11-inch and 13-inch Apple MacBook Air (Late 2010) full review

One nice touch for users upgrading from a past MacBook Air model: if you’ve got a set of iPhone-compatible headphones with an inline microphone and remote, this generation of Airs will let you use that mic for audio input, and you can even use the button(s) for controlling music playback.

Apple MacBook Air
Keyboard and trackpad of the 11-inch (left) and 13-inch MacBook Air.

Though many small laptops in the PC world feature shrunken-down keyboards that deviate from the standard keyboard layout in unpleasant ways, Apple has refused to compromise on this point—even on the 11-inch MacBook Air. Both models sport the same full-sized keyboard that Apple uses in all its other laptops, not to mention its USB and wireless external keyboards. The only real difference is on the top row of keys: they’re shorter than on the other keyboards, and the power button now appears as the rightmost key in that row. Typing on the keyboard feels exactly as it does on all those other keyboards, too; the thinness of the Air doesn’t mean there’s any less key travel. If you like typing on a MacBook keyboard (or Apple’s external keyboards), you’ll like typing on the MacBook Air.

One place where this new set of MacBooks regresses from the previous generation: keyboard backlighting is gone. I never considered keyboard backlighting an essential feature—I do know where all the keys are. Like heated seats in a car, it’s a feature that was occasionally useful and felt vaguely luxurious, and I’ll miss it. Also gone are the sleep light and the infrared port.

On the positive side, though, the Airs have finally inherited the same glass-trackpad technology that was added to the MacBook Pro two years ago. It looks, feels, and works just like you’d expect. Though the Air is only .11 inches thick at the same edge that contains the trackpad, the trackpad still depresses with a satisfying click. (The trackpad on the 11-inch model is slightly less tall, but otherwise the two trackpads are identical.)

Finally, one of the lamest features of the MacBook Air was its single mono speaker stuck under the right side of the keyboard. Good news, everyone: The new Air has stereo speakers nestled under the left and right sides of the keyboard. They’re never going to win any awards, but they sound vastly better than the old model.

Flash storage, for sure

The original MacBook Air was the first Mac system to be sold with a flash-storage drive as an optional component, and in these new models all storage takes place on flash storage. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, flash storage is a hard-drive replacement that stores data on fixed memory chips (just like the iPhone, iPad and all iPods except the classic) instead of on spinning platters (like most of the computers out there today).

Flash storage has several advantages over hard drives. They tend to be faster than hard drives, especially at reading data. (Though performance can vary widely, the flash storage on these new MacBook Air models was way faster than the poky 4200-rpm hard drives on the prior generation of MacBook Air.) Because they’ve got no moving parts, there’s little risk that dropping your laptop will cause physical damage to flash storage—a real concern when it comes to a spinning hard drive. Flash-storage drives can use less power, extending battery life. They are silent. And despite the amazing miniaturization that’s gone on in the hard-drive market, flash storage takes up a whole lot less space than a hard drive. (At least, it does if it hasn’t been inserted into a traditional hard-drive enclosure—a backward-compatibility trick Apple had to do with the previous version of the Air, but has avoided with this revision.)

Apple MacBook Air

There are also some disadvantages to flash storage. It’s more expensive than traditional hard drives, though prices are falling rapidly. There are also questions about ongoing performance of flash storage—depending on the type of flash storage you use, you could find that after several months of heavy use it’s dramatically slower than it was when you bought it.

In any event, if you get a new MacBook Air you’ll be getting it with flash storage. Because of the expense of solid-state technology, the disk capacities for these systems are much lower than they’d be in a bigger system with a spinning hard drive. The $999 base-model 11-inch MacBook Air is the most extreme of these: it comes with 64GB of flash storage. (It’s a $200 upgrade to move up to 128GB.) The 13-inch models come in 128GB and 256GB flash-storage configurations.

At 128GB and certainly at 256GB, you’ll find the MacBook Air’s storage space perfectly acceptable, especially if you’re only using these systems as a secondary computer. (If you’re planning on editing HD video on them, I suspect the lack of storage space will be no more of a problem than the slow clock speed of the Core 2 Duo processor.) The 64GB model, on the other hand, will be a tight fit. You can do it, but you’ll need to carefully pick which apps you want to install and make good use of file servers or syncing services such as Dropbox. Also, I’d suggest you keep your music collection on a server or just use the music in that iPod or iPhone in your pocket, rather than loading big media files on such a tiny drive.

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