Apple MacBook Air Review

by Kevin O'Brien Reads (223,705)
  • Pros

    • Works out of the box with Windows Vista (even if it does have a few hiccups)
    • Thin and lightweight design that manages to stay incredibly strong
    • Battery life claims are not far off from being accurate

  • Cons

    • Belches out heat like nobody's business
    • No replaceable battery
    • Slow charging speeds
    • Almost no ports


by Kevin O’Brien

Apple’s latest notebook, the MacBook Air, is being hailed as the world’s thinnest. At well under an inch at the thickest point, the Air offers a thin design coupled with an extremely lightweight package for a notebook that has the same basic footprint as the standard MacBook. The flip side to all of this, however, is the (some say inexcusable) list of features left out, with a staggering price tag that has wallets cowering in fear at the cost of the top tier configuration.

Our MacBook Air has the following specifications:

  • Mac OS X v10.5.1 Leopard and Windows Vista Ultimate
  • Intel Core 2 Duo P7500 1.6GHz (4MB L2 cache, 800MHz frontside bus)
  • 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM
  • 80GB 4200rpm parallel ATA hard disk drive
  • 13.3″ glossy widescreen TFT LED backlit display (1280 x 800)
  • Intel GMA X3100 graphics (144MB of shared memory)
  • iSight webcam
  • AirPort Extreme WiFi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate)
  • Micro DVI, USB 2.0 port (480Mbps), Audio out
  • Dimensions : 0.16-0.76″, 12.8″, 8.94″ (H, W, D)
  • Weight: 3.0 pounds (3lbs 0.6oz actual)
  • Integrated 37-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
  • 45W MagSafe power adapter with cable management system (6.5oz)


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Build and Design

The design of the MacBook Air is nothing short of amazing, when you compare its basic shape and look to a standard notebook. It is so incredibly thin compared to anything else I have played around with, and seems paper thin during use. With the display open and the notebook laying flat on your desk the palmrest is a pencil eraser’s height above the surface of your desk. The real beauty of this notebook though is its clean design with only one visible port connection, with the rest hidden by a magnetic latch cover. The body continues with its sleek look with all rounded and polished surfaces and not even a foot to catch when the notebook is being slid into a bag.


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Build quality is nothing short of amazing, and hands down one of the strongest notebooks I have ever felt. When closed the display cover does have some mild flex (give it a break, it’s thin), but the real strength is the palmrest and keyboard structure. Formed from a block of aluminum with the internal cavity CNC machined, it is super strong. No flex is present when mashing down on the palmrest, and picking it up with both hands to try to flex the body is futile. Comparing it to a known item like a Thinkpad, it would beat it hands down, with no plastic creaking to boot! You would need to move into the realm of Panasonic Toughbooks to find something that would be an equal competitor.


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The downside to this beautiful design is the missing features that have been standard on notebooks almost since conception. User replaceable batteries, decent port selection, or even a docking connector are all missing. While you could get away with an external hub and USB devices on the road for additional hookups, not having a spare battery to swap in is a huge disadvantage. Combine this with a slow charging battery and you have the opposite of an ultimate road warrior.

Display

The screen on the MacBook is very nice, with vibrant colors and intense backlight. Black levels are nice and even with very little backlight bleed showing through even on very dark scenes in movies or games. Comfortable viewing brightness during my review was around 15-20%, matching 80% on my Thinkpad. 100% on the MacBook Air is close to the brightness levels that my desktop LCD can reach. Viewing angles of the LCD were above average.

Horizontal viewing range was perfect up until the screen was blocked by metal backing, but vertical viewing range was limited if you went 10 to 15 degrees up or down from straight on.

No screen defects were present on our online purchased model; this included stuck and dead pixels as well as backlight bleed.


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Keyboard and Touchpad

The MacBook Air keyboard is the slim key design that is also found across the board on other Apple products. Spacing is slightly off compared to a more normal keyboard, and it took a while to get used to the layout. Once you get past the transition, you notice the keyboard is very well built and pretty comfortable to type on. Individual keys require little pressure to activate, and the keyboard has zero flex.

Some items missing from the keyboard are markings for page up/down, home/end, but those key functions were present if you press the FN key and one of the arrow buttons.


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The touchpad has a few unique qualities that are either not seen in most notebooks, or were a first for notebooks. Windows users will notice right away that the touchpad is roughly a billion times larger than anything they have seen before, while Mac users will feel right at home. Measuring in at 4.12″ by 2.48″ it was larger than anything I have ever used in the past. The new feature new to this touchpad on the MacBook air is its multitouch capabilities, which give the user the chance to play around with objects like they would on an iPod Touch or iPhone. This means pinching or spreading apart your fingers to zoom in and out, circling your fingers around to rotate objects, and other advanced motions.


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General use of the touchpad inside Mac OS 10 or Windows Vista was spotty with either sensitivity that was not adjustable to suite my preference, or the multitouch features kicking in when I was not expecting. The problem I found was my palm was always touching the edge of the touchpad while I was typing, and it would trigger a two-touch motion like scrolling, instead of moving the cursor.

Another obvious problem we encountered with the multitouch touchpad under Windows was the issue of touchpad freezes and blue screens. We suspect there is an issue with the touchpad drivers for Windows since we could consistently cause a failure simply by touching the touchpad with multiple fingers. It’s pretty clear there is a problem when multiple touches disable a “multitouch” touchpad.

Performance and Benchmarks

The speed of the MacBook air was surprising from the moment we received. I expected it to be somewhat slow with its mobile processor, but its real world performance was lacking especially inside its native OS 10.5. Boot times were in the 56 second range, and starting up a wide array of programs took much longer than normal. Even basic rendering of web pages seemed to lag when viewing new pages. Bootcamp performance though (while very buggy) was quite snappy. Including the 16 seconds or so from power button press to the loading of Vista Ultimate, total boot time was 50 seconds to the Windows desktop. IE and Firefox loaded up much faster in Vista than Safari or Firefox did in OS 10.

Overall the machine seemed to enjoy running inside Vista more than it did OS 10, but bugs were prevalent all throughout bootcamp with the current Apple-provided drivers. The touchpad was the source of many problems, including six bluescreens and 30+ touchpad lockups from “multiple touches.” While the features worked occasionally trying to use the scrolling motions or even tapping multiple fingers on the touchpad would be enough to lock until a reboot. The bluescreens would often come at random, with the culprit always being the “Applemtp.sys” driver crashing. More than a few times the machine would bluescreen when I was not even touching anything on the notebook.

The keyboard backlight was another source of problems, rarely working inside Vista. 10% of the time the backlight worked from system startup, but would quickly turn off 5-10 minutes later. When you would try to adjust the brightness the on-screen display would display an “X” as if the device was not present.

System benchmarks in Vista did quite well, and were above what we were expecting after the poor Mac OS results found in our first thoughts review. Gaming even became possible in Vista, with Half-Life running perfectly at 1280×800, and Half-Life 2 having decent frame rates at 640×480.

wPrime is a program that forces the processor to do recursive mathematical calculations, the advantage of this program is that it is multi-threaded and can use both processor cores at once, thereby giving more accurate benchmarking measurements than Super Pi. (Lower scores indicate better performance.)

Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
Apple MacBook Air (Intel Core 2 Duo P7500 @ 1.6GHz) 68.173s
Sony VAIO NR (Core 2 Duo T5250 @ 1.5GHz) 58.233s
Toshiba Tecra A9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 38.343s
Toshiba Tecra M9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.299s
HP Compaq 6910p (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 40.965s
Sony VAIO TZ (Core 2 Duo U7600 @ 1.20GHz) 76.240s
Zepto 6024W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 42.385s
Lenovo T61 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.705s
Alienware M5750 (Core 2 Duo T7600 @ 2.33GHz) 38.327s
Hewlett Packard DV6000z (Turion X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz) 38.720s
Samsung Q70 (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2.0GHz) 42.218s
Acer Travelmate 8204WLMi (Core Duo T2500 @ 2.0GHz) 42.947s
Samsung X60plus (Core 2 Duo T7200 @ 2.0GHz) 44.922s
Zepto Znote 6224W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2.0GHz) 45.788s
Samsung Q35 (Core 2 Duo T5600 @ 1.83GHz) 46.274s
Samsung R20 (Core Duo T2250 @ 1.73GHz) 47.563s
Dell Inspiron 2650 (Pentium 4 Mobile 1.6GHz) 231.714s

PCMark05 comparison results:

(Higher scores indicate better performance.)

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Apple MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500, Intel X3100) 2,478 PCMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100) 3,283 PCMarks
Sony VAIO CR (1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7100, Intel X3100) 3,612 PCMarks
Sony VAIO TZ (1.20GHz Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950) 2,446 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 4,153 PCMarks
Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 3,987 PCMarks
Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB) 4,189 PCMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 4,234 PCMarks
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 3,487 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX) 5,597 PCMarks
Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400) 3,646 PCMarks



3DMark06 comparison results:

(Higher scores indicate better performance.)

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Apple MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500, Intel X3100) 502 3DMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100) 504 3DMarks
Toshiba Tecra A9 (2.20GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA Quadro NVS 130M 256MB) 932 3DMarks
Toshiba Tecra M9 (2.20GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA Quadro NVS 130M 128MB) 1,115 3DMarks
Sony VAIO TZ (1.20GHz Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950) 122 3DMarks
LG R500 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GS 256MB) 2,776 3DMarks
HP dv2500t (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,055 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 1420 (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,329 3DMarks
Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 532 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,408 3DMarks
Samsung Q70 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7300 and nVidia 8400M G GPU) 1,069 3DMarks
Asus F3sv-A1 (Core 2 Duo T7300 2.0GHz, Nvidia 8600M GS 256MB) 2,344 3DMarks
Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB 2,183 3DMarks
Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Xi 1526 (1.66 Core Duo, nVidia 7600Go 256 MB) 2,144 3DMarks
Samsung X60plus (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200, ATI X1700 256MB) 1,831 3DMarks
Asus A6J (1.83GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB) 1,819 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 827 3DMarks

HDTune results:


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Windows Experience Index:

(Just ignore this unless you plan to install Windows Vista.)


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Ports and Features

There isn’t much to be said in this section. There’s only one USB port, no FireWire, no Ethernet port, no microphone in port for audio enthusiasts, no ExpressCard slot for expansion purposes, no SD card slot, and no dedicated docking port on the bottom of the notebook.

Left side: Magsafe AC power connector


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Right side: Headphone jack, one USB, mini DVI-Out


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Heat

One downside to an all aluminum design is the entire notebook acts as one gigantic heatsink. In the case of the MacBook Air, you have a machine that runs a bit on the hot side that burns your hands when the system is under stress. With the processor underneath the top left section of the keyboard, it is hottest in that area, which also happens to be the same spot gamers place their left hand for movement controls. Playing Half-Life for any decent length of time puts your hand in a situation where the surface of the notebook is pretty darn hot, almost unbearable. The bottom of the notebook during all of this is hotter still, and very uncomfortable for bare legs. Gaming might not be a primary use for this notebook, but other CPU intensive activities like compressing music or encoding video will put you in a similar situation.

While your average web browsing might not get to the same temperature peaks that I found during gaming, even normal activity had this notebook feeling hotter than any other notebook I have used. Most of this could probably be associated with the type of case, but is still worth mentioning. Below are temperature readings listed in degrees Fahrenheit.


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Battery and Power

Apple claimed five hours of battery life with wireless enabled, and from my testing I think that would be possible … under the right situation. With screen brightness at 25%, Bluetooth off, and WiFi on, the MacBook Air got 4 hours and 20 minutes of battery life with above average web activity. Half of this time was spent in Mac OS, with the other half in Vista. If you had very light internet traffic, or even had wireless disabled and were just typing on the notebook you should get five hours or more productivity from the battery.

One huge complaint this notebook gets in my opinion is the integrated battery. Not only can you not swap the battery if it dies while traveling, but to make matters worse the charging speed is abysmal. Our MacBook Air from a dead state would only reach 25-30% after charging for one hour with the notebook turned off. On most notebooks, in this period of time the battery would be well above 50% if not much higher.


Conclusion

Apple is pushing the envelope (cough cough) with the MacBook Air … in various ways that some people will love and others will hate. On one hand they offer a super thin, lightweight design, but on the other they take away ports and give you a permanent battery. This notebook also suffers from some early release driver quirks, but those should hopefully be resolved in the near future. Overall I think this is a promising notebook that should force some other manufacturers to wake up and design some lighter and slimmer full-size notebooks.

Pros

  • Works out of the box with Windows Vista (even if it does have a few hiccups)
  • Thin and lightweight design that manages to stay incredibly strong
  • Battery life claims are not far off from being accurate

Cons

  • Belches out heat like nobody’s business
  • No replaceable battery
  • Slow charging speeds
  • Almost no ports


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