Ask DN: How is designing on an 11" Macbook Air?

9 years ago from

Hi Designer News,

I'm planning on purchasing a 2014 MacBook Air (i7, 8GB RAM) to use as my sole computer. I would connect it to a Thunderbolt Display while at home. While away from home I would also like to use it for school, design, as well as casual use. I'm guessing I will only use it for design 20-30% of the time I'm using it while away from home.

I think I'd like the smaller size and weight of the 11", but is the screen too small to design (graphic, web, UI, etc) on? Even though I will only be using it to design (away from home) a small portion of the time, I'd still like to be able to do so, without having too hard of a time due to screen size. I don't have an Apple Store near buy so unfortunately I can't go there and try to check myself.

Do any of you have experience designing on an 11" MacBook Air? What is it like? Is the screen too small? Are there any other drawbacks other than screen I'm not thinking of about the 11"?

Thank you, Robert


  • Account deleted 9 years ago

    I used a 13" MBA (i7) for almost 3 years... and it was such a joy to travel with (i used to fly coast-to-coast every week for work). Definitely has plenty of oomph. That said, I think the weight cost savings going down to an 11" versus the 13" isn't worth the tradeoff IMHO. The 13" is $100 more, but has a battery life rated 3 hours longer and offers you more sanity if you will be designing on the go - the resolution is a more useable 1440x900. The 13" is only a half-pound heavier and 1" wider... it's still insanely portable.

    I dunno, just looking back on the past, there is no way I'd scale down for 100 bucks and sacrifice so much battery AND have less pixels to work with.

    5 points
  • Hawke BassignaniHawke Bassignani, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

    I used an 11-inch Air for design for a while without a monitor. I had an iMac back at home, but liked to get out into the world.

    On the one hand, doing a full project on it is almost impossible. At best, it's just inefficient and will make your hands hurt.

    On the other hand, you can make it work if you plan ahead for what you'll have to do at home and what you can do on the go.

    Examples of things that I would do on the go without problem:

    • Work on short, wide elements like navigation
    • Code the site (if you do that), making generous use of OS X's fullscreen mode
    • Design the mobile and maybe small tablet views (because so skinny)!
    • Do my business-side work (invoicing, support, documentation, etc.).

    If you have a display at home and have enough of these small screen-friendly tasks, it's a great machine. I loved mine!

    3 points
    • Elliott ReganElliott Regan, 9 years ago

      I've been using an 11" MBA for two years, now. It's great for travel and it fits in any bag, but a second screen is a must, and you can't work for long without recharging (I think the latest MBAs have much better battery life than mine does, though).

      I've gotten really good at using Spaces, Mission Control, and multi-touch gestures, and Cmd + Tab. I can switch apps like it's my job.

      1 point
  • Dave ColemanDave Coleman, 9 years ago

    I sometimes get frustrated at the small size of my 13" Air, particularly with web/screen design, where true-to-size zoom levels matter. So undoubtedly the 11" will be limiting for that kind of work. The 11" does look almost comically small, but there's no denying you'd get used to it, and I definitely sometimes wish my 13" was smaller and lighter.

    If portability is important to you, and it's not going to be your primary work machine, I'd say go for it. If there's any danger of it becoming a machine you use regularly for design, then you'll probably find it frustrating.

    3 points
  • Mitch WarrenMitch Warren, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

    It's difficult if you don't have an external screen. Get ready to squint something fierce!

    It's a great little machine. The screen quality is a bit sucky though (OLED?) and without glass, it feels quite fragile compared to the Macbook Pros.

    I'd wait it out for a retina Air, or only grab an existing Air if it's on sale somewhere. I got mine from JB Hifi for $980 - bargain!

    2 points
    • Doug OrchardDoug Orchard, 9 years ago

      OLED screens are not in working apple devices. That tech is barely even mainstream where TV costing US$5000 or more. Theres an issue where the blue LED's would die sooner than the other pixels.

      The screen is a normal Back-lit LED affair. It lacks any special coating that increases the viewing angle that the more expensive laptops receive. Most likely to keep the costs down.

      2 points
  • Eri Mehmeti, almost 7 years ago

    I know this post is 2 years old but it ranks in Google, so other people might get some value.

    I own an 11" Macbook Air, Early 2015 model. (I bought it early 2015 at JB HIFI, Sydney, Au). The specs are the most basic you can get.

    My work is 30% design for the web, 50% coding and the rest emails and other admin tasks. I use Sketch App, Photoshop and Illustrator for design.

    I have been travelling and working (digital nomading) for 9 months now and it is great. Sure you will have days where you feel like you need a bigger screen but you get used to it.

    On paper, the 11" has a smaller battery than the Pro or any 13" but because of the basic screen and basic processing power it actually lasts longer.

    I use an app called SwitchResX to scale the display when I want to see a big file and I use Control - + to zoom in and out.

    This laptop is cheap(er), light and I am very sad that Apple decided to discontinue the model.

    I think my next one is going to be the 12". When I travel, I go to work in co-working spaces and some of them have monitors that you can rent, just buy an HDMI adapter and you good to go.

    1 point
  • Andrew CohenAndrew Cohen, 9 years ago

    I used to work on an 11" air long ago. It was my secondary machine to my 27" iMac, but quickly became my only machine as I changed jobs and was working remote a lot. Without an external screen it was doable, but a pain in the ass.

    I work on a 15" MBPr attached to a screen and on its' own when I'm out. I couldn't fathom going back to a 11", I'd consider a 13" though.

    1 point
  • Sam BellSam Bell, 9 years ago

    I always think my 13" MBA is small, not sure I could cope with designing on 11". I already put off doing much design work until I get back to the office so I can do it on my iMac.

    1 point
  • Thom WetzelThom Wetzel, 9 years ago

    I debated between the 11" and 13" when I bought my Air. I ultimately decided on the 13". I thought about it, and the 11" was a little too close to netbook size for my liking. I haven't regretted it yet - it's a great laptop.

    1 point
  • Malte NuhnMalte Nuhn, 9 years ago

    I've used exactly that setup for UI design (Sketch) before, and it worked well for me. No problems at all when external screen attached, and still works well enough to do some basic work on, say, a train or plane. For portability the 2" difference is real - I've had the Air in my bag and forgot it was there.

    Can't comment on more detail-heavy design (Photoshop), but suspect a retina 13" (pro, or Air when they release it) would be a better compromise there.

    1 point
  • Brent RiddellBrent Riddell, 9 years ago

    I freelanced for various clients on an 11 inch MacBook air for over 2 years, as long as I had an external display I never had a problem, was constantly impressed with how much I could do with that tiny machine, it's like an iPad but you can run normal apps on it :)

    1 point
  • James Young, 9 years ago

    I've used one as my sole machine for about 18 months and it's been absolutely fine for my needs. I don't do illustrator work but it's been no problem using PS/Fireworks etc and of course writing code.

    Bought mine because I run-commute a lot and to take to conferences to do talks etc so wanted something small and it's been a good machine.

    1 point
  • Jonathan White, 9 years ago

    My friend has a 11" Air and from what I can see, he has no problem designing and doing front-end work on his laptop. Personally, I have a "13 Air and I wouldn't upgrade to a 15" simply because I love its portability. It also helps that I have a cinema display at home to test my designs on a larger screen.

    1 point
  • Robert Bloom, 9 years ago

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone. Ended up going with the 13".

    0 points