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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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Performance overview: CPU

In raw benchmarks, the new MacBook Air scores about the same as the previous models, which were offered at the same clock speeds. Our benchmarks were slightly better, but the newer, high end Air also had 4GB to work with. While not nearly as fast as a Core i5 MacBook Pro, the new Air scores just slight behind the entry level MacBook, which runs a significantly faster CPU (2.4GHz compared the 2.13GHz high end option on the Air). The slowest Air CPU option gives up significant raw performance to hit the price, efficiency, and design constraints of that model.

MacBook Air benchmarks


Using benchmarks that pay more attention to overall performance rather than just grilling the CPU, the latest MacBook Air models show significant performance gains over the previous design, in part due to a better graphics chip (nVidia's 320M vs the earlier 9400M), but also because of the faster disk access of the new SSD, which improves both disk reads and virtual memory performance system wide. In a file copy test, the Air performed disk operations just over five times faster than previous Air's 1.8 inch, 4200rpm conventional HDD.

Testing by Macworld indicated the Air's new SSD flash storage enabled the 13-inch, 1.86GHz model to achieve a Speedmark 6.5 score, beating a 13-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.4GHz Core2 Duo processor. The Core i5 options available on the 15-inch and larger MacBook Pros are significantly faster than the Air however, scoring about a third higher.

2010 MacBook Air Speedmark


Performance overview: RAM and Battery

More RAM is critical to Mac OS X's performance, even if the SSD on the new MacBook Air seems to suffer less from virtual memory paging than a conventional hard drive does. For that reason, the 2GB limit on most Air models seems rather stingy. Fortunately, you can now order the Air with 4GB of RAM installed, but your only opportunity to do so comes at the time of purchase. There's no option to upgrade a RAM module later, as the memory chips are actually soldiered onto the logic board.

Compared to other MacBook models, this lack of upgradability is a significant shortcoming, although previously Apple offered no memory upgrade option at all on the MacBook Air beyond the standard 2GB. Unless you only plan to ever browse the web and do simple email and document editing, it makes a lot of sense to spring for the $100, 4GB upgrade at purchase. Note that doing so also limits your return options on a "build to order" model, but that it also will increase the resale value of the machine.

The MacBook Air's integrated batteries not only last a long time, but combined with the instant standby and wake afforded by its SSD design, allow the machine to remain in standby for days; Apple says it can last for a month. This results in the new Air having a shelf life availability along the lines of the iPad, where you don't have to consciously think about keeping it charged up; just grab it and go. It's pretty much always ready to play, and recharges rapidly when you do need to top off the battery. There isn't any external battery meter however, and the software-base reporting of how much charge you have left isn't always accurate.

The New MacBook Air in Review

Apple really delivered on the premise of marrying its notebook and iPad savvy together to create the MacBook Air. The overall design of the Air exemplifies the benefits of integrating customized parts together rather than just assembling stock components off the shelf. It's not just the SSD or the battery or the operating system that makes the Air a strong product, it's the combination and interaction between those parts. Few other manufacturers work so hard at tight integration and customization and take such forward thinking leaps when investing in the technologies needed to deliver these composite innovations.

The new MacBook Air models expand upon Apple's original intent to deliver a light, highly mobile notebook with full sized usability. The original Air debuted the company's innovative unibody construction, which Apple has since brought to the rest of its MacBook line. The latest Air sports a refinement of this unibody design that still delivers an incredibly thin and light but strong and rigid case, with improved port access.

The smaller 11-inch Air delivers the same functional level of performance as previous models in a much more compact form factor that should appeal to users who'd like an iPad sized device with the features of a full desktop operating system. Along with its 13-inch sibling, the new Air models deliver a nice jump graphics performance while still holding on to their impressive battery life delivered via integrated batteries.

MacBook Airs


Apple's bold move to standardize on SSD flash storage exclusively means the Air is virtually silent, faster than you'd expect given its processor clock speed, and jumps back from sleep as fast as the iPad. It can also coast along without a power brick in standby mode for days, a great feature when you're traveling and need every minute of battery life.

On the downside: the new Airs no longer sport a backlit keyboard (either due to space or cost constraints), making it a little more of a strain to hit unfamiliar keys in dim lighting. This might annoy travelers who want to hit playback buttons on the F-keys while in a dark airplane cabin, but this is rather high end luxury feature missing on most other PC laptops as well. Another victim of the limited space on the super thin, tiny Air is the SD Card slot on the 11-inch model, and of course the FireWire and Gigabit Ethernet on both Air models.

The skimpy 2GB of RAM on the base Air models begs for an upgrade, and many users won't realize they need more memory until they begin using it for some time, at which point it will be too late to add any. Of course, the Air isn't designed to serve as a powerhouse workhorse machine, so for users with greater need for mobility than maximum multitasking capabilities, the standard 2GB should be acceptable. However, with Mac OS X Lion around the corner, it seems likely that anyone who gets a 2GB Mac at this point is going to wish they'd splurged on an upgrade.

Unlike most PC notebooks, Apple's offerings don't include support for Blu-Ray nor HDMI output connectors, although the Air does support audio output through the Mini DisplayPort, meaning users only need a cheap dongle to route both HDMI video and high quality audio out through the Mini DisplayPort to an HDMI TV.

Rating 4 out of 5

4-stars


Pros:
Solid construction despite featherweight, ultra-thin design
Great battery life and instant-on usability
Speedy SSD performance
Quite, cool operation
New SD Card slot on the 13 inch model
Smart flash drive alternative to installer DVDs

Cons:
Limited RAM and CPU upgrade options
Optical, Ethernet, HDMI all require dongles
No backlit keyboard option

Where to Buy & How to Save

AppleInsider has lined up a deal with Apple Authorized Reseller MacMall, which is currently offering AppleInsider readers an additional 3% off its already reduced MacBook Air pricing when ordering online using the links in the chart below, or through AppleInsider's full-fledged Mac Price Guide, until November 19th, 2010. These discounts fall below even Apple's educational pricing on the new Airs.

MacBook Pro
11-inch MacBook Airs
Amazon MacMall B&H Photo & Video OnSale.com Adorama
Discount
11" Air (1.40GHz/4GB/128GB) NEW $899.99 $829.34* $799.99+ $799.99 $854.99! $99.01
11" Air (1.40GHz/8GB/128GB) NEW n/a $950.59* $979.00+ n/a yet on order $48.41
11" Air (1.40GHz/4GB/256GB) NEW $949.99 $1,013.64* $1,044.99+ $949.99 $1,044.99! $149.01
11" Air (1.40GHz/8GB/256GB) NEW n/a $1,144.59* $1,199.00+ n/a yet $1,179.00! $54.41
11" Air (1.40GHz/4GB/512GB) NEW n/a $1,352.18* n/a yet n/a yet $1,379.00! $46.82
11" Air (1.40GHz/8GB/512GB) NEW n/a $1,449.18* n/a yet n/a yet $1,479.00! $49.82
11" Air (1.70GHz/4GB/128GB) NEW n/a $1,012.68* n/a yet n/a yet $1,029.00! $36.32
11" Air (1.70GHz/4GB/256GB) NEW n/a $1,206.68* n/a yet n/a yet $1,229.00! $42.32
11" Air (1.70GHz/4GB/512GB) NEW n/a $1,497.68* n/a yet n/a yet $1,529.00! $51.32
11" Air (1.70GHz/8GB/128GB) NEW n/a $1,109.68* $1,149.00+ n/a yet $1,129.00! $39.32
11" Air (1.70GHz/8GB/256GB) NEW n/a $1,290.09* $1,349.00+ n/a yet $1,329.00! $58.91
11" Air (1.70GHz/8GB/512GB) NEW n/a $1,581.09* $1,629.00+ n/a yet $1,629.00! $67.91
11" Air (1.30GHz/4GB/128GB) $805.88 on order $799.00+ sold out $200.00
11" Air (1.30GHz/4GB/256GB) $964.00 $940.89* $919.00+ sold out $280.00
MacBook Pro
13-inch MacBook Airs
Amazon MacMall B&H Photo & Video OnSale.com Adorama
Discount
13" Air (1.40GHz/4GB/128GB) NEW $989.99 $921.49* $899.99 $849.99 $949.99 $149.01
13" Air (1.40GHz/8GB/128GB) NEW n/a $1,042.74* $1,079.00+ n/a yet $1,079.00! $56.26
13" Air (1.40GHz/4GB/256GB) NEW $1,179.00 $1,105.79* $1,099.99+ $1,099.99 $1,099.99! $99.01
13" Air (1.40GHz/8GB/256GB) NEW n/a $1,231.89* $1,299.00+ n/a yet on order $67.11
13" Air (1.40GHz/4GB/512GB) NEW n/a $1,449.18* n/a yet n/a yet $1,479.00! $49.82
13" Air (1.40GHz/8GB/512GB) NEW n/a $1,546.18* on order n/a yet $1,579.00! $52.82
13" Air (1.70GHz/4GB/128GB) NEW n/a $1,109.68* n/a yet n/a yet $1,129.00! $39.32
13" Air (1.70GHz/4GB/256GB) NEW n/a $1,303.68* $1,349.00+ n/a yet $1,329.00! $45.32
13" Air (1.70GHz/4GB/512GB) NEW n/a $1,594.68* n/a yet n/a yet $1,629.00! $54.32
13" Air (1.70GHz/8GB/128GB) NEW n/a $1,193.09* $1,249.00+ n/a yet on order $55.91
13" Air (1.70GHz/8GB/256GB) NEW n/a $1,377.39* $1,379.99+ n/a yet on order $71.61
13" Air (1.70GHz/8GB/512GB) NEW n/a $1,678.09* $1,749.00+ n/a yet $1,729.00! $70.91
13" Air (1.30GHz/4GB/128GB) $917.95 sold out $859.00+ sold out $240.00
13" Air (1.30GHz/8GB/128GB) n/a $1,096.09* sold out n/a $102.91
13" Air (1.30GHz/4GB/256GB) $1,133.75 sold out $1,059.00+ sold out $240.00
13" Air (1.70GHz/8GB/512GB) n/a sold out $1,749.00+ n/a $50.00
Show 2012 MacBook Air clearance models            



MacMall is also offering $102 savings off the high-end, non-standard 13.3-inch configuration that includes the 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor seen in the benchmarks above. MacMall has most Air models in stock while MacConnection claims to have the entire lineup in stock. Several other resellers, as can be seen above, are also discounting the MacBook Air to a lesser degree.