Image Courtesy of Apple.

Any time Apple unveils a new product, someone is likely wondering if it’s a viable choice for music. The answer on the new MacBook Air is probably yes – though for music production, even at a $999 price, you may want to sacrifice a little bit of weight for the specs on the non-Air MacBook line.

Here’s a quick look:

  • Core 2 Duo architecture. While running at slower clock speeds, this is a more efficient CPU choice for audio. (Don’t let the clock fool you, in other words – there’s a fair bit of power here.) You don’t get the battery life or dirt-cheap price of the Atom – but you don’t get its abysmal performance, either. And the Air has a 3-6MB L2 cache. This isn’t a netbook, in other words (though it’s also 2-4 times as expensive, of course).
  • NVIDIA 320M is good enough to make this a choice for light visual work. Mini DisplayPort, natch.
  • Two USB ports.
  • Mysterious storage. I say “mysterious,” because Apple doesn’t talk about the specs on its drives. Flash memory has done quite nicely for audio reads and writes, but it depends on the model. Wait for a teardown before committing. Updated: See Ars Technica’s numbers. That SSD is fast. No worries here – though you’ll have to shell out more if you want more space, and you don’t have the FireWire 800 option on the Air for external storage, only USB2.
  • Multitouch trackpad (nothing new but, incidentally, works with things like Logic)

Viable? Yes, probably, as a second machine. And for those who want a laptop that’s light and thin like a netbook but with something closer to laptop specs, this is it. For audio, I think the big question mark is the flash storage; I’d love to hear from someone who knows. On everything else, again, it’ll be worth comparing to the MacBook Pro.

Of course, this isn’t really something aimed at production customers at Apple, but I think it’s nonetheless worth considering, and mostly because I’m curious to hear what commenters say.

  • Bobby

    I've been using Logic on a five year old PowerBook G4 for years and it works quite well, this should be great for audio work. Also, you mentioned that it might be a "choice for light visual work"-my first FinalCut Pro workstation was a G3 450Mhz-this little jewel will smoke for field video work.

  • Yep, absolutely — while the clock speeds are slow, this is a real Core 2 Duo architecture and should get a lot done.

  • Eric

    I'd love one of these – I think the speed and capacity boost finally make it a viable music production system (assuming you aren't expecting 50 tracks with live eq/reverb). Portability and energy efficiency (because lugging around a power brick kills portability) are powerful for music.

  • Andrew Lovett-Barron

    Disappointed though not surprised with the lack of firewire, but agree with its role as a fantastic second computer.

    What's a bit frustrating is that I get the sense that apple set it up to be perceived as a "second computer" from the onset, encouraging multiple mac purchases by dropping certain functionality.

    To be honest, from a visual and music perspective, I'm tempted to get a macmini for uses in embedded A/V installations and whatnot. In some ways seems more flexible for arts use.

  • Well, in fairness, for a lot of people this isn't a "second" machine – it's all people need. And there are plenty of music users, even, for whom that could be true; I'd just take a hard look at the MBP and, once we have them, performance numbers across the two first.

  • I'm not sure wheither I could take this seriously due to the lack of ports (2 aren't just enough, they may be expandable via hubs but I don't know if that's a good idea for musicians).

    Just want to say that even my 4 USB ports are getting in short supply …

  • 2 USB ports are becoming pretty standard for Apple, sadly. At least the MBP has the addition of FW. If you want more ports, you'll definitely need to look at PCs. While they're becoming scarce there, too, there's almost always a choice.

  • Jeff kausler

    to me, the best thing about these is that they are silent…

  • kev

    The only benefit more USB ports would provide is not having to worry about carrying an extra USB Hub. Even machines with 4 USB ports only have a single internal bus to run them on so there is no performance benefit to having more ports. Just keep a small hub in the bag with a charger and it's all good.

    Firewire would be nice, but since it's not a top performing machine it would mean additional space on the logic board for little benefit to the target audience.

    I think it's a nice laptop for a guitarist or a keyboardist who needs a brain to run softsynths and amp sims. Maybe less useful to the dj crowd who would like to do live sequencing.

  • kev

    BTW, Gesture support is huge for the instrumentalist who is playing live and also trying to manage a computer. Again… if you are a dj… not as big of a deal, but if you are playing guitar or keyboards you may be using one hand on the laptop.

  • @kev: Well, "huge" may be an exaggeration… I'd say by the time you're touching the trackpad, you've kind of lost the battle. I do like the feature, but it seems there's too much of a risk of tapping the wrong thing, etc. How are you using it?

    @Jeff: great point! And ideal for using this as a recording machine.

  • kev

    I play guitar and have customized the gesture support on a Magic Trackpad using Better Touch Tool:

    This way I'm not limited to Apple's supplied gestures to control apps. I can use the most comfortable swipes to trigger what I need most.

    Using BTT with Quickkeys has allowed me to control Bidule and Ableton Live by triggering macros and using only gestures.

    It's been huge improvement.

  • kev

    One more comment. Most of what I am controlling is happening via midi foot controllers, but when I need to interact with the computer it can be pretty disorienting to have to alternate between the trackpad, and keyboard while making quick changes, calling apps, arming tracks/loopers, and trying to improvise with a tech-beast of a setup.

    Using customized gestures and BTT has made interacting with the computer feel more like a part of the creative process for me.

  • @kev: Okay, great to know! Yeah, it should be a reasonable target to hit while you're playing. Thanks for the tip!

  • Given that this thing starts at 64 GB, I doubt you'll be installing Logic on it or any big libraries.

  • 2GB is a skimpy on the memory and is not user upgradeable to 4GB. 64GB isn't going to get you very far samplewise.

    Sadly I have a rme pci express interface which I just got a year or so ago, hoping it would last me 5 or so years with a computer upgrade somewhere in there. Now firewire seems to be on it's way out consumer hardware (macbook for example). IIRC firewire is far superior for synchronous transfers, when timing matters, and usb 2.0 just doesn't compete.

  • djbouche

    @Sam Greene
    where did you read that you can't upgrade it to 4GB?

    also the SSD is upgradeable to 128GB.

  • @kev: Sounds complicated. Never thought of taping a iPod touch to guitar and use TouchOSC to control the computer?

    The smaller one looks pretty good for live use. 2gb ram is just fine and 64gb holds pretty big live set. A bit too expensive tough :/

  • I get paid on Friday, so I'm going to stop by the Apple store across the street from my apartment and try to convince them to let me install Ableton on the 11" to see how it runs.

    I would assume they'd be willing to let me try it, especially if I'm about to drop 1k on a piece of hardware specifically to use Ableton on the go.

  • Sam_K

    I'd prefer an Alienware M11X

  • Chuck

    As previous comments have stated, I can see using this for a VST host/amp simulator combined with a USB Audio/MIDI interface. 256 GB will definitely give you enough space to install a DAW with a decent loop library, and maybe enough room to install some of the larger piano and orchestral sample libraries.

    Once Apple gets the RAM increased above 2 GB, I may even consider this a viable replacement for my 4 year old MBP.

  • Ginko

    Both models are ALREADY available with 4 GB Ram , you just have to order them through the Apple Store and choose that option.

  • Minus

    I checked out both at the Apple store today, I think it is pretty safe to say the 11" model is severely under powered at 1.4ghz (lowest coreduo speed ever on a mac i think) and 3mb L2 cache 800mhz bus. I didn't get the chance to do any audio work but a HD video stream was real laggy.. however the 13" is better, not only the faster cpu speed but 6mb of L2 cache on 1066mhz bus puts it ahead the current 13" Macbook Pro! I'm also very interested in the flash storage performances vs. standard hard drive & SSD ..

  • flip

    @djbouche: This will explain:

  • Processing depends entirely on … what you're processing. If you want to push the envelope on a Live set or do some live convolution, then, you know, you want as much power as you can lift.

    I think for mobile recording and light production, this will be more than fine. I can get a lot of work done on much less powerful processors.

    That SSD part looks to me not to be chosen for performance, but size… just a guess, though. On the other hand, if you want a light, pretty laptop with an internal drive that makes no noise, this might not be bad. Of course, you can also buy a cheap MacBook (non-Air) and drop an SSD in it, so you'll definitely want to evaluate your options.

  • Jeff

    @Sam Greene

    USB class drivers on OSX have greatly improved over the years and now in real world can handily out perform firewire on I/O latency. 3rd party drivers do even better.

    Just check out the RME Fireface UC and tell me which FireWire interfaces perform as well.

    I imagine USB 3 or some other connection will be replacing Firewire. For now, USB does very well.

  • This could be a fantastic DJ gig computer. I think most of us would love to have something like a fully decked out MBP for live performance and production but this seems like it would do the job fantastically for any of the popular DJ apps out there.

  • Last laptop purchased was 500 euro and smokes the 1600 euro Air in every way. Of course it is nowhere near as petite, but that is a disadvantage not a bonus when running music apps live. And oh yes, it is perfectly silent and everything works perfectly. It's an ASUS.

    Unfortunately no FireWire, but at least there are four USB ports.

    The Macbook Air makes no sense for music but is instead made for design and business people who want to project their happy Mac image. Since that is a rather large minority, Apple will do well off it.

  • @Jeff: No doubt USB device authors have learned to overcome the limitations of the bus. But that is no consolation for those of us who committed to FireWire back when Apple, Sony etc. said it was the best thing ever. Which it still is, so this is not a matter of advancing technology but rather enforced decrepitude. Not all of us can afford to replace perfectly good devices on the whim of an Apple joker.

  • I think people really get carried away with judging a computer by its raw specs alone. From all accounts the SSD makes a huge difference to the processor, and has already been stated, plenty of great music has been created on much less. Stop worrying about specs and make something worthwhile!

    Personally I've been waiting for something like this for a while, and after doing plenty of HD video on work 'underpowered' computers, I'm looking forward to having this little computer in my backpack along with a DSLR and midi controller. Everything I need, wherever I want it.

  • @kwality: absolutely. Good to have some numbers. Macworld has done some good benchmarks:

    SSD is a huge boon. But the Core i5 is still a better processor, and it may be worth considering Pro models for FireWire or (on higher-end models) ExpressCard. You're right, though, the Air is a perfectly capable choice, if it suits your needs.

  • Sasha

    "Just check out the RME Fireface UC and tell me which FireWire interfaces perform as well."

    I was an RME Fireface 400 owner and recently moved to the RME Fireface UC (running on a Macbook Pro). The UC with USB is a vast improvement over the firewire version. No audio glitches when the CPU spikes, no latency issues whatsoever. I am amazed at the driver work done to optimize USB with the RME Fireface UC. Highly recommended.

  • Allison

    I have a 24" iMac, that I've been travelling with (I have a fancy padded case for it) and I have some money to get a laptop.  

    I love the aesthetics of the Mac Book Air.  I just do.  I use Reason, Abelton Live and I do some video editing with iMovie.  I also write scripts, and having ultra-portability would be transformative for scriptwriting and also music production.

    I do perform live, yet I haven't gotten into the full capabilities of what Live can do in a live performance.  I just got a Ableton Launchpad – which I'm excited to travel with…

    I would miss my firewire port, yet I'm wondering if I left my iMac at home turned on – if it could somehow communicate with me and my Air while I'm on the road?  That would be great, or I could use the cloud.

    I would like to move into more live performance.  At this point, I could either buy a 15 inch MacBook Pro with a 500gig hard drive and 4gig ram, or get the 13 inch Air with 256gig and 4gig ram.  I could go either way, yet the ultra-portability really fits my personality and lifestyle.

    Can I use the Air to be my second computer and work with Reason, Live and edit short films and write on the road?

    I really hope so.  My best question is – who uses the MacBook Pro 13" out there and what do you use on it?  Because the tricked out Air performs faster than that, supposedly.  Also, is there a usb to firewire converter?  I wish it had usb 3.0.

    Also, it seems like they are going to update the Pro's in about 6 months, so I hate to get a new one now, even though I am going to be travelling a lot, as I tend to do.  

    Either one will be lighter than my 24" that I've been travelling with, yet the Air is just so sexy!  Thanks in advance…