MacBook Air: First Lab Tests

It was clear from the moment the MacBook Air was unveiled at Macworld Expo that it was a Mac laptop unlike any we’ve seen recently, if ever. In exchange for dramatically lighter weight and an extremely thin profile, Apple has definitely compromised when it comes to the MacBook Air’s tech specs. And the results of Macworld Lab’s preliminary tests of the MacBook Air reflect those compromises.

For this first set of tests, we used a default-configuration MacBook Air powered by a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with a 4200 rpm, 1.8-inch 80GB parallel ATA hard drive. The MacBook Air’s processor clock speed lags well behind current MacBook (2.0GHz or 2.2GHz) and MacBook Pro (2.2GHz, 2.4GHz, and 2.6GHz) models, and its hard drive is also slower than those used in the other models.

Our tests reveal that the slower processor and disk make the MacBook Air quite a bit slower than the other portables in Apple’s product line. The MacBook Air was also outpaced in our tests by the its closest desktop cousin, the ultra-compact 1.83GHz Mac mini Core 2 Duo.

Preliminary MacBook Air Tests

Speedmark 5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 10.5 Compr. 3 iMovie HD iTunes 7.5 Unreal Tourn. 2004 Finder H'brake
OVERALL SCORE SUITE RENDER MPEG2 ENCODE AGED EFFECT MP3 ENCODE FRAME RATE ZIP ARCHIVE H.264 ENCODE
MacBook Air 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo 123 1:46 1:37 3:24 1:20 1:47 19.3 7:55 5:02
MacBook 2GHz Core 2 Duo 170 1:30 1:06 2:25 0:58 1:16 22.2 5:16 3:10
MacBook Pro 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo 185 1:24 1:00 2:16 0:54 1:09 76.8 5:37 3:14
Mac mini 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo * 159 1:24 1:13 2:37 1:02 1:25 23.6 5:56 3:34
PowerBook 1.67GHz G4 92 2:59 3:52 7:43 1:58 2:26 22.2 7:13 16:55
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better <Better <Better

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics. * = System tested with Mac OS X 10.5.0.

Speedmark 5 scores are relative to those of a 1.5GHz Core Solo Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Finder scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.1 with 2GB of RAM. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We recorded how long it took to render a scene in Cinema 4D XL. We used Compressor to encode a six-minute, 26-second DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes - 4:3 setting. In iMovie HD, we applied the Aged Film ffect from the Video FX. menu to a one minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled. We created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 2GB folder.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, Jerry Jung, and Brian Chen.

Although none of our test results seem horribly out of whack with what one might expect from the MacBook Air given its modest specs, it’s necessary to provide some caution for these preliminary numbers. Testing a brand-new piece of Apple hardware is always a challenge, usually introducing wrinkles into our test procedures that require us to carefully plot out the best way to test a system. In the case of the MacBook Air, we discovered that one of our base assumptions—a series of tests involving startup and data loading over an Ethernet network—might be an issue with this system, which can connect to wired Ethernet networks only via a $29 add-on USB adapter. We’ve tested the system with and without the adapter, and will continue to investigate any effects the MacBook Air’s unique networking characteristics might have on our tests.

Similarly, one of our base tests—encoding an H.264 movie from DVD using HandBrake—requires the use of an optical drive. For this test, we used Apple’s optional $99 USB SuperDrive. And now that a Mac exists with no built-in Ethernet or optical drive, we’ll have to re-evaluate our use of those tests when we build the next update to our Speedmark test suite. In the meantime, keep in mind that we will continue to test the MacBook Air as well as reference systems, and as a result future test scores for these systems may vary from what's reported here.

Speaking of Speedmark, the MacBook Air’s score of 123 is the lowest score we’ve recorded for any Intel-based Mac laptop, but it does handily beat our PowerPC laptop reference system, the 1.67Ghz 15-inch PowerBook G4.

Of course, the MacBook Air’s appeal is not about blazing speeds, but about small size and weight. However, these tests do give some indication about what level of performance users will have to give up if they’ve decided to forego a MacBook or MacBook Pro for the thin embrace of the MacBook Air.

There’s a whole lot more MacBook Air coverage coming from Macworld.com. Stay tuned in the coming days for more hands-on commentary, lab testing, and a full review of both the base model and — when it arrives in our Lab — the high-end 1.8GHz model powered by the 64GB solid-state drive.

Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director.

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