11.6-inch MacBook Air review: Petite powerhouse

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With its latest update, the MacBook Air  inches ever closer to its high-powered siblings in the Pro line of Apple notebooks. With new Intel Core i5 and i7 processors that offer up to 2.5 times the performance of the previous Airs, they can probably suit the needs of many more a consumer, and likely a few more pro users, too. Here’s how I found the 11.6-inch Air met the task of replacing my 2009 13-inch MacBook Pro, and how it might work for you, too, depending on your needs.

Specs and stats

The 11.6-inch MacBook Air I’m reviewing has all the customization options available for the machine. That means a 1.8 GHz Core i7 Intel processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 256 GB SSD, and an Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated card with 384 MB of shared memory. The price before tax for this computer as reviewed is $1,649.

With those specs, I ran the Air through the Geekbench tests to determine how fast it was relative to my existing machine and previous Air models. On average after three tests, my Air scored 6308 on the tests. Higher scores on Geekbench are better, and that number is in line with (and slightly exceeds) the Geekbench scores for the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros from early 2010. The highest-scoring MacBook Air before this latest release was the top-of-the-line 2010 13-inch model, which rated just 3292 on Geekbench. The bottom line? Thanks to the new Core-series chips, these new Airs can handle quite the CPU load.

 

Real-world performance

The tale of the tape is promising, but how does the new Air respond to real-world challenges? Quite well. My typical workflow involves fairly heavy use of a browser (which is becoming Safari more and more often with OS X Lion), Twitter for OS X, Reeder for Mac, Mail, Sparrow and Photoshop. It can be a demanding mix, but the Air held up well. I was particularly impressed with Photoshop CS5’s performance on the Air; the program launches quickly, and photo editing doesn’t feel like a chore on this ultra-portable, as it can on some notebooks.

But how it behaves when running apps is only half the story. The Air has remarkable startup and shutdown times, thanks to its solid-state storage and Lion’s new emphasis of that as a feature. From the time I press the power button to full desktop takes only 16-18 seconds on average, and shutting down is even faster: around 2-5 seconds. But if you’d rather save yourself even more time, closing and opening the lid to enter and resume from sleep mode shaves off precious seconds.

Tradeoffs

Apple has reduced the sacrifices you have to make in exchange for the Air’s gains in portability and drive speed, but a few still exist, and they may be deal-breakers for some. For example, I found battery life on my Air to be just shy of that on my 2009 13-inch MacBook Pro, even though one has clearly been through far more cycles than the others. You can probably squeeze out the five hours Apple promises, but to do so, you’d have to go with keyboard illumination off (a shame because it’s such a welcome addition to the Air), a fairly low screen brightness and not very much multitasking or video viewing. With average use, I can probably get about three hours out of the Air, compared to about four on my MacBook Pro. The 13-inch Air, with its larger battery, should provide more usage for those looking for it.

Two other sacrifices are the lack of optical disc drive and relatively few ports. You don’t get an SD card slot on the 11.6-inch Air (though you do on the 13-inch), for example, and only two USB ports, with no FireWire and no Ethernet. Apple has brought Thunderbolt to the Air, however, which could more than make up for the lack of other on-device ports when hubs and other Thunderbolt accessories start hitting the market. It’s also worth noting that the Thunderbolt spec used in the new Airs is different from that used in Apple’s Pro notebooks and desktops, so you won’t be able to power more than one external display using it.

Like the Thunderbolt tech, the Air’s FaceTime camera isn’t exactly the same as those that ship with new iMacs and MacBook Pros, since it lacks the “HD” designation. Unless you do a lot of video calling and care deeply about resolution during said calls, however, this shouldn’t prove a major buying consideration.

The lack of an optical disc drive and the presence of only a few ports honestly don’t affect my opinion of the Air, but that’s because I use my notebooks almost exclusively while on the road. For those who want a laptop that can be both a docked desktop workstation and a road warrior, a Pro might be a better option.

Form factor and design

Arguably, the MacBook Air’s greatest asset is its unique hardware design. At just 0.68 inches at its thickest point, and only 2.38 pounds for the 11.6-inch model, it’s a portable computer that truly redefines the meaning of the term. The aluminum unibody construction, and the LED-backlit 1366×768 screen also make it very easy on the eyes, as does the new backlit keyboard. I also found that the screen, while glossy, was less prone to glare than the glass screen on my older MacBook Pro — a definite plus if you’re thinking about using the computer outside at all.

Of all the benefits of its design, it’s the weight that many will most appreciate. When held in hand with the unibody MacBook Pro, the difference is startling. And in a backpack or shoulder bag, the weight it adds is virtually unnoticeable. The only downside to its design that I can see is the inability to easily upgrade system components like RAM or storage, something which DIY aficionados might want to consider before making a purchase.

Verdict

The new MacBook Air is the best Air yet, which is saying a lot after the impressive update it received last year. If you’re currently working with an older Pro notebook and wonder if the Air is a suitable replacement, the answer is probably yes. If you bought the Air last year and are wondering if this Air is worth an upgrade, consider that the processor powering these latest models is two generations newer, and it shows. Like the iPad and the iPhone, the MacBook Air sets the standard for its entire device category, and the latest upgrade is a worthwhile raising of that bar.

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