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Core i5 MacBook Airs approach perfection

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But by being among the first systems in the Lion era, these MacBook Airs also have a major advantage over previous models: they can restore themselves after a catastrophic drive failure. It's all a part of the Lion Recovery feature, enabled by holding down Command-R when booting. If the main volume is corrupted, Lion Recovery will attempt to boot a small hidden recovery partition, from which the disk can be repaired or erased and restored. That's a feature available on any system running Lion. These new systems, though, can even restore if the disk is completely wiped out. They contain within them the ability to boot, connect to the Internet, download Lion from Apple, and restore it to a replacement or external hard drive. I didn't get a chance to try this feature with the MacBook Airs—though my colleague Dan Frakes managed to do it with a Mac mini—but it's pretty cool to know that as long as you've got an Internet connection, wiping your drive and starting afresh is a legitimate option.

Judging the 13-inch Air

If you're someone who needs as much laptop screen space as possible, the MacBook Air line isn't for you. (At least not yet—I think it's inevitable that Apple will make a 15-inch laptop with many of the Air's characteristics in the near future.) But if you can get by with a 13-inch screen, I think the MacBook Air is a better choice than the MacBook Pro.

There are always exceptions. If you need an optical drive and don't have access to another Mac for that function, you may not want to buy an Air and then pay more for an external drive. If you absolutely must pay the least amount possible for a 13-inch Mac laptop, you can save $100 on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The $1499 Core i7 edition of the 13-inch MacBook Pro is faster than the 13-inch Air. The MacBook Pro has more storage space, owing to its spinning hard drive. If you're a serious gamer, you'll want a laptop with discrete graphics.

But Apple has built the MacBook Air for what it believes is the sweet spot of the laptop market: people who are over the optical disc, who don't need any more processing power than an Intel Core i5 processor can provide, and who don't need massive amounts of disk space (or at least don't need to carry it all with them). These people want a small, light laptop, and the MacBook Air provides.

Judging the 11-inch Air

Now let me make my case for the 11-inch MacBook Air. It's shockingly small, almost iPad small. It makes the 13-inch Air seem overly large and heavy, and the MacBook Pros seem like boat anchors.

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 a lot of pixels into its compact 11.6-inch diagonal screen. Throw in Lion's Mission Control and full-screen mode, which are designed to help maximize productivity on small screens, and even this tiny Mac is capable of large amounts of productivity.

Is the 11-inch Air slower than Apple's other laptops? Sure. It's also, at $999, cheaper. And its Core i5 processor makes it fast enough for almost any regular user. If you’re using the Web, writing e-mail or articles or novels, and other relatively lightweight tasks, the MacBook Air is plenty fast. Even building web graphics in Photoshop was fast. Now, if you’re planning on using it to edit multitrack audio or complex HD video projects, you may find yourself pushing its limits. But most people will not attempt to use an 11-inch laptop for such things, and rightly so.

Macworld's buying advice

The MacBook Air has never been a laptop for everyone. It began as a niche laptop for a tiny sliver of the population, but in the intervening three years there's been a sea change. Today, most people in the market for a Mac laptop should seriously consider the MacBook Air. Sure, there are some people for whom it's a poor fit—but I suspect they are increasingly the exception, not the rule. (There's a reason Apple's marketing slogan for this version of the Air is "The ultimate everyday notebook.")

At just a hair below three pounds, the 13-inch MacBook Air will probably hit the sweet spot for users accustomed to larger computer screens. But for my money, the 11-inch Air is the real winner here. At $999, it's now holding down the low-price end of the Apple laptop market. It will almost certainly be the laptop of choice for students, and they'll love its light weight and small size.

Then upgrade it to an i7 processor with 4GB of RAM and a 256GB hard drive, attach it to an external display and peripherals via its Thunderbolt port, and you've got a tiny system with an amazing amount of power. The 11-inch MacBook Air might not be the perfect computer, but it's as close to perfect as Apple's ever come.

[Jason Snell is Macworld's editorial director.]

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At a Glance
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