Apple MacBook Air (2011) Review

by J.R. Nelson Reads (42,745)
Editor's Rating
7.71

TG Ratings Breakdown

    • Software & Support
    • 8
    • Upgrade Capabilities
    • 5
    • Usability
    • 9
    • Design
    • 9
    • Performance
    • 7
    • Features
    • 9
    • Price/Value Rating
    • 7
    • Total Score:
    • 7.71
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

Overview

  • Pros

    • Unbeatable design
    • Thin and very light
    • Backlit keyboard
    • Thunderbolt port
  • Cons

    • Slightly worse GPU
    • No USB 3.0
    • No SD card slot on 11-inch models
    • Price premium

Quick Take

The best all-around notebook that you can buy. Period.


Apple introduced the first MacBook Air in 2008, taking the industry by surprise. The next evolution of a company that puts design first, the MBA was a thing of beauty – but it wasn’t until 2010 that the internals really matched the exterior. But can Apple make it even better? Let’s find out.

Overview

Then and now

Back when netbooks were the hot new thing, Steve Jobs was famously decried for his comments on the form factor – comments which can simply be distilled into the idea that netbooks provide a substandard experience. And they do – they were slow, they had tiny keyboards (in the beginning), they were small but thick, etc.

More importantly, however, they were inexpensive, and that’s a huge reason behind their explosive popularity growth.

Apple doesn’t make inexpensive items; the only product that comes close is the iPad with Wi-Fi, which is either $399 or $499, depending on the model, and on which Apple still enjoys substantial profit margins. Netbook manufacturers, on the other hand, scraped by with razor thin margins that relied on huge sales volumes.

Still, the ultraportable concept is a powerful attractant, and Apple decided to enter it in their own way. And the first MacBook Air was indeed the perfect example of an Apple product – attractive, expensive, and plagued with issues in its first generation.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the MacBook Air was just not a good purchase for most consumers until the 2010 refresh (the 2010 11-inch MacBook Air was Apple’s first sub-13-inch notebook since 2005’s PowerBook G4 update). 2010 saw a huge change in the MacBook Air design, and its first major one since the 2008 release.

Apple MacBook Air (2011)

While the first iteration of the new MacBook Airs offered customers an impeccable design, they weren’t without their rightful detractors. Despite advances in chip designs, Apple stuck with the ancient (for microprocessors) Intel Core 2 Duo architecture. It was probably a tough choice – made because Intel was unable to offer sufficiently strong graphics performance, and Apple couldn’t fit a discrete graphics chip into the slim notebook’s thermal profile.

Why couldn’t they just put another one of NVIDIA’s integrated chipsets into the system? Blame Intel for that. It didn’t take much foresight for ChipZilla to see that strong graphics were an increasingly necessary part of the future of consumer computing devices, and Intel put a lot of R&D into creating an on-die graphics solution that wasn’t, like earlier generations, a complete and total embarrassment.

In doing so, Intel also barred NVIDIA from making chipsets for future Intel processors, starting with the Core i-whatever series of chips. Whether it was appropriate for them to do so is an argument for armchair tech philosophers everywhere, but it definitely tied Apple’s hands. As a result, the 11- and 13-inch Airs featured comparatively weak CPU performance, but more than adequate GPUs.


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