Apple's New Laptops (Mid 2012)

Mid-2012 MacBook Airs offer improved performance and connectivity

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Apple's New Laptops (Mid 2012)

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Finally, Apple has also upgraded the Air’s flash storage with faster versions, claiming that the drives used in the 2012 Air line are twice as fast as the ones used in 2011. Specifically, Apple says the 2012 Air’s flash storage devices are capable of transferring data at up to 500 MB per second. (You can also now upgrade the higher-end Airs to 512GB of flash storage.) In our testing, the 128GB-flash storage 11-inch Air was 35 percent faster than its predecessor at file duplication, and the 13-inch Air was 42 percent faster than its 2011 counterpart.

But faster flash storage offers more than just quicker copying of files. Drive operations are one of computing’s biggest bottlenecks, because almost everything you do—opening files and applications, saving files, paging memory, and much more—involves reading or writing data. It’s why people who’ve used a solid-state drive (SSD) or flash storage never want to go back to a traditional hard drive, and it’s why my 2010 MacBook Air often feels faster than my 2010 iMac, even though the latter is otherwise enormously more powerful. The new Air’s faster flash storage means that the computer boots faster, applications launch faster, files open and save faster…everything’s just a little bit—though noticeably—faster.

On the other hand, the $999 model still ships with a paltry 64GB of storage. Yes, Apple’s vision of computing seems to be that you’ll take advantage of “the cloud” to store your media and documents, but until the MacBook Air ships with some flavor of always-on mobile network technology, 64GB is embarrassingly little storage for a $1000 laptop. It seems especially stingy now that the entry-level Air ships with 4GB of RAM.

And a small drive doesn’t just limit your storage—it can also affect performance as the drive fills up. As Macworld lab director James Galbraith explained, we couldn’t fit all of our standard test files on the 64GB system, and even after removing some of our test files in order to be able to run other tests, the $999 Air was only 7 percent faster than last year’s model at file-intensive tasks. If you can afford the upgrade (see below), go with the 128GB of flash storage.

How We Tested: We duplicated a 2GB file, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 2GB files, and then unzipped it. In Pages ’09 we converted and opened a 500-page Microsoft Word document.

How We Tested: In iMovie ’11, we imported a two-minute clip from a camera archive, and performed a Share Movie to iTunes for Mobile Devices function. In iTunes, we converted 135 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using the High Quality setting.

How We Tested: In Photoshop CS5, we ran an action script on a 100MB image file. In Aperture 3 we performed an Import and Process on 207 photos. In iPhoto ’11, we imported 500 photos.

That aside, all these improvements add up to a nice overall speed bump. For example, when we tallied our overall performance benchmark, Speedmark 7, a 128GB 11-inch 2012 Air was 28 percent faster overall than the equivalent model last year, and a 128GB 13-inch 2012 Air was just under 20 percent faster than the equivalent 2011 version.

How do these improvements translate to real-world use? I timed how long it took to perform a number of everyday tasks on the 2012 11-inch MacBook Air (4GB RAM) and a 2010 11-inch Air (2GB RAM), each with 128GB of flash storage. (I performed each task several times and averaged the results.) On the 2010 Air, iMovie loaded to a new project in 5.5 seconds, iPhoto launched into an empty library in 2.8 seconds, and Safari launched and loaded Apple’s home page in 2.7 seconds. On the 2012 model, iMovie took just under 3 seconds, iPhoto was ready in 1.2 seconds, and Safari finished launching and loading the Apple home page in 1.8 seconds. The 2012 Air also cold-booted into the Finder, with auto-login enabled, in just over 15 seconds; the 2010 Air took over 30 seconds. And our lab found that the 2012 model was a whopping 67 percent faster than the 2010 model in our HandBrake test, which involves converting a DVD chapter to an MP4 file.

If you’re curious, we also compared the new Airs to a 2012 13-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.9Ghz Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 5400 rpm hard drive. The MacBook Pro scored roughly 26 percent higher in our Mathematica test, and was roughly 28 percent faster in our Cinebench CPU test. But because it uses the same Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU as the Air line, the MacBook Pro was only a few percentage points faster than the 2012 13-inch Airs at the Cinebench test and 12 percent faster in our Portal test. But perhaps most suprisingly, thanks to the flash storage, both of the 2012 128GB Airs (11-inch and 13-inch) bested—by 3 and 6 percent, respectively—the i7-equipped MacBook Pro in our overall Speedmark benchmarks.

More meat, less bread

While the 2012 Air’s improvements are impressive, perhaps the most-welcome change is that all of these upgrades come—with the exception of the entry-level 11-inch model—at lower prices. That entry-level 11-inch Air sports a 1.7GHz i5 processor with 3MB of shared L3 cache, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of flash storage for $999. But this year, the next model up is only $1099 and gets you 128GB of storage—well worth the extra $100, in my opinion.

The entry-level 13-inch Air, which features a 1.8GHz i5 processor with 3MB of shared L3 cache, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of flash storage, has dropped in price to $1199, and the other 13-inch Air, which offers 256GB of flash storage, is $1499, both also $100 drops compared to last year.

All four Air models can be upgraded to 8GB of RAM for an additional $100. That a reasonable price, but it’s also an easy recommendation if your computing needs go at all beyond the basics or if you plan to keep your Air for a while—as mentioned above, you can’t upgrade later.

The $1099 11-inch and $1499 13-inch models offer a couple other benefits: Only they can be upgraded, for $100 at the time of purchase, to the 2.0GHz Intel Core i7. The $1099 11-inch model can also be upgraded to 256GB (for $300) or 512GB (for $800) of storage, and the $1499 Air can be upgraded to 512GB for $500.

Macworld’s buying advice

The MacBook Air line has always been about compromise—as I wrote back in 2008, the Air was initially appealing mainly to people for whom small size and light weight were more important than the features the Air was missing. But two things have happened since then. First, some of those missing features—an optical drive, for example—have become less important. Second, the Air’s features and performance have been improved, little by little, to the point that an Air no longer feels like a compromise. As a result, the Air is now Apple’s core notebook and, by some accounts, the company’s most popular laptop.

The 2012 MacBook Air models should further cement that position, as they’re easily the best Airs yet. Thanks to upgraded processors and graphics capabilities, along with both Thunderbolt and USB 3—features still missing from Apple’s Mac Pro line—for expansion, it’s getting tougher and tougher to say the Air isn’t a “full-featured” laptop. And you no longer have to give up a good chunk of performance if you want to go light: Thanks to flash storage, both 2012 Air models are competitive with Apple’s current hard-drive equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro models (and the Air has a considerably better display). In fact, if you don’t need a 15-inch screen and lots of storage space, it’s now tough for many people to justify a MacBook Pro over a lighter and more-portable Air.

As for deciding between the 11-inch and 13-inch Air models, with the exception of the 13-inch Air’s SD card reader, your choice mainly comes down to screen size and battery life. Yes, the 13-inch model sports a slightly faster processor, but the actual performance differences are small enough that those who prize portability can go with the 11-inch Air—a frequent traveler’s dream machine—without worrying about what they’re giving up. (If you do go with the 11-inch Air, I recommend the $1099 model over the $999 Air for the additional storage and the option to upgrade to a 2.0GHz CPU.)

I suspect, however, that many people want a bit more screen real estate (and perhaps better battery life), and it’s only $100 to make the jump from the 11-inch 128GB Air to the 13-inch model—an easy decision if you need the space. I recommend the $1499 13-inch Air only for those who need a lot of storage space (256GB, upgradeable to 512GB) and the option for the faster processor.

Finally, some advice for current Air owners wondering if they should upgrade: If you bought a MacBook Air last year, the performance boost from 2011 to 2012 is significant, but it probably isn’t worth buying a new machine—after all, if cutting-edge performance was your priority, you wouldn’t have gone with the Air. (One exception: If you’d benefit from 8GB of RAM.) But if you’ve got a 2010 Air, the 2012 models offer major performance improvements, and if you’ve got a 2009 or older Air, upgrading is a no-brainer.

Updated at 4:15pm to correct the description of the GPU in the 2010 Air models, and at 10:20pm to note battery life and RAM in the buying advice. Updated 6/24/2012, 11:10am, to clarify that real-world tests used Portal 2, not Portal. Updated 6/26/2012, 10:20am, to add link to benchmarks of upgraded MacBook Air models.

[Dan Frakes @danfrakes is a senior editor at Macworld.]

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Apple MacBook Air, 13-inch

  • Apple 13-inch MacBook Air/1.8GHz Core i5, 256GB flash storage (Mid 2012)

  • Generic Company Place Holder Apple MacBook Air, 11-inch

  • Generic Company Place Holder Apple MacBook Air, 11-inch

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