MacBook Air First Thoughts Review

by Reads (57,699)

by Jerry Jackson

For those of you who have been living in a cave for the last month, the MacBook Air is Apple’s newest 13.3" ultra-thin notebook offering cutting edge design in a remarkably thin package. With Intel Core 2 Duo processors, Intel X3100 integrated graphics, an optional 64GB solid state drive (SSD), and a stylish yet tough design, the MacBook Air might be one of the hottest 13-inch notebooks on the market in 2008. Let’s take a closer look.

The Apple MacBook Air (starting at $1,799) is available with two choices of Core 2 Duo processors and a choice of 80GB hard disk drive or 64GB solid state drive. There is only one 13.3" screen offering, a 1280×800 WXGA glossy display with LED backlighting.


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Our MacBook Air has the following specifications:

  • Mac OS X v10.5 Leopard
  • 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
  • Integrated 37-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
  • 45W MagSafe power adapter with cable management system

Build and Design

The MacBook Air is quite simply the most stunning notebook we’ve seen in recent memory. There just isn’t any way to prepare yourself for the thinness of this notebook until you hold it in your hands for the first time. A thickness of just 0.16 to 0.76 inch with a solid aluminum chassis that weighs just three pounds makes the MacBook Air the thinnest and lightest 13.3" notebook currently on the market.

Despite the impressive thinness of the design, the MacBook Air is quite solid and durable thanks to the aluminum construction. We don’t recommend dropping the MacBook Air (or any notebook for that matter) but the MacBook Air should survive the average use and abuse that any other notebook can handle.


MacBook Air and an Asus Eee PC 4G … with a Leopard Windows XP theme. (view large image)

The MacBook Air lid does not have a latch to hold it closed, but the hinge mechanism works well and firmly holds the lid in place. There is almost no flex to the screen. While we’re on the topic of the screen lid, the back edge of the lid hangs off the back of the notebook due to the ultra-thin design, so it’s possible to catch clothing or skin when you open the lid on your lap. (Of course, catching your skin with the back of the lid would require you to have the MacBook Air sitting on your lap while you aren’t wearing pants … which means you probably have bigger problems in your life.)


The edge of the display hangs off the back. (view large image)

Below is a video overview of the MacBook Air in case you want a detailed walkthrough. (Yes, I said it weighs two pounds in the video, but the MacBook Air weighs three pounds.) 

 

Performance and Benchmarks

The MacBook Air has reasonable performance based on the 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500 processor developed for the MacBook Air. That said, the XBench benchmarks indicate that the MacBook Air is the slowest Mac in Apple’s current lineup. As you’ll see in chart below, the MacBook Air has roughly half the performance of a previous generation MacBook. The startup into Leopard actually takes almost as much time as my old PowerBook G3 (Pismo) takes to startup into Panther. In a nutshell, Apple had to sacrifice some performance in order to bring this ultra-thin laptop to consumers.

The Intel X3100 integrated graphics should provide adequate performance for average games. That said, don’t expect this notebook to play the latest graphics-intense games … we’re not dealing with a dedicated graphics card here.

The 80GB hard drive in the MacBook Air provides a reasonable amount of storage but isn’t anywhere near the amount of storage that most consumers are likely to want in a modern laptop. Sure, you’ve got enough storage for travel needs, but if you download tons of music, movies, and TV shows from iTunes and store them on the MacBook Air’s hard drive then you’ll quickly run out of space. Additionally, the slow 4200rpm speed of the 80GB hard disk means the MacBook Air wastes more time trying to access data.

You can also configure that MacBook Air with a 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (a modest performance increase) and a much, much faster 64GB SSD. Unfortunately, the faster processor and faster drive increase the price of the MacBook Air to a jaw-dropping $3,100.

With the basics out of the way, let’s jump into the performance benchmarks.

XBench is a comprehensive benchmarking solution for Mac OS X commonly used to compare the relative speeds of two different Macintoshes.

XBench 1.3 summary results:

Model Overall Score
MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 50.76
Mac Mini (1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 94.58
MacBook (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 95.89
MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 106.05
PowerBook G3 Pismo (500MHz G3) 18.47

 

HDTune (Windows Vista Ultimate) results:


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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.

wPrime (Windows Vista Ultimate) comparison results:

Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
Apple MacBook Air (Intel Core 2 Duo P7500 @ 1.6GHz)
68 seconds
Asus Eee PC 701 4G (Intel Celeron M ULV @ 900MHz) 200 seconds
Sony VAIO TZ (Intel Core 2 Duo U7600 @ 1.20GHz) 76 seconds

 

Screen

The 13.3" WXGA glossy screen on the MacBook Air isn’t ideal for HD video, but it does offer sharp contrast, excellent color, and reasonably even backlighting. Unlike many other 13.3" 1280×800 pixel displays the screen on the MacBook Air doesn’t suffer from "graininess." Horizontal viewing angles were excellent although vertical viewing angles were only average. The screen itself didn’t suffer from ripples or stuck pixels, but we did notice some obvious light leakage from the top edge of our display.

In short, the screen on the MacBook Air is nice, but Apple could have done better.


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Keyboard and Touchpad

The full-sized keyboard on the MacBook Air has no flex and is remarkably solid thanks to the laptop’s aluminum construction. The keys have excellent cushion and response and were quiet during use. The keyboard lacks dedicated keys for home, end, page up, page down and also lacks obvious function keys for those keys. The f-keys also control a range of features (such as raising or lowering screen brightness) when they are pressed in combination with the control key.

The backlit keyboard is a nice touch that proves quite useful when working in low light environments. That said, we would have liked the backlight to be even stronger.


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The touchpad is nice and large and features a durable and responsive surface. The multi-touch functionality gives the touchpad some extra usefulness when editing photos or manipulating other files. The touchpad button has extremely shallow feedback and produces quiet, cushioned clicks. That being said, we generally prefer to have a bit deeper feedback in touchpad buttons. In general, the liberal size of the touchpad makes for a genuinely enjoyable experience.

Input and Output Ports

Ports? What ports? There isn’t a normal selection of ports on the MacBook Air simply because the ultra-thin form factor cannot accommodate the standard array of ports you’ll find on other notebooks. The complete list of ports includes:

  • Micro DVI out
  • USB 2.0 port (480Mbps)
  • Audio out (headphone minijack)
  • Micro-DVI to DVI (with included adapter)
  • Micro-DVI to VGA (with included adapter)

Although Apple engineers deserve serious credit for developing the ultra-thin shape of the MacBook Air, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed by the lack of ports. There’s only one USB port, no FireWire, no Ethernet port, no microphone in port for audio enthusiasts, no ExpressCard slot for expansion purposes, and no dedicated docking port on the bottom of the notebook. In short, the MacBook Air lacks almost every port that "power users" are likely to want (or even "need") on a notebook.


Front view. (view large image)

Rear view. (view large image)

Left side view. (view large image)

Right side view. (view large image)

Bottom view. (view large image)
 

 

Audio

The built-in monospeaker in the MacBook Air is, in a word, horrid. Most budget laptops have terrible speakers that sound like someone speaking through a tin can, but at least most laptops have stereo speakers. The monospeaker is weak and it’s, well, mono. The speaker quality of the MacBook Air is simply unacceptable compared to other notebooks in the $1,800 price range.

The good news is that the audio out port (headphone minijack) provides excellent audio output. There’s little or no distortion or static and the sound on my earbuds was quite enjoyable.

Battery

The MacBook Air uses an integrated 37-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery. On the bright side, lithium-polymer should have a longer lifespan than standard lithium-ion batteries found in most notebooks. On the other hand, the fact that the battery is sealed inside the body of the MacBook Air means that you can’t just pop in a new battery when the battery runs out of power or replace the battery if the battery is damaged.

Apple claims that the battery inside the MacBook Air provides "5 hours of wireless productivity." In our initial real-world tests we can’t say that estimate is very accurate. With the MacBook Air’s power management set to maximize battery life and a 100 percent charge the battery life was initially reported as 4 hours and 17 minutes with the display set to minimum brightness and wireless on. The battery life quickly dropped to just above three hours in less than 30 seconds.

We’ll have more detailed battery life tests in our final review, but initial results suggest that battery life (even with the screen set to minimum brightness) won’t come close to five hours.


First Impressions

As the old saying goes, "you never get a second chance to make a good first impression." Somehow, I don’t think everyone in Cupertino was thinking about this famous phrase when they developed the MacBook Air. While the Apple MacBook Air is an impressive design with some innovative features, the number of sacrifices that had to be made in order to create this ultra-thin notebook severely limits this laptop.

The lack of ports, low-capacity slow hard drive, and slow overall performance make the MacBook Air the weakest performing MacBook we’ve seen in the last few years. On the other hand, the MacBook Air is the sexiest looking MacBook we’ve ever seen.

Sure, you can fit the MacBook Air in a manila envelope … but most consumers won’t be impressed if the $1,800 laptop that comes out of the envelope isn’t very powerful. Stay tuned for our full review of the MacBook Air in a few days.



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