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

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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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

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.

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.

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.

The 2015 MBP is now apparently hard to find.

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

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.

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)....

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

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ok, you convinced me. 🙄😉

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.

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!

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).

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.

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