11-inch and 13-inch Apple MacBook Air (Late 2010) full review - Page 2

Batteries and heat

Apple claims that these MacBooks have roughly the same battery capacity as previous models. The company rates the 11 inch model for five hours of use via its "wireless web" test suite, the 13 inch model for seven hours.

Battery tests conducted in Macworld's lab, designed to drain the battery even more rapidly than Apple's tests, still showed similar results, roughly three and a half hours for the 11 inch model and five and a half hours for the 13 inch. Those figures were both improvements on the battery life of the previous model Airs.

When I talk to prospective MacBook Air buyers, two of the most common questions I get are about heat and fan noise. Maybe the original MacBook Air, which had some serious heat problems, had more of an impact on the Mac-buying psyche than I thought. In any event, here's what I can report: When these systems crank up and do a lot of work, encoding video is a good example, they warm up. While the underside of the case was warm to the touch, I didn't find it painfully hot.

When the processors do crank up, the fans do, too. And they're not silent, at least not when they're running full blast. Again, in most use cases these laptops are cool and quiet, but if you decide you need to run Final Cut Pro X and export an HD movie to iTunes, noise and warmth are what you're gonna get.

No longer isolated

When the MacBook Air first arrived on the scene, it only had one wired connection to the outside world, a single USB 2 port. At one point I had a seven-port hub at my desk so that I could connect Ethernet, trackball, keyboard, iPhone and external storage to my Air. Last year's Air redesign added a second USB port, which helped, but the Air was still awfully limited compared to any other Mac out there.

The addition of the Thunderbolt port changes everything.

Yes, it's compatible, you can still plug in any Mini DisplayPort cable and the laptop will display video on an external display just fine. But Thunderbolt is so much more than that. It's a connection technology vastly superior not just to USB, but to FireWire and eSATA as well. Fast hard drive transfers, gigabit Ethernet, FireWire compatibility, all of these features are now just a Thunderbolt adapter or three away from being available to MacBook Air users. The catch is that Thunderbolt is a technology in its infancy, so is very little usable Thunderbolt stuff out there now.

Take Apple's just announced 27-inch Thunderbolt display. It's got a Facetime HD camera, three USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, a Gigabit Ethernet port and a Thunderbolt port on the back. Plug its Thunderbolt cable into one of these new MacBook Air models, and you've converted that laptop into a Core i5-powered desktop computer complete with fast network connection, fast storage and an array of expansion ports.

For laptop users who also work at a desk, it's a pretty compelling vision.

Factory upgrades aplenty

If the four base configurations of the MacBook Air don't please you, Apple has provided a few upgrade options. The processor and RAM in these systems aren't upgradeable, so you'll need to decide before you buy if you want them.

Both the 11 inch and 13 inch models can be upgraded to an even faster processor, a 1.8GHz Core i7. These systems are limited to a maximum of 4GB of RAM, all but the cheapest model comes stocked with that amount by default, while it's an upgrade option for the low-end model.

We tested these build-to-order (BTO) configurations in late July and found them faster, although subtly so. The 11 inch upgrade definitely seems to make a more substantial difference than the 13 inch upgrade.

These editions all use flash storage for their hard drives. The cheapest model has 64GB, the 13 inch models offer 128GB or 256GB. If you prefer the 11 inch configuration, you can upgrade the flash storage on the high-end model to 256GB.

Flash storage is one area where there's some competition when it comes to upgrades. Other World Computing offers the Mercury Aura Pro Express flash storage upgrade at sizes up to 480GB. They're not cheap, if you just want 256GB you're better off going with Apple's factory upgrade, but they're available if money's no object and you need as much flash storage as possible.

Lion recovery mode

These MacBook Air models were announced simultaneously with the release of OS X Lion. As a result, they only run under Lion. If you're committed to Snow Leopard or running PowerPC-based apps, you shouldn't get one.

But by being among the first systems in the Lion era, these MacBook Airs also have a major advantage over previous models: they can restore themselves after a catastrophic drive failure. It's all a part of the Lion Recovery feature, enabled by holding down Command-R when booting. If the main volume is corrupted, Lion Recovery will attempt to boot a small hidden recovery partition, from which the disk can be repaired or erased and restored. That's a feature available on any system running Lion. These new systems, though, can even restore if the disk is completely wiped out. They contain within them the ability to boot, connect to the Internet, download Lion from Apple, and restore it to a replacement or external hard drive.

I didn't get a chance to try this feature with the MacBook Airs, though my colleague Dan Frakes managed to do it with a Mac mini, but it's pretty cool to know that as long as you've got an Internet connection, wiping your drive and starting afresh is a legitimate option.

Judging the 13-inch Air

If you're someone who needs as much laptop screen space as possible, the MacBook Air line isn't for you. But if you can get by with a 13 inch screen, I think the MacBook Air is a better choice than the MacBook Pro.

There are always exceptions. If you need an optical drive and don't have access to another Mac for that function, you may not want to buy an Air and then pay more for an external drive. If you absolutely must pay the least amount possible for a 13 inch Mac laptop, you can save by choosing the lowest end 13 inch MacBook Pro. The Core i7 edition of the 13 inch MacBook Pro is also faster than the 13 inch Air. The MacBook Pro has more storage space, owing to its spinning hard drive. Also, if you're a serious gamer, you'll want a laptop with discrete graphics.

Apple has built the MacBook Air for what it believes is the sweet spot of the laptop market, people who are over the optical disc, who don't need any more processing power than an Intel Core i5 processor can provide and who don't need massive amounts of disk space (or at least don't need to carry it all with them). These people want a small, light laptop, and that's what the MacBook Air provides.

Judging the 11-inch Air

Now let me make my case for the 11 inch MacBook Air. It's shockingly small, almost iPad small. It makes the 13 inch Air seem overly large and heavy, and the MacBook Pros seem like boat anchors.

But while the 11 inch Air is small and light, it doesn’t feel cramped. Part of that is due to the high resolution display, which packs a lot of pixels into its compact screen. Throw in Lion's Mission Control and full screen mode, which are designed to help maximise productivity on small screens, and even this tiny Mac is capable of large amounts of productivity.

Is the 11 inch Air slower than Apple's other laptops? Sure. It's also cheaper, although UK consumers can look forward to the usual exchange rate gouging.

Its Core i5 processor makes it fast enough for almost any regular user. If you’re using the web, writing email or articles or novels, and other relatively lightweight tasks, the MacBook Air is plenty fast. Even building web graphics in Photoshop was fast.

Now, if you’re planning on using it to edit multitrack audio or complex HD video projects, you may find yourself pushing its limits. But most people will not attempt to use such a small laptop for such things, and rightly so.

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