capsule review

11- and 13-inch MacBook Air (Late 2010)

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The 11-inch Air is only 11.8 inches wide (a full inch narrower than the 13-inch model), 7.56 inches deep (1.4 inches less deep), and a scant 2.3 pounds (nine ounces lighter). Apple’s $999 white MacBook weighs more than twice as much! The original MacBook Air made all the other MacBooks in Apple’s product line feel like boat anchors; the 11-inch MacBook Air makes the 13-inch Air feel heavy. It’s a little bit crazy.

But while the 11-inch Air is small and light, it doesn’t feel cramped. Part of that is due to the high-resolution display, which packs more pixels into its compact 11.6-inch diagonal screen than fit on the screen of that 13-inch white MacBook. Sporting a 16:9 aspect ratio (1366 by 768 pixels), it’s a bit wider than most Apple laptop displays, and 768 pixels is the bare minimum number of vertical pixels you’d want in a modern Mac display. However, most modern Mac software has been designed with widescreen aspect ratios in mind—and the extra width of the 16:9 display is what keeps it from not feeling cramped.

Like the 13-inch Air, the 11-inch model managed to fit a lot of pixels into a small area of physical space, meaning it’s got a higher-resolution display than most other MacBooks. (It’s actually more comparable to the screen resolution of an iPad.) Because the Mac OS X interface isn’t independent of screen resolution, the result is that everything on the MacBook Air’s screen seems a little bit smaller than it does on most other Macs. As with using the 13-inch model, I adjusted to the new resolution within a few hours, with the exception of changing a few default font sizes and finding myself pressing Command-plus in Safari a bit more often to increase the size of Web pages.

When the MacBook Air was first introduced in 2008, it was criticized for its high price: $1799 to start, with a $1000(!) 64GB flash storage option. Over the past two years Apple has made some progress in turning the Air into a more affordable computer, but with the 11-inch model the company has made a breakthrough. The base-model 11-inch Air costs $999, the same price as the previous low-price laptop leader, the white MacBook. Granted, for $999 you only get a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 64GB or flash storage—but unless you’re shopping for a desktop-replacement system that’ll do heavy-duty video and audio editing, I’m not sure it matters.

For an extra $200, Apple’s offering the 11-inch Air with 128GB of flash storage. While both models can be factory-upgraded from the stock 2GB of RAM to 4GB for $100, only the 128GB model can be upgraded to a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo for an additional $100. A fully stocked 11-inch MacBook Air— complete with 128GB of flash storage, 4GB of RAM, and a 1.6GHz processor—would cost $1399. Not dirt cheap, but still less than the base model of the last-generation Air. (And yes, for that price you could also get a 13-inch Air with the same RAM and storage and a 1.8 GHz processor—but it would be bigger and heavier than the 11-inch Air, now, wouldn’t it?)

Based on our Macworld Lab tests, the 11-inch MacBook Air performs about how you’d expect: It’s the slowest currently-shipping Mac laptop, but it’s still quite a bit faster than the previous generation of MacBook Air models. That’s primarily because of the new nVidia GeForce 320M graphics processor, which makes these systems blow the old Airs out of the water on all our graphics tests. But despite that graphics processor and speedy flash storage, the fact remains that the 11-inch MacBook’s processor is a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, so it’s running at a clock speed far below those found on other current Macs.

Now that I’ve declared the 11-inch MacBook Air the slowest Mac in Apple’s product line, let me explain to you why I don’t think it matters. If you’re using the Web, writing e-mail or articles or novels, and other relatively lightweight tasks, you’ll find the MacBook Air plenty fast. I could even run Photoshop CS4 on it, editing relatively lightweight Web-resolution graphics, without much trouble. If you’re planning on using it to edit multitrack audio or complex HD video projects, though, you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment.

I tried to watch some video on this model—typically a major MacBook Air bugaboo. I was able to stream an episode of Terriers from Hulu without incident. The episode played without getting all jumpy and dropping frames (a typical symptom of an overheated and struggling MacBook Air in the past). The Air definitely heated up when the video was playing, and its fan kicked in—though honestly, I had to almost place my ear against the back hinge before I could actually hear it. Playing H.264 video was much smoother than I’ve experienced on prior Air models as well—again, presumably because of the GeForce 320M graphics processor.

 

11- and 13-inch MacBook Air: Speedmark 6 scores

 

Longer bars are better. Blue bars in italics represent reference systems. Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, William Wong, Gil Loyola, and McKinley Noble.

Batteries and sleep

Apple is making a big deal about saying that these new MacBook Airs have “instant on” technology. What the company is talking about is a new power-saving mode: After a laptop’s asleep for a while, it switches into a super power-saving standby mode that lets the battery survive for up to 30 days. But when you open the laptop back up, it doesn’t show you a progress bar while it loads stuff—it just snaps back to life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test Apple’s claim of 30 days of standby survival, since as of this writing these laptops have only been in our hands for five days.

Apple says that by reducing the space of other components (such as the solid-state drive enclosure) in these models, it’s been able to increase the amount of room left for batteries, with the result being improved battery life. Apple claims that the 11-inch Air can last up to five hours when running the company’s own “wireless productivity” test suite; its claims for the 13-inch Air are up to seven hours.

Our own tests are more aggressive than Apple’s, and are designed to drain the laptop’s battery much faster than Apple’s. But they do give us a good sense of how much battery power these systems have when compared to the previous-generation MacBook Air. And there’s good news on that front: The 11-inch Air lasted for 220 minutes while looping an H.264 movie in full-screen mode at full brightness. The new 13-inch Air lasted 265 minutes. And the 2009-era MacBook Air? It only lasted about 185 minutes.

In real-world use, I found that the 11-inch MacBook’s battery definitely felt more long-lasting than the previous-generation Air’s. It’s probably not powerful enough to last the entire day, but it’s going to give you a good, solid run. The 13-inch model, on the other hand, can probably get you through an entire workday if you’re judicious with your power usage and put it to sleep when appropriate.

Macworld’s buying advice

My original review of the MacBook Air ended with a simple question: “How much are you willing to compromise?” While it’s still true that a small, light laptop will require some degree of compromise on both speed and price, over time Apple has made those compromises much less painful.

It feels like, with these new 11- and 13-inch laptops, the MacBook Air product line has finally come of age. The 13-inch model addresses many of the old Air’s weaknesses (graphics performance, battery life) and offers speeds that aren’t far off the standard of the MacBook Pro line. And yet the 13-inch MacBook Air weighs 1.6 pounds less than what the 13-inch MacBook Pro weighs. Yes, the MacBook Air still costs more and does less than other 13-inch Apple laptops; if weight and size are not important considerations for you, you shouldn’t buy a MacBook Air. But if, all other things being (roughly) equal, you’d prefer a lighter laptop, the MacBook Air deserves your serious consideration.

There’s no previous-generation analog to compare the 11-inch MacBook Air against; it’s a completely new kind of Mac laptop, the smallest the company has ever built. But the high resolution of the 11.6-inch screen keeps it from feeling cramped, the full-sized keyboard is comfortable, and its slower processor is offset by its speedy solid-state drive and good integrated graphics processor.

People seeking a small, light system for writing and e-mail will find the $999 base model irresistible. Those who want to upgrade its drive, processor, and RAM will want to consider its small size versus the slightly larger 13-inch model, which comes equipped with a better set of specs. But while the 13-inch model is just as light and thin as the MacBook Air has ever been, it looks like a hog in comparison to the 11-inch model.

The MacBook Air product line still isn’t for everyone. But those who value smallness and lightness above all else will find the 13-inch model more tempting than ever. And that 11-inch dynamo, the smallest and lightest laptop in Apple history, the one with the $999 price tag? It’s quite possibly the most desirable laptop Apple has ever made.

The release of the iPad made me wonder if I’d consider a Mac laptop as my constant traveling companion ever again; the release of the 11-inch MacBook Air proves that there’s still plenty of life left in the Mac after all.

[Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director.]

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