Last year we reviewed the MacBook Air 11-inch (late 2010). Almost 10 months later, Apple has rolled out an update to the Air, the MacBook Air (summer 2011). Apple has left most of what made the last gen MacBook Air intact. The system still sports the same high quality display, lovely unibody design and form-factor that we loved when we reviewed the 2010 MacBook Air model last year. Apple has only made some relatively minor updates to the MacBook Air, most of which are dramatic in the area of performance.
One of the most significant hardware changes that Apple has made to the MacBook Air is that they have brought back the backlit keyboard which has an ambient light sensor. It’s amazing how much we forgot that we missed it, until we experienced it again on the new MacBook Air. The latest MacBook Air also comes running the new Mac OS X Lion that was just released last week. Unlike previous Mac OS operating systems, no disc or USB key is included for Lion. Instead, the OS is located on a partition on the Air’s SSD. We’re not going to delve into OSX Lion much. But we will say that it adds some nice user interface enhancements, but overall, it’s not as dramatic an OS update as we hoped it would be.
Apple has also added the high speed Thunderbolt I/O port to the system. The Thunderbolt port is backwards compatible with the mini DisplayPort that the last Mac gen MacBook air used. Unfortunately the amount of Thunderbolt devices out there is currently slim pickings. But that hasn’t stopped Apple from rolling it out on all of their new computer systems. Those who have money to burn can opt to pick up the new Apple Thunderbolt display for $999 and hook it up to the MacBook Air via its Thunderbolt Port, essentially transforming the MacBook Air into a kind of desktop replacement by extending its screen size and resolution, along with adding three USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, an Ethernet port, a Kensington Security slot, and another Thunderbolt port for it. But don’t scoff – the new MacBook Air can really be a desktop replacement. It’s THAT powerful.
We found the last gen MacBook Air to had plenty of pep, especially for an ultra-portable laptop. Even with the the base $999 config, it was pretty fast enough for most users. The super fast SSD inside of it helped the system launch apps super quickly. That same great SSD performance has carried over to the new MacBook Air. And because Apple has upgraded the processor to a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 3MB shared L3 cache and the video card to a Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 256MB (for the $999 model) or 384MB ($1199 model), the raw processing performance has more than doubled too. The system can be configured with up-to a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor and a 256GB flash storage drive.
We tested our older MacBook Air 11-inch (2010) with 2GB and a 1.4 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and put it up against the new 2011 MacBook Air with 4GB of ram and a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, and the 2011 model knocked the socks off of last year’s model in terms of raw processing performance. Overall, as far as everyday performance is concerned the MacBook Air 2011 really feels like a breath of fresh air. We’ve yet to experience any system lags. Apps load almost instantly and the system boots up and shuts down like lightning. The system is down-right super peppy and a pleasure to use. That said, when it comes to loading apps, booting up and shutting down, last year’s model is just as fast thanks to the speedy SSD inside both year’s models. So the performance improvements will mostly only be noticed when it comes to processor intensive tasks. Check out the charts below for Geekbench and Xbench benchmarks.
We do wish that the base configuration of the MacBook Air came with 4GB of ram as opposed to just 2GB. After all, 2GB is practically unacceptable nowadays. We also wish that Apple had managed to figure out how to fit in an SD slot into the latest 11-inch Air. We would have also liked it if they had managed to bump the battery life on the Air too. Those minor gripes aside, it’s amazing to think that a system that costs $999-$1199 is practically as fast as last year’s 15-inch MacBook Pro, but it is. Somehow, the new MacBook Air goes head to head with the Samsung 9 series and Sony VAIO Z series, but offers more affordably priced configurations.
So unless you’re looking for a system with a larger display, you really can’t go wrong with the MacBook Air in terms of value, performance, aesthetics and form-factor. All in all, the new MacBook Air 11-inch (2011) is hardly a must-have upgrade if you own the last generation of the MacBook Air, but considering the amount of performance you get and the great form-factor you get for the money, there never has been a better time to buy a MacBook Air. You can pick up the new MacBook Air 11-inch with 4GB of Ram for $1194 on Amazon, and those looking for a good deal can pick up last year’s MacBook Air for just $879.
The Good: Blazing fast performance, same lightweight and chic design as with the previous Air model, excellent value, now with backlit-keyboard too, perfect for laptop serious travelers and those always on the go, super responsive – and did we mention how fast it is!?
The Bad: Base $999 configuration only comes with 2GB of ram, lacks SD card slot, we’re not sold on Thunderbolt yet.