MacBook Air (2011) review

The MacBook Air has been a product in transition. When it was introduced in 2008, it was an oddity. An expensive and underpowered, yet incredibly thin and light 13 inch laptop. Last year's revision, which added a second USB port, upgraded the processor and introduced an 11 inch model was much more appealing.

With the new MacBook Air models introduced by Apple in July 2011, the MacBook Air has arrived dead centre in Apple's product line. This is the laptop OS X Lion was designed for.

You get the distinct impression that it's only a matter of time before all Mac laptops look like the Air. And with the addition of Intel Core i5 and i7 processors (the latter for the build-to-order models) and the high speed Thunderbolt connection technology, the story of the MacBook Air is no longer about making severe compromises in order to use a small light laptop.

If the MacBook Air is the future of the Mac laptop, the future is now.

Don't mess with success

The physical design of these new MacBook Air models is exactly the same as the ones introduced in October 2010. They're anodised aluminum on the outside, with glossy LED-backlit displays framed by an aluminum bezel.

People who hate the glass-covered screens on the MacBook Pros should note that not all glossy screens are alike. I've found the MacBook Air's style of glossy screen to be less prone to glare than the MacBook Pros. Unlike the MacBook Pro models, which feature a single slab of glass across the entire front of the display, the MacBook Air continues to feature an ultra-thin glass layer located behind the bezel, making it less prone to glare.

Like every other Mac laptop, there’s a tiny FaceTime camera located immediately above the display, though the Air's cameras aren't capable of the HD resolution offered by the cameras on the MacBook Pros and iMacs.

These laptops are wedge shaped, thin at the front and thicker at the back. There's no room for an optical drive or a traditional hard drive, the only onboard storage uses flash memory. At the thick end of the wedge, there's room enough for a few ports. On the left side there's a single USB 2 port, a headphone jack and a MagSafe power socket. On the right side, there's another USB 2 port, an SD card reader (on the 13-inch model only) and taking the space of the Mini DisplayPort is the new Thunderbolt port.

The only real physical change to the exterior versus previous models comes with the keyboard, which is now backlit. I've always considered this feature more luxury than essential, but it's certainly nice to have it back, especially if you tend to work on your laptop in dark. Both models are also slightly heavier. The 11 and 13 inch models weigh 20 and 30 grams more, respectively.

Apple was wise not to change the design, this is a pretty great pair of laptops. The 11.6 inch model in particular is fantastic. It's the smallest Apple laptop of all time and yet remains perfectly usable, with a full-size keyboard and a 1366-by-768-pixel display. The 13 inch model, on the other hand, feels spacious in comparison, while being dramatically thinner and lighter than the 13 inch MacBook Pro.

Beauty and brains

Glowing keyboard excepted, where these new MacBook Airs shine is on the inside. For the first time, the MacBook Air can offer speeds that are in the vicinity of the rest of the Macs out there. That's because these laptops are powered by ultra-low-voltage editions of Intel’s latest generation Core i5 processors, known to chip geeks as the "Sandy Bridge" family.

Though the processor clock speed of the new 13 inch model is actually lower than the previous generation (1.7GHz versus 1.8GHz), the Intel Core i5 family is vastly superior to the Core 2 Duo processors found in the old models.

The lab tests we posted in late July bear that out: In nine largely processor and storage-focused tests, the new MacBook Air was 1.5 times as fast as its faster-clocked predecessor. Encoding a video with HandBrake was nearly twice as fast on the new 13 inch model.

The 13 inch MacBook Air even holds its own with the Core i5 13 inch MacBook Pro. Our tests found that the new Air was on average 1.4 times as fast in that same set of tests, though much of that was buoyed by the increased speed of the Air's flash storage versus the slower physical hard drive on the Pro. In the processor-dominated HandBrake test, the Pro model was 1.1 times as fast as the Air. Factor storage and processor together, and it seems safe to say that the two models are comparable.

The news on the 11 inch front is even brighter. The new Air, powered by a 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, was 1.7 times as fast than the previous model on the same set of processor and storage-focused tests. Our HandBrake encode test was 2.4 times as fast. As someone who uses the previous model regularly, I never really felt it was too slow for my daily work... yet this new model is measurably faster in almost every respect.

One way the Core i5 chips manage to be faster than Core 2 Duos at the same speed is because the Core i5 and i7 have access to two clever Intel tricks: Hyper-threading and Turbo Boost.

Hyper-threading means that while these chips have two processor cores, they appear to the operating system as if they've got four cores. This trick allows the processor to run more efficiently when it comes to heavy duty number crunching. In many ways, Turbo Boost produces the opposite effect: When only one processor core is being tasked, the chip can shut down one core and crank up its clock speed, allowing it to run inefficient software at higher speeds than an older chip could.

There is one respect however, in which these MacBook Airs are a regression from last year's model. Apple's done to the MacBook Airs what it did with the 13 inch MacBook Pro earlier this year, and replaced the previous generation's graphics processor, in this case, the Nvidia GeForce 320M, with Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphic circuitry. The performance of the 2011 MacBook Air's graphics subsystem was all over the map.

When we tested the Airs using our tried-and-true graphics tests, Cinebench's OpenGL test and a Call of Duty demo, the performance was poor. Frame rates on the new models were 65 to 70 percent of what they were on the 2010 model Airs. The 13 inch MacBook Pro with integrated graphics posted similarly bad scores.

When we asked Apple about what we were seeing, the company suggested the possiblity that newer games would be more properly optimised for this relatively new subsystem.

So we did a new round of testing, this time with Valve's Portal 2, a cutting edge game released in April. And sure enough, the results were much better. The current year MacBook Airs were capable of producing frame rates slightly faster than the previous generation models.

The lesson here seems to be that while graphics performance on recent software releases will be comparable to the previous generation of MacBook Air models, graphics intensive apps such as games that haven't been updated to address the Air's new graphics systems will be slow.

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