capsule review

Review: MacBook Air (first-generation)

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by Macworld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

1 2 3 Page 2
Page 2 of 3

Here, too, Apple has built new software to mitigate the loss of functionality. A new edition of the Migration Assistant utility, which used to focus on FireWire as a transport mechanism, now lets you transfer files across an Ethernet or Wi-Fi network directly from within the program. Using a network isn’t quite as fast as FireWire, but it does work.

The third port on the MacBook Air’s door, the headphone jack, is the simplest of the three to comprehend: attach it to a pair of headphones or an external speaker, and you’ll get sound. That’s a key feature, since the MacBook Air’s single internal speaker is small, tinny, and unfortunately located in the general vicinity of the arrow keys, in the bottom right corner of the keyboard. If your hand happens to be over that area—and mine was more often than not, since that’s a natural place for my right hand to be—you’ll find that your hand is muffling most of the sounds out of the MacBook Air’s speaker. Even if your hands are off, the asymmetrical placement of the speaker simply doesn’t feel right, since it places all the aural action happening on your Mac to the far right.

As you might expect with a laptop as small as the MacBook Air, it’s a tight fit back there at the port door. And that tight fit leads to some interesting compatibility issues, too. Many devices with integrated USB plugs, such as broadband cards and TV-tuner cards, may not be able to fit in without a short USB extension cable. (My external EVDO modem, from Franklin Wireless, came with such a cable, but it turns out I don’t need it—it fits snugly and works like a charm.)

Likewise, many large headphone plugs—the same ones that wouldn’t fit in the iPhone’s recessed headphone jack—will not fit completely in the MacBook Air’s headphone jack. The situation isn’t as dire as the iPhone, however—the bulky plug of my Ultimate Ears headphones would plug in far enough for me to hear my iTunes music playing clearly and in stereo. However, the plug didn’t seem to be quite well seated enough to fend off numerous high-pitched buzzes and clicks, which were particularly noticeable between tracks. Using an iPhone-style headphone adapter with a small plug seemed to solve those issues.

Limited options

During the MacBook Air’s introduction at Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs showed a photograph of the MacBook Air’s interior and compared the length of its motherboard to the length of a pencil. All that miniaturization comes at a price, however—in terms of a lack of options and a limited set of features for many of the MacBook Air’s basic technologies.

Take the hard drive. Its storage capacity is 80GB, the same size as the entry-level MacBook's. But the MacBook and MacBook Pro can be optionally configured with drives as large as 250GB. Those models use standard laptop drives; the MacBook Air uses a smaller 1.8-inch drive more like those found in iPods. And space is at such a premium in the MacBook Air that even the 120GB drive once used by the iPod is too thick to fit. As a result, 80GB is currently the only size of hard drive available for the Air. And the Air’s drive is slow and small, spinning at 4,200 rpm (compared to the 5,400-rpm and 7,200-rpm drives available in Apple’s other laptops) and connected via parallel ATA (rather than the newer Serial ATA method used in the other MacBooks).

There is another storage option for the Air. For $999, you can have Apple swap in a 64GB SSD (solid-state drive). Though you’ll be paying nearly a thousand bucks for 16GB less storage, the SSD option should use less power and be faster than the hard-drive option. (We weren’t able to acquire an SSD-bearing MacBook Air; we’ll share the results of our tests of that model as soon as we can.) Perhaps more importantly, the SSD—which uses flash memory like that found on digital camera cards, the iPhone, and the iPod nano and touch—has no moving parts, meaning it should be far more resistant to shocks and far more reliable than a traditional hard drive.

In any event, if you’re someone who needs more than 80GB of onboard storage, you’ll need to slim down your data before switching to an Air. I managed to switch from my nearly full 160GB MacBook drive through a judicious program of throwing out ancient applications and preferences, moving my media to other devices, and copying old files to an external hard drive and a networked file server. If your MacBook Air isn’t your primary system, but more of a sidekick to your desktop system, the drive size should be less of an issue.

There are a similar lack of options when it comes to the MacBook Air’s RAM. The MacBook Air comes with a stock 2GB of RAM, an excellent allotment—but Apple has a very practical reason to be so generous with the stock RAM. That’s because the MacBook Air’s RAM is built in to the computer itself, inaccessible and non-upgradeable. Fortunately, 2GB is a good amount. Any less, and Apple would have risked crippling the MacBook Air into irrelevance.

In terms of the onboard Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Apple gives MacBook Air buyers two speed options: the standard 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz, a $300 option. Both speeds fall short of what’s available on the MacBook (2.0GHz, 2.2GHz) and MacBook Pro (2.2GHz, 2.4GHz, 2.6Ghz) lines.

What it all boils down to is that one of the less obvious compromises built into the MacBook Air, at least for now, is a lack of customizability and serviceability.

Speed facts

Macworld Lab tested the MacBook Air’s $1,799 base configuration—a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor with an 80GB hard drive.

As you might expect from the slow clock speeds of its processor and the slow speed of its hard drive, the MacBook Air is quite a bit slower than the other MacBooks. The MacBook Air was also outpaced in our tests by one of its closest desktop cousins, the ultracompact Mac mini 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo. Its Speedmark score of 124 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 PowerBook G4. The MacBook Air is also clearly the slowest currently shipping Mac model.

MacBook Air Benchmarks

Speedmark 5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 10.5 Compr. 3 iMovie HD iTunes 7.5 Unreal Tourn. 2004 Finder H'brake

MacBook Air/1.6GHz Core 2 Duo 124 1:43 1:36 3:25 1:21 1:52 19.3 7:49 5:00
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 161 1:25 1:13 2:37 1:05 1:23 21.7 6:01 3:34
PowerBook/1.67GHz G4 92 2:59 3:52 7:43 1:58 2:26 22.2 7:13 16:55

Best results in red. Reference systems in italics. Smaller numbers better for everything but Speedmark and frame rates.

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. Photosho'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 6minute:26second 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. To see other Speedmark 5 scores for other systems, click here.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

My time with the MacBook Air came on the heels of using a 2.16GHz MacBook, and I found its speeds in day-to-day use to be perfectly sufficient. Using writing tools, checking e-mail, and surfing the Web, I generally found the difference in speed between the two systems to be minor. Using Photoshop CS3 to do some minor image tweaking seemed perfectly fine.

However, users who must rely on their portable systems to do processor-intensive tasks as fast as possible should be warned: the MacBook Air is not remotely as fast as the MacBook, let alone the MacBook Pro. But for general uses, I rarely noticed that the system was slower than my MacBook.

Though Apple’s laptops have long been criticized for running hot, sometimes intensely so, I’ve never been someone who’s been bothered by it, for whatever reason. In using the MacBook Air for extended periods of time, I found it never got particularly hot. It certainly never felt warmer than my MacBook. The heat, when it is apparent, is concentrated in the back left corner. But at no time did I judge the temperature back there as being uncomfortable or potentially injurious.

Battery included

One of the more controversial features of the MacBook Air is its battery. Not its rated battery life—although at five hours, even Apple’s estimate of the MacBook Air’s battery capacity is less than the six hours the company estimates for the MacBook and the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

No, the most controversial issue is that the MacBook Air’s battery is not replaceable. There’s no battery door, no way to swap a dead battery out and replace it with a fresh one—as with all other Apple laptops. Like an iPod or iPhone, the MacBook Air has a battery embedded inside, and there’s no official way to get it out other than giving your laptop back to Apple and asking the company to replace it for a fee. (Online reports suggest that the battery is relatively easy to replace—so long as you’ve got a screwdriver and some patience. In other words, replacing the battery is something to do when the original wears out, not something to do while on a long flight. And something to do if you’re not concerned about voiding your warranty.)

For some users, swapping batteries is a necessity. If you take long plane flights or otherwise travel for long periods of time without access to a power outlet, bringing along a second battery has been a time-tested tradition. With the MacBook Air, that safety net is gone.

Apple’s decision to eliminate the battery swap might not be quite as radical as you might first think, however. Many airlines already offer power outlets for laptops (though some plugs require Apple’s $49 MagSafe Airline Adapter), and in a few years they may very well be common, especially on long-haul flights. But that’s little solace if you fly from Boston to L.A. every week in the back row of a United flight where power plugs are just a rumor.

In my 12-inch PowerBook G4 days, I used to keep a second battery around, specifically for airplane flights. But honestly, since I upgraded to the MacBook I’ve never even removed my battery, except to install RAM or swap out the hard drive. One reason for that is a change in my in-flight habits: I use my laptop for work when I’m on the flight, but when I take breaks to entertain myself, I switch to an iPhone or iPod. By spreading the load out over multiple devices, each with their own batteries, I can get through the entire flight.

In the end, the lack of a replacement battery may be a deal-breaker for people who truly need more working time than the MacBook Air’s locked-in battery gives them. In my days using the MacBook Air—Web browsing, writing, and using e-mail, all with Wi-Fi turned on—I found that it held a charge for roughly three hours total. It was an acceptable, if not inspiring, amount of time.

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 (inluding both discharge and recharge time) soon to help clarify the issue.

The MacBook Air's power adapter itself is different from the ones sold with the MacBook and MacBook Pro—the Air’s slim design forced Apple to place its power connector on a curved edge on its left side, and the MacBook and MacBook pro adapters—though they’ll fit the connector itself—stick out straight, causing them to pop right off if you lay the MacBook Air flat on a desk or table. The MacBook Air’s connector, in contrast, turns at a right angle and nestles snug in the case’s curve.

Users of laptop stands may feel encouraged that they probably don’t have to invest in extra power adapters for the MacBook Air: my simple Road Tools Podium CoolPad raised the Air high enough up off my desk so that my existing 85-watt MagSafe adapter connected to the MacBook Air with room to spare.

Gesture of support

As is often the case when Apple introduces new MacBook models, the MacBook Air’s trackpad offers some functionality that we haven’t seen before on a MacBook.

1 2 3 Page 2
Page 2 of 3
Shop Tech Products at Amazon