When Apple released the first Macbook Air model in February of 2008, the world took notice. No ultraportable notebook was this thin or light; magazine thin. It was clad in Apple’s signature metal casing and was very durable despite its diminutive form. But it was expensive and underpowered. It had only one USB port, and that port was under a constricting but visually appealing drop-down door. Skip forward to the fall of 2010, and the 13” MacBook Air ‘s redesign gets things right: the wedge shaped chassis had two easily accessible USB ports and a mini DisplayPort rather than the micro DisplayPort on the original Air. But the aging Core 2 Duo CPU, long discontinued in the world of Windows notebooks, just didn’t inspire those who needed real computing power. Sure, it had custom NVidia 320M graphics for a little bit of punch, but the machine was only half as fast as the 15” MacBook Pro from early 2010. Why did Apple use the ancient Core 2 Duo? Because they claimed Intel’s integrated graphics in pre-Sandy Bridge days just wasn’t fast enough, so they had to go with an older CPU that could more easily be paired with third party graphics chips.
It’s mid-2011, and Apple has launched the MacBook Air I’ve dreamed of: a wickedly fast and absurdly thin and light machine that’s competitively priced. Even the 11” packs a lot of punch in a size and weight that won’t drag you down much more than an iPad. The mid-2011 refresh ushered in Intel Core i5 ULV CPUs with a 1.8GHz Core i7 ULV build-to-order option and capable Intel HD Graphics 3000 at the same price points as the outgoing models. Battery life remains stellar at 7 hours for the 13” and a decent 5 hours for the tiny 11”. Apple claims the 3 lb. 13” Air can last 30 days in standby, and it wakes almost instantly, even if it’s been off for a day.
This is the first Mac to ship with Mac OS X Lion, and it has a few new keyboard keys that reflect new Lion features, and a large trackpad for gestures. We won’t go in-depth on Lion here, but the short version is we love most everything Apple has done in the new OS and it makes the 2011 Thunderbolt MacBook Air that much more pleasant to use.
The 13” MacBook Air we’re looking at for this review has 2 USB 2.0 ports (one on each side), a new combo mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. It has 4 gigs of RAM, an SSD drive (128 and 256 gig drives are available), an SD card slot, dual band WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 (it’s the first laptop to sport 4.0). There’s still no integrated 3G or 4G, but we don’t mind that at all since built-in wireless cards are often tied to a particular service or carrier and become outdated before the notebook itself does. Note that the 11.6” MacBook Air lacks an SD card slot and the base model ships with an anemic 2 gigs of RAM that’s not upgradable afterwards since the memory is soldered onto the motherboard. The SSD drive remains upgradable for the technically brave (Apple doesn’t consider it user replaceable but it is a socketed stick-shaped SSD as with the last gen Air).
Deals and Shopping:
2011 13" MacBook Air Video Review
Here's our video review of the latest MacBook Air 13" where we take a look at the design, compare it to the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 and original MacBook Air, test out Mac OS X Lion's new features and Adobe Flash video playback and more.
Performance and Horsepower
Our $1,299 base model 13” has a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 2557M ULV (ultra-low voltage) CPU, 4 gigs of RAM (that’s max) and a 128 gig solid state drive. The $1,599 gets you a 256 gig SSD, but all other specs remain the same. If you want a 1.8GHz Core i7 CPU, the upcharge is only $100, but the trick is you must start with the more expensive $1,599 to order that faster CPU. Both the i5 and i7 CPUs are dual core with 4 threads, and they support Turbo Boost. The 1.7GHz standard model can Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz, and that makes for a fast machine. In fact, the 13” MacBook Air mid-2011 benchmarks at 5859, which is double the last gen 13” Air, and 300 points faster than our 15” early 2010 2.4GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro. That’s a lot of processing power in a very, very thin and light package. We loaded Windows 7 and tested the machine with PCMark Vantage and it managed 10,005, which is an impressive score even for standard size Windows notebooks. That’s significantly faster than the competing Samsung Series 9 13” notebook (also running a Core i5 ULV with SSD) and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 that runs a full mobile Core i5 with a slower conventional spinning hard drive.
The very fast SSD drive helps the Air achieve high benchmark scores and makes it feel fast in everyday use. Intel’s HD 3000 graphics are the best Intel has put out, and the integrated GPU can handle DVD playback, 1080p YouTube content and Photoshop well. It’s not as fast as a solid mid-ranged dedicated GPU, and that means demanding 3D gaming is a non-starter (forget Crysis, Left 4 Dead 2 is fine as is Warcraft). We tested iMovie exports using 13 minutes worth of 1080p video clips that we outputted to 1080p MPEG4 format, and the machine took 2 hours vs. 36 minutes for our early 2010 15” MacBook Pro. Working in iMovie was fine; it’s just exporting 1080p that’s painful thanks to Apple’s woefully slow QuickTime codec. Ripping DVDs to MPEG4 H.264 using Handbrake was just as fast with the new Air as with our 2010 MBP though, and iMovie exports at 720p and lower resolutions are much more tolerable.
Display and Monitor Options
Apple doesn’t skimp on displays, and the MacBook Air’s display is bright, sharp and colorful. It simply looks better than most other notebooks on the market in the same price range except the Lenovo ThinkPad X220 with the optional IPS display. It’s much better than the Lenovo ThinkPad X1’s display (you can see the difference in our video review where we compare the two). The Air has a gloss display, but it’s not all that glossy. I prefer it to the very glossy all-glass MacBook Pro display that introduces a lot of glare and reflection. The resolution remains 1440 x 900, which is the same as the 15” MacBook Pro and higher than the 13” (1280 x 800) MacBook Pro. This is an excellent resolution relative to display size: you see more on-screen vs. 1366 x 768 13” Windows notebooks, but text and graphics aren’t difficult to see.
The new Air can drive big Apple monitors via the DisplayPort. I hooked up my 30” Apple Cinema Display and used it in a dual monitor configuration. You can also close the lid and use just the external display. It will also work with Apple’s 27” Cinema Display, and the new $999 IPS Thunderbolt 27” Display that’s due out by early September. The Thunderbolt display hooks up to the Air’s Thunderbolt port and it acts as a laptop dock that adds USB ports, a FireWire 800 port and Ethernet: perfect for the port-constrained Air that has no built-in FireWire or Ethernet (Apple sells a USB to Ethernet adapter for $29).
Keyboard and Trackpad
Finally! The MacBook Air has a backlit keyboard that works in the same manner as the Pro line. There are keys to adjust keyboard brightness and the ambient light sensor triggers keyboard backlighting. The white backlighting makes typing in a dusky living room easy, and the Air has an excellent keyboard that’s changed little otherwise from the last gen Air beyond a few Lion-specific keys on the top row. Key size and spacing are more than adequate for adult hands, and tactile feel is excellent, though travel is relatively short due to the laptop’s thin chassis.
The very large multi-touch glass trackpad is a joy to use with Mac OS X Lion’s many multi-touch gestures. Pinch zooming, scrolling with two fingers and launching Mission Control (the new combo of Spaces and Dashboard) with a three-finger gesture are fluid and easy. By default, the trackpad in Lion works like an iPad for scrolling; that means the direction is reversed from Snow Leopard and Windows. I found this easy to adjust to since I’m a tablet user, but if you use an external mouse it’s a little weird. Fear not, you can change to the old way if you like.
Odds and Ends
Stereo speakers fire from under the keyboard deck, and are better sounding than one might expect from this arrangement. Still, they’re ultraportable speakers, and you’ll want to use headphones for a high fidelity experience.
The Air has a FaceTime camera above the display (not an HD webcam), and it works well as long as there’s good ambient lighting. We tested with the included FaceTime app and were chatting with iPhone users and other Macs in less than a minute. When the camera is on, a green LED beside the lens reminds you that you’re live, and there’s a tiny mic on the Air’s left side that generates somewhat tinny outgoing audio. And yes, you can use Skype too.
Buy one now. Really, it’s that good. Even if you’re not a Mac OS X person, but want a super-strong, impossibly thin yet powerful 13” ultraportable to run Windows, it’s hard to beat the 13” Thunderbolt Macbook Air. It’s capable enough to be your primary laptop unless you’re a serious 3D gamer, is gorgeous looking and has enough ports to get by on. Paired with Apple’s expensive Thunderbolt Display, it can even become a desktop replacement with Ethernet, FireWire 800 and additional USB ports. Battery life is excellent, instant-resume from standby is a joy and the SSD drive means no moving parts and better speed, and it comes with the impressive new Mac OS X Lion.
Price: 1,299 for 128 gig model and $1,599 for 256 gig model