Apple MacBook Air (2011) Review: Performance

March 26, 2012 by J.R. Nelson Reads (51,881)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • 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


Screen and speakers

Apple has been in the press a lot lately for the frankly incredible display being used in the iPad 3 (I refuse to call it “The New iPad”). Regrettably, that amazing display isn’t being used in the MacBook Air, and neither is any kind of IPS panel. To presumably keep prices down, Apple is using good old-fashioned TN panels in these machines, and screen quality is mostly okay as a result.

Let’s get it out of the way now – if doing color-critical work is a requirement for your job, then you’re not going to want to use a MacBook Air as your primary computer. You already knew that, though, and you can always pick up an external IPS display either at home or for on-the-road use.

Apple MacBook Air (2011) Apple MacBook Air (2011)

Apple MacBook Air (2011) Apple MacBook Air (2011)

Viewing angles are good, but not great. Horizontal angles result in very little image degradation, so if you need to show a bunch of people something on your laptop, people can crowd in without too much worry. Vertical angles are another story, however, as they are with most TN panels. There is something of a sweet spot in the middle, but you’ll want to keep the display largely parallel to your eyes for optimum viewing.

Brightness is superb, both in terms of how dim and how bright the backlight can be adjusted. In dark rooms, both the screen and the keyboard can be turned very low to keep from straining your eyes, and when the sun shines through your office window, the backlight can be cranked up to max. The screen is glossy, but not quite so hideously glossy as the MacBook Pro lineup. That’s likely because on the MacBook Pro, a sheet of edge-to-edge glass sits in front of the screen, while there’s just a protective plastic layer on the Air. It’s a better experience, and lighter, but you do lose the black bezel.

The speakers on the MacBook Air are adequate. If you’re in an area or office where it isn’t too noisy, then the speakers will probably serve you just fine. Movies, TV, podcasts…they all sound good enough. Music isn’t bad, but the dedicated music fans out there won’t be satisfied. Fortunately, there’s always headphones.

This MacBook Air had the following specifications:

  • Operating system: Mac OS X v10.7.3 Lion and Windows 7
  • Processor: Intel Core i7 1.8GHz dual-core CPU
  • Memory: 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM
  • Storage: 256GB solid state drive
  • Optical storage: n/a
  • Display: 13.3-inch glossy widescreen 
  • Resolution: 1440×900
  • Graphics: Intel HD 3000
  • iSight HD webcam
  • Wireless networking: AirPort Extreme WiFi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0
  • Inputs: 2x USB 2.0, Audio in/out, MagSafe, SD card slot, Thunderbolt port
  • Dimensions : 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.68 – 0.11 inches (WxDxH)
  • Weight: 2.96 lb
  • Integrated 50-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
  • 45W MagSafe power adapter with cable management system (6.5oz)


The performance of the new 2011 models is mixed, in terms of improvements over the last generation. It can be boiled down to two facts:

1. The CPU performance is substantially better.
2. The GPU performance is actually a bit worse.

PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):

Apple MacBook Air (2011)

PCMark 7 is a newer benchmark which measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):

Apple MacBook Air (2011)

We also scored 1715 in 3DMark Vantage. It’s important to consider the role of the solid state drive in the PCMark scores. PCMark is very sensitive to disk speeds, and a fast SSD will skew overall results in that computer’s favor.

As we saw, the drive in the newer MacBook Airs isn’t too shabby: read speeds of 202.1 MB/s, and write speeds of 201.7 MB/s. 

For most people, those facts are fine. Despite an increasing reliance on the GPU in everyday computing, performance isn’t so much worse that you’ll notice it unless you play a game (as an example: you’ll be able to play Diablo III, but you’re definitely not going to be playing it maxed out, or even close to it).

Xbench measures overall system performance in Mac OS X (higher scores mean better performance):Apple MacBook Air (2011)



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