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Saturday, October 30, 2010, 04:00 am PT (07:00 am ET)

Review: Apple's new 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch MacBook Air (Late 2010)




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What's new in the MacBook Air design: body and screen

How do the new MacBook Air models compare to the previous version they replace? They're slightly thinner and lighter, have more easily accessible ports on both sides (accommodating two USB ports rather than just one), sport higher resolution screens, and while missing the illuminated keyboard of the original Air, they now have the glass trackpad of the rest of the MacBook line. The 13-inch model (but not the smaller 11-inch) also now sports an SD Card slot like the rest of Apple's consumer offerings.

The MacBook Air's screen doesn't seem as bright or vivid as the MacBook Pro displays, but doesn't look flawed in normal use when you're not making a direct comparison. The display is bright and clear and sharp, and full color gradients look smooth, not choppy or dithered.

The Air models retain a matte, metallic frame around the inset display rather than the black margin around the Pro screens, all covered in a single sheet of glossy glass. While the Air screens are also glossy, they don't look quite as distractingly shiny as the Pro models because of this solid grey frame (as shown below).

Screen shots MacBook Air vs Pro


To achieve a super thin case lid, Apple used a unique LCD construction method that sheds the usual packaging of the LCD panel. This results in an insanely thin top that's thinner than a standard LCD component by itself. The 11 inch Air's lid remains very rigid to the point where it's hard to flex the screen at all, while the larger 13 inch screen is susceptible to rippling the screen if you twist on the cover enough. Neither feels fragile enough to worry about excessively however.

The hinge feels buttery smooth and remains set at any position you adjust it to, even when lying in bed and holding it vertically over your face. Do that with a MacBook Pro and the lid tends to drop down with gravity. The lid also houses an iSight camera (which Apple now refers to as a "FaceTime camera"), but does not have an ambient light sensor (for the backlit keyboard or automatic screen brightness adjusting), nor is there a mic in the screen. Instead, there's a mic on the right edge of the machine, which seems to work fine. Speakers are now greatly improved, with good sound now emanating from the keyboard in stereo, rather than there only being a somewhat flat, utilitarian mono speaker.

The new case design feels simpler; it's a chiseled wedge rather than curvy, rounded rectangle. The primary benefit of the new shape is that ports are easily accessible on either edge, without requiring the trap door of the original model to reveal a flat surface within the rounded sides of the machine. There's also more room for connectors, which allows for a convenient USB port on either side.

MacBook Air

MacBook Air


The new Air positions its Mini DisplayPort on the opposite side as the MagSafe connector, which seems to pose a minor problem for users of Apple's external LED Cinema Display. Its molded cable sports connectors intended for use with MacBooks, where all the ports are close together on the same side. The cable can accommodate the Air's ports, but it's a little clumsy (as pictured below).

MacBook Air Cinema Display stretch


What's new in the MacBook Air design: workarounds for missing hardware

There's still no options for FireWire nor Gigabit Ethernet, although Apple continues to offer its 10/100 Fast Ethernet USB dongle for users who want the option to connect to a wired network. Apple has worked around some of the need for FireWire by enhancing its Migration Assistant software to support importing user and machine information from a networked machine in addition to a Mac in FireWire target mode.

MacBook Air ethernet dongle and USB dongle


Apple has also taken additional steps to minimize the need for an optical disc. The original Air included Remote Disk software for sharing a networked machine's optical drive, or even booting from an install disc on the network. This model takes things a step further by including a tiny 8GB flash dongle that plugs into a USB port.

The tiny stick contains both Mac OS X 10.6.1 Snow Leopard and the new iLife 11 installer, simplifying the process of reinstalling factory software without messing with disc sharing over the network. The read-only device works on any USB-equipped machine, but the software installer reports that "this version is not compatible with your computer" if you attempt to use it on other Mac models.

What's new in the MacBook Air design: SSD

The new Air models are also distinguished by the fact that they now only use solid state flash drives for storage, rather than offering the iPod Mini-sized 1.8-inch HDD option that was the default configuration of the original Air. While SSDs are typically faster than HDDs for reading information, the new Air SSDs are even more dramatically faster than the old Air's HDD because its super small mechanical drive was so slow to start with.

Inside MacBook Air


Factoring in the much faster performance of the SSD, the new Air is significantly faster despite having the same CPU clock speeds. It's even comparable in performance to the low end, full sized Core2 Duo MacBooks, erasing limited performance as a potentially deal-breaking drawback of going ultramobile. The fastest MacBook Pros still maintain a significant processing speed advantage with their Core i5 and i7 CPUs, but the overall speed of the Air still maintains a lead in areas where the bottleneck is the drive and not the CPU, such as when launching apps (see performance benchmarks below).

In reviewing the original Air, we compared the HDD model to the SSD option; however, SSD was quite an expensive upgrade. In early 2008, upgrading from the Air's standard 80GB HDD to a 64GB SSD cost a steep $999.

Component costs have dropped a little since, but Apple has also addressed the expense barrier of SDD technology by stripping the need for a HDD-sized case. Most SSDs on the market are built as drop in replacements for 2.5-inch HDD mechanisms, making it easier for users to upgrade. But because Apple designed the Air from scratch, it could include SSD functionality in any shape it needed.

System Profiler indicates the new MacBook Air with 128GB SSD uses an Apple-identified SSD labeled "TS128C," with a capacity of 121GB, formatted as a Mac OS X partition that provides 101.8 GB of usable storage. The SDD reports that it does not support SATA NCQ "Native Command Queuing," a technology used to optimize SSD devices by enabling them to queue up disk requests to stay productive when the CPU itself gets too busy, or alternatively to process disk requests in parallel.

The device also reports that it lacks TRIM support, but Mac OS X does not support TRIM either. TRIM is a technology designed to proactively wipe unused (deleted) data on SSD devices to increase performance and reduce incremental slowdowns over time. Unlike conventional HDDs that can write and overwrite data equally as fast, SDDs are more efficient at writing new data. When they have to overwrite existing data, they must first stop to erase the existing information before writing anything new. This adds a step that eventually slows device performance down significantly when the erasing prep-work isn't being done in advance by TRIM.

Apple's plans to support TRIM are not yet known; while Microsoft added official TRIM support to Windows 7 last year, Apple has only officially added a support in firmware for a TRIM reporting option, which is why "TRIM = no" appears in System Profiler only on newer MacBook models. Apple is likely working around the peculiarities of SSD storage in unique ways, as the company is certainly not a neophyte in using Flash storage devices; Apple is the largest buyer of Flash RAM globally, and has long used Flash storage extensively in its iPods and iOS devices, in addition to pioneering SSD adoption in its Mac notebook, desktop, server and RAID systems.

On page 4 of 4: Performance overview, MacBook Air in review