When Apple revealed the newly redesigned MacBook Air at a press event in Cupertino, Steve skipped the theatrics of pulling one out of a manila envelope or any other “gee whiz, that’s thin!” gimmicks. But once the new machines arrived at the office (one of each size, hooray!), their improvements--both in design and performance--made a bigger impression than any Steve stunts could’ve.
The Air is a thing of beauty, thinner than ever before--both models taper from 0.68 inches to just 0.11 inches at the front when closed. Apple fixed a design flaw and major limitation of the first MacBook Air by adding a second USB 2.0 port and ditching that awful trapdoor. The new ports are flush with the unibody casing, so any connector should fit--all ours did. And while the 13-inch Air’s SD card slot is absent from the 11-inch model, I didn’t really miss it.
The incredibly thin, LED-backlit screen is surrounded by an aluminum bezel. It’s glossy, but not as reflective as the fully glass-covered MacBook Pro displays, and it’s still usable outside with the brightness turned up. The Air’s full-size keyboard feels the same as typing on any Mac laptop or Apple keyboard, and the large glass trackpads support inertial scrolling and all the one- through four-finger Multi-Touch gestures. I do miss the backlit keyboard on the last MacBook Air and all the MacBook Pro models, but that’s only because I'm spoiled.
But the Air spoils us in other ways. For example, the all-flash memory is incredibly fast. Sleep and wake are near-instant since you don’t have to wait for the hard drive to spin down or up. The 11-inch Air (1.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB of RAM) booted in just 31.4 seconds, 32 percent faster than on a 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM. And our applications launch faster on the Air too. Opening files and copying files feels incredibly fast, and we endured fewer beach-ball moments than we’re used to.
But that general zippiness doesn’t always translate to faster progress bars. The 11-inch Air’s 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo and the 13-inch Air’s 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo do slow down some processor-intensive tasks, like converting one file type to another. Between the relatively small storage space (64GB or 128GB in the 11-inch model, and 128GB or 256GB in the 13-inch), smallish screens, and slow clock speeds, this isn’t a machine for heavy video editing.
The RAM is soldered to the board, so you can’t upgrade it (or the storage) after the fact. Our review units came with the standard 2GB of DDR3 memory, but we recommend upgrading to 4GB for $100 since that’s your only chance to do so. The Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor (same as in the 13-inch MacBook Pro) shares 256MB of memory with the main RAM, and the Mini DisplayPort can drive a 2560x1600 display, including the new 27-inch LED Cinema Display.
Apple rates the 11-inch Air’s battery for 5 hours of wireless productivity, the 13-inch’s for 7 hours, and both for 30 days of standby time. (But who could leave their MacBook Air closed and untouched for 30 whole days?) We played a two-hour MPEG-4 video on half-brightness until the Air died, which took 4 hours, 18 minutes on the 11-inch and 5 hours, 12 minutes on the 13-inch. If your main concern is keeping entertained on long-haul flights, the iPad’s 10 hours of video playback still win.
The Air’s thin, light design does require some tradeoffs. First, no optical drive. Apple’s USB external SuperDrive is $79 (down from $99), or you can buy a cheaper third-party option. The Remote Disc feature lets you “borrow” the optical drive of a Mac or PC on the same network if you need to install software from a DVD, but you can’t play a game that requires a disc or watch a DVD movie. Apple included a tiny bootable USB stick if you need to reinstall the OS or your included software, so you’re not without options if trouble strikes. But the Air doesn’t have an Ethernet port, and Apple’s $29 USB Ethernet adapter is 10/100 instead of Gigabit. Not all Wi-Fi networks are created equal, so large file transfers can take a while. So that’s a downside, but we can say that we didn’t miss FireWire or the infrared sensor.
I started using the 11-incher as my main machine right away to see if its screen size or 128GB storage limit would become deal-breakers. And they really weren’t. I had no problems running several iLife ‘11, Office 2011, and Adobe Creative Suite 4 apps at once. Everything felt snappy, and I ran into less beach-balling than on a brand-new 2010 MacBook Pro. So it’s possible to get real work done, especially with an external monitor. Without a separate display, the screen size lends itself better to working with maximized app windows, and keeping the Dock hidden. (Lion’s full-screen modes, coming in summer 2011, should help.) Because the 11-inch Air’s 1366x768 pixels are in a 16:10 aspect ratio, the screen is slightly shorter from top to bottom than the 9.7-inch, 4:3 screen on an iPad. It packs in more pixels than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, just in less real estate. I found myself nudging up the text size in a few application windows to compensate. I edited plenty of magazine pages with InDesign CS4, but wouldn’t want to confine that task to a small screen on a full-time basis.
For typical “netbook” uses, the Air excels. It replaced my iPad for couch-bound web surfing since it can run Flash, multitask for real, upload and download files, let me type without looking at the keys, and the screen stays where I put it. It’s as quiet and cool as the iPad since they both lack moving parts, and the weight difference (2.3 pounds for the 11-inch Air, compared to 1.6 pounds for my 3G iPad) is negligible. I instantly appreciated the lighter load, compared to my 5.6-pound MacBook Pro, and it’s better than the iPad for note-taking at meetings. One place it lost out, though is gaming—it’s not suited to be a true gaming laptop, but it’s possible (the 11-inch Air achieved 37.1 frames per second in Call of Duty 4, and the 13-inch squeezed out 42.7).
We recommend the Air more as a secondary computer. If you already have a desktop Mac with a large hard drive and you want a second, light Mac for traveling, the Air is a perfect choice. Its lower price is a huge plus. No Mac laptop is “cheap,” but the 11-inch Air starts at $999 (just like the MacBook), and you can get a fully maxed-out 13-inch Air (with 2.13GB processor upgrade, 256GB of storage, and 4GB RAM upgrade) for $1,799, which is the same price as the entry-level Air (1.6GHz Core 2 Duo, 80GB hard drive, 2GB RAM) when it was introduced in 2008. Obviously this new Air is a far better machine. Just make sure you plunk down $100 extra for the RAM upgrade.
Both machines are a good bet, but a slight edge goes to the 128GB 11-inch model for its tiny size but decent storage. If these Macs used a newer Intel chip (Core i3, say?) and came with 3G radios, they’d get perfect scores.
11-inch 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air
SPECS: 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 800MHz frontside bus, 2GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 3MB shared L2 cache, 128GB flash storage, Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory, 1366x768 glossy 11.6-inch LED-backlit widescreen display, 2 USB 2.0 ports, Mini DisplayPort, iSight, 802.11n AirPort Extreme, headphone minijack with support for Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic, stereo speakers, omnidirectional microphone, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Incredibly thin. Incredibly light. Flash storage for fast on/off, sleep/wake, and application loading. High-resolution display. Ports are on the case instead of under a flip-down door. Good battery life. Lower price.
No optical drive, Ethernet, or FireWire. No SD card slot. Core 2 Duo instead of the newer Core i3.
13-inch 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air
SPECS: 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 1066MHz frontside bus, 2GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 6MB shared L2 cache, 128GB flash storage, Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory, 1440x900 glossy 13.3-inch LED-backlit widescreen display, 2 USB 2.0 ports, SD card slot, Mini DisplayPort, iSight, 802.11n AirPort Extreme, headphone minijack with support for Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic, stereo speakers, omnidirectional microphone, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Just as thin as the 11-inch Air and only 0.6 pounds heavier. Longer battery life. SD card slot. Flash storage. Larger trackpad. High-resolution display. Ports are on the case instead of under a flip-down door.
No optical drive, Ethernet, or FireWire. Core 2 Duo instead of the newer Core i3.