MacBook Air (13-inch) hands-on
MacBook Air (11.6-inch)
A couple of things missing from the new Airs include an ambient light sensor and a backlit keyboard. The former might not be an annoyance (in fact, we prefer to dim the screen to our liking manually), but the latter can actually be a little problematic. When typing in dark settings, you now have almost no sense of which key is which, and even in low light (in front a TV, for instance), the lack of guidance on the keyboard is somewhat bothersome. It would be nice to see Apple give users a choice here, but especially on the 11 we're guessing that space, price, and battery requirements call for cuts from anywhere possible.
On the other hand, it's more than a little disappointing to find that the 13-inch Air also doesn't have a backlit keyboard, especially since the previous models had them. Apple went out of its way to extoll the space-saving virtues of its new all-flash storage setup, and we find it extremely hard to believe that the older model had room for both a regular hard drive and a backlit keyboard in an extremely similar case but the new model doesn't. If you're thinking about switching from a MacBook Pro to a new Air, the lack of keyboard lighting is definitely something to think about.
New MacBook Air vs first-gen MacBook Air... fight!
Besides those minor issues, there isn't a lot here that's changed from a standard unibody MacBook Pro, and anyone who's familiar with the company's line of laptops will feel right at home -- the keyboard and large glass trackpad feel almost identical to a regular MBP in day-to-day use. There's nothing terribly different or innovative about the industrial design of these devices (unless you count that intense taper), but they're still beautiful pieces of machinery. Apple really didn't have to go to great lengths to improve on an already great design... and they haven't.
Internals / Display
On the 13.3-incher, you've got two USB ports, a MagSafe connector, an SD card slot, and a Mini DisplayPort hookup, while the 11.6-inch model excises the SD slot (to our disappointment). Happily, the USB ports on both machines are on opposite sides, so you can use 3G adapters and other large USB peripherals at the same time without resorting to extenders; we can only hope this layout comes to Apple's other laptops soon. We also definitely missed the Ethernet port -- we use a wired connection whenever possible, and carrying around Apple's $29 adapter isn't wonderful, plus it takes up a valuable USB port.
The batteries, hard drive, and RAM are all kept under lock and key -- nothing here is removable or user upgradable (at least not easily). In fact, the RAM is hardwired to the logic board and the flash storage is located on a custom Mini PCI Express board, meaning that tweaking the internals is not really on the table for most users.
The display on the 13.3-inch is a 1440 x 900 glossy, LED-backlit affair, while the 11.6-incher sports a 1366 x 768 variation. If you're keeping track, that's the same resolution on the 13-inch as on the standard 15-inch MacBook Pro, and the extra real estate was just as usable on the smaller screen. The high pixel density of the 11 makes everything look a little smaller than usual, but it's not hard to get used to. Overall, both displays look stunning with wide viewing angles and excellent color reproduction, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that even though Apple is still going glossy on these displays, the coating used for the new Airs isn't nearly as reflective as those on the MacBook Pros. In fact, the coating seems to have more in common with older MacBooks and Airs, sporting a purple tinge which seems to deaden reflections. We found ourselves far less distracted on these screens, and we're hoping this becomes a trend (or, resumes as a trend). The devices can also run a secondary display via the Mini DisplayPort adapter at up to 2560 x 1600, if you're the docking type.
Performance / Battery life
CPU / GPU
||XBench Disk||XBench Quartz|
|11.6-inch MacBook Air (late 2010)||1.4GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 320m||2036||99.05||229.45||100.21|
|13.3-inch MacBook Air (late 2010)||1.83GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 320m||2717||132.54||231.87||143.04|
|15-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2009)||2.66GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 9600m GT||3735||188.93||39.07||202.69|
|Mac Mini (mid 2010)||2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce 320M||3385||/||/||/|
|15-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2010)||2.66GHz Core i7 / GeForce GT 330m||5395||218.96||/||/|
|15-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2009) (SSD)||3.06GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 9400m||4619||237.27||205.05||229.97|
|13-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2009) (SSD)||2.26GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 9400m||3234||159.97||211.41||176.37|
For users who aren't worried about HD video editing or the latest Quake, there's plenty of headroom on the Airs, and the tradeoff of power for battery life is probably worth it to many.
Speaking of battery life, Apple makes some pretty lofty claims about the new MacBook Airs. As usual, the company is touting high numbers for life on a single charge (seven hours of use for the 13.3-inch, 5 hours with the 11.6), thanks in part to a new multi-cell battery arrangement that takes up most of the insides of the laptops. Not only that, but the company boasts that the Airs are capable of 30 DAYS of standby time, thanks to those cells coupled with new power management features. You've probably heard that the MacBook Airs now sport "instant on," though that's not entirely accurate. The laptops still have to boot just like a normal computer, though boot times are greatly reduced due to the flash storage in place of a hard drive. What the "instant on" refers to is a new super-deep sleep mode which the laptops enter after about an hour of standard sleeping. This is how Apple is garnering that 30 day sleep cycle. Still, battery life was excellent in our testing. On the 11.6-incher, we nabbed nearly six hours of life on a single charge in medium usage (mostly web browsing, flash video watching, screen at nearly full brightness). In heavier usage, we still reached nearly the advertised five hours (just a little under five, actually). Same with the 13 -- we hit about 7.5 hours of standard usage and just about six when we started adding some more video playback to the mix.
Nilay Patel contributed to this review.
MacBook Air 11.6-inch (late 2010)
- Amazing industrial design
- Beautiful screen
- Great battery life
- Can be slightly sluggish at times
- No backlit keyboard
MacBook Air 13.3-inch (late 2010)
- Incredibly thin and light
- Excellent battery life
- Performance close to 13-inch MacBook Pro
- Weak amount of RAM
- No backlit keyboard