There’s a new soul in town, and it’s the 4th generation MacBook Air. This week Apple introduced their long overdue update to the MacBook Air in the form of both a 13.3″ and a new 11.6″ model – and wow, have these two been a long time coming. We got our grubby little manicured hands on the MacBook Air 11-inch $999 basic configuration, and boy, are we smitten. Like its predecessor, The 11-inch MacBook Air is quite the looker, but now it’s smaller, thinner, and lighter than ever. The cheapest $999 configuration for the MacBook 11-inch runs on a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of ram, along with an NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics card, and it has 64GB flash storage inside. For an extra $100 you can upgrade to 4GB of ram. There is also a $1199 config that comes with a 128GB hard drive, and for an extra $100, you can opt for a configuration with a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo Processor.
It’s more like – what isn’t in the box. Not only is the packaging minimalist as usual for Apple, this time around there are no software CDs included with the Air. And this is a good thing, since the MacBook Air doesn’t have an optical drive anyway. The previous solution for the lack of an optical drive on the older Air models was to use the Remote Disc function which lets you wirelessly access another Mac’s optical drive from the Air. This time around, Apple has opted to include a super slim USB key with all of the system’s software on it, including iLife 11. This USB key has Apple’s logo on it and compliments the air perfectly in the way that it’s also super thin and petite.
The famously thin laptop is now thinner and lighter than ever – it weighs just 2.3lbs, measures 0.68″ at its thickest, and just 0.11″ at it’s thinnest height. At 2.3lbs, it’s actually lighter than most of the other 11.6″ ultraportables on the market. The MacBook Air 11-inch is also made of the same aluminum unibody style chassis of its peers. To that effect, the Air feels very sturdy and has virtually no flex in its body. Also, this time around, the power button is no longer apart of the aluminum chassis, instead it has become a dedicated keyboard key at the top right of the keyboard. The MacBook Air’s designers most likely did this to save space. To its credit, the system also runs cool with minimal heat – again, that is a massive improvement over previous generations of Airs.
However, we cant figure out why Apple didn’t design the new MacBook Air with a black glass frame like the other MacBook unibodies have? Perhaps they didn’t do that because it would’ve added extra weight to the Air’s body. Also, oddly enough, the AC adapter almost seems bigger than the computer itself. Well we jest, but you’d think by now that that AC adapters would be tiny, but they’re not, and it seems silly that the AC adapter is thicker than the Air itself is.
Thank the heavens that they came to their senses and finally added an extra USB port to the Air. Each USB port is on a different side of the laptop. This is a good thing, because since they’re not next to each other you don’t have to worry about losing two of them too a single bulky USB peripheral. Grr, I hate it when that happens! But unfortunately, while the new MacBook Air 13-inch now sports an SD card reader, the 11-inch does not. This is a real bummer for us, since we often find ourselves pulling off photos from our SD card when we’re on the go. The lack of an SD slot means we’ll be forced to carry around a memory card reader, a USB cable for connecting to our camera, or perhaps even getting an Eye-Fi card.
The 11-inch Air sports a 11.6″ LED-backlit glossy widescreen with a 1366 x768 resolution. Personally, I cant handle 10″ displays, and 11.6″ is the minimum for me to work comfortably without strain. Fortunately, the display on the MacBook Air 11-inch blows away most netbook and ultraportable screens out of the water – only Sony makes displays this good for this sized laptop. Videos and photos on the MacBook Air 11-inch look sharp, with vibrant colors, and even though it’s a glossy display, it actually produces minimal glare for a glossy display. As a matter of fact, it seems to us like the 15-inch MacBook Pro has an even glossier display than the 11-inch Air. While we’re on the subject of comparing it to the 15-inch MacBook Pro, it’s worth noting that the 15″ MacBook Pro still has a superior display which is a bit brighter and a bit more vivid. Horizontal and vertical viewing angles are ok too on the Air, but not great. The Air also has a Mini DisplayPort for connecting to an external monitor like the 27″ LED Cinema Display. That includes dual display functionality with support for up to 2560 x 1600 pixels on an external display
Despite its diminutive size, the 11-inch Air’s keyboard is very comfortable to use with very good tactile feedback – the likes of which you’ll find on its larger sized siblings. It’s great that Apple managed to fit a full sized keyboard on the Air. I’ve used one too many netbook with cramped, horrid keyboards, and the Air’s keyboard is a respite from all of those – as long as you don’t mind low chicklet style keys. Unfortunately, the 11-inch Air’s keyboard is not backlit, but we suppose you can’t have everything. The Air also sports the now standard Multi-Touch trackpad with its button-less design. That means you can perform multi-touch actions like the 4 finger swipe, or a three finger drag. The trackpad is of-course ready to take advantage of all the iOS-like touch gestures that OS 10.7 will have to offer when it’s finally released. Best of all, the generously sized trackpad is much larger then what you find on most 11.6″ netbooks and many ultraportables which suffer from super cramped trackpads.
Despite what you may think from reading the Air’s specs on the product page, performance really doesn’t disappoint. I was a bit apprehensive about using a laptop with just 2GB of ram inside of it. 4GB seems like it should be the bare minimum nowadays. But so far the system is running super snappily, so much so that I don’t even miss the 4GB ram – yet. I’m actually able to multitask and perform basic Photoshop tasks without lag.
Personally, I’ve owned the previous 1st and 2nd gen Macbook airs, the first model was riddled with Core shutdown issues, but I loved it anyway because of its formfactor. The new MacBook Air 11-inch feels like it runs significantly faster than previous Airs, this is probably because it is helped along by the NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor inside it. The GeForce 320M is superior to Intel’s own integrated graphics solution, and even allows for casual gaming on the Air as well as excellent HD video playback performance – even for 1080p videos
It turns out that applications load up SUPER fast thanks to the new flash storage card that Apple has built-in standard in the Air. Booting up and shutting down the computer is also lightning fast.
Booting up: 17 seconds
Photoshop: 5.6 seconds
Safari (without extensions): 2.2. seconds
Firefox (without extensions): 3.5 seconds
iTunes: 1.8 seconds
Word 2011: 1.8 seconds
iMovie: 2.9 seconds
Shut Down: 1.5 seconds
Many have lamented that the MacBook Air is running on an older generation of Intel’s ULV processor, but the system still feels super peppy. It’s certainly not the ideal laptop for video encoding, editing and / or rendering, but it beats the hell out of a netbook and still performs very well for many multimedia tasks. Below are a list of benchmark scores from Geekbench, Cinebench and Xbench.
To sum up these benchmark scores – they don’t prove spectacular performance, but they’re pretty good – especially when you consider how tiny this thing is. For comparison – the MacBook Air’s Xbench scores reveal that it is practically as fast as a PowerMac G5 of yore. When you consider that a 2.3lb device is as powerful as what was not too long ago Apple’s leading workhorse machine, you realize that this is no overpriced netbook.
We haven’t gotten a chance yet to test the battery life of the MacBook Air 11-inch extensively, but Apple claims that its battery can last up-to 5 hours on a charge and up-to 30 days in standby mode. We’re hoping that the 5 hour battery life truly does last 5 hours. The flash storage card in the Air allows the laptop to stay in standby mode for up-to 30 days supposedly, but we haven’t gotten a chance to test that out either. The flash storage card allows the Air to resume where it was instantly, even if that means it has been 2 weeks since you last used it. We’ll update this post with our battery life impressions, once we’ve spent more time with the Air.
The MacBook Air features a FaceTime camera, that means that you can use it to make FaceTime calls with anyone on a Mac, iPhone 4 or 4G iPod Touch. Webcam quality is ok, and seems on-par with the previous Macbook Air. It also does well in low light environments.
I own an iPad, and a 15″ MacBook Pro, so it was very hard for me to justify getting the 11-inch MacBook Air. So why did I do it? Before you start calling me an Apple fan girl, and maybe I am a fan girl to a certain extent, let me explain my reasoning for such a purchase. I love my MacBook Pro, it’s a great workhorse of a computer and its awesome 15″ display allows me to work comfortably for extended periods of time. That said, when I throw it into my backpack, along with a few other things like my DSLR, the whole kit and kaboodle ends up being grueling to shlep around all day. I love my iPad too, but it’s more of a leisure device – yes, you can get plenty of work done on the iPad with apps, but it’s still not as efficient for working as a full blown laptop with a keyboard, mouse, and complete OS is. So do I really need the MacBook Air? Ehh, sort of. The reality is that most people will find it hard to justify the purchase of the MacBook Air 11-inch, especially if they already have a another computer and an iPad too.
Fortunately for most tasks on the 11-inch Air, I’m not feeling like I’m missing the 4GB of RAM that I’m used too having in other systems, and thanks to its SSD Flash storage card combined with the Nvidia 320m, the system is very peppy, and handles intense software like Photoshop well enough – and it is also much, much faster than you’re typical netbook. But although actual performance is better than we expected for the 11-inch Air, the MacBook Air is definitely not a replacement for someone’s main computer, especially with a hard drive capacity that is only as large as 128GB. That said, for the kind of tasks you are most likely doing on such a small laptop - performance is very good. After all, do you really want to run a design business or do serious video editing on a computer with an 11.6″ screen?
A few years ago an ultraportable like this would’ve easily cost over two thousand dollars. When you look around at the Air’s competition, the MacBook Air 11-inch’s closest competitor might just be the Sony Vaio X Series. The Sony X series weighs less than the Air at just 1.6lbs, it too has a super thin and lightweight body, along with a great design and display. However, the X Series is running on the less powerful Atom processor, yet costs $1299+.
It’s really difficult to behold the Air in person and not be taken with it. As a matter of fact, when we first eyed it in the Apple store, a man came by and said “Damn, it’s so gorgeous, but I have an iPad already!” Whether or not the Air 11-inch will have mass appeal the way the 13-inch MacBook does, remains to be seen, but it’s likely not too, especially since iPad and netbooks are so popular now as a supplementary machine to a main computer. So at the end of a day, the MacBook Air 11-inch is somewhat of a luxury item, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t think anyone who purchases the MacBook Air 11-inch will be disappointed – as long as they’re not expecting it to be their sole computer, they’ll love the Air.
The Good: Gorgeous unibody design, small and built to last, excellent display and keyboard, peppy performance – especially for loading applications, finally two USB ports are included!, 30 days of standby battery power with instant on, system runs cool.
The Bad: No SD card slot, unit is sealed so RAM and hard drive can’t be upgraded, no ethernet port, 4GB should really come standard at this price, battery life is a bit underwhelming, limited hard drive space, built-in 3G would’ve been a nice option to have, keyboard isn’t backlit