Is MacBook Air Good for Programming/Coding?

If you are a software developer looking for a new laptop to do your programming or coding, then you know there are a multitude of choices out there. If you are considering a Mac for your development machine, you might be considering a MacBook Air.

Before you make that leap to purchase one, you probably want to know if the MacBook Air is suitable for programming or coding. The quick answer is yes, the Macbook Air is a good machine for software development, but there are some things to consider before making that purchase.

My name is Eric, and I have been a Software Engineer for nearly 25 years. Over that time, I have done my work on many different types of systems, and I have found that once you meet your technical specifications, the comfort and convenience factors really make a difference.

While everyone is different in their particular needs, there are definitely some overall factors that go into making a good developer’s machine. If you would like to find out more and see why I think the MacBook Air is a quality system for programming, keep reading below.

Technical Specs

First and foremost, you will want to ensure that the MacBook Air’s hardware specifications meet the requirements of whatever type of coding you will be doing. Since I don’t know the details of the type of development environment you will need, I can’t tell you how it will perform.

However, with the MacBook Air’s M1 processor, SSD drive, and memory, it can handle most types of development and development tools. It will perform great for simple web design, database work, scripting, and general application development. 

Whether you are working with Swift, Java, SQL, HTML, Python, PERL, C++, or any other common languages, the MacBook Air will meet or exceed the needs in the areas of processing power and storage space. There are really only two areas of programming activities I would worry about.

The first area of concern would be the development of graphics-intensive video games. You may be fine writing code and compiling it, but if you are doing any testing of your code, you may run into issues. 

The MacBook Air is not great for playing graphics-intensive video games, so you might not be able to thoroughly test your games on the machine. If you have others doing the testing for you on their machines, you may not need to worry about it, but it is something you should consider.

The second area I would be worried about will be if you are developing Windows applications. While tools such as Visual Studio are available on macOS, you again may find problems when trying to test. 

If you are using an older MacBook Air with an Intel processor, you can use Bootcamp to create a Windows partition on your disk, but switching back and forth can be painful. 

You can also use virtual machine (VM) software such as VMWare or Parallels to run Windows on the machine, but VMs never seem to perform well and may not provide an adequate testing environment.

Whatever the case may be, you will need to figure out your development environment requirements and compare those to the MacBook Air specs to ensure that it meets the specs you need. 

If it does meet those requirements, you can then start looking at the features that enhance and make your programming/coding tasks more comfortable and productive.

What to Consider Outside of Tech Specs

Once you know the MacBook Air fits your technical requirements, you can begin looking at the things that help you be more productive. These are the features and functionality that are nice to have but not necessarily required. 

They help you work more comfortably and provide a better experience as a programmer or coder. Below, we will look at some of the top features you will want to consider as a software developer.

Screen Size

The MacBook Air has a 13.3-inch built-in display. It’s not a lot of real estate for an intense programmer who may have multiple windows open at one time and do a great deal of copy and paste between them. It can be hard to shuffle windows around in a small area.

This may not be a significant concern to many who end up connecting external monitors, but there will be times when you may go mobile and don’t have them available, or you just want to get away from your desk and work more leisurely on the couch.

Keyboard and Trackpad

The built-in keyboard is relatively small, and the trackpad can be challenging to use long-term, but this is pretty standard for any laptop. Most serious programmers will be attaching an external keyboard and mouse to make life easier, but you will still use the built-ins whenever you are mobile.

External Monitors

For me, external monitors are extremely important. I need the ability to lay out all my applications across screens to make side-by-side comparisons, copy and paste, communicate on one screen while taking notes on another, and so on.

The MacBook Air can definitely support one external monitor. It can support more than one with a bit of help, but you may need to use some additional software and a docking station with monitor outputs. This isn’t a huge problem, but it will require some additional setup.

External Keyboard and Mouse

Long workdays can be tough with a small laptop keyboard and a trackpad. You will probably want to have an external keyboard and mouse attached most of the time. You can easily do this with the wireless BlueTooth connection, but you can also connect via wire if needed.

Mobility

Going mobile can be critical. Many times you want to take your laptop to a meeting, work at a coworker’s desk, make a trip to a client’s office or just relax on your couch while working. 

The ability to be on the go is one of the MacBook Air’s greatest features. Its slim profile, lightweight, and long battery life are perfect for travel. It’s what this system was designed for.

The Positives of Using the MacBook Air for Programming/Coding

In the previous section, I listed some of the main things you want to consider when using the MacBook Air for programming or coding. In this section, I will briefly go over some of the positives or advantages that it has over other systems you might choose.

Speed

The Macbook Air is definitely a fast system. The M1 processor, the SSD drive, and the RAM provide plenty of power for almost any tasks you will do while coding. As I mentioned above, you may have some issues if you develop and test graphics-intensive games. Still, otherwise, you should be ok for almost any other development applications.

Lightweight

The fact that the Macbook Air is so lightweight makes it very easy to move this system around on your desk and get things situated to where you are comfortable. It’s easy to lift it to plug in the power cord or peripherals via the USB-C ports. This makes it very easy to set up your workspace.

Portability

The portability of the Macbook Air is one of its great benefits. It is built and designed to be portable. Using this laptop, you should be able to code almost anywhere you want. This can be extremely important in the new age of remote working.

Low Power Consumption

Low power consumption helps with the Macbook Air’s portability and mobility since a longer battery life means you don’t always have to be plugged in. It’s also great for the environment since it consumes much less power than most other laptops out there,

Affordable

Last but not least is the MacBook Air’s affordability. While it may not be the cheapest laptop around, it is very affordable for a Mac. Even though the cost is very low for a MacBook, you still get a very powerful machine that packs a lot of punch for the price.

The Negatives of Using the MacBook Air for Programming/Coding

While the MacBook Air meets many of the features a developer may want in a laptop and has some excellent positive features, it has some negatives, just like any other product. You will want to consider these before making a decision.

Expandability

As a software engineer, I am always thinking ahead and know that at some point, the technology in my system will begin to fall behind. Because of this, I often look for a computer that I know I can upgrade or expand its resources to keep up.

One of the faults with the MacBook Air (and with other MacBooks as well) is that once you purchase it, you are pretty much stuck with the specs that it comes with. Most of the hardware is soldered-in, and upgrading, if even possible, requires a professional technician.

Screen Size

The 13.3-inch screen is relatively small for most busy programmers and coders. You will often have multiple windows open on your MacBook Air’s screen that you will be switching between. 

You can choose to connect external monitors for most of your work, but there will be times when you are away from your desk and will have to do everything on one small screen.

No Internal Fan

To make the MacBook Air slimmer, lighter weight, and consume less power, it is designed to cool without a fan. It uses heat sinking methods to cool itself, which is excellent in most cases, but there are times when the system can be in heavy use and start to heat up.

If you have many applications running that are processor-intensive, like a compiler or VM software, it may heat up and possibly overheat. Overheating can be a problem because it can damage your system if it goes on for an extended period of time.

More Difficult for Developing Windows Applications

One last negative that is not really a problem but might be a hassle or inconvenience is if you are developing Microsoft Windows applications. Software such as Visual Studio for Mac is available to do this, but you will need to think about how you will be testing your work.

To test in a Windows environment, you may need to run a virtual machine (or VM for short) so that you can run a simulated Windows computer on your Mac desktop. These use a tremendous amount of processing power and resources from your computer and can run very slowly.

The other option, if using an older MacBook Air with an Intel processor, is to set your machine up to have dual boot capability with the Boot Camp software in macOS. This allows you to choose which operating system you want to boot up when your computer starts. 

It can use a great deal of disk space, but it will run more efficiently than a VM, but again this is only possible on older Intel based machines and is not possible to do with current MacBooks which use the M1 processor.

The drawback to using a solution such as Boot Camp is that it can be a real pain to reboot your system every time you need to switch operating systems. So if you are mainly developing Windows applications, you will need to consider this.

How Do I Decide?

This can be a tough decision with many things to consider. Your first hurdle will be to ensure that the technical specifications meet the requirements of your development tools. If you’re unsure, gather information from those tools and put together a list of the minimum requirements.

You can then compare that list to the specifications of the MacBook Air. You will want to make sure that the MacBook more than covers those specs. In other words, if the MacBook’s specs are not at least a bit better than your requirements, you may want to reconsider.

You want to make sure that your development laptop not only can handle your development tools with ease but that it also has a little room to grow. Otherwise, you may be purchasing another new system in the near future to keep up with technology.

Past the tech specs, the decision will be up to you to decide your comfort level and if this system provides the capability to allow you to be productive. You want to make sure that your development machine is a benefit to you and not a hindrance. 

FAQs

Below are some common questions that are often asked when considering the MacBook Air for a programming/coding machine.

Is the MacBook Air good for Python coding?

Yes, it definitely is. You will find all the tools you need to write Python scripts, and this system will be able to handle them easily.

Is the 2020 MacBook Air good for coding?

This will again depend on the type of coding you will be doing and what tools you will be using. The 2020 MacBook Air is a little older and less powerful than the new versions. You’ll need to look at the specs and use the same methods outlined above to decide.

Is the MacBook Pro a better choice for coding?

I have to say yes, solely because the MacBook Pro is more powerful and gives you more options, but they are both great machines to use and can make fine development laptops as long as they meet your required technical specs and provide you the ability to do your work.

Conclusion

The MacBook Air certainly can be good for programming and coding, but it really all depends on the type of software development you will be doing. It is vital to ensure that it meets the technical requirements of the programming/coding tools you will be using.

It is also imperative that it provides the features and comforts that allow you to get your work done efficiently and in a way that keeps you happy as a programmer/coder.

I hope the information above can help you decide on the MacBook Air. If you are already using one for programming, I would love to hear what you think about it. Feel free to leave any feedback or questions you may have.

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