MacBook Air 1.6GHz review

Internal changes have helped Apple’s new 1.6GHz MacBook Air gain a lot of ground in terms of performance. Externally, this 1.6GHz MacBook Air is almost identical to the first-generation 1.6GHz MacBook Air. It has the same glossy 13.3in screen as the previous model, with 1,280 x 800 pixel resolution and an LED backlight. It still weighs 1.36kg and requires an optional USB Ethernet cable to connect to a wired network. There is no built-in optical drive, but an external, bus-powered SuperDrive is available for £64 from Apple.

The only visible change to the new 1.6GHz MacBook Air is the Mini DisplayPort connector that replaces the micro DVI connector on the original. The new MacBook Air doesn’t come with any display adaptors in the box, but Apple does sell cables that connect the Mini DisplayPort to DVI (£20), VGA (£20), and even Dual-Link DVI (£68) connectors.

Under the hood, the new 1.6GHz MacBook Air has received numerous updates. It still has 2GB of RAM, but now uses faster 1,066MHz DDR3 memory instead of the 667MHz DDR2 memory in the previous 1.6GHz MacBook Air. The new 120GB Serial ATA hard drive is a boost from the 80GB Parallel ATA hard drive in the original. The latest 1.6GHz MacBook Air also has a bigger L2 cache (6MB instead of 4MB), a faster frontside bus (1,066MHz as opposed to 800MHz), and a new Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics subsystem, which is a significant upgrade over the integrated Intel GMA X3100 graphics in the first-generation 1.6GHz MacBook Air.

Up to speed

Using Speedmark 5 to test the overall system performance, we found the new 1.6GHz MacBook Air to be 33 per cent faster than the original. The largest performance gains were found in our graphics and hard drive tests, with the new Air able to display more than six times as many frames per second than the original 1.6GHz MacBook Air in the Quake 4 game tests. The new Air was more than three minutes faster than its predecessor in the 2GB Zip Archive test.

Surprisingly, the new 1.6GHz MacBook Air even bested a first-generation, configure-to-order MacBook Air with a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a 120GB Parallel ATA hard drive by 22 per cent in Speedmark 5. The new Nvidia graphic helped out immensely, with big gains in many tests, including Photoshop, Cinema 4D and Compressor.

We ended up running extra tests due to some surprising results. Strikingly, the new 1.6GHz MacBook Air was faster than its higher-end sibling, the 1.86GHz MacBook Air, in some of our tests. Though the overall Speedmark score still has the 1.86GHz model in the lead by 14 per cent, tests like converting AAC files to MP3s in iTunes and MPEG-2 encodes using Compressor were actually faster on the new 1.6GHz model.

One possible reason for the 1.6GHz MacBook Air boost over the 1.86GHz MacBook Air is the hard drive. The 1.6GHz model uses a 4,200rpm Serial ATA drive, while the 1.86GHz model ships with a solid-state drive (SSD). SSDs are faster than standard hard drives at reading files, but not as fast as writing, making SSDs faster at starting up and launching applications, but possibly slower at iTunes encoding.

We also suspect that the 1.6GHz MacBook Air might be throttling down the processor speed to avoid overheating. We used Magnus Lundholm’s CoolBook ($10 [£7], www.coolbook.se) utility to monitor and report the actual speed of a system’s processor while the processor was operating. We didn’t use CoolBook to alter the system’s processor speeds and voltages; but to simply monitor the processor speed as the system executed specific tasks. We didn’t have any heat-related issues with any of the MacBook Airs while testing.

Gauging the processor speed with CoolBook provided interesting insight. In our Cinema 4D test, for example, the render times on both MacBook Airs were similar. According to CoolBook, both MacBook Airs – including the 1.86GHz model – were running at 1.6GHz.

In hard drive tests, like zip, unzip and duplicating files and folders, the SSD-equipped 1.86GHz Air was anywhere between 12 and 40 per cent faster than the standard SATA-equipped 1.6GHz MacBook Air with the standard 4,200 RPM SATA hard drive.

In terms of battery life, Apple claims the Air can run up to four and a half hours on a single charge. Our worst-case-scenario tests showed the Air to have closer to three hours of battery life, about the same as the previous generation.

There’s no doubt that the new MacBook Air is a serious improvement over its first iteration. And let’s recall why the MacBook Air exists in the first place: it’s designed to be the lightest Apple laptop in existence, sacrificing speed, functionality, and value in order to be a svelte 1.36kg and razor-thin.

The MacBook Air is most definitely not a laptop for people who want the fastest laptop or the one with the best value. Even with its speed boost it’s still the slowest MacBook in Apple’s product line, slower than the white £719 MacBook that’s a holdover from the previous generation of low-end plastic Apple laptops. The integrated Nvidia graphics processor, while an impressive update, is actually a throttled-back version of the chip used in the new MacBook models. And for less than the £1,271 you’d spend on the entry-level 1.6GHz MacBook Air with 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive, you could get a 2.4GHz MacBook with a 250GB hard drive and weighing just 2.04kg.
So as before, the MacBook Air exists for people who are willing to spend money and sacrifice power in order to get the lightest laptop imaginable. There’s just one catch: it’s got more competition than it used to. When the MacBook Air was introduced, it was just under 1kg lighter than the MacBook and offered some pro styling (aluminium case, backlit keyboard) that the MacBook didn’t.
But the new MacBook models have changed. They’re now clad in aluminium, offer the backlit keyboard as an option, and – most importantly – weigh less than the previous MacBook models, putting the new MacBook only 680g out of reach of the MacBook Air.

OUR VERDICT

Though not for everyone, Apple’s MacBook Air can still boast about its status as the world’s thinnest notebook computer, only now, with a 33 per cent performance gain, the trade-off between size and speed is not as great as with the first-generation MacBook Air.

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