Apple unveils what may be its best ultraportable yet. (July 24th, 2011)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $1,299 (1.7GHz Core i5, 128GB)
- Dramatically faster for both everyday and serious work.
- Better value than most Windows-based opponents.
- Battery life still holds up with the added speed.
- 4GB of RAM now standard on 13-inch models.
- Thunderbolt opens up fast storage, docking possibilities.
- Backlit keyboard returns at last.
- Lion a good fit for the hardware.
- Still extremely portable.
- Excellent keyboard and trackpad.
- Quiet in most use cases.
- Sharp, low-glare display.
- No more than 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
- Can't be user-upgraded.
- Not as fast as costlier rivals.
- Battery life could still be longer.
- Display isn't as vivid as on a MacBook Pro or similar.
The redesigned MacBook Air in October 2010 sparked a minor revolution in notebooks; after years of ultraportables (even Apple's) being relegated to the margins, they were suddenly the future of computing. Intel went so far as to coin a new notebook concept, the "ultrabook," to spur Windows PC builders to do what Apple was doing. But with stiff competition emerging from Samsung, Sony, and even ASUS, Apple has had to step up its game with a much faster processor and Thunderbolt for desktop-level external storage. We'll see in our review of the 2011 13-inch MacBook Air if it's enough to keep the lead -- and possibly to replace traditional notebooks.
Design and input
If you've seen our review of the original 11-inch MacBook Air, much of the design of the 2011 13-inch model will be a bit of a rehash. In our mind, that's mostly a good thing. The wedge-shaped design is still one of the most attractive and yet functional in the class; it sits very comfortably on a lap and will fit into just about any bag. At 0.68 inches at its deepest point and 0.11 inches at its thinnest, it's extremely compact but still comes across as sturdy and well-built. New models are very slightly heavier than the 13-inch Air was, but at just under three pounds, it's still almost a non-factor for weight in your bag.
Competition is definitely tighter this time around, though, and it's not quite the case that Apple is the winner in every area. If you're interested in absolute thinness, the Samsung Series 9 tops out at 0.64 inches tall, although it doesn't taper off as dramatically as with the MacBook. Sony's 2011 VAIO Z is also very slightly thinner at 0.66 inches, but that thickness is consistent across the entire notebook and is practically thicker. Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 ironically looks like the "fat" model of the bunch with a body that's 0.84 inches thick and relatively weighty at 3.7 pounds.
Noise is, as you'd expect with a computer using a solid-state drive (SSD) and a low-voltage chip, quite low. The system isn't completely silent, though, and in a high-demand file transfer or 3D game, it becomes very audible. It's not as harsh as on the Sony VAIO S we tried.
Rivals sometimes do have a slight edge in some areas of expansion. The Series 9, for example, has built-in Ethernet and separate headphone and mic jacks. Apple does have a potential ace in the hole with Thunderbolt, however. How many ultraportables can link up to a multi-drive SSD storage array at full speed? It's no coincidence that Apple released the Thunderbolt Display, a 27-inch LCD with FireWire 800 and even gigabit Ethernet thrown in, at the same time as the new MacBook Air line. Link the Air to that screen and you effectively get a dockable (if low-end) iMac.
The catch, as you might expect, is adoption. Thunderbolt is a real standard and isn't locked into Apple, but its head start on the market has also meant just a trickle of devices so far. Most, like a Promise Pegasus RAID box and a LaCie Little Big Disk, are just fast external drives. That said, Apple is at least using a standard implementation that works with Mini DisplayPort; Sony's custom port, while it gives dedicated graphics and loads of expansion, will only ever be useful for that one dock.
Some of the same could be said for the stealth addition of Bluetooth 4.0, which has both a very low power mode and a "piggyback" feature from 3.0 that hands transfers over to Wi-Fi. Apple likely added the standard because it was a no-cost option. Actual Bluetooth 4.0 and even 3.0 devices are still rare.
In the cases of most of these systems, and certainly the MacBook Air, the real drawback for expansion is the amount of elements that are sealed in or otherwise inaccessible. Sealed-in batteries have so far not been issues in practice. RAM is much less of an issue now, too: with all 13-inch MacBook Air units and higher-end 11-inch models now shipping with 4GB standard, you no longer have to custom-order just to get beyond the frankly anemic 2GB of before. That memory is still soldered on to the board, though, and you can't go to 8GB or beyond if you're working with very large media files (full-length 1080p movies come to mind) and don't want to rely on virtual memory.
You can technically replace the SSD itself, since it sits on a standard connector, but it won't be easy. You'll have to shop for the very rare stick-shaped drives such as Toshiba's X-Gale series. And if you find one, you'll still need to find a way around Apple's odd decision to use pentalobular screws, such as iFixit's 5-point Torx Plus screwdrivers. With storage topping out at 256GB, anyone who works with video or large amounts of audio will quickly hit the ceiling. We can understand why Apple didn't go for more, since even 400GB and 512GB SSDs are exorbitantly expensive, but it won't change the limits for some prospective buyers.
Apple does still claim the crown for input. The keyboard remains a gold standard; it's comfortable and has a short but sure travel that makes it a pleasure to type on. And the 2011 design now cures one of the 2010 model's flaws with a backlit keyboard. Its absence was never fatal, but anyone who's been writing in a dark auditorium or classroom will immediately see the value of it. An ambient light sensor automatically tunes the brightness, so in most cases you don't have to think about whether or not you need it.
Apart from new controls to manually adjust the key brightness, the keyboard only has a slight change that swaps out the Dashboard shortcut in favor of one for Launchpad. We personally use Dashboard more and are sad to see it go, although the key will invariably be handy for newcomers who want access to their apps folder at all times.
No changes have been made to the trackpad, but this year, it's a lot more important. Apple's introduction of Mac OS X Lion now makes gestures extremely valuable for getting to the Dashboard, Launchpad, Mission Control, or just zooming in. It's a good thing, then, that the trackpad is both very large relative to the size and very smooth, responsive, and accurate. We've seen some good trackpads emerge on the Windows side, including the eerily familiar pad on the Series 9, but many of them are still slightly finnicky or still lack basic multi-touch gestures like two-finger scrolling.
Display and audio quality
The 13-inch Air is most conservative in its screen. The 1440x900 display is generally one of the better LCDs its size in the industry. It's not as high-resolution as others, but it has well-balanced color and is reasonably bright. It does wash out fairly quickly, though, suggesting that Apple's keeping prices down by using a TN (twisted nematic) panel, albeit a fairly good one. Day-to-day, our only real issue is a somewhat "flat" feel where MacBook Pros tend to look more vibrant.
There is one advantage to the Air's screen over that on a MacBook Pro, however, and that's glare. Both the new 11- and 13-inch Air systems have glossy displays, but the gloss has been toned down such that you almost wouldn't notice anything. You'll still want to think twice about computing at the park on a bright summer day; in most other areas, though, it's a lot less prone to highlights from lamps or open windows.
We're inclined to say Apple has struck a good balance between resolution and size. The Series 9's panel is too low resolution. The VAIO Z's stock LCD at 1600x900 is usable, but starting to get a bit small; with the optional 1080p panel, it gets to be ridiculous. A 1440x900 screen is as much resolution as a 15-inch MacBook Pro and, in our tests, gives as much practical workspace, just in a smaller size. If you wanted to go smaller than a MacBook Pro but didn't want to lose usable area, the 13-inch Air is nigh-on ideal.
Don't anticipate miracles from the built-in speakers. By necessity, they're not as large or as up front as on a MacBook Pro. Still, they can get surprisingly loud, and they're good for the many incidental sounds from apps and the OS.
Performance: objective and subjective tests
By far the biggest liability, and for some the only liability, on the 2010 MacBook Air was its processor choice. To keep reasonable graphics performance and avoid using Intel's then-sluggish integrated chipset, Apple used Core 2 Duos and a one-of-a-kind NVIDIA GeForce 320M chipset for video. It didn't sour the deal for some, but many took a pass on what they saw as a trailing edge processor in a premium machine.
All those disputes evaporate in the 2011 refresh. Apple has moved up to the newest ultra-low voltage Core i5 and i7 processors, and along with them gets Intel's newer HD 3000 graphics. You won't want to play a bleeding-edge game like Crysis 2 on this hardware, but we had success playing Portal 2 and Modern Warfare 2 with moderate amounts of detail at smooth (30-plus) frame rates at the native 1440x900 screen resolution. It's still not what you'd want to use for frequent gaming -- an Alienware M11x is a better pick for games in this size class -- but it's impressive that Intel video now has to be taken seriously.
In regular use, what's impressive is that the system doesn't choke like even better-equipped 2010 models did. A fairly heavy workload of ours, which can include a dozen Firefox tabs, Mail, Adium chat, Twitter, Photoshop, an FTP client, and iTunes, runs smoothly. Although the 1.7GHz Core i5 2557M is a step back in clock speed, it's much more efficient per clock. With Hyperthreading, it behaves like a quad-core processor some of the time in the OS and is very graceful at handling multiple simultaneous tasks. When it doesn't need both cores, it also gets a lot faster, at up to 2.7GHz on one core. Combine that with more memory bandwidth (1,333MHz versus 1,066MHz) and faster solid-state drives, and you can see why it's faster. Many of the bottlenecks are just gone.
And, as always, one of the kicks of an SSD-equipped notebook is watching the system fly by in tasks where a rotating hard drive would trip up. Booting is obviously quick and will take you from off to completely ready and online in about 24 seconds. The real thrill, though, comes from things like downloads or file transfers, which become much more consistently fast instead of fluctuating as a rotating hard drive reaches its limits. Apps launch very quickly, so if you're ever the sort who rushes into a class or meeting late, the extra 10 or 20 seconds you save may be worth it.
In more concrete, objective tests, the 2011 MacBook Air is more surprising still. In Geekbench, a test that works the processor, memory, and storage, the new Air really is about twice as fast as a similarly specified Core 2 Duo model at about 5,446 points. Startlingly, the Core i5 is even 14 percent faster than our outgoing 15-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.4GHz Core i5 and dedicated graphics that should, in theory, demolish the Air. The speeds get faster again when you option up the 1.8GHz Core i7. Some of that again comes from the SSD, but it's also a similar leap in memory speeds and just the improved performance per clock that give the Air the edge. If graphics aren't vital to you, the Air is only outperformed by Apple's current generation MacBook Pros, and then only in areas where storage speed isn't the deciding factor.
Cinebench is a bit less forgiving. As it leans heavily on the graphics chip, there's a clear gap in the frame rate for live rendering and a slight gap for 'offline' rendering. Even so, it's now in the performance territory of considerably larger notebooks, which could never have been said for the old model.
We should add that the 11-inch Air is now finally a first-class citizen in terms of performance. Although it starts out at a lower 1.6GHz Core i5, it will often run nearly as quickly as the 13-inch system, and it can use the same build-to-order Core i7 option as its larger sibling. It's now virtually the same system from a subjective point of view, so if screen size and the lack of an SDXC card slot don't matter to you, it's entirely reasonable to opt for the smaller model.
The 13-inch Air from last year was considered a minor hero for getting nearly seven hours of real battery life -- that is, with a realistic screen brightness and while performing a real task like web browsing. Even now, companies like Dell and Sony are still using very exaggerated claims that assume the system is basically unused and with a dim screen; it's not uncommon to see these systems lose 30 to 40 percent of their claimed battery life if you so much as open a web browser.
Moving to the faster Core processors and Intel integrated video hasn't hurt Apple's reputation. When running the screen at half brightness, with Bluetooth off and doing regular web browsing without much in the background, we managed to get six hours, 45 minutes of life. Heavy duty use will shrink that considerably, such as by using a 3G modem or through frequent downloading; we got about four hours and 30 minutes in an additional test with a very large download running non-stop in the background and with more background apps open. As such, it's not the all-day battery life from a modern Dell Latitude or an HP EliteBook, but it's enough to last through the practical part of a working day and in a much thinner and lighter package.
Those considering the 11-inch Air will have to remember that the lower battery life from the time should be true here as well. At five hours of claimed (and likely practical, based on reports) battery life, it will last through most situations but isn't for most heavy lifting or for when that work day revolves entirely around untethered use. For most casual use, the 11-inch system will be more than enough.
Lion on the MacBook Air
We mentioned in our Mac OS X Lion review that many of the features in the OS were designed around notebooks, and seemingly with smaller, flash-based notebooks like the MacBook Air in mind. That's all now proven true. The multi-touch gestures, Mac App Store (as well as other download stores), and app resuming are all seemingly tailor-made for the Air, where the large trackpad, the lack of an optical drive, and the fast SSD all either overcome limitations or take advantage of strengths. Full-screen apps make more sense on the 13-inch screen, although the 1440x900 resolution reduces the need for it.
You may find some reason for objection in the iOS influence. The 'natural' scrolling still feels off to us, and Launchpad is a translation of the iOS home screen metaphor to the desktop that doesn't entirely work if you have a large number of apps. Thankfully, you can either toggle some of these (such as the scrolling) or just ignore them (like Launchpad). On the whole, though, the polish and little tricks largely work in Lion's favor and are things Microsoft could take a lesson from. Windows 8 will take the desktop even further than Lion and is something to watch, although we'd note that it's not due until mid-2012.
This is also discounting iCloud, which wasn't active at the time of the review. Once it is, Apple will have an at least theoretically transparent way of syncing and pushing files without needing physical copies.
One thing Apple will likely always have over most Windows rivals is the clean install. The company is well known for strict control of what apps come preloaded on a Mac, and that works entirely in its favor. There are no antivirus trials threatening that your system will be compromised if you don't pay for a subscription; there are no third-party utilities you'll never use occupying the desktop or eating into system resources. The Air will always boot quickly and always run well unless you, the user, weigh it down with a lot of login items and background apps.
We did have an unusual problem with Migration Assistant between two Macs. Even when using Ethernet (through a USB adapter on the Air) and with Wi-Fi turned off, the Air kept flashing rapid-fire warnings that it had lost the connection to the source Mac and couldn't start a transfer. We're not sure how widespread this is, but it may behoove Mac users upgrading to the 2011 Air to use a Time Machine or SuperDuper backup instead.
There are still some for whom the MacBook Air won't be the ideal pick. If you're still heavily tied to disc-based software and aren't keen on spending the $79 for an external DVD drive (or hoping for a Remote Disc share), this won't be for you. Likewise, if you depend on FireWire or your pro work regularly take you past 4GB of active memory, Apple won't have changed your mind. We suspect Apple isn't trying to cater to everyone just yet.
What the processor, Thunderbolt, and Lion upgrades have done is to fit many more people into the Air's big tent. If you have a serious workload, it's genuinely realistic to get an Air. We're happy that we can do virtually everything we did on a year-old MacBook Pro at least as well as before, but in a package that's much smaller and certainly much lighter. If you'd told us a year ago that you could have an external drive on the Air that outperforms even the SSD inside, we'd have thought you were kidding.
Lion plays a big role just by making the OS more accessible and removing some of the hesitation around a notebook without an optical drive. If you're coming to the Mac as a Windows user only familiar with Apple through an iPad or an iPhone, the MacBook Air is seemingly crafted just for you. It's no surprise that an official Apple migration tool for Windows users is making its first hardware-based appearance on the MacBook Air.
The Air isn't the best at everything in the ultraportable space. If absolute speed is your desire and you're willing to pay at least a $400 premium over Apple, the Sony VAIO Z is faster and has a docking station already bundled in the box that turns it into a minor desktop replacement. Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 is also faster, has more expansion and is actually price competitive. Samsung's Series 9 is certainly the sleekest of Apple's immediate rivals, and if you're reading this in September 2011 or later, the ASUS UX21 is a virtual clone of the MacBook Air down to the processor speed.
And yet each of Apple's rivals here seems to trip up on an important feature. The VAIO's $2,000 minimum sticker relegates it to the highest end of users where even Apple's maximum 13-inch model with 256GB of storage tops out at $1,600. Samsung's Series 9, even with less expensive models, still can't catch the Air: it runs slower processors and yet still costs $50 more. And once again, Lenovo's X1 is nearly out of the class with a noticeably heavier and thicker design, even if it has a lot working in its favor.
We're left thinking that the MacBook Air succeeds by striking the right balances at the most points. It's very portable; it's fast; it's easy to use; it's long-lived; and in what's still a premium segment, it's affordable. If you want, you really can use the Air as your only notebook and, just possibly, as your only system. Apple made a risky bet when it dropped the white MacBook to make the Air its entry level, but after having tested an Air in some very demanding situations, it's clear the company is on to something.