I do it, and I do it well. In fact, I’ve built an iOS game on it and used one exclusively without an external display while working at Sumo HQ in Austin, TX this past week.
The 11” MacBook Air is a decent machine, even if you think the screen is too small or the system as a whole is underpowered. It really boils down to which tools you use and the whether or not you can embrace multiple desktops (workspaces for my Linux friends).
Full disclosure though, my MacBook Air is my travel / co-working rig. I also have a 27” iMac that is my workhorse. That being said, I work very differently on my iMac than I do on my MBA.
The trick for me is embracing fullscreen windows. I go back and forth between Spectacle’s fullscreen offering and native fullscreen. I really depends on if you prefer to swap between workspaces or simply ALT+TAB between apps.
For web development (what I do primarily) I only ever run iTerm2 and Chrome (or whatever other browser I may need to test in). With the apps fullscreen I get a decent amount of real estate to work with.
To get the most out of the limited space, I run tmux2 with multiple windows and occasionally, multiple panes. You could do the same thing with iTerm2’s native tabs and splits, but I prefer to use tmuxinator for it’s amazing session management.
My tmux sessions have at least two windows, one for my editor (still using Vim ;) and one for the server. Depending on the project, I may also include a REPL or additional shell, MySQL, Redis, et cetera.
I’m still reluctant to include something like Sequel Pro to the mix because it would complicate things a bit. The way I work on the 11” screen scales up nicely to larger screens as I abandon fullscreen and move to a split screen with iTerm2 on the left and Chrome on the right. Guess that makes it responsive!
I’ve been working this way on my 11” MacBook Air since 2012 when I picked it up. As efficient as I have become with it, I am definitely considering a MacBook Pro for my next machine, especially considering I am planning to get rid of my 27” iMac when we move to Austin this summer. The logic there would be that I need more power and storage if my laptop is going to end up being my only machine.
The MacBook Air 11” has been more than sufficient as a lightweight development rig for me. The fan spins up when it’s doing some heavy lifting, but other than that my choice of tools and adapting my workflow for the size of the screen has kept me as productive as ever while on the go!