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Tiny Mac Battle: Macbook Air vs Macbook Nano

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 6/8/2011

Are you thinking about buying a small Mac? Then you have two obvious choices. One is the legit Macbook Air, the world's smallest Mac computer. The other is the Hackintosh Macbook Nano, a conversion of a netbook into a Mac computer. Which should you choose? Let's find out.

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    Introduction - What is the Macbook Air and Macbook Nano?

    I know what you're thinking. Macbook Air vs. Macbook Nano? What's a Macbook Nano?

    You can search Apple's website for as long as you'd like but you'll never find mention of such a device. That is because the Macbook Nano isn't a real Apple computer. The Macbook Nano is instead a term used to describe a specific kind of Hackintosh which is popular. Macbook Nanos are netbooks, such as the Dell Mini 10 and Lenovo S10, which have had OS X installed. Apple hasn't made a true netbook, and likely never will, but that doesn't mean you can't have the OS X experience in a netbook package.

    The Macbook Air, of course, is the closest Apple to a netbook. While it is a 13 inch laptop it makes up for its screen size by being extremely thin. It also weighs only three pounds, has good battery life, and sacrifices some performance in the name of portability. If you are thinking you'd like an ultra-portable computer which can run OS X these are two choices you might consider. So, which one should you ultimately choose? Let's find out.
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    Apple Macbook Air Obviously, the exact design of a Macbook Nano will depend on the netbook you decide to use as the base of your Hackintosh, but the designs of netbooks are so similar that there are certain things you can expect no matter netbook you end up buying. For example, you're going to have an Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and a screen resolution of 1024x600. You'll also have a three cell or six cell battery (generally speaking, you should go for netbooks with the six cell), a small keyboard and trackpad, and a chassis made mostly out of plastic. You also won't have an CD-DVD drive available.

    The Macbook Air is, of course, much larger, but in some ways it is similar. The Macbook Air weighs the same as most netbooks. It also lacks an internal CD-DVD drive, which is another similarity with netbooks. However, the Macbook Air's largest screen is a big difference in design, and one that marks a major difference in how the Air and the Nano could be used. The Nano is small enough to use virtually anywhere, even on the most cramped airplane or bus. On the other hand, the Air's larger screen makes it much more enjoyable to use in normal scenarios, such as sitting at a desk at home or at a table in a coffee shop.

    There is also going to be an obvious difference in build quality between these two products. Netbooks are not known for being incredibly well built. Whatever you choose for your Hackintosh Macbook Nano you're going to have a basic plastic chassis. The Macbook Air, on the other hand, has a unibody aluminum design. The difference in quality between the two is easy to feel.
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    No matter what netbook you use, your Hackintosh Macbook Nano is going to have an Intel Atom processor, most likely with a speed of 1.6 or 1.66Ghz. This is also going to be backed up by only 1GB of RAM in most cases, and you will also usually have to make do with Intel integrated graphics. In other words, the performance of a Macbook Nano isn't going to be very good. You can do basic tasks with it, and the overall speed will probably be similar to that of a netbook running Windows 7. However, you won't be able to make much use of programs like iMovie. They'll run, but only slowly.

    The Macbook Air is faster, but also isn't a speed demon. The newest Macbook Air models come with a 1.86Ghz processor paired with 2GB of RAM and Nvidia 9400M graphics. This is enough power to easily run OS X and any program which comes with it. Even so, the Macbook Air is the slowest Macbook available, and by a wide margin - the basic Macbook and Macbook Pro 13 inch models have 2.4Ghz processors. The 9400M graphics at least make it possible watch most videos smoothly and play older games, two things which netbooks often struggle with.
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    Ease of Use

    Hackintosh For many users, buying a Mac is all about buying a computer which is easy to use. The Macbook Nano, then, is something of a contradiction, because it isn't very easy to use at all.

    First, in order to install OS X, you're going to need to buy a copy and then install it using a boot loader such as iBoot, as OS X doesn't happily install on just any computer. Once you've done that, you're also going to have to hit up Hackintosh websites in order to find drivers which enable full OS X functionality on your netbook. While these drivers can usually be found, it isn't always easy to find the right ones, particularly if you picked a less popular netbook as the basis for your Macbook Nano.

    Even once you instal OS X you might still run into problems. For example, OS X was created with a minimum screen resolution of 1280x800 in mind. This is because the lowest resolution display you can find on a Mac is 1280x800. However, netbooks have a resolution of 1024x600, and as a result some functions of OS X won't display well. The lack of a powerful graphics solution can also cause problems, as OS X uses a lot of graphics effects. Using Expose isn't always smooth on a Hackintosh Macbook Nano.
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    So, which is better? A Hackintosh Macbook Nano or a Macbook Air?

    Clearly, the winner is the base white unibody Macbook. It does everything the Air can do better for less. You also can achieve battery life similar to what you'll find on a netbook.

    However, if for some strange reason you've decided you can only choose a Macbook Nano or a Macbook Air, I say you should save up your money and buy the Air. Why? Because even though a Hackintosh netbook only costs a few hundred dollars, it is simply too difficult to use and requires too many compromises. Who seriously wants to use a netbook with an operating system which didn't even consider a resolution of 1024x600 when it was designed? Yes, the Air is much more expensive, but there is a reason why netbooks are inexpensive - they're cheap.