From the Lab: Building a better MacBook Air

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Macworld Lab continues to dive into the myriad build-to-order configurations Apple offers for its latest hardware releases. Last time, we looked at the 3.2GHz Mac Pro; this time around, it’s a build-to-order MacBook Air.

Jason Snell published his review of the MacBook Air a week ago, rating the standard $1,799 system—a laptop with a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 80GB Parallel ATA hard drive, and 2GB of RAM. Though the MacBook Air is not user-upgradeable, you can choose from a few build-to-order options when ordering, such as a faster processor and faster solid-state internal hard drive. Graphics and memory options, however, are unfortunately not available.

The first of our custom MacBook Air models has arrived—a $3,098 laptop with a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a 64GB Solid State hard drive. Our benchmark results show that it outperforms a standard-issue MacBook Air by 14 percent in our overall system performance benchmark, Speedmark 5. As always, you can find more Speedmark 5 results here.

1.8GHZ MacBook Air Benchmarks

Speedmark 5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 10.5 Compressor 3 iMovie HD iTunes 7.5 Unreal Tournament 2004 Finder HandBrake
MacBook Air/1.8GHz Core 2 Duo (with solid-state drive)* 141 1:42 1:32 3:20 1:18 1:47 19.1 6:42 4:56
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 G4/1.67GHz 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 red. Reference systems in italics. * denotes build-to-order configuration.

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 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. For the Professional Application Multitasking suite, we recorded how long it took Photoshop to run our standard test suite while a longer Cinema4D task and our Compressor encode test ran in the background.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

With the processors running a little more than 12 percent faster in this custom 1.8Ghz system, some of the credit for the speed improvement must be given to the new hard drive. Indeed, the SSD-equipped model started up in just 31 seconds, much faster than the 46 seconds it took the 1.6GHz, PATA drive model. The custom system was also 14 percent faster at creating a Zip archive of a 2GB folder.

In other tests, like Compressor and Cinema4D, the 1.8GHz Air was only about 4 percent faster than the standard Air model. And in others involving HandBrake, Photoshop, iMovie and Unreal Tournament, the performance differences were even smaller.

So what do these results mean to you? Even with the speed improvement in the build-to-order MacBook Air, those looking for stellar application performance should still look elsewhere, even the low-end MacBook 2GHz model was 21 percent faster overall than the fastest MacBook Air in our Speedmark tests.

We hope to get our hands on one more configuration—a 1.8GHz MacBook Air with the standard PATA drive. That should help us isolate the performance differences between the two drive technologies. Stay tuned.

[James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.]

This article was reposted to correct an error in the percentage difference in clock speeds between the two MacBook Air models.

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