Two years with Apple's MBA

Finally bought one

Two years ago I clicked 'Buy' on an Apple Macbook Air and I don't think that I've missed Windows since. Apple isn't perfect and there has been a rumbling lately on Hacker News about their software quality and focus on bringing out new hardware over fixing problems with their HFS filesystem or unmatched version of OpenSSL. I have enjoyed the change of scenery and wanted to write down a few thoughts.

Since I can remember... using a PC has always meant "Microsoft Windows" - starting with 3.11 on our family computer, through all the upgrades (95/98/XP/7). Don't get me wrong - along the way I was never far from a Linux installation, it was just not the first port of call for desktop use.

Work has primarily meant .NET, Windows and MSSQL - but around three years ago I started learning Python, Node.JS and bash. I was finding that there was a viable and popular alternative to Microsoft tooling for development and I couldn't get enough of it. Something that boosted the interest in open source and UNIX/Linux was my acquisition of a Raspberry PI. The PI community's de facto programming language is Python.

it's a UNIX system, I know this

When the MBA arrived the first thing I did was to open the Terminal app and to log into my Raspberry PI remotely with SSH. I loved that this experience was so seamless and that the terminal emulator compared to windows cmd was fully featured and that copy and paste just worked. I used sftp to push some changes to one of my Python programs and to take a backup of the code in a tarsal. Nothing I needed was missing.

I found the underlying UNIX system intriguing. Many of the original utilities from System V (created up to 30 years ago) were pre-installed and fully functional. They hadn't lost their usefulness even if some of them had been re-written or enhanced by the GNU-team or BSD community. In fact if you browse the source for Darwin you can find date and time stamps going back decades.

UNIX Power Tools

(I've found this book really useful, having found an older copy for much less than the list price. I've learnt a lot from it.)

Having operated exclusively in the .NET ecosystem for so long meant I had no idea how to use anything apart from TFS for source control. I realised that had to change and so I took a crash course on the git CLI.

At the time I pushed my first git repo to Github: phototimer, but now I've contributed to open-source projects such as the Pimoroni scrollphat and the Docker/Swarm projects. With the scrollphat I started by forking the project, then adding some samples to the library, after that I refactored the code and added unit tests. My changes then got included back upstream by raising a pull-request with the manufacturer of the product.

Part of using Github and having a blog running on Ghost has meant learning Markdown. It took a little while to get to grips with the formatting but it's now second-nature and I find it very readable even in plain text format.

Wrapping up

I'm not saying that you can't do all of this on a Linux laptop, but I found the Apple hardware and user interface a pleasure to work with. The claims on the battery life are true - I can take the MBA out for a day and forget about the charger.

The weight and form-factor of the MBA are perfect for being on the go and because I am not putting a heavy load on the system, the fan is rarely audible and never noticeable.

When I bought this machine originally I was cheap and only went for 4GB of RAM, this is a decision I now regret whenever I try to edit a RAW photo from my digital camera, or feel the urge to spin up a Virtual Machine. The apps I use the most are fine with 4GB: atom text-editor, terminal for bash/ssh/sftp, Arduino IDE, VS Code and Safari. I also use brew to add additional packages like watch, nmap, mpd and killall.

Macs are not as prohibitively expensive as they once were and if you like programming and are considering a new computer that is fast, sleek and will give you great battery life then I would suggest looking into one.

Alex Ellis

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