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Apple MacBook Air review (13-inch, mid 2011)

A fresh processor, backlit keyboard, and a Thunderbolt port — the new MacBook Air is here, and it's more than just a spec refresh

The original MacBook Air was more of a status symbol than a computer. Sure, it was a functional laptop that could glide into a manila envelope, but the $1,799 laptop was, by and large, a secondary machine — it trailed behind other ultraportables in performance, lacked some essential ports (it only had one USB port and there was no SD card slot), and packed a small and slow hard drive. For most, the sacrifices were just too many to justify for the high price. If I think back, they were actually pretty rare to see out and about, and when I would spot one, I can remember thinking “that guy must have a nice car, too.”

But then came the major revision (the original Air got a slight spec bump in 2008, but it didn’t change much). The second Air (or heir!) was priced significantly less at $1,299 ($999 for the 11-inch version), included some speedy solid state drives, and mended some of those port issues. If you didn’t need an optical drive, it had almost about everything it needed to be both a no-compromise ultraportable and a primary computer, but the older processors still didn’t offer quite enough performance to do the job. And in a tragic oversight, the keyboard wasn’t backlit.

Which brings us to Apple’s 2011 version of the 13-inch MacBook Air and this review. The Air is now stuffed with a fresh dual-core Core i5 processor (there’s an i7 option too), a glowing keyboard, and a new Thunderbolt port. And it boots Apple’s brand new Mac OS X Lion (10.7), which we’ve already deemed pretty great. Yes, it physically looks the same and those may seem like just minor spec updates, but the additions change a heck of a lot more than you’d think. Read on after the break for my full review.

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

The Air doesn’t look any different than its predecessor, but I don’t think anyone is going to complain
Macbookair15

The new 13-inch MacBook Air doesn’t look any different than its predecessor, but I don’t think anyone is going to complain — I certainly won’t. The aluminum unibody construction has proved to be incredibly sturdy and the minimalist aesthetic is really unmatched; there’s a reason companies like Dell and HP have moved over to building their laptops out of similar materials and cut the glossy plastics. And while the all-black Sony VAIO Z might appeal to some more than the Air’s grayish aluminum, the Air’s metal build certainly feels more rigid than the VAIO’s carbon fiber case and floppy screen. (Sadly, those black MacBook Air rumors didn’t pan out this time around — next time, perhaps.) In comparison to Sony’s flimsy screen panel, Apple’s is like a brick wall. Seriously, the rigidity of the hinge is downright impressive.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.96
MacBook Air (2010, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.9
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 13.0 x 8.27 0.66 2.57
Samsung Series 9 12.9 x 8.9 0.62 - 0.64 2.88
Toshiba Portege R705 12.44 x 8.94 0.72 - 1.01 3.2

When closed, the chassis still tapers like a tear drop, measuring 0.11 inches at the thinnest point and 0.68 at the thickest. Technically, that wider edge is .02-inches thicker than the VAIO Z, but the Air’s thinner front edge definitely gives it the illusion of being the thinnest laptop on shelves. The three-pound 13-inch MacBook Air does weigh .4 pounds more than the Z, but you’re absolutely not going to notice the difference on your shoulder. I carried ‘em both home from the office and together they didn’t seem to weigh as much as my 4.5-pound 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The minimalist aesthetic is really unmatched

The Air is still stocked with two USB ports (thankfully, on opposite edges), a 3.5mm headphone jack, and an SD card reader. There’s still no on-board Ethernet port, which can lead to a very frustrating experience when traveling. (Seriously, why don’t hotels have Wi-Fi in the rooms?) Apple offers a USB-to-Ethernet adapter for $29 — just don’t forget to pack it. Of course, one minor aesthetic change that masks a major functionality change is the addition of a Thunderbolt logo on the right side of the mini-DisplayPort — but we’ll get to that later.

Keyboard / touchpad

Keyboard and touchpad

It’s hard not to gush about Apple’s glass touchpad — it's simply the best in the business

It’s really more of the same when it comes to the bottom deck — Apple’s simply not messing with a great thing. The chiclet keyboard has gone pretty much unchanged save for the (re-)addition of the backlight and the addition of the LaunchPad and Mission Control function keys, which took the place of the Expose and Dashboard shortcuts. (You can disable the ambient light sensor and adjust the backlight manually with the F5 and F6 keys — that’s my preference.) However, my one complaint about the panel is the shallow travel of the keys, which is ultimately caused by the thinner profile. (The VAIO Z suffers from the same thing.) It’s certainly not a deal breaker of any sort, but I do prefer the slightly more raised keys on the MacBook Pro and the Samsung Series 9.

It’s hard not to gush about Apple’s glass touchpad — it simply continues to be the best in the business. The 4.2 x 3.0-inch pad is plenty wide for accommodating the slew of new multitouch gestures supported in Lion. Not to mention, the sensitivity and responsiveness is just right (though, the speed can be adjusted if need be). Two finger "natural" scrolling, three-finger pinching to bring up LaunchPad, and horizontal swipes to move between desktops, are all effortless and don’t require that extra pressure like so many Windows 7 laptops. Why PC manufacturers haven’t been able to make a multitouch touchpad that rivals Apple’s continues to baffle me. Even when I installed Windows 7 via BootCamp, two-finger scrolling worked better in IE8 than it typically does on PCs I’ve tested.

Display / speakers

Display and speakers

There’s no change to the 13.3-inch, 1440 x 900-resolution display, either. It still has amazingly wide viewing angles, and though it’s glossy, it doesn’t appear to be as distracting or mirror-y as the MacBook Pro’s standard panel. However, I must say that after spending the last two weeks with the VAIO Z’s matte, 1920 x 1080-resolution screen, the Air definitely pales in comparison. The crispness of Sony’s display is pure pixel heaven. Sadly, Apple’s never offered a higher-end display or a matte option on either of the Airs, and that doesn’t change this time around.

The speakers and webcam have also been untouched. Sadly, the VGA camera hasn’t gotten the FaceTime HD upgrade, but it served up plenty clear and well-lit images when I Skyped with a friend. Coming from the VAIO Z’s horrendously muffled and low-sounding speakers, I have a newfound appreciation for the Air’s sound. Sure, it’s not going to replace your desktop speakers, but it sounds perfectly pleasant when listening to some Justin Bieber while writing a review. Don’t you dare judge.

There’s no change to the 13.3-inch, 1440 x 900-resolution display, either
Performance

Performance

Those worries I once had about using an Air as my primary system have gone away

This is undoubtedly the part of the review you’ve been waiting for, considering the biggest enhancement comes in the way of processing power. Apple claims that the new Airs pack double the performance of the outgoing model, and that’s certainly not a stretch. My review unit’s 1.7GHz ultra-low voltage Core i5-2557M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD showed some impressive benchmark results — even besting a handful of higher spec’d PCs because of its SSD. And in actual use, it feels twice as fast as the old 13-inch Air. Thanks to the Core i5 muscle and a speedy solid-state drive, apps open almost instantaneously and running multiple applications doesn’t cause any lag. The laptop also boots in a quick 18 seconds.

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage 3DMark06 Just Cause 2
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 10134 1748 4195 11.32
MacBook Air (2010, 13-inch) 5170 N/A 4643 N/A
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 12079 4019 / 1984 4333 25.96
Dell XPS 15z 7303 3804 / 1926 N/A 24.95
Samsung Series 9 69734 856 2240 N/A

The entire OS just purrs along and all those worries I once internalized about using an Air as my primary system have gone away in the past two days of heavy use. While concurrently running my everyday set up — Chrome with at least 20 tabs, Reeder, Growl, Mail, Twitter’s desktop app, Spotify, TextEdit, iTunes, Skype, Preview, and Pixelmator — the system never started gasping for air. At one point, I had about 35 windows open in Mission Control and I was still able to go about my business. There’s no doubt this Air could easily replace my current Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro.

Quick note: XBench hasn’t been optimized to run in Lion yet, it stalls out before getting to the graphics test.

Graphics / Thunderbolt

Graphics and Thunderbolt

Apple might have caused some momentary panic by switching away from the NVIDIA GeForce 320M card in the previous Air to Intel integrated HD 3000 graphics in the new model, but the benchmarks show the new set up offers fairly comparable performance. As the benchmarks above indicate, the new Intel graphics are comparable to the previous NVIDIA GeForce 320M card, and it was more than capable at playing local and streaming 720p and 1080p video at full screen. Actually, as Paul noted in his Lion review, Flash performance actually seems to be much improved — though, Flash-heavy content still heats up the bottom of the system. Sure, this system wasn’t designed for gaming — on the Just Cause 2 benchmark in Windows it managed an unplayable 11.32fps at 1024 x 768 resolution — but Left 4 Dead 2 at the same resolution fared much better. Obviously, the VAIO Z trounces these numbers when plugged into its Light Peak-based AMD Radeon HD 6650M GPU, which makes it a much better gaming option.

Flash-heavy content still heats up the bottom of the system

Apple’s clearly not doing anything quite like Sony with its Thunderbolt / Light Peak implementation yet and sadly not using a common connector, but there are more and more peripherals that take advantage of the port’s 10Gbps dual-channel speeds. The Thunderbolt Display doubles as a high-speed docking station: you can connect up to six devices to the display’s slew of ports and use its HD webcam. There’s also the $1,500 Promise Pegasus 8TB RAID (which also requires the $50 Thunderbolt cord) and Apple says more peripherals are on the way. Hopefully, they’re a tad easier on the wallet.

Battery life / software

Battery life / software

I’ll admit that when I first saw the benchmarks and felt how much faster the Air was in everyday use, I was worried about the impact on battery life. However, my worries were unfounded. Somehow Apple’s 50Wh battery lasts just as long as it did before. On our new (and rather awesome!) battery test, which visits a series of Web sites and loads images with brightness set at around 65 percent, the system lasted six hours and 53 minutes. A two-month old Core 2 Duo-powered MacBook Air lasted six hours and 41 minutes. It’s a damn impressive runtime for its thinness, though not long enough to get you through an international trip or as long as the VAIO Z with its slice battery. I’ve always wished Apple would offer extended batteries like the VAIO Z’s svelte slice battery, but at least the included 45W MagSafe charger is compact.

The MacBook Airs are the first laptops to be sold with Apple’s new OS X 10.7. I’m not going to get into the software here — Paul already took on that task in his killer review — but the iOS-influenced operating system seems likes it was built exactly for a system like the Air. As I’ve mentioned above, the new gestures work like a charm and the solid state drives have the thing going from zero to hero in no time. I’ve spent the last two days with Lion and while I’m still not sold on "natural scrolling," I’m especially fond of Mission Control and how it groups together the open windows by app. I’ll also give a special shoutout to the new Safari, which looks awesome in full screen mode, and the new mail app, which pulls on a lot of the iPad’s UI. The latter still needs a better way of integrated Gmail labels, but maybe that doesn’t bother the mainstream user as much as us Gmail nerds. If you want more information on the software here, make sure to grab a cup of coffee, fire up this one-hit wonder by The Tokens, and check out our detailed review.

Battery Life
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 6:53
MacBook Air (2010, 13-inch) 6:41
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 5:27 / 10:34*
Samsung Series 9 4:16
Dell XPS 15z 4:36
*With slice battery

You’ll be forgiven for thinking this new version of the MacBook Air is just a minor spec-bump over the old — on paper it’s basically the same machine with a new processor and a Thunderbolt port. But in reality, it’s much more than that: it’s the first Air that’s capable enough to replace not only the old white MacBook but also the MacBook Pro — at least for some. The new processors are fast enough for almost any day-to-day task, and the Thunderbolt port allows the system to expand to almost full desktop strength using just a single cable. Oh, and Apple added the backlit keyboard back in.

Of course, those looking for all those things in a powerful ultraportable with an on-board Ethernet port, an extended battery, and a high resolution display have the VAIO Z to choose from, but at $2,000 it will set you back even more than the entry-level $1,299 13-inch Air (the unit reviewed above rings up at $1,599). And that’s where the Air finally breaks through — for under $1,300 it’s cheaper than most high-end Windows 7 ultraportables while beating them on the two things that matter the most: battery life and ergonomics. One thing is clear: you can no longer write off the Air as merely a status symbol or secondary system. This is a grown-up laptop with the kind of horsepower and battery life that will make a lot of users very happy. And yes, it still fits in a manila envelope.

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