MacBook Air 1.86GHz review

On the outside, the new MacBook Air 1.86GHz is identical to the first generation of Apple’s lightweight laptops. But inside it’s quite different, offering a new and faster processor, upgraded video circuitry, a faster front-side bus, faster RAM, and a new display connector. As a result, the new generation of MacBook Air is superior to the original. However, the substantial upgrades Apple has made to the rest of the MacBook line threaten to narrow the MacBook Air’s already limited appeal even further.

Bigger on the inside

This new MacBook Air gives wary consumers a bit more ammunition for the golden rule of technology buying: “Never buy version 1.0.” Apple appears to have improved almost every aspect of the internals of the Air, despite the remarkably small space available for the laptop’s components. The weight and size remain identical, as does the bright 13-inch display and single USB port. But the small low-power processor custom-built by Intel for the original MacBook Air has been replaced by a smaller, stock Intel Core 2 Duo processor that offers more L2 cache (6MB instead of 4MB—L2 cache is speedy on-processor memory that improves efficiency) and uses less power. The front-side bus and memory architecture has been ramped up, and the Air now uses faster DDR3 memory modules.

But perhaps the most major upgrade to be found across all the new MacBook Airs is to the video subsystem. The previous generation of Airs was saddled with Intel’s GMA X3100 graphics circuitry, which was slow. The Air’s Nvidia GeForce 9400M is much faster, which makes the Air a competent, if not fantastic, gaming machine. In our tests, the Air managed a Quake 4 frame rate of nearly 25 frames per second, more than six times the rate of the previous Air.

What’s more, the 9400M’s integrated graphics processing unit (GPU) lends a hand to the CPU when it comes to decoding and playing back video material. In the first-generation Air, playing back videos via YouTube or iTunes would inevitably push the processor to its limit and beyond, leading to stuttering playback and severe usability problems as the Air struggled to keep its temperature down by reducing the speed of its processor. This new model played back multiple YouTube videos and HD iTunes video without breaking a virtual sweat.

The MacBook Air's speedmark test shows a significant improvement over the original model released in January 2008

As I’ve written about on more than one occasion, my original MacBook Air suffered from serious overheating problems on a regular basis. (What good is a laptop when you can’t play back videos if you’re in a heated room?) Whatever Apple has done to these new models, the problem appears to be solved or at least greatly mitigated—though, sadly, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate with me and allow me to test the Air on a brutally hot day just to see what would happen.

The top speed of the top-of-the-line MacBook Air increased by only 60MHz over its predecessor, from 1.8GHz to 1.86GHz, but with the improvements to all the other subsystems, the new Air felt noticeably faster than its predecessor in just about every aspect. My observations were confirmed by our MacBook Air lab tests: the new model not only boasted a faster overall score in our Speedmark test suite, but it was notably faster in our Photoshop, Cinema 4D, and Finder tests.

Moving house to an original MacBook Air required an extreme exercise of data starvation, because the original Air offered only two storage options: an 80GB hard drive or a 64GB solid-state drive. The new MacBook Air models eliminate that ridiculous storage limitation. These models come with either a 120GB hard drive or a 128GB solid-state drive. And Apple has narrowed the price gap between the hard drive and solid-state drive, too. The upgrade to the 64GB SSD in the original MacBook Airs cost £639 (later cut to £389); the SSD option is now twice the capacity, but costs only £350 extra.

NEXT: Fingers and adapters


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