Other criticisms of the platform included a lack of high-speed interconnects - no USB 3.0, no FireWire, e-SATA (ha), not even Ethernet (let alone Gigabit Ethernet!) - the fastest way to move files on and off these computers was the now-slow USB 2.0 standard. The 13-inch MacBook Air featured an SD card slot, but its little brother didn’t.
Perhaps most annoying, at least for this writer, was the loss of the backlit keyboard.
All of this is to say that while the 2010 MacBook Air was great - and I’d happily argue that the 11-inch model, despite its 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, was the world’s best laptop at the time - it was far, far from a perfect machine.
Build and design
The 2011 MacBook Air refresh left the line’s best feature - the dazzling, wedge-shaped exterior - almost completely unchanged (save for some port changes, which we’ll cover later). The 11-inch model measures 11.8 inches wide and 7.56 inches deep, with a height varying between 0.11 and 0.68 inches. The 13-inch notebook keeps the height, but is a big wider and deeper, coming in at 12.8 inches wide and 8.94 inches deep.
One of the first things you’ll notice when open the unit up is that the screen, while very thin, has a pretty large bezel. That bezel lets Cupertino make the screen thinner and the base larger, but increases the size of the notebook to something closer to a 12-inch device. We won’t see Apple change the overall form factor in future revisions, since this is about as small as you can get without taking the full-sized keyboard (a joy to use) down a notch.
The new revisions are also just a smidge heavier - the 11- and 13-inch weigh 3.4 and 2% more, respectively, but even the 13-inch model remains securely beneath the 3 pound dividing line.
What you should take from all this is that at first glance, and even at first touch, the two MacBook Air generations are functionally identical - check out our review of the 2010 model if you would like to read a bit more about that design.
Keyboard and mouse
Happily, Apple made a major change in the keyboard between the 2010 and 2011 MacBook Air model years. The keyboard is still big and pleasant to use, done in the same Chiclet or “island” style that Sony and Apple popularized. This time, however, the backlight from the earlier MacBook Airs makes a very welcome return.
Adjusting both screen brightness and keyboard brightness can be accomplished by tapping on the function keys; if you need to actually use the function key instead of its meta binding, you can hit the ‘fn’ key in the corner. To make room for the brightness keys, the eject key was finally removed - it was a weird holdover on the 2010 models, and completely unnecessary on the new ones.
The trackpad barely requires discussion. It is, bar none, the best trackpad or trackpad-like experience found on a shipping notebook from any manufacturer. Registering up to a handful of gestures (as in literally all the fingers on your hand), and tightly integrated into the OS, the trackpad incorporates both left- and right-click functionality beneath its glass-clad surface.
I would really like to see PC manufacturers step it up and take advantage of some of the outstanding technology that Synaptics shows off at every CES, but I’m not going to hold my breath: at a Dell press event once, I spoke to a notebook product manager about trackpads, and how superior Apple’s presentation was to the ones used in Dell’s laptops. He seemed surprised, and admitted that he’d never seen one in person.
Ports and features
Earlier, the MacBook Air’s lack of high-speed ports was mentioned, and this new model finally addresses that problem.
On the left of the machine (both models), there’s the MagSafe adapter port. If you’ve never played with a recent Apple laptop, the AC adapter attaches with the help of a strong magnet. As a result, tripping over the cord is less of an issue (though not completely mitigated) since instead of yanking your shiny new laptop onto the floor, the adapter usually just snaps away.
Next to the power jack is a USB 2.0 port, followed by a headphone and microphone port - if you’ve got an iPhone headset, you’ll be able to use the built-in microphone. If it’s another brand, it might or might not work. If it doesn’t, the little perforated aluminum circle to the right is an onboard mic.
The right side shows off a second USB port as well as an SD card slot if you picked up the 13-inch model. The mini-DisplayPort...port has been changed - now it’s a Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt is the shipping version of Intel’s Light Peak high-speed interconnect, which, with copper wiring, offers up to 10Gbps of theoretical transfer speed. It also offers higher wattages than USB 3.0, and like USB, can be used to daisy-chain multiple devices.
It also offers video in the form of standard DisplayPort tech, so you’ll be able to use a monitor without a Thunderbolt port as long as it has some form of DisplayPort on it. The Thunderbolt port definitely offers a speedy way to get files on and off the MacBook Air, but there are hardly any shipping products that take advantage of it, and fewer still that are actually affordable for most consumers.
If you’re looking for a Thunderbolt-enabled portable hard drive, Seagate has you covered, and if you’re needing to add a lot more storage space, then Western Digital’s My Book Thunderbolt Duo is probably more up your alley. Neither will break the bank (much).
A FaceTime HD camera (fancy Apple terminology for webcam) sits on top of the display, letting users add video to their audio calls. The quality is more than serviceable in most situations, with the camera unsurprisingly struggling in low-light areas.
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