MacBook Air: The Ultra Ultrabook And Business Windows, Too

I've been testing the MacBook Air for five months now. I use it for work and for home. At work, I run our corporate image Windows XP with the attendant applications and security software in a Parallels virtual machine. At home, I run the Mac side. After a few hiccups with the security software going haywire in our corporate image (thanks to the Parallels support team and to our own IT client and network security team for help), it's been a great experience.

I don't need to wax poetic about just how good the MacBook Air itself is. Plenty of testers have already explained just what makes the MacBook Air the ultra ultabook. See Engadget, CNET, Fortune. (And of course ultrabooks were all the rage at CES this year, see HP's showcased by Serena in Gossip Girl and Dell's XPS 13.)

But I do need to describe my experience with this travel-friendly, totally modern, and practical combination of hardware and software. I'll then also point out some things that are still challenging in using the MacBook Air in a Windows-centric business world. First, the experience in four bullets:

  1. The machine itself is a wonder. I drop it on the floor and it keeps ticking. The battery lasts a flight across country. It fires up and finds a network in seconds. It's lickety-splitly fast and deliciously light. It's thin and light enough to slide unnoticed into my bag. (I have to look to check that I didn't forget it.) It boots in seconds, finds Wi-Fi in moments, and discovers new video connections without problems. And it draws looks of envy from colleagues and respect from customers. It's worth the price.
  2. Parallels virtual machine is easy to use (and easy enough to set up though I'm not much of a do-it-yourselfer). The software is stable, and it behaves just like a Windows machine at work. No performance issues, totally compliant with our security and network requirements, running all our corporate software. It's like having your cake and eating it, too. (Colleagues also rave about the VMware Fusion virtual machine.)
  3. Windows runs just like I expect it to. It was critical to me for this machine to run our business image. Otherwise, it wouldn't be possible to use it the way I live, where work and life blend together like milk & honey. I can keep the practical bits running while embracing the new bits. (Pun intended.)
  4. The OS X Lion software is more post-PC (I like the new scrolling motion and touch-aligned things) and more fun than previous versions. The App Store alone makes the software worth running. You get the same app experience on the Mac as you get on an iPhone or iPad. And the number of apps is growing -- all my regular apps (like Evernote, TweetDeck, Kindle) are there. Apple says 100 million downloads to Macs already.

Now the challenges. These are on the Parallels/Windows side of the machine and have to do with the backward compatibility of Windows software. In particular:

  • I haven't quite cracked the code on iPass, our corporate Wi-Fi access software. It doesn't seem to find sites or log on from the Windows side. And I don't have a corporate-provided Mac version.
  • Our Cisco softphone doesn't seem to run on the Windows image, either. That is, it might, but with my limited skills I haven't yet figured out how.
  • The display drivers, particularly in PowerPoint 2010, don't always work well. Sometimes when going into slideshow mode in PowerPoint, the display goes a little whacko. I can usually bring it back to heel by alt-tabbing my way to a different application and back.
  • Chrome (and Safari) run tediously slow. There's some network traffic thingy that I don't notice in the VoIP or video apps, but I do notice a lot (and detest) in the browser page loads. The Parallels people want me to disable my security software (no can do) and change the network settings (also can't do) to fix it. It ain't good, but I live with it.
  • I live in fear that that some other Windows application will crap out. Early on, I had huge problems with an uncontrolled process in our security software. If it happens again, then I'm back to rebooting every 10 minutes.
  • The ability to scale this solution up to every employee is still hard to imagine. I had to walk the machine upstairs and draw on highly expert IT resources to get the image ported and stabilized. I don't yet see how we could scale this up to meet the needs of every employee.

But these are far from deal breakers for a lone employee, and I am very happy with the Mac over our business machine. The coolest thing is that I can remain backwardly compatible with my organization's requirements while embracing the new architectures of apps and devices. Nice work, Apple, Parallels, and our network & security team! For some real research on just how popular this Mac-running-Windows phenomenon is, see my colleague Dave Johnson's report, caught here in a blog post: Repeal Prohibition.

What's your Mac experience running Windows?

Comments

No problems for me

Never back from my Mac to my corporate TP. Everything works fine as all IBM collaboration software runs on windows as well as Mac and Linux. Only one old crm system requires IE, so I use to get in.

Only one fatal flaw with the MBAir

... The limitation of only 4 GB of RAM is a show-stopper for true OSx/Windows coexistence. I use VMWare fusion instead of parallels and find that windows will run, but painfully slow when stacked on OSX.

With 4GB alone, OSX Lion is still challenged. Unlike an 8GB machine, with 4GB, I find I am constantly closing apps to try and free up resources.

When Apple comes out with an 8GB version and more affordable disk space (128GB is pretty small if you are running windows and OSX), then it will truly be a killer machine.

Mo Memory, Mo Bettah

That's for sure. But I'll admit with my tidy life and extravagant use of online storage, it's fat enough and fast enough for my work & home life. Still, getting to twice the memory will make a difference, particularly for dual-use scenarios.

Interesting

An informative read Ted. Is there a reason you didn't go with a Windows Ultrabook from any of the companies that make them? Seems like that might have fixed some of your issues. Any reason why it was the Mac Air specifically? Or was that part of this test?

I could use a Windows Ultrabook . . .

As long as I also ran a VM. Our corporate image is what it is, so I need to be able to run it. But some day I'd welcome the chance to run a Windows ultrabook, and as our corporate image is upgraded, that will be easier to do natively. A new adventure for later this year, perhaps?

Missing the point

I think if you are evaluating the Mac experience from the standpoint of "it runs Parallels good" you are missing a vast majority of the beauty of the Mac experience. I've been using an MacBook Pro in a corporate environment for over a year now and its been great. The only time I use VirtualBox to run Windows/Linux is for experimentation purposes only. All other apps are native; Built-in apps for Mail, Calendar, Chat; Office for docs, OmniGraffle for Visio, OmniPlan for project plans.

Virtualized XP works a treat, but...

I run a very similar setup to the author. MBA with 4GB RAM and XP in a VM - in my case using Fusion and hosted on Snow Leopard (couldn't get on with Lion). This setup works superbly well and thanks to increasing use of application layer security there's less and less of a need to use a full VPN for the corporate apps I use every day.

One thing I have read concerns me, which is that apparently XP doesn't know anything about SSDs, and the way it works by default can shorten the life of these disks. Not sure how best to deal with that, other than by migrating to Windows 7, which apparently is more respectful of the drive.

Anyway, bottom line is I love this setup and highly recommend it to anyone who's more mobile than static at work.

Advice: Wean yourself off Parallels / Fusion

I switched to a Mac for work and kept a copy of my previous laptop in VMWare Fusion form. I did, however, use that only as a system of last resort. Took a few weeks but I very rarely use the VM now. From day one I started using native apps, including a finicky Outlook for Mac. I would recommend that approach to anyone since it allows you to really experience Mac OS Lion to it's fullest and really appreciate that stuff just works.

Abbas.