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.
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.
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.
Other criticisms of the platform included a lack of high-speed interconnects - no USB 3.0, no FireWire, e-SATA (ha), not even Ethernet (let alone Gigabit Ethernet!) - the fastest way to move files on and off these computers was the now-slow USB 2.0 standard. The 13-inch MacBook Air featured an SD card slot, but its little brother didn’t.
Perhaps most annoying, at least for this writer, was the loss of the backlit keyboard.
All of this is to say that while the 2010 MacBook Air was great - and I’d happily argue that the 11-inch model, despite its 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, was the world’s best laptop at the time - it was far, far from a perfect machine.
Build and design
This looks mostly at the 13-inch model, but the vast majority can be applied to its 11.6-inch sibling.
The 2011 MacBook Air refresh left the line’s best feature - the dazzling, wedge-shaped exterior - almost completely unchanged (save for some port changes, which we’ll cover later). The 11-inch model measures 11.8 inches wide and 7.56 inches deep, with a height varying between 0.11 and 0.68 inches. The 13-inch notebook keeps the height, but is a big wider and deeper, coming in at 12.8 inches wide and 8.94 inches deep.
One of the first things you’ll notice when open the unit up is that the screen, while very thin, has a pretty large bezel. That bezel lets Cupertino make the screen thinner and the base larger, but increases the size of the notebook to something closer to a 12-inch device. We won’t see Apple change the overall form factor in future revisions, since this is about as small as you can get without taking the full-sized keyboard (a joy to use) down a notch.
The new revisions are also just a smidge heavier - the 11- and 13-inch weigh 3.4 and 2% more, respectively, but even the 13-inch model remains securely beneath the 3 pound dividing line.
What you should take from all this is that at first glance, and even at first touch, the two MacBook Air generations are functionally identical - check out our review of the 2010 model if you would like to read a bit more about that design.
Keyboard and mouse
Happily, Apple made a major change in the keyboard between the 2010 and 2011 MacBook Air model years. The keyboard is still big and pleasant to use, done in the same Chiclet or “island” style that Sony and Apple popularized. This time, however, the backlight from the earlier MacBook Airs makes a very welcome return.
Adjusting both screen brightness and keyboard brightness can be accomplished by tapping on the function keys; if you need to actually use the function key instead of its meta binding, you can hit the ‘fn’ key in the corner. To make room for the brightness keys, the eject key was finally removed - it was a weird holdover on the 2010 models, and completely unnecessary on the new ones.
The trackpad barely requires discussion. It is, bar none, the best trackpad or trackpad-like experience found on a shipping notebook from any manufacturer. Registering up to a handful of gestures (as in literally all the fingers on your hand), and tightly integrated into the OS, the trackpad incorporates both left- and right-click functionality beneath its glass-clad surface.
I would really like to see PC manufacturers step it up and take advantage of some of the outstanding technology that Synaptics shows off at every CES, but I’m not going to hold my breath: at a Dell press event once, I spoke to a notebook product manager about trackpads, and how superior Apple’s presentation was to the ones used in Dell’s laptops. He seemed surprised, and admitted that he’d never seen one in person.
Ports and features
Earlier, the MacBook Air’s lack of high-speed ports was mentioned, and this new model finally addresses that problem.
On the left of the machine (both models), there’s the MagSafe adapter port. If you’ve never played with a recent Apple laptop, the AC adapter attaches with the help of a strong magnet. As a result, tripping over the cord is less of an issue (though not completely mitigated) since instead of yanking your shiny new laptop onto the floor, the adapter usually just snaps away.
Next to the power jack is a USB 2.0 port, followed by a headphone and microphone port - if you’ve got an iPhone headset, you’ll be able to use the built-in microphone. If it’s another brand, it might or might not work. If it doesn’t, the little perforated aluminum circle to the right is an onboard mic.
The right side shows off a second USB port as well as an SD card slot if you picked up the 13-inch model. The mini-DisplayPort...port has been changed - now it’s a Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt is the shipping version of Intel’s Light Peak high-speed interconnect, which, with copper wiring, offers up to 10Gbps of theoretical transfer speed. It also offers higher wattages than USB 3.0, and like USB, can be used to daisy-chain multiple devices.
It also offers video in the form of standard DisplayPort tech, so you’ll be able to use a monitor without a Thunderbolt port as long as it has some form of DisplayPort on it. The Thunderbolt port definitely offers a speedy way to get files on and off the MacBook Air, but there are hardly any shipping products that take advantage of it, and fewer still that are actually affordable for most consumers.
If you’re looking for a Thunderbolt-enabled portable hard drive, Seagate has you covered, and if you’re needing to add a lot more storage space, then Western Digital’s My Book Thunderbolt Duo is probably more up your alley. Neither will break the bank (much).
A FaceTime HD camera (fancy Apple terminology for webcam) sits on top of the display, letting users add video to their audio calls. The quality is more than serviceable in most situations, with the camera unsurprisingly struggling in low-light areas.
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.
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:
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):
PCMark 7 is a newer benchmark which measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
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):
We like to use real world scenarios for battery tests with laptops, and the majority of people browse the web - so we do, too. In this case, we set the backlight to a notch above fifty percent, then reloaded a website every 30 seconds until the battery ran out. For light usage, this is an acceptable metric; heavier usage, like video (especially Flash video) playing, or A/V editing, will cut battery life but a large margin.
For the 2011 13-inch Apple Macbook Air, we saw a battery life of just under 7 hours, coming in at 6 hours and 43 minutes. It’s a bit under the 7 hour claim of Apple, but not so much that indicates deceit; battery life testing can be pretty subjective.
If you need a super portable laptop that is still pretty capable, get the 11-inch MacBook Air. If you need something that offers a bit more power and a smidge better resolution, go for the 13-inch form factor. You’ll be getting a great operating system in the form of OS X Lion, and a lot of amazing built-in software, such as iMovie. OS X is no longer remarkably better than Windows since Windows 7 came out, but the free apps like iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand have no match on Microsoft’s side.
If Windows is *absolutely required* for your work, and you can’t virtualize the OS, then you may want to look elsewhere. While the MacBook Air offers a package experience that’s hard to beat, it doesn’t run Windows quite as well as some of the competition - for occasional booting it’s just fine, but I wouldn’t want to use it on the Air as an everyday OS.
To be honest, it’s difficult finding many negative things to say about the Air - it’s thin, light, gorgeous, capable. Battery life could be better, though, and if you need all-day availability, then you’d better off getting a ThinkPad, since the batteries on Apple’s laptops aren’t removable by the end user. Similarly, if your needs entail using more than 4GB of RAM on a regular basis (most of you don’t, even if you think you do), then again, go buy a ThinkPad - these guys are limited to just 4GB of DDR3, and since it’s soldered to the mainboard, it’s not going to be something you can replace yourself.
If you need a gaming laptop, you’re probably not really looking at the MacBook Air review, but just in case - go look at our ASUS gaming laptops!
For everyone else, however, the MacBook Air is simply the best notebook you can purchase. Great for travel, great for home use, and a network of retail shops that offer near-legendary service and support. As a result, the 2011 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air earns our Editor’s Choice.