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Add the MacBook to the long list of things Apple has killed off. Toss it on the pile, alongside floppy drives, ADB ports, and (soon, we’re betting) optical drives. While the death of the MacBook was shocking at first, what’s even more shocking is to realize that the SSD-equipped MacBook Air is Apple’s new budget laptop. It’s the sexiest, smallest, and yep, the cheapest too. But the Air isn’t the only thing Apple has overhauled. Their starter desktop has also gotten a makeover. The 2011 Mac mini now sports a Core i5 processor, but like the laptop line, Apple has trimmed some of the fat -- in this case, the optical drive.
No one ever would have guessed that the Air, which debuted in 2008 for $1,799, would become Apple’s starter laptop. We’re usually not big on spoilers, but we’ll go ahead and say it: we love the new Air. Which isn’t to say the Air doesn’t have its weak points -- more on that in a bit. But it’s rather telling that there are several Mac|Life editors desperately trying to figure out how to fit a new Mac into their budgets after working with our demo unit.
The 11-inch model we tested weighs a mere 2.4 pounds, and at 11.8 by 7.6 inches, it’s an ideal travel machine. While it looks the same as the preceding model at first glance, there are a few notable changes. For 2011, Apple has added a Thunderbolt port on the right side of the Air, and they’ve also added keyboard backlighting, a feature that was previously only available in the MacBook Pro lineup. The 11-inch models skip the SD card slot present on the larger Air.
A sleek shell will only get you so far. Luckily, the Air has the juice to back them up. The base model we tested ships with a 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, quite a bump from the Core 2 Duo in the last generation. For even more performance, you can bump the higher-end 11- and 13-inch Airs up to a 1.8GHz Core i7. But even without the upgrade, the new Air is plenty fast. Owing to its solid-state storage, the Air boots from a standstill in seconds, and for read/write-intensive tests like our iPhoto import test, the Air is a dream. It blazed our test in 15.3 seconds, while the 5,400-rpm hard drive–based Mac mini took 26.9 seconds to complete the same test. But those speed gains do come at a heavy cost. With only 64GB of storage on the entry-level model, we didn’t have enough free space to install Final Cut Pro 7, which we use as part of our benchmarking suite -- highlighting the Air’s major flaw. 64 gigs is really only an option if most of what you do is via the web. Music fiends, photographers, and even, yes, magazine editors will find themselves bumping up against the storage limit. For anyone who does carry data with them, we’d recommend either the 128GB model, or springing for the 256GB upgrade. But even then, some belt-tightening will probably be in order, especially for owners of large media collections. Now’s definitely the time for prospective Air owners to bone up on network storage devices (or Apple’s iCloud).
The Mac mini's many ports.
Like the MacBook Air, the Mac mini has its own fair share of changes. It sports the same-sized 7.7x7.7x1.4-inch aluminum chassis as the previous version, but like the Air, it’s also been upgraded to the Core i5 (the higher-end mini can be customized with a 2.7GHz i7). The Mini DisplayPort has been replaced with a Thunderbolt I/O port, and the mini now also supports Bluetooth 4.0. But perhaps the most noticeable change is the removal of the optical drive. The mini still offers a single HDMI output, but its usefulness as a compact media center machine is pretty much obliterated by the lack of a DVD drive. Between that change, and the removal of Front Row from Mac OS 10.7 Lion, Apple has taken what was once a great option for your living room, and turned it into the barest of bare-bones Macs.
Performance-wise, the 2011 mini does exactly what an inexpensive Mac should. We tested the base 2.3GHz model with 2GB of RAM. It posted decent if not exiting results in all of our tests. With an overall GeekBench score of 6364, the Mac mini is fine for everyday computing, although some of our more intensive tests like our Photoshop Actions test, and Final Cut Pro 7 video conversion did result in some beachballing. But frankly, if you’re working in Photoshop or Final Cut, this isn’t the droid you’re looking for anyway. RAM is still user-upgradable, thanks to the twist-off base, although the most interesting upgrade by far is the optional 256GB SSD, which you can install in place of the hard drive, or in addition to it, in the space formerly occupied by the optical drive.
The bottom line. Apple’s entry-level machines now cover both ends of the spectrum. For portability and speed, we prefer the 11-inch Air, but the tradeoff is limited storage space. If your Documents (or Music) folder is filled to overflowing, the Mac mini is a competent, if unsexy, budget machine, that unfortunately loses its way as a near-perfect media center with this latest revision.
2.3GHz Core i5 Mac mini
Specs: 2.3GHz Intel Core i5, 2GB DDR3 SDRAM, 3MB shared L3 cache, 500GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 288MB shared DDR3 SDRAM, Thunderbolt port, HDMI output, 4 USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 800 port, 802.11n Wi-Fi networking, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out, Bluetooth 4.0+EDR
Pros: Least expensive Mac HDMI output. Compact size. User-upgradable RAM.
Cons: Dude, where’s my DVD drive? OS X Lion eliminates Front Row, making the mini much less attractive as a media center.
1.6GHz Core i5 11-inch MacBook Air
Specs: 1.6GHz Intel Core i5, 2GB DDR3 SDRAM, 3MB shared L3 cache, 64GB flash storage, Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 256MB shared DDR3 SDRAM, 1366x768-pixel glossy 11.6-inch LED-backlit display, Thunderbolt port, 2 USB 2.0 ports, FaceTime Camera, 802.11n Wi-Fi networking, headphone port, Bluetooth 4.0, backlit keyboard and ambient light sensor
Pros: Fast startup. Incredibly small and light. Thunderbolt port.
Cons: 64GB of storage is just not enough. No SD card slot. Standard-def FaceTime camera.