Apple adds Core i5, Thunderbolt to MacBook Air

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On Wednesday, simultaneous with the release of Mac OS X Lion, Apple announced the impending release of new MacBook Air models. The new editions of Apple’s lightweight 11- and 13-inch laptops have received a major boost in speed and connectivity: They're now powered by Intel Core i5 processors and feature the new Thunderbolt connectivity technology. Coming in at the same prices as the previous generation of MacBook Airs, these new models also sport backlit keyboards.

MacBook Air (mid-2011) configurations

11-inch 11-inch 13-inch 13-inch
Price $999 $1199 $1299 $1599
Processor 1.6GHz Core i5 1.6GHz Core i5 1.7GHz Core i5 1.7GHz Core i5
Memory 2GB 4GB 4GB 4GB
Flash storage 64GB 128GB 128GB 256GB
Shared video memory 256MB 384MB 384MB 384MB
Processor upgrade option none 1.8GHz Core i7, $150 none 1.8GHz core i7, $100
Memory upgrade option 4GB, $100 none none none
Storage upgrade option none 256GB, $300 none none

Faster processors

These new MacBook Airs are powered by ultra-low-voltage editions of Intel’s latest-generation Core i5 processors, known to chip geeks as the “Sandy Bridge” family. The 11-inch models ($999 and $1199) are powered by a 1.6GHz Core i5, while the 13-inch models ($1299 and $1599) comes with a 1.7GHz Core i5. The high-end configuration of the 11- and 13-inch models can be custom-ordered with a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor (for $150 and $100, respectively) for even more power.

Though the processor clock speed of the new 13-inch model is actually lower than the previous generation (1.7GHz versus 1.8GHz), the Intel Core i5 family is vastly superior to the Core 2 Duo processors found in the old models. Apple claims that the 11-inch model is more than twice as fast as its predecessor in some tests, while the 13-inch model is nearly twice as fast.

Apple supplied me with a 13-inch model late last week. I was able to run some preliminary tests to compare it to tests we had run on the current 13-inch MacBook Pro and the past-generation 13-inch MacBook Air. And in most of our processor-based tests, the new i5-based Air trumped its predecessor. A Handbrake video encode finished in 73 percent of the time it took on the older Air, a 3D scene rendered in Cinebench in half the time, and compression of a 2GB folder was more than three times as fast.

Core i5 MacBook Air - First tests (1 of 2)

1GB file
Zip 2GB
Unzip 2GB
13" MacBook Air
(2011, 1.7GHz Core i5)
12.7 74.1 11.1 105.1
13" MacBook Air
(2010, 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM)
13.6 250.2 29.0 90.7
13" MacBook Pro
(2011, 2.3GHz Core i5)
31.8 144.6 93.3 116.0

A few of our tests showed some quirks that we first noticed when testing the most recent round of MacBook Pros: For whatever reason, neither those models nor this new Air fared well with Cinebench’s OpenGL graphics test. And the Air couldn’t even launch our Call of Duty test—the app crashed every time.

Both the new MacBook Pros and these new MacBook Airs are powered by Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 3000 system; the 2010 generation of MacBook Airs were powered by a NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor. The integrated graphics share 256MB of main memory on the $999 system with 2GB of RAM, and 384MB on all the remaining systems (which have 4GB of RAM).

Core i5 MacBook Air - First tests (2 of 2)

Share to
iTunes AAC to
MP3 Encode
0.95 64bit
13" MacBook Air
(2011, 1.7GHz Core i5)
103.8 106.4 159.6 11.4 180
13" MacBook Air
(2010, 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo)
145.9 172.5 217.4 13.0 367.1
13" MacBook Pro
(2011, 2.3GHz Core i5)
87.5 99.7 145.2 12.5 161.0

The Cinebench OpenGL score is in frames per second, and larger results are better. All other scores in the above tables are in seconds; smaller results are better. References models in italic. Best result in bold.

We duplicated a 1GB file, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 1GB files, and then unzipped it. We converted 135 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. In iMovie ’11, we imported a camera archive and exported it to iTunes using the Mobile Devices setting. We used Handbrake 0.95 to encode a single chapter from a DVD previously ripped to the hard drive to H.264 using the application's Normal settings. We recorded how long it took to render a scene with multiprocessors in Cinebench and ran that application's OpenGL test. Macworld Lab testing by Jason Snell. Reference systems tested by James Galbraith and Mauricio Grijalva.

Boosted specs

Apple has also boosted the memory of all but the base $999 model, which offers the same 2GB of base RAM as it did previously. The other three MacBook Air models now come with 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 RAM standard, which is also the maximum amount of installable RAM on these systems. The base model can be configured with 4GB of RAM for an extra $100.

For the first time, users of the 11-inch MacBook Air can opt for a larger amount of flash storage. A $300 build-to-order option on the $1199 11-inch Air lets users upgrade its stock 128GB of storage to 256GB, an amount previously available only in the top-of-the-line $1599 13-inch model.

All models, regardless of price, now have a backlit keyboard, just as MacBook Pros do (and as the 2009-era MacBook Air did). The 13-inch model still sports an SD card slot that isn’t present on the 11-inch model. Apple says both models offer the same amount out of battery life as the previous Airs: five hours of wireless Web browsing on the 11-inch model and seven hours on the 13-inch.

Thunderbolt arrives

And then there’s that Thunderbolt port, which takes the place of the Mini DisplayPort and remains compatible with Mini DisplayPort for video-out purposes. That port makes the MacBook Air capable of high-speed input and output for the very first time; previously the MacBook Air was limited to the speed of its two USB 2 ports.

As we’ve shown in our Thunderbolt lab tests, this new connection technology is extremely fast, and it’s versatile, too—there will undoubtedly be third-party Thunderbolt adapters to FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet, and many other formats in the near future. The original MacBook Air was constrained by a single USB port; for this new line of Airs, almost anything’s possible.

The new models are the same size and shape as their predecessors: Unless you caught one in the dark and noticed its glowing keyboard, you wouldn’t think they were any different than previous models. (However, they are slightly heavier: the 11- and 13-inch models weigh 20 and 30 grams more, respectively.) The big changes are the much more powerful processors and the addition of a fast Thunderbolt port.

Hands on impressions

It looks like the mid-2011 edition of the MacBook Air is the first of its kind to run at comparable speeds to other current Macs. While the Air’s ultra-low-voltage Core i5 chips aren’t quite as fast as those in the MacBook Pro, they’re a major boost from previous generations. And while Thunderbolt is still a technology that’s just getting started, it has huge promise—meaning truly fast peripherals are finally in the Air’s future.

With the exception of the (nice but not essential) backlit keyboard, in all other ways these new MacBook Airs appear identical to their predecessors. This update isn’t about what's on the outside—it’s about the inside. And that means the Core i5 processor, Thunderbolt, new video circuitry, and better configuration options—especially for the 11-inch model.

Stay tuned to Macworld for more complete lab testing of these new MacBook Airs, as well as a complete review, in the coming days.

[Jason Snell is Macworld’s Editorial Director.]

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