There comes a time when that giant, corporate-issued laptop stops fitting into your lifestyle. When dragging around a Kensington roller case just won't do. When you start to hear the siren lilt of something thinner, lighter, and maybe a bit more alluring. For years the MacBook Air has been that svelte temptress hollering your name, but it's always been a bit too slow -- all show and no go. It didn't have the power and the longevity to make it a serious contender for your serious affections.

No more. With its latest refresh, Apple has taken what was once a manilla-clad curiosity and turned it into a legitimate machine, not just a sultry looker. Good thing, too, because the death of the plastic-clad MacBook means the Air is now Apple's entry-level portable. Weary traveler looking for a laptop that will lighten your load and, it must be said, your wallet too? This might just be it.
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MacBook Air Review

Apple

MacBook Air (mid 2011)

Pros

  • Huge performance improvement
  • Thunderbolt port
  • Backlit keyboard

Cons

  • Middling screen resolution
  • No matte option
  • Expensive
Summary

Hardware


The outside of this 2011 refresh of the MacBook Air is virtually indistinguishable from that which came before it. Yes, that means compromises. On the 13-inch model you'll still have to make do with but one USB port on the left and one on the right, but now that latter one is flanked by a Thunderbolt connector, Apple's implementation of Intel's Light Peak standard. This 10Gb/sec interconnect has become standard fare on all new machines coming out of Cupertino, a fact that should help to accelerate the so-far tardy uptake in support from accessory manufacturers.

The 11-inch model is likewise emblazoned, but sadly has still not been granted an SD reader, something restricted to the bigger 13. On the left you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, the MagSafe power connector and... nothing else. All other ports have been deemed unnecessary by Apple's designers and therefore relegated to myriad USB adapters for things like Ethernet -- though if you start relying on those you'll likely need to start packing a USB hub as well.

Like before, the omission of these ports leaves the Air free to pinch down to a delicious taper beneath the keyboard, thin enough to make for a decent cleaver when no proper blade can be found -- or when you just can't be bothered to find one. Even on the fat end it measures a mere .68-inches (17mm) thick. Or thin, rather.


So what has changed? The touchpad, surprisingly. It's still big and glassy and situated in the middle of the full-sized palm rest like on the chunkier Pro. Now, though, it's subtly quieter, with a more refined sound and feel as you click away. The previous generation almost feels hollow and has an annoying resonance that's been banished.

The keyboard above, too, has a better feel. Keys are more springy than before, more solid and responsive than the somewhat loose, flappy ones on the last generation. But the biggest change here is what's lurking beneath the keys: a backlight. Yes, you'll now be able to do things like adjust volume, change track, and hit that damned ^ character in the dark. And, thanks to the ambient light sensor hidden in the bezel, you won't have to worry about those keys blinding you in bed.

Internals / Display


Step inside the case and you'll find the most important changes here: new Intel Core i5 and i7 ULV processors. The backlit keyboard is nice, and the addition of Thunderbolt could be a boon in 12 months or so, but its the new selection of processors that really turn the Air into a serious machine, as you'll see when we talk benchmarks in a bit.

On the memory front, 4GB of DDR3 memory is found on all but the base 11-inch model, which gets by with half that. SSDs are standard across the board, starting at 64GB for the 11 and going up to 256GB for the top-shelf 13-inch. Intel HD 3000 graphics power the lot and stock processors include 1.6GHz and 1.7GHz Core i5's, though a 1.8GHz Core i7 is available for $100 more.

When it comes to displays nothing has changed: the 13-inch model features a 1440 x 900 glossy, LED-backlit panel while the 11 still does 1366 x 768. We spent our time testing the 13-incher and, as before, it continues to impress when it comes to contrast, brightness, and viewing angles, which are plenty wide enough to enable two-person, coach-class viewing of that latest episode of Top Gear. Contrast is helped by the glossy sheen here -- and no, you still can't option out a matte unit.

We still found its resolution to be more than adequate for most tasks but just a bit limiting for anyone working on photos or doing anything where pixels really count. Honestly, that wasn't much of a concern before thanks to the lack of power, but now...

Performance / Battery life


When it comes time to actually use the thing, when the Air isn't just dead weight in your bag that you want as little of as possible, how does it actually perform? This is when the previous models faltered, and this is where the new Air excels.

When last we tested an Air, the 13-inch model with a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo processor scored a 2,717 on the GeekBench benchmark. This new 13, configured with the default 1.7GHz Core i5 and paired with 4GB of DDR3 and a 128GB SSD, nearly doubled that: 5,373. No, that won't threaten the full-bore 15-inch MacBook Pro for sheer speed, but double the performance in nine months is a welcome improvement, living up to Apple's 2x promises here, and from what we've seen elsewhere the 11-inch lives up to its 2.5x promises as well.

OS X Benchmarks Geekbench Xbench OpenGL
Battery Life
MacBook Air (mid 2011) (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5373 unavailable 5:32
MacBook Pro (early 2011) (2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM, Radeon HD 6750M / Intel Graphics 3000) 9647 340.1 (Radeon) / 157.78 (Intel) 7:27
MacBook Pro (early 2010) (2.66GHz Core i7-620M, GeForce GT 330M) 5395 228.22 5:18
iMac (mid 2010) (3.06GHz Core i3-540, Radeon HD 4670) 5789 unavailable n/a
iMac (late 2009) (2.8GHz Core i7-860, Radeon HD 4850)
8312 191.08 n/a
MacBook Air (late 2010) (1.83GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce 320M) 2717 117.38 4:34

We also threw Windows 7 on there, Boot Camp making it easy, and ran through a further suite of benchmarks to see how it fares there. PCMark Vantage clocked in at 9,484, actually higher than the 15-inch Pro's 8,041 when we tested it, though the Air's 3DMark 06 score was considerably lower thanks to the limited graphics prowess here, just 4,223. So, it's still no gaming rig, but it is the sort of machine you wouldn't think twice about trying to do some serious business on.


Now, as we all know benchmarks only tell a part of the story, but we're happy to report that the numbers really do fall in line with our impressions here. This machine boots to a Lion login screen in a snappy 15 seconds, apps load quickly, batch photo jobs finish much more promptly, and overall in our time with this machine we did a lot less waiting and a lot more working. But, just like before, be prepared to listen to the thing's internal cooling fan register its complaints whenever utilization rates start climbing.

Windows Benchmarks PCMarkVantage 3DMark06
Battery Life
MacBook Air (mid 2011) (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000, Under Windows 7) 9484 4223 4:12
MacBook Pro (early 2011) (2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM, Radeon HD 6750M, under Windows 7) 8041 10,262 unknown
HP Envy 14 (Core i5-450M, Radeon HD 5650) 6038 1928 / 6899 3:51
Toshiba Portege R705 (Core i3-350M) 5024 1739 / 3686 4:25
Sony VAIO Z (Core i5-450M, NVIDIA 330M) 9949 6,193 unknown
Samsung Series 9 (Core i5-2537M) 7582 2240 4:20
Dell XPS 14 (Core i5-460M, NVIDIA 420M) 5796 1955 / 6827 2:58
Notes: For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with the discrete GPU off (if possible), the second with it on.

Despite that, we had no issues with battery life. On our standard rundown test, where we'll loop a video until the machine calls it quits, the new Air clocked in at just over five and a half hours. That's well more than the Lenovo X1 recently managed on the same test and actually about an hour more than last year's model managed when we dusted it off and ran it through the same wringer. Even running Windows the Air managed 4:12 on the same rundown test, on par with the Samsung Series 9.

In standard usage, surfing and typing and Facebooking and such, you should be able to do much better. The Air routinely beat our expectations -- and its own estimates -- for battery life. The seven hours Apple advertises for the 13 (five for the 11) is well within reach if you're not doing anything too taxing. And of course that's a good thing, because you won't be replacing the battery here without a screwdriver.

Wrap-up


The 2011 MacBook Air addresses nearly every concern anyone could lob at its predecessor. It's still light on ports, the missing SD slot on the 11-inch model is a drag, and no, it isn't cheap, but this machine is fast, efficient, and not to be underestimated. It's a supermodel with a law degree from Columbia, a hunky motorcycle racer who looks good in leathers yet is also a concert pianist -- whatever your passion it won't disappoint, all while making a lot more room in your bag. More room for what? Well, your life, for starters.

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