Test and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
For the first time, Apple’s entry-level notebook might just be one of its most compelling offerings. The new 2011 11-inch MacBook Air (starting at $999) looks identical to the one we reviewed late last year but we feel it Is a completely different notebook with a lot more to offer.
New to all MacBook Airs is Intel’s most recent line of Core i5 and i7 processors that offer dual-core desktop performance but with much lower power draw.
The review MacBook Air we tested came with the 1.6 Core i5 processor and 2GB of RAM plus a 64GB SSD drive. We would have liked a way to upgrade the RAM ourselves as the Apple option is expensive and takes time but this is the future of SoC (System on a Chip) computers where everything is integrated on a single chip.
The MacBook Air was one of the first OS X Lion computers shipped by Apple and as a result, it is designed to take full advantage of the latest and greatest Mac OS. It no longer ships with the neat USB drive as a backup operating system installer, you can however make a backup of the OS.
One major feature that Apple brought back to the MacBook Air line is the backlit keyboard, which was sorely missed in the previous version of the MacBook Air.
As someone whose writing muse often appears uninvited at the dead of night, being able to get the ambient light from the keyboard is very welcome feature, especially since we’ve been spoiled by around four generations of Apple portables that had this.
The backlit keyboard may seem trivial but it is a feat of engineering in something as sliver-thin as the MacBook Air.
Now, PC manufacturers are freely copying the feature and putting their own spin on it. We have seen notebooks from Toshiba, Samsung and HP that offer backlit keyboards too and some have even gone so far as to colour the keys differently.
Aside from the spanking new processor architecture and improvements to the graphics performance by way of the Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor, which includes an on-chip engine for video encoding and decoding, the new MacBook Airs now come with a Thunderbolt Port.
This Thunderbolt I/O technology provides expansion possibilities never before available to MacBook Air users. Through a single cable, users can connect to high performance peripherals and the new Apple Thunderbolt Display, the ultimate docking station for your Mac notebook. Thunderbolt can easily be adapted to support legacy connections such as FireWire and Gigabit Ethernet.
The Thunderbolt port can also connect to Apple's monitors and turn the MacBook Air into a desktop Mac when paired with a Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and trackpad.
Thunderbolt is 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0, that’s revolutionary! For people who need to move a vast amount of data quickly (i.e. video editors, photographers, musicians) this is an ideal solution. Thunderbolt peripherals area only starting to come out now and they are not cheap but give it six months to a year and we should see them become more prevalent.
Since it first came out in 2008, the MacBook Air was always considered full of compromises. Some detractors even went to say that it was an overpriced and underpowered netbook (a bogus claim because netbooks do not have full sized keyboards or down clocked processors).
This has now changed completely. The MacBook Air line is as good as any other mobile computer in terms of processing power and functionality. The limitations right now are the optical drive (which can be remedied by getting the optional SuperDrive) and the SSD storage, which is still expensive.
We’ve been using the new Core i5 MacBook Air to edit video constantly for the past two weeks and the speed of the SSD plus the new Intel Sandy Bridge architecture have made it surpass the speed and performance of our 2010 13-inch MacBook Pro and our iMac by 40-60 per cent
Both of those machines have been upgraded for production with the maximum amount of RAM and the fastest SATA hard drives we could buy at the time and they still feel like lumbering behemoths when compared to the new MacBook Air which only ships with 2GB or RAM (non user upgradable at that, so RAM fetishists will need to go the route f build to order on Apple’s website if they want more of that).
For built to order, you can even get a 1.8GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7 processor into the 11-inch MacBook Air, which puts it on par with some flagship notebooks out there that weigh three times as much.
The only area where the MacBook Air might fall short is as agraphics-intensive gaming notebook but this isn't what it was designed for in the first place.
All this power is present in such a small, tightly knit package and we only heard the fans kick in twice and both times when watching Netflix video off the Chrome browser. Seeing as how no Apple products ship with Adobe Flash installed, we can only think that Flash might have been the reason for this. Playing back digital video files using VLC worked just fine.
The most striking thing about using the MacBook Air is after getting all that processor intensive work done, you can simply fold down the screen, pick it up and take it anywhere you want, it weighs 2.38 pounds.
Battery life while using Wi-Fi is close to the 5-hours that Apple claims, not bad for something to incredibly thin and light. The stereo speakers are also surprisingly loud. Oh, and if you are looking for the built-in Mic, it is near the headphone jack, so tiny it is almost invisible.
The MacBook Air is built for portability but also for productivity and now approaches the power and performance of larger, more expensive MacBook Pros. Cheaper than the previous generation and with far more functionality, the MacBook Air line is Apple's most impressive portable design yet.
That is is why PC competitors are now stumbling all over themselves to copy it.
Rating: 5 out of 5