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

Based on our Macworld Lab tests, the 11-inch MacBook Air performs about how you’d expect: It’s the slowest currently-shipping Mac laptop, but it’s still quite a bit faster than the previous generation of MacBook Air models. That’s primarily because of the new nVidia GeForce 320M graphics processor, which makes these systems blow the old Airs out of the water on all our graphics tests. But despite that graphics processor and speedy flash storage, the fact remains that the 11-inch MacBook’s processor is a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, so it’s running at a clock speed far below those found on other current Macs.

Now that I’ve declared the 11-inch MacBook Air the slowest Mac in Apple’s product line, let me explain to you why I don’t think it matters. If you’re using the Web, writing e-mail or articles or novels, and other relatively lightweight tasks, you’ll find the MacBook Air plenty fast. I could even run Photoshop CS4 on it, editing relatively lightweight Web-resolution graphics, without much trouble. If you’re planning on using it to edit multitrack audio or complex HD video projects, though, you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment.

I tried to watch some video on this model—typically a major MacBook Air bugaboo. I was able to stream an episode of Terriers from Hulu without incident. The episode played without getting all jumpy and dropping frames (a typical symptom of an overheated and struggling MacBook Air in the past). The Air definitely heated up when the video was playing, and its fan kicked in—though honestly, I had to almost place my ear against the back hinge before I could actually hear it. Playing H.264 video was much smoother than I’ve experienced on prior Air models as well—again, presumably because of the GeForce 320M graphics processor.

 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air: Speedmark 6 scores

Apple MacBook Air

Batteries and sleep

Apple is making a big deal about saying that these new MacBook Airs have “instant on” technology. What the company is talking about is a new power-saving mode: After a laptop’s asleep for a while, it switches into a super power-saving standby mode that lets the battery survive for up to 30 days. But when you open the laptop back up, it doesn’t show you a progress bar while it loads stuff—it just snaps back to life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test Apple’s claim of 30 days of standby survival, since as of this writing these laptops have only been in our hands for five days.

Apple MacBook Air

Apple says that by reducing the space of other components (such as the solid-state drive enclosure) in these models, it’s been able to increase the amount of room left for batteries, with the result being improved battery life. Apple claims that the 11-inch Air can last up to five hours when running the company’s own “wireless productivity” test suite; its claims for the 13-inch Air are up to seven hours.

Our own tests are more aggressive than Apple’s, and are designed to drain the laptop’s battery much faster than Apple’s. But they do give us a good sense of how much battery power these systems have when compared to the previous-generation MacBook Air. And there’s good news on that front: The 11-inch Air lasted for 220 minutes while looping an H.264 movie in full-screen mode at full brightness. The new 13-inch Air lasted 265 minutes. And the 2009-era MacBook Air? It only lasted about 185 minutes.

In real-world use, I found that the 11-inch MacBook’s battery definitely felt more long-lasting than the previous-generation Air’s. It’s probably not powerful enough to last the entire day, but it’s going to give you a good, solid run. The 13-inch model, on the other hand, can probably get you through an entire workday if you’re judicious with your power usage and put it to sleep when appropriate.

Jason Snell is Macworld’s US editorial director.

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