MacBook Air 2.13GHz review

The MacBook Air is a product that lives on the margins. It’s the slowest laptop – indeed, the slowest computer – in the Mac line. It omits many features that are standard on other Mac laptops, including multiple USB ports, FireWire ports, Ethernet port, and optical drive.

And the latest top-of-the-line MacBook Air is actually slower than its predecessor in many of our tests. In short, the MacBook Air is an odd duck. It’s also Apple’s thinnest, lightest laptop. And we still love it.

Let us explain. The MacBook Air is a full 680g lighter than the next-lightest Apple laptop. In a world of netbooks that compromise on screen and keyboard size in order to get small, the MacBook Air has an excellent 13in widescreen display and a full-sized, backlit keyboard.

The MacBook Air is designed for people who appreciate the fact that this Mac laptop weighs 1.36kg and measures 1.94mm at its thickest point, and are willing to sacrifice all sorts of other features for that lightness. Which leads to the real question: do the new MacBook Air models sacrifice too many features to make them worth the trade-off in both price and size?

Pricing up the MacBook Air

The new MacBook Air laptops introduced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference are a £1,149 model with a 1.86GHz processor and 120GB 4,200rpm hard drive, and a £1,349 model with a 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a 128GB solid-state drive.

Let’s ponder, for a moment, how far the MacBook Air line has come in terms of price. When the MacBook Air premiered, the top-of-the-line model featuring a 1.86GHz processor and a 64GB solid-state drive cost £2,028. At the low end of the line was a £1,199 model with a 1.6GHz processor and an 80GB hard drive.

So in 18 months, the top-of-the-line Air has dropped £679 while adding 330MHz of processor power and doubling the storage space. The base configuration, meanwhile, has dropped in price by £50 while gaining a modest processor boost and double the hard-drive space.

This is not to say that it’s a great deal in terms of price/performance. You’re still paying for that super-light chassis. For the same price as today’s entry-level 1.86GHz MacBook Air (£1,149), you can buy a 13in MacBook Pro with a 2.53GHz processor, double the RAM of the MacBook Air, more than twice the hard-drive space, more USB and FireWire ports, an optical drive, and an SD card reader. But it’s also thicker and weighs 2.49kg.

Small, light, and limited

On the outside, these new MacBook Air models look just like the original MacBook Air units introduced in January 2008. And as always, the Air’s physical connectivity options remain quite limited: there’s a single USB 2.0 port, a headphone jack, and a Mini DisplayPort. There’s no FireWire connectivity, and everything else you connect to the system has to go wireless (via Bluetooth or WiFi) or filter through that single USB port.

Apple includes a 10/100 USB-to-Ethernet adaptor in the box now, which is generous, but the fact remains that if you’re trying to download a file over Ethernet while backing up to a USB hard drive, you will tax that single USB port to the limit. (You’ll also need to invest in a serious USB hub.) What’s worse, the £64 MacBook Air SuperDrive must be attached to the MacBook Air directly and doesn’t offer any pass-through ports of its own, making it impossible to boot from a DVD and then restore from a Time Machine backup stored on an external hard drive. Well, impossible is maybe too strong a word. We were able to pull the trick off by using Apple’s £635 LED Cinema Display, which will also power the SuperDrive, as the world’s most expensive USB hub.

With the update to the MacBook Air line in late 2008, Apple seriously upgraded the Air’s internals. The first-generation Airs used Intel’s slow onboard video circuitry and couldn’t cope with warm temperatures at all, but the new models added Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics circuitry, improved bus and memory speeds, and generally coped with heat much better. These new models still incorporate those improvements, which dramatically improve the MacBook Air experience.

Despite the improved graphics and the faster processors, it’s important to point out that these two MacBook Air models are the slowest Macs currently shipping. Even the £749 2.13GHz MacBook managed a Speedmark score of 198 in our tests, compared to a score of 175 for the top-of-the-line 2.13GHz Air. The £1,149 13in 2.53GHz MacBook Pro scored 239, while the 1.86GHz MacBook Air, at the same price, scored 156.

What’s weird about the new high-end MacBook Air model is that although it costs less than its predecessor, it’s also slower. The late-2008 1.86GHz MacBook Air was faster than the new top-of-the-line model in 11 of our 18 tests, and as a result, the old system’s final Speedmark score was slightly higher. The low-end 1.86GHz model did a better job versus its predecessor, besting it on most tests and improving on its Speedmark score.

We also saw several cases in which the lower-end systems, with slower processors but with hard drives rather than solid-state drives, bested their high-end equivalents. Some of these results simply come down to the fact that solid-state drives are faster than physical hard drives at some tasks and slower at others. But on tasks we tend to consider particularly processor intensive, such as compressing video or rendering 3D objects, the low-end systems also outperformed the higher-end systems. We’re not quite sure why this is, though it’s possible that the Air’s thermal-protection systems are aggressively ratcheting down the speed of the faster, hotter processors when they’re asked to perform those tasks, slowing their performance.

OUR VERDICT

If what you want out of your Mac laptop is the best combination of speed and price, the MacBook Air’s not for you. It’s hobbled by having a single USB port. Its processor is slow and it’s locked into 2GB of RAM. There’s no FireWire, no optical drive (without an expensive add-on with nonexistent connectivity or compatibility), and the only way to connect to an Ethernet network is via an included USB adaptor. But if the specs that matter most to you are low weight and small size, the MacBook Air is the system for you. These new models aren’t much faster than their predecessors – in fact, the high-end system is slower than the previous model – but they are cheaper. If the MacBook Air always appealed to you, but you were turned off by the price tag, it’s time to reconsider.

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