At a media event on October 14, Apple announced a top-to-bottom refresh of its portable Macs. Along with new unibody MacBooks and MacBook Pros, the company also unveiled an updated MacBook Air that featured faster graphics and more storage.
The new $2,499 top-of-the-line MacBook Air has arrived in the Macworld Lab, and our test results show that while the many under-the-hood improvements have helped to make Apple’s ultraportable more competitive in terms of performance, it’s still a product that you buy for its small size and light weight, not its speed.
The configuration we tested definitely offers better specs than the previous top-of-the-line MacBook Air. It’s powered by a standard 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6MB of L2 cache, as opposed to the custom-built 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 4MB of L2 cache used on the original high-end MacBook Air. The speed of the front-size bus has increased to 1066MHz, and the new MacBook Air models use faster DDR3 RAM as opposed to the slower DDR2 RAM found in the original Airs. In terms of storage, the new high-end Air uses a solid-state 128GB hard drive, twice the size of the SSD found in the original Air.
Both of the new MacBook Air models eschew the original Air’s pokey Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics for the much more powerful, though still integrated, Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics system—the same graphics used in the new unibody MacBook Pro and MacBook models, albeit running at lower speeds in order to save power and reduce heat.
How do these internal updates translate in terms of real performance? It should come as no surprise that our overall system performance benchmark, Speedmark 5, found the 1.86GHz MacBook Air to be quite a bit faster across the board than the standard 1.6GHz MacBook Air from January of this year. The 1.86GHz Air turned in a 51 percent higher Speedmark score, with the most impressive individual results being the Quake 4 frames per second score and the Zip Archive test, which took nearly 10 minutes on the older Air and a less painful 6 minutes on the 1.86Ghz MacBook Air.
More telling were the new system’s results compared to our build-to-order Air from earlier this year, the model that featured the optional 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor, but kept the standard 120GB Parallel ATA hard drive. The new high-end Air posted a 39 percent higher Speedmark 5 score than that old CTO Air. It was also 28 percent faster in our Photoshop tests and 22 percent faster in our Cinema 4D testing. Compressor, iMovie and iTunes were faster on the new system, but not by as big of a margin. Again, the biggest gains for the new Air were in our game frame rate tests. The new Air was able to display 24.8 frames per second in our Quake 4 tests, as opposed to the older CTO Air’s 3.9 fps – that’s more than a 6x improvement.
But the MacBook Air just can’t match the speeds of other Mac laptops. In fact, the Core 2 Duo processor in the new low-end $999 white MacBook runs 13 percent faster than the high-end MacBook Air. The Air was a little less than 3 percent slower in terms of Speedmark 5 scores. A closer look at the individual test scores shows that the Air’s Speedmark score was helped tremendously by its Nvidia graphics, which helped it post an average Quake 4 frame rate of 24.8 versus the low-end MacBook (with Intel GMA X3100 graphics), which posted only a score of 7.6 fps. In other individual tests, the low-end MacBook was a clear winner in all but the Unzipping of a 2GB folder, which the solid state hard drive in the 1.86GHz MacBook Air helped the system to place the fastest time in the chart.
If you were to compare the top-of-the-line MacBook Air to the top of the new unibody MacBook line, a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo model with the Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics, you’d find a much bigger difference. The new high-end Air earned an 18 percent lower Speedmark 5 score, a 25 percent slower result in our Photoshop test suite, and a 71 percent slower time in our Compressor MPEG encode tests. Did I mention that the new 2.4GHz MacBook costs $100 less and has a built-in SuperDrive, built-in Ethernet, and a second USB port? The Air, on the other hand, weighs three pounds, versus 4.5 pounds for the MacBook.
We have the new low-end 1.6GHz MacBook Air on order, but it hasn’t arrived in the Macworld Lab yet. When it gets here, we’ll start testing and post results as soon as we can. And stay tuned for our full review of the new MacBook Air, coming soon.
Testing the new 1.86GHz MacBook Air
||Adobe Photoshop CS3
||Cinema 4D XL 10.5
|MacBook Air 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo (Nvidia graphics, 128GB SSD)
|MacBook Air 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo (Intel graphics, 80GB HD)
|MacBook Air 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo (Intel graphics, 80GB HD)
|MacBook 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo (Aluminum)
|MacBook 2.1GHz Core 2 Duo (White, Current)
|PowerBook G4 1.67GHz
Best results in Bold. Reference systems in italic.
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 10.5.5 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 6 minute, 26 second 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 Quake’s 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 duplicated a 1GB folder, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 1GB files and then Unzipped it. To compare Speedmark 5 scores for various Mac systems, visit our Mac Hardware Guide.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, Chris Holt, and Jerry Jung.
[James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.]