The MacBook Air has never exactly been a simple product to review. Since the laptop's launch back in the heady days of 2008, we've always considered it a niche, high-end product and much less a mainstream system. Originally, the wafer-thin (and somewhat underpowered) laptop sold for a painful starting price of $1,799, and had its fair share of problems. Well, we've come a long way from Apple's original play, with two all-new models of the Air. The first is an update to the standard 13.3-inch model priced at a significantly cheaper $1,299, while the newest entrant to the MacBook family is a tiny 11.6-inch model that's nearly the size of an iPad -- and not wildly more expensive, starting at $999. Of course, over time the market for laptops of this type has gotten quite crowded, with a slew of ULV-based thin-and-lights that offer lots of options for lots of budgets. Do the new MacBook Airs have enough to take on a crowded market, or have they been bumped out of the game altogether? Read on for the full Engadget review to find out!
The new MacBook Airs don't look wildly different than their predecessors, but they certainly feel more solid than previous generations. Besides having trimmed down here and there, Apple's unibody construction seems more fully realized on these laptops, and holding one in your hand (or on your lap) definitely promotes a feeling of confidence in build quality. The laptops have been trimmed down -- the 13.3-inch model measures just 12.8 inches by 8.94 inches (with a thickness of 0.68 inches tapering to 0.11 inches at its smallest point), and weighs a meager 2.9 pounds. The minuscule 11.6-inch version, meanwhile, is just 11.8 inches by 7.56 inches, and weighs 2.3 pounds. We spent a lot of our time with the junior laptop, and we can tell you that even next to its big brother, it does feel amazingly small and light. On the other hand, the new 13 is much more of an iterative refinement of the previous-gen Air -- they're virtually the same size, with the new Air just a hair thinner than the outgoing model, but its squared-off sides and sharper edges make it feel a bit more compact, and Apple's buttonless trackpad replaces the older single-button affair. It's weird, but the old 13-inch Air almost seems chubby in comparison to the new model.
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.
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
Neither of these laptops are powerhouses, but that's not really the point. Inside the 13.3, the base configuration is a 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo CPU (yes, the very same as the previous version), an NVIDIA GeForce 320M integrated GPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Those options can be changed to include a 2.13GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. The 11.6 comes in even lower, starting out with a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, the same GeForce 320M, 2GB of RAM, and a 64GB SSD, and can be bumped to 1.6GHz, 4GB of RAM, and 128GBs of storage. One thing to point out -- the "SSD" chips are not enclosed in a drive housing, and Apple simply refers to them as flash storage. We tested the 11.6-inch with the base 1.4GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage, and the 13.3-inch with a 1.83GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage.
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
As far as CPU performance is concerned, you can see by these Geekbench and Xbench rankings that neither of these are barnstormers, but that's not to say that their performance isn't good. The very low-powered 11.6-inch unit obviously had the bigger issues: while it generally acted just like you'd expect a Mac to act -- windows, applications, and new browser pages loaded quickly, and graphically heavy features like Expose seemed to have no trouble -- we did notice some occasional stuttery behavior while scrolling heavy webpages and galleries, and full HD video in YouTube did not play back smoothly. (Maybe we can blame that on Flash... we're sure Apple does). Still, the overall feeling was snappy and bug-free. We had fewer problems on the 1.83GHz 13-incher -- 1080p Flash played back with no hesitation, as did 1080p H.264 video from Apple's movie trailers site. In fact, the 13-incher's raw scores are pretty close to the low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro, which contains a marginally faster 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo and the same GeForce 320M, but a much slower traditional hard drive. On the gaming front, we pulled between 30 and 60 FPS playing Portal on the 13, which isn't exactly spectacular, but was far better than we expected. The fan did kick on as soon as we started playing, which was fairly jarring -- it's not super quiet, and it's a definite contrast to the general Air experience, which is dead silent.
CPU / GPU
11.6-inch MacBook Air (late 2010)
1.4GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 320m
13.3-inch MacBook Air (late 2010)
1.83GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 320m
15-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2009)
2.66GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 9600m GT
Mac Mini (mid 2010)
2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce 320M
15-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2010)
2.66GHz Core i7 / GeForce GT 330m
15-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2009) (SSD)
3.06GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 9400m
13-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2009) (SSD)
2.26GHz Core 2 Duo / GeForce 9400m
(Obviously we didn't have numbers where they're omitted.)
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.
Make no mistake about it, the new MacBook Airs are very good laptops. What they lack in speed and power, they make up for in build quality and big time battery life. Add to that gorgeous displays, solid state storage, and the unquestionably stable OS X, and the concoction makes for a nearly irresistible offering... provided you've got the cash. When it comes to the 11.6-incher, it's hard to see it as our main laptop (emphasis on our): it's a great companion for bed, the TV, and short trips, but it's not quite enough to take the place of our MacBook Pro. The 13-inch, on the other hand, may have just enough juice to become a lot of people's one and only; it was consistently surprising to us during our testing. In terms of price and performance, there is still a discrepancy from where Apple is compared with the rest of the industry. For instance, you can scoop up the excellent Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 11 for about half the price of the cheapest Air, there are powerhouses like the Alienware M11x in the market, and Dell is whipping out models like the Inspiron M101z. Still, it's hard to deny that the fit, finish, lower pricing, and overall performance of the new Airs makes them desirable and imminently usable laptops, and for many, that's going to take the sting out of the Apple tax.
Nilay Patel contributed to this review.