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Using the MacBook Air as a Traveling Photographer's Backup
By Alvin Soon - on 01 Mar 2011, 10:26am

I've been curious about using the new MacBook Air as a traveling photographer's back-up machine ever since its debut in late 2010. Its higher resolution screen, higher capacity battery and fast SSD drive appealed to my inner photographer, and its light-weight appealed to my inner traveler. Two weeks ago I was off to a work and play trip in New Zealand where I knew I'd be taking lots of photographs, so I loaned one from Apple and off we went to discover how it'd do.

I found myself pleasantly surprised by the MBA's performance over the week, as I used it for a photo management, back-up machine and writing tool. I installed a trial version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and it performed admirably even with the MBA's meager specs; my MBA was the stock 13" model with a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM and the NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor.

I wasn't just loading JPEGs into Lightroom, I was throwing in lots of .NEF RAW files and at the end of the week had 3268 photographs in the catalogue. I found that I could do image preview, flagging and deletion in the Library module without a hitch, even doing some simple processing in Develop to see whether or not certain images worked. No doubt the fact that it was a fresh catalogue made performer snappier, but I imagine that if I used the MBA constantly as a travel machine I'd transfer photos off it every time I made home and wipe the catalogue to start anew, especially since there's a limited 256GB of storage on the SSD.

Final count 3268 images, a mix of JPEGs and RAW files, and I was still working fine.

Of course, I had to manage my expectations while working with it. It wasn't as fast as my quad-core iMac, but even my iMac's Lightroom doesn't run lighting fast all the time, and a little patience while waiting for previews to load helped. But my iMac doesn't start-up within approx. 13 seconds as the MBA did, chalk that up to the MBA's SSD (you can probably chalk Lightroom's snappy performance to the SSD as well).

If there were any drawbacks to using the MBA as a traveling device it would be that I needed to carry the additional USB to ethernet cable to go online in hotel rooms where there was no wireless internet. Also, I imagine having to bring a SuperDrive if a traveler needs to offload data from a CD/DVD or burn data for someone. And while it does great as a secondary machine, I wouldn't dream of using it as a primary image-editing box with a swelling catalogue and files with heavy edits.

To mitigate carrying those extra accessories, I suppose you could consider the more powerful MacBook Pros, especially the new ones which have just been announced. However, the more powerful MBPs are also heavier; at 2.54kg for the 13" version versus the MBA's 1.32kg. And when you're already carrying a back-breaking load of cameras, lenses and tripod, you'd prefer your laptop to be as light as possible.

In that case, you might ask why not simply use a traditional image back-up tool like the Epson P7000, which is even smaller and weighs less than half the MBA (not to mention more affordable)? No knock against these image viewing back-up devices, but the MBA is also a viewer, back-up and laptop at the same time, so you get more bang for your (admittedly) higher buck.

Curiosity satisfied, I found the MacBook Air more than a delightful companion on my one-week photographic journey. Its slim profile fit nicely into my carry-on bag, and its lightness was well appreciated when moving myself from place to place. As a traveling photographer's back-up and image management laptop, it pulled its (light) weight and then some.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.