MacBook Air #2: batteries etc

I’ve only just now begun installing “real” software on my newly acquired MacBook Air.* So until now, I’ve been using the Air exclusively for online activity – and haven’t been giving it the full long-airplane-flight test to see how much time it takes to run the battery down while doing real work.

Instead, I’ve done indirect tests, like setting the Air up to play nonstop streaming audio from internet radio broadcasts while running on battery power. That way, I know that it’s continually drawing power to work the WiFi and run the speaker (yes, the speaker -- just one, and not that good). The screen, though, self-dims in a way it wouldn’t if I were sitting there typing.

Still: this has been enough to give an impression. Battery life on this machine seems “pretty good,” and the time it takes to recharge the battery is not bad at all.

My personal scale for laptop battery life runs from “pretty short,” which is my main complaint about most Compaq and HP machines I’ve used, to “pretty long,” which is one reason I’ve always preferred ThinkPads. One ThinkPad battery (the larger, "extended life" version), plus one swappable spare, has been enough to let me do as much work as I can stand on even the longest flights. (Yeah, yeah, some airplanes, on some seats, have AC power ports. But in the real world you can never count on them in economy class. When you do find them, you can’t count on them having a “normal” power socket -- and the adapters required to connect to the special airplane style-socket are so expensive and cumbersome that I just say, Forget it.)

Without having yet done a complete 100% to 0% drawdown test, my first indications are that the Air battery is “pretty strong.” For instance, after streaming audio for two hours, it showed 55% power left. And after I used it for various Web activities for another hour-plus beyond that, it showed more than 25% left. I have not turned on any power-saving features or fine-tuned in other ways, but all this makes me think I would get a good 4+ hours of work out of the battery. I’ll know for sure when I do a real test.

And recharging? At his informative Concept to Consumer blog, the technology and design veteran Phil Baker reports a number of findings about alarmingly short Air battery life, and alarmingly long recharge times. (Some of these come from another important tech site, ArsTechnica.) Again on an impressionistic basis, this has not been my experience.

Update: OK, I have now done an actual recharge test. Took the battery down to 3%, and which point I got nervous and plugged the power in. After 1 hour: 42%. After 2 hours: 71% After 3 hours: 86%. After 4 hours: 97%. And at time 4:20: 100%. Computer has been turned on this whole time, not asleep or turned off, although I wasn't actively using it.

Since all rechargeable batteries lose oomph over time, the hard-wired battery is worse than a swappable one. But at least its starting point is “pretty good.”

Something else that can’t be ignored, vs either the Vista or XP laptops I also use: When I wake up either of the ThinkPads from their “sleeping” state, it takes them a little while to figure out where they are. I’m not talking about the deep coma of Vista-style “hibernation,” which is so slow I avoid it whenever possible. But even “sleep,” which makes the ThinkPad’s screen and programs visible within a few seconds, usually involves about a 40-60 second delay before it gets the internet connection working again.

A sleeping Air is back on – like that! Screen is almost instantaneously back to life. In my experience, the WiFi connections are working within a few seconds. Don’t know if this means it is using more power when sleeping – have to check that too. But it’s a plus.

*Lesson of this experience: the “remote disc” installation routine on which this Air relies, not having its own built-in CD/DVD, works a whole lot better when the remote disc you are trying to reach is on another Mac than when it is on a PC. In theory, the process should work either way. In reality, I had 10 failed attempts to install the Office-for-Mac suite from a remote disc in my ThinkPad laptop, but it worked on the first try when I moved the remote disc to a Mac Mini. Maybe this is not surprising, but it’s also not exactly as claimed.