At a Glance
- Lightweight, bright LED-backlit screen, full-size keyboard with backlighting, uses remote disc to‘borrow’ another Mac or PCs optical drive for remote installation
- Processor is still slower than a MacBook, PATA drive is slow, SSD drive is very expensive, limited configuration ports, no Ethernet connection, unswappable battery
The public reaction to the MacBook Air has been fascinating. Our original conclusion could probably be boiled down to “it’s good for people it’s good for, and not for people it’s not” – this appeared to be a Rorschach test for readers, since we’ve received praise from MacBook Air critics and fans alike. Across the internet we’ve seen similar reactions, with some users embracing the product despite its compromises, and others attacking it as a product with no purpose other than to part fools from their money.
Not wishing to sound like a broken record, but how you see the Air has a lot to do with your priorities. For some, the Air’s lack of a swappable battery and its underpowered processor make it a terrible value proposition – like paying for black on a MacBook.
We take the point, but have to disagree. For us, the value of dropping down a kilo in weight will make all the difference when on the move; for example, covering trade shows such as the Macworld Expo and Conference in San Francisco. Then, the smaller processor will be quite sufficient.
So, if you’re someone who places a value of going from three kilos to two, you’ll see the point of the Air. If you’re someone who doesn’t see that value, go no further – the Air was not made for you, and you shouldn’t buy one.
Would the MacBook Air be better if it had a faster processor and more hard drive space? Absolutely. In fact, the most critically lacking feature of this product is its lack of internal storage. We’ve seen numerous users who insist that the MacBook Air is not meant to be a standalone product, but is meant as a secondary system for someone who has a primary Mac. We’ve yet to see Apple market the product that way, but there’s no disputing that the Air works best as a secondary system – entirely because of its lack of storage.
Macworld’s initial review of the MacBook Air was based on its stock £1,199 configuration, which features a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 80GB of storage provided by a 1.8in traditional hard drive. Since then, we’ve obtained two 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Airs: one with the same 1.8in 80GB hard drive, and one with 64GB of flash memory as its primary internal storage device (what Apple calls a solid-state drive, or SSD.)
With those three models, we can begin to assess the effects of the MacBook Air’s two main build-to-order configuration options, the £190 processor-speed upgrade and the £639 SSD upgrade.
Both upgrades did improve things. The processor upgrade improved calculation-based tasks such as 3D rendering and video encoding and the SSD upgrade enhanced disk-intensive tasks such as duplicating a file or launching Photoshop.
In terms of Speedmark, our battery of general-use tests, the base MacBook Air scored 124. The MacBook Air with the same hard drive but a 1.8GHz processor improved to a score of 130. The model with the 1.8GHz processor and the SSD earned 140. To put that in percentage terms, the £190 processor upgrade improved the overall speed of the system by 4.8 per cent, while the £639 drive upgrade improved speed by 7.7 per cent.
Of course, speed isn’t the only reason to invest in the SSD option. In theory, its lack of moving parts makes it a safer storage device, because it’s not exposed to the mechanical failures that hard drives with spinning platters can suffer. However, until we get a long-term read on the reliability of the SSD, that advantage remains theoretical.
Life with the SSD
We spent two weeks using a 1.8GHz MacBook Air equipped with the 64GB SSD as the primary system. It turns out that trimming down a system in order to fit on the 64GB SSD was – for us – almost impossible.
After formatting and installation of the full OS X 10.5 operating system, our fresh model showed only 35.4GB of free space. You can free up more by re-installing without certain files (printer drivers, fonts, language options etc) and by removing iLife programs that you may not use (iMovie, Garageband), but even so you really have to consider whether the 64GB drive is going to provide enough space. Especially if you are planning to use the MacBook Air as your primary Mac.
We managed to squeeze our content down to fit the 80GB option, but found the only way to get it all on to the 64GB SSD drive was to remove the 10GB Parallels Desktop Windows disk image and sacrifice the ability to run Windows.
There are two ways to measure speed: the cold, hard reality of numbers and the fluffy, fuzzy world of anecdote. Here’s a splash of cold, hard reality from Macworld Lab: Launching Photoshop on the SSD version of the MacBook Air is stunningly fast. We’ve noticed that other applications also seem to launch much faster on the SSD Air. Similarly, this Air feels more responsive when running numerous programs at once – possibly because the speedy SSD makes the swapping of programs between RAM and disk faster. The Assorted Speedmark tests table shows a few of the tasks that make up our Speedmark 5 checks. As you can see, tasks involving the hard drive are faster on the SSD model; for tests dependent on the processor, the 1.8GHz MacBook Air with the standard PATA drive fared better.
A battery of tests
Our original review of the MacBook Air noted that “attempts to recharge the Air’s battery took a surprisingly long time. Apple says that the behaviour witnessed doesn’t really fit with any of its testing; we’re working with Apple to get to the bottom of the issue and Macworld Lab will do further battery testing (including both discharge and recharge time) soon to help clarify the issue.”
We’ve continued to be a bit perplexed by the MacBook Air’s battery characteristics, which don’t really track with what we’ve seen from other Mac laptops. Our discussions with Apple officials indicated that what we were seeing – namely extremely large recharge times – weren’t something that they were seeing.
With a bit more time, a pattern did emerge, however: our first few attempts to recharge a completely empty battery took approximately forever. In two occurrences, it took more than 10 hours to charge a battery up from depletion to a 100 per cent charge. In several others, it took between eight and nine hours. (In contrast, it took a MacBook less than four hours and a MacBook Pro less than three and a half hours.)
That’s the bad – or weird – news. The good news is, over time this symptom appears to abate. While it can take a long time to fully charge the battery, we found that it was generally the last few percentage points that took up a lot of the time. And in situations where the battery wasn’t completely depleted, the battery filled up much faster. In three weeks of regular use, we’ve found the MacBook Air’s battery behaviour to be more in line with what we’ve seen from other Apple laptops. But there’s no doubt that right out of the box, the MacBook Air’s battery is a bit of a slowpoke, and it takes a bit of use before it seems to snap out of it.
Apple’s own internal battery testing indicates that the MacBook Air’s battery doesn’t have as long a life as those on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, and our tests bear that out. In our worst-case-scenario battery testing, we looped a QuickTime movie at full display brightness and with all energy-saving settings turned off. In those tests, the MacBook Air tended to run out of juice 30 to 45 minutes sooner than either the MacBook Pro or the MacBook. (The SSD MacBook Air showed a bit more life than the models with standard hard drives, though we didn’t run our tests enough times to make a definitive statement about how much power savings, if any, might be attributable to the drive.)
In real-world use, we found that we were able to squeeze acceptable battery life out of the MacBook Air by reducing its extremely bright screen to roughly half brightness. Modifying the settings in the Energy Saver preference pane to more aggressively dim the screen and put the computer to sleep also helped extend battery life. In the end, we found that we could coax the MacBook Air into giving enough battery life to become acceptable for roaming usage. However, users who seriously tax their batteries will need to think twice before choosing the Air, since not only is its battery not swappable, but it’s not as capacious as its heavier cousins.