in regard to photography.

Peter Brody's picture

Safari on the iPad is a joke. iOS on the iPad is a joke. I know, I use one everyday. I'm typing on one right now. Nothing Pro about it. In fact, core functionality, like being able to reliably select text in text boxes and fields, has been broken for years. Apple clearly doesn't give a crap about fixing such things. The main reason why I still use my iPad is because I have a grandfathered AT&T unlimited data plan for it. Apple under Tim Cook is increasingly becoming a very bad joke.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I tried to make a go of really integrating the iPad into my photo workflow, but it is much more cumbersome than it needs to be. iOS has so many restrictions on how to get files in/out and move them between programs. I haven't had experience with the iPad Pro though, is it much different from a standard iPad other than size and speed?

Steve Walter's picture

iPad Pro works just like an iPad. When iOS 10.3 releases with the new Apple file system, things may change in a big way, though.

Peter Brody's picture

I wouldn't bet on that. I've been waiting years for a decent browser for the iPad.

Thorsten Merz's picture

Can an iPad handle RAW files?

Richard Burton's picture

Yawn. Another poor excuse for an anti Apple article. Getting bored with these. Write more real articles. Apple is still the best choice for a pro laptop for me. Not every working pro needs tons of legacy ports. You guys basically keep writing the same article over and over again.

Peter Brody's picture

They are not legacy ports since they are still by far the most widely used ports.

That Apple's products still work for you doesn't mean that's the case, or increasingly not the case, for other Mac users. That's worth discussing. You could choose to ignore such articles.

Michael Drips's picture

The MacBook Air isn't being phased out because of its sales. That is flat out Apple Propaganda. It is being phased out because the 2015 MacBook has been an absolute sales dud. The other reason is that it doesn't have the new look of current Apple designs, as it has the back lit Apple logo on the back instead of the polished metal logo that Apple currently favors. Tim Cook and his cronies are more interested in profits than technical innovation and customer satisfaction. I will hang on to my MBA until it dies.

Felix Wu's picture

Just hang on to your current machines until there's a better one on the market. So far the latest MBP isn't a solution at all. The technologies of USB-C might be great but the implementation was terrible!

Kim Ginnerup's picture

First I am definitely not a fan of the direction that Apple has taken. I am in the Apple eco system and find myself more and more alienated.
Windows though is in my view not an option. I do you use Windows in another context.
The new 13" pro is smaller than air 13" so maybe it will still fit. I am not buying the new one. I find the price tag offensive. I use an ipad to offload my pictures.

C V's picture

Apple has become stupid and greedy under its new leadership. much like Adobe, it has abandoned it's longtime customer base in the name of more money. The Mac Air is the best travel laptop in the world and they want to kill it - how absolutely stupid is that? And I won't be buying an iPad - the operating system isn't the same and for photographers, it sucks. The only thing an iPad is good for photographically is snapshots (much like the phone) - not my cup of tea. I can certainly see why people are leaving Apple in droves. Sad.

Chris Wentworth's picture

Ok the first thing I have to say is
#1 - If your a true Apple Ecosystem Lover then you know that they don't wait for new technology to come out and become acceptable and then put it in there Computers. That's why they are true innovators and not stealing and rebranding.
#2 - I haven't been into Photography that long and I know I don't have a plethora of information on new technologies but it appears to me that new or semi-New Memory technology is taking us in the direction of XQD etc. I don't about you but you need to get rid of the old to put in the new, especially with things getting so small. If you have a magic wand I'm sure Apple etc would be interested in knowing about it...lol
#3 - the reason I would rather pay a lot more for any Apple device than pay $50 for even the best windows device is because 1)No Anti-Virus Needed (Just a simple fact)(Have used apple for over 15yrs and not 1 virus) 2) I love the closed platform, its more Stable and effortless. For the 2 Problems I've ever had with my apple products in the entire time I've used them(Over 15 yrs), I've had that in the first month of ANY windows computer I owned.

Thorsten Merz's picture

Malware and viruses can be quite similar to hard disk drive failure in that it's often not a case of "if" but "when".

I run my Windows and Linux machines with no virus protection either and never had a problem. If you are security aware, you shouldn't have a problem either.

Richard Harris's picture

I've been an Apple user since 1982 and a Mac user since 1984. I've worked with Apple on product and service design in the UK and Cupertino. They were also an investor in my company. So I'm not exactly coming from a position of opposition. But I now believe that they have abandoned their professional and enterprise users and lost the plot on product design, to the point where, when my 2014 MBP expires, I'll seriously be looking beyond the Apple ecosystem, for the first time ever.

Peter Mueller's picture

Maybe I am too late that anybody reads my comment but I just came back from our first full fledged photo shooting for a major client with my new rMBP 2016 (fully spec'ed). Tethered shooting ("old" 5DM2) with 6 strobes.

I used a Bqeel USB-C to USB-A adapter. My SanDisk Extreme 900 SSD was connected via USB-C directly to the MBP. All "incoming" photos went directly to the external SSD via Capture One Pro.
My old orange LaCie Rugged was also directly connected via USB-C/USB-A cable as a backup drive.
All peripheral equipment (iPhone for music, external keyboard, CF card reader) was connected to the USB-C hub. I even plugged a second USB 2.0 hub to the Bqeel hub for protection of the tether cable which went to the camera. The 5DM2 has only has USB 2.0 anyway.

All I can say is: it all worked fine. It was fast, reliable and a breeze in contrast to my old 2011 17" MBP.
My "work desk" always looked messy. Regardless which Macbook version I used.

The only thing that did not work well was Capture Pilot on the iPad. But getting it to work was always a lottery game. Regardless of which computer I used in the past. Maybe the wifi was problematic.

But still I can say that it "just worked" very well for me. I have redundancies in cables and adapters. But I had that with my old MBP too. So nothing really changed - apart from the fact that my latest backpack is roughly 3kg lighter when all of it is combined. Including all adapters, cables, SSD, HDDs and whatnot.

It was an extremely expensive laptop - which is the only part I really dislike. The most expensive laptop I ever bought. But I love to work with it and was able to work on and deliver files on another job from my mobile workstation.

USB-C is the future and by buying new cables for my old USB 3 HDDs it is the present for me as well.
And I used hubs and card readers before. I use them now. So nothing really changed on that part for me.

With all the - sometimes valid - criticism I wanted to report of a positive experience. Converting 30mp files from a 5DM4 on my 2016 rMBP was faster than on my 32GB iMac late 2012 (fully spec'ed) at home.