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2011 MacBook Air 13" First Look Review
      #41027 - 07/22/11 01:17 AM

I've been using Macs for more years that I want to admit--I mean long before Windows XP and Mac OS X saw the light of day. And since Windows 7, I've honestly been more tempted by Windows notebooks. I prefer ultra-portables but don't' want to sacrifice lots of performance, and Apple's outgoing MacBook Air was less than brilliant for more demanding tasks. I mean, a Core2 Duo in this day and age? So I made do with my Acer TimelineX 1830T with a ULV Core i7 CPU (pre-Sandy Bridge) and the 13.3", slim Lenovo ThinkPad X1 with full Core i5 Sandy Bridge inside. I grumbled at Apple's expensive and relatively heavy Pro line notebooks. I was deranged by OS X Snow Leopard's perverse networking, limited finder views and absent file versioning (unless you have a Time Machine drive). I felt like a kid angry and disillusioned with their favorite superhero--silly, I know. Now that's all changed, and while I still don't agree with all Apple decisions or love every product, I find myself loving Apple again thanks to Mac OS X Lion and the new MacBook Air.

Ah, the new MacBook Air 11" and 13" systems: finally, truly powerful crazy thin and light Mac laptops with solid battery life. In fact, after I got the 13" in house, I didn't plug it in all day, even when testing Photoshop CS 5, Adobe Flash performance and doing lots of software installs. Sweet. Apple claims 7 hours of battery life with the 13" and 5 hours for the 11". So far, that's not far off the mark in our tests. And the price is on par with the Samsung Series 9 notebook and cheaper than the latest Sony Vaio Z (though the much more expensive Z is a much faster machine).

The latest MBA runs cooler than my egg-frying MacBook Pro 15" Core i5 and is seemingly as fast according to Geekbench. The Air scores 5869 vs. 5582 for my early 2010 2.4GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro. I have a feeling the Air's 1.7GHz ULV (ultra-low voltage) CPU can't be as fast as a full mobile 2.4GHz Core i5 (first gen, pre-Sandy Bridge), so more tests will follow. That said, I haven't been able to slow this thing down so far. Of course, you don't get dedicated graphics with the Air, but Intel's HD 3000 graphics do a surprisingly good job with Photoshop, video playback and driving my 30" Cinema Display via the combo Thunderbolt-Mini DisplayPort. Adobe Flash 10.3 isn't eating up CPU cycles and is hardware accelerated according to a statement late today from Adobe. On my MacBook Air running Lion, playing a Flash video brought CPU utilization up to 15%, which is the same as my MacBook Pro 15" running Snow Leopard.

The 3 lb. MacBook Air 2011 doesn't look different from the outgoing model. The two visible differences are 1) the Thunderbolt high-speed port that will mate nicely with the just-announced 27" Thunderbolt IPS display, 2) a backlit keyboard (finally!). The Thunderbolt display doubles as a notebook dock with Ethernet, FireWire and USB ports. Handy since the Air has just 2 USB ports, and no FireWire or Ethernet (you can buy a USB-Ethernet dongle separately). The bad news? It costs $999 (as much as an 11" MacBook Air!) and won't be available for 6-8 weeks.

Mac OS X Lion is pre-loaded, and there's no recovery disc or USB flash drive in the box. Bummer. There's a hidden recovery partition, and that just feels so Windows. If the Mac becomes completely blotto and can't boot, you can boot using a WiFi network and Apple's online recovery servers. Very iCloud, indeed. Still, I'd rather have a piece of tangible recovery media in case I'm lucky enough to be in the south of France sans high speed Internet if my Mac crashes. Apple says they'll be selling OS X Lion on a USB flash drive in August for $69.99 (yes, $40 more than the Apple App Store download price). You can also bring your Mac to an Apple Store if you need recovery help.

Also check our 13" MacBook Air video review. The full review will be out in the coming days.


Lisa Gade
Editor in Chief, MobileTechReview

Edited by LisaG (07/23/11 12:46 AM)

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