But how does it feel?
I used the SSD model in the same manner I used the HDD model—mostly for writing, surfing, chatting, the occasional photo tweak, and watching a bit of streaming video. For the most part, the SSD model felt exactly the same as the HDD model—the OS can only get so Snappy™ before it all blends together. Going about my daily business, I couldn't tell a noticeable difference between the two machines in terms of everyday speed. Clockspeed-wise, they're only 200MHz apart, after all.
However, one major difference I saw while using the SSD model is that it didn't suffer entire machine slowdowns when there was a lot of disk activity—or at least less so than the HDD model. When reviewing the HDD model, using a high I/O browser like Firefox or transferring files over the network to my hard drive threw me more beachballs than a Girls Gone Wild party and rendered the machine relatively useless. The SSD model exhibited little of this behavior—if I were to take my totally unscientific experience and translate it into a number, I would say that such slowdowns were reduced by 90 percent.
That's not 100 percent, because when combining elements to create the perfect storm of disk activity flurry—using a lot of tabs in Firefox, transferring something to my hard drive, and watching some streaming video on Hulu—things did still manage to get pokey. The video was jerky (but still somewhat watchable, unlike before) and switching between tabs wasn't as quick as it could have been. The level of slowdown had been significantly reduced, but it was still there. Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on your usage.
I must admit—it's nice to be able to consistently use the love/hate of my life, Firefox, once again.
In the discussion thread for our MacBook Air review, many readers questioned whether my (average) 2.5 hour battery life was legitimate. I was constantly using the machine during that time as I described above and on lowest brightness (since that's how I actually use a notebook) and with WiFi on but Bluetooth off—here at Ars, we believe in real-world battery tests, not just turning everything off and pretending the thing isn't on just to see how long it will last while looping a song. My times ranged from 2 hours and 19 minutes to 2 hours and 44 minutes, depending on what I was doing during that time span.
Speaking to others about the battery life of the Air, my averages turned out to be, well, pretty average. Based on actual use, users I spoke to were getting between 2:00 and 2:45 depending on screen brightness and levels of disk activity. Taking that into consideration, we are (or were—keep reading) confident that the HDD model's battery life is indeed the real deal.
But what's the battery life on the SSD model actually like? One of the major benefits of an SSD drive, aside from speed in some areas, is its savings on battery life since there are no moving parts. No hard drive head to haul around means one less thing to power constantly, and I had high hopes for the battery life on the SSD model. Unfortunately, I was met with only moderate gains when there were any at all.
When using the SSD Air in exactly the same manner as the HDD Air and running it down twice, I got an average of 2 hours and 31 minutes of battery life. That's... pretty bad, and two minutes lower than the HDD model. But this number is low because of the two extremes I got when running these tests. My first number was 2 hours and 52 minutes, and the second was 2 hours and 10 minutes. Incidentally, I did less during the second rundown than the first, since my cable service was down and I couldn't do anything on the Internet. I wrote a few paragraphs of this review and watched some TV shows stored on my drive.
If I optimistically decide to run with the first number—2 hours and 52 minutes—that's a 29 minute (average) gain over the HDD's battery life. That's still not the massive gain that I had hoped for. Again, battery life turned out to be a disappointment.
It's important to note that some users don't appear to be experiencing this poor level of battery life on their SSD units. For example, David Heinemeier Hansson (creator of Ruby on Rails) told us that he can get between four and five hours on his SSD MacBook Air at half brightness and while working normally. Needless to say, that hasn't been my experience at all, so I attempted to look into the discrepancy.
Both the HDD and SSD models that I have show a full charge capacity of close to 5000mAh—the HDD model tops out at 5046mAh and the SSD model at 5004mAh. We asked around and found out that other Air owners (of both models) were seeing numbers between 4900mAh and 5100mAh. These same people reported similar battery life—between 2 and 2.5 hours on the HDD model, and between 2:45 and 3 hours on the SSD. Hansson said that he was seeing 4934mAh, so our only explanation is that he was either doing work that wasn't as "intensive" as I was (which is odd, considering that I didn't do anything intensive) or something else is wrong with an entire batch of batteries.
We plan to continue looking into this issue in the coming days and weeks. (If you're reading this and you are experiencing something vastly different than we are, please shoot me an e-mail!)
So, is it worth it?
The $1,300 question is whether the SSD is worth the extra cash. The answer seems to be no. I experienced only moderate gains in battery life and not very noticeable speed differences. The one major benefit of the SSD model is that it doesn't cause the same types of slowdowns as the HDD model during times of high disk activity, and that's certainly a huge plus. Speedy read times are great, too, but they are balanced out by pokey write times.
Still, even if it's more usable, it's hard to justify the huge price difference for the SSD model. If you've got an extra $1,300 to blow and, for some reason, haven't just bought a second computer with it, perhaps the SSD model is for you. For anyone else looking to buy an Air, the HDD model appears to provide the most bang for the buck.
(Compared to the HDD model)
- No more entire machine slowdowns! (well, most of the time...)
- Speedy boot, disk read, and build times
- The moderate gains in everyday use aren't worth $1,300
- Battery life. Still.
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