Fitting your files on a MacBook Air

Storage capacities of portable Macs have been steadily on the rise, even though they lag somewhat behind those of desktop models. These days, you can get an off-the-shelf MacBook with as much as 160GB of storage (with a build-to-order option that pushes capacity to 250GB).

The MacBook Air is a departure from that trend of expanding storage. If you’re due to receive the new laptop, which began shipping this week , you may feel like like someone forced to cram all the furniture from a five-bedroom house into a studio apartment. The MacBook Air’s standard 80GB drive—or even more dramatically, the optional 64GB solid-state disk—leaves you with far less storage space than you’ve probably become accustomed to in this era of ever-expanding capacity. But with some careful planning and creativity, you can have all the essentials plus plenty of breathing room.

For starters, get used to the fact that you’ll almost certainly need another storage place for some of your data. Most MacBook Air owners will probably have another Mac, but even if this is your only computer, it shouldn’t be your only hard drive. That other drive may be in a desktop Mac, a soon-to-ship Time Capsule or other network-attached storage device, or a stand-alone enclosure. (Pocket-sized USB 2.0 drives that can run on bus power are now available in capacities up to 320GB, and may be a good choice for backups as well as “overflow” data.)

In some cases, you may be able to store extra files online, for example using the $20 JungleDisk utility along with Amazon.com’s S3 storage service. Apple’s $100-per-year .Mac service offers online storage, but with a 10GB limit, it may not be the best option if you’ve got hundreds of gigabytes to stash.

If you do plan to make the MacBook Pro your main machine, you’ll need to delete files from your current Mac (or archive them to another location) before migrating your data to its new home. (See Jason Snell’s blog posts The MacBook Air austerity program and MacBook Air: Making the migration for more about this process.) For everyone else, the question is simply which files to copy to the new computer and which to leave behind. Note that Migration Assistant doesn’t give you very fine-grained control—for example, you can choose to transfer your entire user folder but can’t select or deselect individual items within it—so unless you’re moving an entire drive’s worth of data, you’re better off copying the files manually over your AirPort network.

Here are my recommendations:

Applications

Think about the kinds of activities you’ll be using your MacBook Air for and choose your applications accordingly. Are you really going to be creating DVDs on it? If not, skip iDVD and DVD Studio Pro. Similarly, pay attention to other large apps, especially those that deal with audio, video, and photo content. And remember, even though suites like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite 3 install several applications by default, you can skip (or delete) any of the components you won’t use on this machine.

After settling on which applications you’ll install, you can trim their overall size even further (sometimes by several gigabytes) by using the free Monolingual utility, which removes unneeded resources, such as language translations you don’t use and PowerPC code from Universal binaries.

Edited to add: Be sure to read Monolingual’s documentation carefully and avoid removing any resources you’re uncertain about. (In particular, always leave English resources unmodified; disable removal of resources from Adobe applications, your /Library, and /System folders; and be aware that in certain cases removing PowerPC code from Apple applications may prevent future software updates from working correctly.)

Photos

If your iPhoto library is more than a few gigabytes in size, consider storing it on a shared Mac (or an external hard drive). You can use iPhoto’s sharing feature to see the library from your MacBook Air on another Mac (or vice-versa), or use the free iPhoto Buddy utility to switch between libraries.

Audio and video

Multimedia files take up a ton of room—especially downloaded feature-length movies. Instead of putting your entire iTunes library on your MacBook Air (is it truly crucial for you to have the last year of The Daily Show at your fingertips at all times?), be selective, just as you would be when syncing to an iPhone or low-capacity iPod. Get in the habit of storing only as much video as you think you’ll watch in a week, and deleting video files from your MacBook Air right after you’ve watched them. (Don’t forget to back them up first if you want to see them again later.)

Windows

Of course you can run Windows on your MacBook Air, just as you can on an Intel-based Mac. But consider skipping it if it isn’t an absolute necessity—that extra OS takes up loads of space.

If you must have Windows, keep in mind that a Boot Camp partition must be at least 5 GB, whereas a virtual disk image for Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion can be much smaller (at least if you use Windows XP and don’t overload it with files). Use Parallels Compressor or the Shrink feature in VMware Tools to compact your Windows disk image before copying it to your MacBook Air.

Other large files

One easy way to locate other large files that you can delete, move, or skip when migrating to your MacBook Air is to use a program like the free GrandPerspective, which shows you a visual map of all your disk’s files according to size. It may identify things such as downloaded disk images, installers, and cache files that you can safely delete.

Remember, too, that if you need to carry around large files that you’ll only use occasionally, you can compress them to save significant amounts of space. To use the Zip format, select a file and choose File -> Compress file name in the Finder (and then be sure to trash the original, uncompressed version). Or consider a third-party utility such as the $80 StuffIt Deluxe, which offers a wide variety of compression methods and can significantly reduce the size of even hard-to-compress items like JPEG photos and MP3 audio files.

Regardless of which particular files you transfer to the new machine, be careful not to fill its disk entirely. You should leave at least 10GB free for new data (as well as for the virtual memory files and caches OS X needs to operate efficiently).

Keeping your disk from getting full may require greater discipline than you’re used to (or packing a portable hard drive in that manila envelope), but surely it’s worth some sacrifice to use the world’s thinnest and sexiest notebook.

[Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and the author of the e-book Take Control of Mac OS X Backups (TidBits Publishing, 2007).]

Updated at 3:20 p.m. PT to add more information about using Monolingual.

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