MacBook Air: More tests

It’s been three weeks since I reviewed the MacBook Air, and in the intervening time we’ve gathered a whole lot more information about Apple’s latest, and lightest, laptop. With a month of use under our belts and solid lab testing of three different MacBook Air configurations, it’s time for a follow-up look at the MacBook Air.

Clock speeds, hard drives, and speed

Macworld’s initial review of the MacBook Air was based on its stock $1,799 configuration, which features a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 80GB of storage provided by a 1.8-inch traditional hard drive. In the intervening weeks, we’ve obtained two 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Airs: one with the same 1.8-inch 80GB hard drive, and one with 64GB of flash memory as its primary internal storage device (what Apple calls a solid-state drive, or SSD.)

With those three models, we can begin to extrapolate the effects of the MacBook Air’s two main build-to-order configuration options, the $300 processor-speed upgrade and the $999 SSD upgrade.

The results aren’t surprising, though they will probably be disappointing to those who had hoped that the extra investment in the SSD option would result in dramatically improved performance. Both upgrades improved performance, with the processor upgrade improving calculation-based tasks such as 3-D rendering and video encoding, and the SSD upgrade improving disk-intensive tasks such as duplicating a file or launching Adobe Photoshop.

In terms of Speedmark, our battery of general-use tests, the base MacBook Air model scored a 124. The Macbook Air with the same hard drive but a 1.8GHz processor improved to a score of 130. The model with both the 1.8GHz processor and the SSD earned a score of 140. To put that in percentage terms, the $299 processor upgrade improved the overall speed of the system by 4.8 percent, while the $999 drive upgrade improved the speed by 7.7 percent.

MacBook Air variations

Speedmark 5Adobe PS CS3Cinema 4D XL 10.5iMovie HDiTunes 7.5Unreal Tourney 2004FinderFinderH'brake
OVERALL SCORESUITERENDERAGED EFFECTMP3 ENCODE FRAME RATEFILE DUPLICATEZIP ARCHIVEH.264 ENCODE
MacBook Air/1.8GHz Core 2 Duo, 80GB PATA Drive *1301:421:321:161:4819.51:166:594:53
MacBook Air/1.8GHz Core 2 Duo, 64GB SSD *1401:461:321:181:4718.41:046:424:56
MacBook Air/1.6GHz Core 2 Duo1241:431:361:211:5219.31:117:495:00
MacBook 2GHz Core 2 Duo1701:301:060:581:1622.21:015:163:10
MacBook Pro 2.2GHz185 1:241:000:541:0976.81:005:373:14
Mac mini 1.83GHz Core2Duo 1611:251:131:051:2321.70:596:013:34
PowerBook 1.67GHz G4922:593:521:582:2622.21:047:1316:55

Best results in red. Reference systems in italics. * denotes build-to-order model.

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 6:26 DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes - 4:3 setting. In iMovie, we applied the Aged Film effect 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

Of course, speed isn’t the only reason to invest in the SSD option. In theory, its lack of moving parts make it a safer storage device, because it’s not eligible for the mechanical failures that hard drives with spinning platters can suffer. However, until we get a long-term read on the reliability of the SSD, that advantage remains theoretical.

Life with the SSD

I’ve spent the past two weeks using a 1.8GHz MacBook Air equipped with the 64GB solid-state drive as my primary system. As difficult as it was for me to remove files from my MacBook in order to fit on the Air’s stock 80GB drive, moving to the SSD was almost impossible. My only recourse was to move my 10GB Windows disk image from Parallels Desktop to an external drive. By sacrificing my ability to run Windows wherever and whenever I wanted, I was able to fit within the narrow confines of that 64GB drive.

Generally, I found using the SSD to be perfectly normal. It doesn’t seem to behave differently from any other Mac hard drive I’ve used. Yes, when using the Air with a traditional hard drive, I would occasionally feel a slight vibration and hear a tick-tick-ticking sounds that’s completely absent from the SSD model. But it was never loud enough to be a bother.

In terms of speed, there are two ways to measure things: the cold, hard reality of numbers and the fluffy, fuzzy world of anecdote. Here’s a splash of cold, hard reality from Macworld Lab:

MacBook Air Solid State Drive compared

Launch PhotoshopPhotoshop action scriptDuplicate 1GB file
MacBook Air/1.8GHz Core 2 Duo, 64GB SSD *0:101:441:04
MacBook Air/1.8GHz Core 2 Duo, 80GB PATA drive *0:251:471:16
MacBook Air/1.6GHz, 80GB PATA drive0:291:531:11
MacBook 2.2 (black) with standard 160GB SATA drive0:221:200:56

Best results in red. Reference system in italics. * denotes build-to-order model.

All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.1 with 2GB of RAM. We dropped a 100MB file onto the Adobe Photoshop CS3 application icon and recorded how long it took to launch and open the file. We then ran a script with seven Photoshop Actions and recorded the time each system took to complete the task with that 100MB file. We duplicated a 1GB file on the desktop.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH AND BRIAN CHEN.

As you can see from the above table, launching Photoshop on the SSD version of the MacBook Air is stunningly fast. I’ve noticed that other applications also seem to launch much faster on the SSD Air. Similarly, the Air with SSD feels more responsive when running numerous programs at once—possibly because the speedy SSD makes the swapping of programs between RAM and disk faster.

The following table shows just a few of the tests that make up our Speedmark 5 tests. As you can see, tasks involving the hard drive go faster on the SSD model; for tests dependent on the processor, the 1.8GHz MacBook Air with the standard PATA drive fared better.

Assorted Speedmark Tests

MacBook Air/1.8GHz Core 2 Duo (with SSD) * MacBook Air/1.8GHz Core 2 Duo (with PATA drive) * MacBook Air/1.6GHz Core 2 Duo (with PATA drive)
Startup 32 48 47
Duplicate 1GB File 64 76 71
Zip 2GB folder 402 419 469
Unzip 2GB folder 137 146 148
Word scroll 100 96 116
Pages Search/Replace 212 211 232
MP3 Encode 107 108 112
iMovie Export to email 40 65 69
iMovie Aged Filter 78 76 81
Download E-mail 153 149 170
Web Browser 66 61 66
iPhoto import 100pics 57 83 89
Photoshop CS3 106 101 103
Compressor 200 198 205
HandBrake 296 293 300
Cinema 4D 10.5 92 92 96

Times are in seconds. * denotes build-to-order model.

If, as we’ve argued before, the story of the MacBook Air is one of compromises, then my personal opinion is that the SSD option is simply a compromise too far. Is the SSD’s minor speed improvement—along with the fringe benefits of no moving parts and completely silent operation—really worth an extra thousand dollars? If money is no object and the amount of data you need on your laptop is extremely limited—in other words, if you’re planning on using the Air as a secondary system and spending an extra $999 for an add-on doesn’t make you blink—then the SSD option is for you. For anyone else, I think it’s an unnecessary luxury, a high-priced item that offers little in the way of tangible value and comes at the cost of valuable storage space.

A battery of tests

My original review of the MacBook Air noted:

My attempts to recharge the Air’s battery took a surprisingly long time. Apple says that the behavior I witnessed doesn’t really fit with any of its testing; we’re working with Apple to get to the bottom of the issue and Macworld Lab will do further battery testing (including both discharge and recharge time) soon to help clarify the issue.

In the intervening time, we’ve continued to be a bit perplexed by the MacBook Air’s battery characteristics, which don’t really track with what we’ve seen from other Mac laptops. Our discussions with Apple officials indicated that what we were seeing—namely extremely large recharge times—weren’t something that they were seeing.

With a bit more time, a pattern did emerge, however: our first few attempts to recharge a completely empty battery took approximately forever. In two occurrences, it took more than 10 hours to charge a battery up from depletion to a 100-percent charge. In several others, it took between eight and nine hours. (In contrast, it took a MacBook less than four hours and a MacBook Pro less than three and a half hours.)

That’s the bad—or weird—news. The good news is, over time this symptom appears to abate. While it can take a long time to fully charge the battery, we found that it was generally the last few percentage points that took up a lot of the time. And in situations where the battery wasn’t completely depleted, the battery filled up much faster. In three weeks of regular use, I’ve found my MacBook Air’s battery behavior to be more in line with what I’ve seen from other Apple laptops. But there’s no doubt that right out of the box, the MacBook Air’s battery is a bit of a slowpoke, and it takes a bit of use before it seems to snap out of it.

Apple’s own internal battery testing indicates that the MacBook Air’s battery doesn’t have as long a life as those on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, and our tests bear that out. In our worst-case-scenario battery testing, we looped a QuickTime movie at full display brightness and with all energy-saving settings turned off. In those tests, the MacBook Air tended to run out of juice about 30 to 45 minutes sooner than either the MacBook Pro or the MacBook. (The MacBook Air with SSD showed a bit more life than the models with standard hard drives, though we didn’t run our tests enough times to make a definitive statement about how much power savings, if any, might be attributable to the solid-state drive.)

In real-world use, I found that I was able to squeeze acceptable battery life out of the MacBook Air by reducing its extremely bright screen to roughly half brightness. Modifying the settings in the Energy Saver preference pane to more aggressively dim the screen and put the computer to sleep also helped me extend battery life. In the end, I found that I could coax the MacBook Air into giving me enough battery life to fit in with my roaming style. However, users who seriously tax their batteries will need to think twice before choosing the Air, since not only is its battery not swappable, but it’s not as capacious as its heavier cousins.

What’s it worth to you

The public reaction to the MacBook Air has been fascinating to watch. My review — 5,000 words that could probably be boiled down to “it’s good for people it’s good for, and not for people it’s not” — appeared to be a Rorschach test for readers, since I seemed received praise from MacBook Air critics and fans alike. Across the Internet I’ve seen similar reactions, with some users embracing the product despite its compromises, and others attacking it as a product with no purpose other than to part fools from their money.

Not to sound like a broken record, but how you see the Air has a lot to do with your priorities. For people like my colleague Glenn Fleishman, the Air’s lack of a swappable battery and its underpowered processor make it a terrible value proposition. In a frank exchange of 140-character comments on Twitter, Glenn told me that “the price difference is insane versus weight, like paying for black on a MacBook [or] buying a boat.”

I see Glenn’s point, but I completely disagree with it, largely because of the value I place on size and, especially, on weight. For me, losing those two pounds makes the Air worth the other compromises. If you’re someone who places a value of going from five pounds to three, you’ll be able to make that calculation using the same math that I use. If you’re someone who doesn’t see that value, go no further — the Air was not made for you, and you shouldn’t buy one.

Would the Air be better if it had a fast processor and more hard drive space? Absolutely. In fact, the most critically lacking feature of this product (for me, anyway) is its lack of internal storage. I’ve seen numerous users who insist that the MacBook Air is not meant to be a standalone product, but is meant to be a secondary system for someone who also has a primary Mac at home or at work. I’ve yet to see Apple market the product that way, but there’s no disputing that the Air works best as a secondary system — entirely because of its lack of storage. For someone like me, who prefers to use a laptop as my one and only system, fitting my data into the Air’s tiny hard drive is far more painful than going from a 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo processor back to a 1.6GHz model.

[Jason Snell is editorial director of Macworld.]

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