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I am starting my first year in college as a Comp Science major and am thinking of purchasing a new Mac. I've made up my mind to buy the 13" Macbook Air with 4GB RAM, 1.7 GHz I5 processor, and 256GB hard drive, and purchase a Mac Mini later on in my years at college. (If using the Mac Air is ill advised, please let me know your opinion, as I'm clearly a newb in the computer game. Though I do enjoy the portability, I don't want to sacrifice power to the point where I can't get any programming done on the thing or it will be too hectic for me to do so). I am considering purchasing Parallels for Mac in order to run other operating systems such as Linux or Windows from my external hard drive for testing and such. Does this make the computer any slower? What about if I partition the hard drive to run both OSX and Windows as opposed to installing Windows on an external HD? All-in-All I would like the OSX to be my main OS

Any information is greatly appreciated and I look forward to spending a lot of time here :)

Thank you

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migrated from Sep 12 '11 at 3:00

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I think that memory is your main concern with the MBA. In general, coding should not take much resources. Testing is another story and you'll probably want to reboot into Windows for optimal testing performance anyway. Parallels is a great asset for getting something done quickly and then getting back to OS X. – jsejcksn Sep 12 '11 at 3:39
If you're doing Comp Sci, you'll thank yourself later for getting a PC. All of your programming classes will most likely assume either visual studio on Windows or native linux environment, and your plan to install them to an external drive will not work well. – Joel Coehoorn Sep 12 '11 at 4:08
Computer science and a Mac? I agree with @JoelCoehoom. Microsoft has their fingers everywhere in computer science classes. A mac is just not a programmer's tool. A web designer's or film/audio maker's, sure. But not a programmer's. – sinni800 Sep 12 '11 at 6:14
As an addendum - Macs can be just fine for programming, even Windows development via bootcamp, parallels, etc. But as a student, you'll really thank yourself for starting out with a PC. – Joel Coehoorn Sep 14 '11 at 13:32

IMO on an an MBA you will defiantly notice a difference when running the virtual machine.

I make my living as a embedded software engineer, so I running Parallels on my Mac has been a requirement to still use all of the Windows only tool chains / compilers. I will give you a quick summary of my current system and past systems along with the issues I encountered.

Current System
2011 Macbook Pro 2.0GHz i7 with 8gigs of RAM
Lion + Parallels 7 (and Boot Camp) to run Windows 7 Pro.

This setup is an absolute dream. I generally run Windows 7 virtualized all day long and unless I put a Windows application / program into a tight while loop I cannot even tell that the VM is running.

Previous System
Early 2008 Macbook Pro:
Intel 2.5GHz Dual Core CPU and maxed 4 gigs of RAM.
Snow Leopard + Parallels 7 (and Boot camp) to run Windows 7 Pro.

I can tell you without a doubt, when I was running the VM it became very noticeable and painful when using Windows applications. In general anytime I needed to use a Windows App I would restart and boot into Windows natively.

Thoughts on the Air
Seeing how the specs on the Air are similar (minus the SSD) to my previous setup, I think it might quite noticeable when running the VM. A show stopper? Most likely not.

Honest Opinion
If you plan on using a VM during normal operations, I would strongly advice to look into the 15" Macbook Pros with an i7. If you only plan on using the VM occasionally and it doesn't bother you to reboot, I think an Air will suffice. No matter what you do I would try to max out the RAM on any build you get. One of the beautiful things about Parallels is that you can configure each VM to use X number of CPUs available and X amount of RAM.

Other Thoughts
You can't install Windows on an external drive (without a whole heck-of-a-lot of work). Windows does not support this in any way shape or form.

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The 1.7GHz i5 is significantly faster than the 2.5 C2D in your previous system. – Dustin G. Sep 12 '11 at 3:54
@Dustin G.: I agree completely. My only true baseline is my current system which does everything I need exceedingly well. I gave your answer a +1 because your insight with the MBA is a better source. – Adam Lewis Sep 12 '11 at 4:14
Gotcha, That is a killer notebook. Ive been so happy with my Air but the 15" i7 is a powerhouse that would come in handy when I'm doing complex motion graphics... – Dustin G. Sep 12 '11 at 4:28

I currently have the 13" 1.7 i5 w/ 256 SSD... I just moved from a 2007 MacBook Pro w/ a 2.4Ghz Core2Duo, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB HDD. I do a lot of content creation and have a 30GB partition for Windows and occasionally boot to it via bootcamp or run it in OS X under VMWare Fusion. I love this system!

With VMware or Parallels, there are daemons (services) running in the background that take a little memory, but shouldn't impact day to day performance. I opted to remove the VMWare menu bar context menu because I really don't need or want it taking up resources when I'm not using it.

With the overall speed and performance of the system, these applications will have little impact on your system when you're not using them.

When you are running the virtual machines, the one drawback is you will only have 4GB of RAM to Split between OS X and your virtual guests - fortunately, Windows 7 is pretty slim and I give it 2GB of RAM to works with as well as 2 CPU's (of the 4 logical cores) and I have not noticed any performance issues while in OS X. If I find myself doing something more cpu-intensive in Windows - then I'll reboot and run Windows on its own. Both VMWare and parallels support Bootcamp partitions so you can run Windows under OS X or on their own.

I have no issues giving my full recommendation of this system for your needs. Keep in mind if you are a pack rat, then you might have issues with the limited storage. The past month with this machine has been a lesson in being selective of the information and applications on my system, but much of the stuff that I had on my old MacBook Pro was collecting dust anyway.

For the portability, speed / power, and battery life, this would be a great college machine for many people. The only instance where I would say you should get a MacBook Pro is if you know you are going to cross the 256GB barrier or planned on running multiple Virtual Machines at once - then you would want 8GB of RAM - an upgrade you could perform with the Pro.

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I wouldn't dare to just throw 800 - 1200 $ out on hardware that, by a good part, is priced by it's name before attending college. – sinni800 Sep 12 '11 at 6:18
If you keep up with Tech News, you will find that Intel is sinking 300 Million into companies that will build notebooks with specs similar to the MacBook Air - this is to ensure that they stay under the $1000 mark. There is a cost to technology like what goes into the Air and is not "priced by it's name". – Dustin G. Sep 12 '11 at 13:36

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