Apple is known for pushing boundaries. Sometimes it's a cutting-edge industrial design, sometimes it's new technology and sometimes a new standard. When the MacBook Air was originally introduced, it was all three. Growing less unique with the netbook craze, Apple was forced to rethink thin. Did they succeed?
The manufacturer's suggested retail price of our review unit is $999; a fully-specced 11.6-inch MacBook Air will cost $1,399.
The original MacBook Air remains one of the thinnest notebooks ever created; like the current iteration, it was designed along a tapered-wedge form factor. Although it wasn't necessarily the thinnest laptop ever created (hey there, Mitsubishi Pedion!), the first-generation MacBook Air brought a number of new features to the table.
It was the first of Apple's notebooks to be designed using the now-famous unibody engineering technique, which essentially carves the computer's case from a single block of cast aluminum. The CPU was a Core 2 Duo designed to take up only 40% of the room of its more traditional counterparts.
Apple finally realized that with the latest refresh of the MacBook Air lineup, something had to change. The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is Apple's smallest laptop ever, harking back to the days of their original 12-inch ultraportable offerings. Both the 11.6- and 13-inch Airs share the same design trend and some of the same dimensions. Both are 0.68 inches in the back, tapering down to a scant eleven-hundredths of an inch at the front.
Much of the notebook's exterior is notable only for its emptiness. The front of the Air has a notch cut out of the bottom lip to provide a spot for opening the screen. Like most modern MacBooks, the screen easily lifts up with a single finger.
Opening up shows off a typical MacBook sight - individual black keys poking up through perfectly cut holes in the aluminum case. Noticeably, the keyboard on the new MacBook Air models is not backlit, a downgrade from prior models. Likely a cost-cutting measure, it's also unfortunate, as Apple seemed to standardize around the backlit keyboard - it certainly makes low-light computing much easier.
In order to save space but still provide a large trackpad and full-sized keyboard, the function keys on the 11.6-inch MacBook Air are half the size of those on the 13-inch MacBook Air and the rest of Apple's mobile lineup.
Additionally, while the power button might look like just another button now - and just as easily pressed - casually powering off the machine shouldn't be a concern as it goes to and returns from sleep rather quickly.
Screen and speakers
Much has been made in the past of the screen quality found in Apple laptops, but the notebook market has come a long way. The display on the MacBook Air is really good, though not exceptional; like any modern TN panel, it boasts great horizontal viewing angles and mediocre vertical ones.
The resolution offered on the MacBook Air, at least, is a definite improvement over prior generations of MacBooks. Previously, the 13-inch MacBook or MacBook Pro was only offered in a 1280x800 resolution; to go any higher required the purchase of a 15-inch MacBook Pro, which delivered 1440x900 or 1680x1050 options.
Contrast testing faired well, with an average contrast ratio of 755:1 when the backlight was at minimum (but not disabled); it dropped to 696:1 with the backlight at full. At its brightest, the panel reached 354 nits, which bodes well for bright office or even mild outdoor environments.
The Air delivers 1366x768 pixels of resolution, with the 13-inch model jumping up to 1440x900. While it's nice to see Apple (finally) supporting higher resolution panels, it is nicer still to consider what it means for the next revision of the MacBook Pro lineup. The display is glossy, but not too glossy. It's a nice compromise between matte screens that can muddy colors and glossy screens that can double as really annoying mirrors.
The speakers don't fare quite as well as the screen. They're definitely functional, and in fact they're pretty good for such a small laptop. Bass is unsurprisingly scarce, however, and while music is listenable, it would be better served by a pair of headphones or external speakers. On the plus side, they do seem to get pretty loud.
Ports and features
The sides of the wedge-shaped notebook showcase what inputs there are; on the right is one USB 2.0 port and one mini-DisplayPort...port. On the left is a second USB 2.0 port, the MagSafe power adapter, combo headphones/microphone/remote control jack and an integrated microphone.
It's unfortunate that there isn't any high-speed storage for the MacBook Air - given its limited storage capacity (64GB, in this instance), USB 3.0 or even eSATA would be a welcome addition. Apple would probably never add an eSATA port to any of their notebooks, however, and USB 3.0 will likely be added in the next revision.
Fortunately, the MacBook Air does fully support 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. Bluetooth 3.0 would have been another nice addition as the protocol allows for much faster transfer speeds (since it essentially uses Wi-Fi).
The 13-inch MacBook Air also gives users an SDXC card reader on the right-hand side of the laptop. That slot is omitted from the smaller model, to pretty much universal frustration.
Performance, benchmarks and gaming
One of the big criticisms of the current MacBook Air platform is that it uses Core 2 Duo chips at its core. Taking a step back, however, it appears to be a pretty reasonable decision. Until Intel's Sandy Bridge platform rolls around (presumably), the integrated graphics offered by the chipmaker are...less than stellar.
Unfortunately, the thermal envelope of the MacBook Air is unable to support both integrated and discrete graphics - a necessity if Apple had chosen something like the Core i3-330UM. Using the NVIDIA MCP89 chipset and associated GeForce 320M graphics, (a custom part for Apple based on the more powerful GeForce 335M found in laptops like the M11x) Apple is able to get respectable graphics performance and adequate battery life while maintaining the MBA's profile.
Even though the Core 2 Duo SU9400 is only clocked at 1.4GHz, it remains a surprisingly robust platform capable of handling some complex tasks.
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
PCMark05 measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (high scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
The flash-based storage found inside of the MacBook Air was given a substantial amount of talktime at Apple's press event. While the marketing team in Cupertino would like the world to believe that Apple has done something incredible, using the "same flash memory" found inside of the highly-successful iPad, it's really just an SSD designed like a stick of RAM.
At least it's fast, which is why the MacBook Air has such speedy suspend and wake states. While the OS X install responds in just about 2 seconds upon opening the lid, a similar Windows 7 installation varied from between 3 and 5 seconds.
CrystalDiskMark disk benchmark results:
One of the more exciting aspects to the MacBook Air, even the lower-powered 11.6-inch version, is the fact that it stands to be a pretty capable little gaming notebook (for its class). While gamers shouldn't expect the same results as those given by the previously mentioned Alienware M11x, the Air can handle itself in a pinch.
Both Left 4 Dead 2 and Call of Duty: World at War were run at the Air's native 1366x768 resolution, with AA and AF turned off and settings at medium and normal, respectively.
While the Air should also have no trouble playing local HD content (specifically, in a GPU-accelerated player), it will stutter a bit on the various online options. YouTube content played back smoothly at 720p and even at 1080p there weren't any slowdowns (thanks to the NVIDIA GPU) but it was clearly not as smooth.
For those Apple diehards who only care about how the 11-inch MacBook Air compares to other Macs, we've included the XBench results below.
XBench 1.3 summary results (higher scores mean better performance):
|MacBook Pro 13-inch 2009 (2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)||135.52|
|MacBook 2008 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)||126.23|
|MacBook Air 11-inch 2010 (1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)||118.94|
|MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)||106.05|
|MacBook (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)||95.89|
|MacBook Air 2008 (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)||50.76|
Heat and noise
While the MacBook Air does have a cooling fan, you wouldn't know it. Under normal loads, the notebook is silent, with the fan either off or running at extremely low speeds. As load increases, so will the fan speed, though it became really noticeable only during the benchmarking process, and not even during a little light gaming session.
The same benchmarking saw the notebook get worryingly hot, however, with nearby vent temperatures reaching up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Even then, only the area close to the vent got warm, with most of the keyboard remaining below 100 degrees and the trackpad dipping below ninety. Under typical loads, the keyboard barely warmed up at all.
Apple switched to non-user replaceable batteries some time ago, and while there are always critics, most customers appear unruffled. With the addition of lithium-ion polymer batteries and their associated extension in usable battery life, it's often a non-issue.
The 11.6-inch MacBook Air offers a 35Whr li-poly battery, while its larger 13-inch sibling ups the capacity to 50 watt-hours. At an estimated 5 hour battery life, the 11.6-inch MacBook Air is actually Apple's shortest-running notebook in production.
In our tests, we managed to eke out 6 hours and fifteen minutes on the battery, running with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and backlighting set to fifty percent brightness. Admittedly, testing was limited to some light web browsing - no real media or computationally-taxing programs were run. Performance will vary, but taking the backlight down even further could make for some interesting battery life numbers.
A note: battery testing was done inside of Mac OS X; Windows is widely reported to suffer from worse battery life (likely due in part to unoptimized drivers from Apple).
While there is something about the Apple/Microsoft dichotomy that seems to bring out the worst in tech aficionados, it's hard to deny that the new MacBook Airs, especially the smaller, 11.6-inch model, have style. Holding one makes it easy to believe Apple's rhetoric about the future of computing: all solid state, no optical drives, no power cycling, standby times and more.
Despite the fact that it's pretty, and useful, and even pretty useful, it's still an Apple laptop. That means that buying into the MacBook Air means paying a little Apple tax - especially noticeable when compared to alternatives such as the Alienware M11x or Acer TimelineX 1830T.
Still, Apple did well what Apple usually does well: they made a gorgeous computer. In today's increasingly cloud-centric world, that might just be enough.