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

At its "Back to the Mac" event, Apple launched a revamped 13-inch MacBook Air and an entirely new 11-inch MacBook Air as products combining the company's MacBook line with lessons learned in iPad development.

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The original MacBook Air, launched at the beginning of 2008, drew praise over its unique combination of a high mobility, super-thin design that managed to retain a full sized keyboard and 13-inch display. However, it was also criticized over its limited performance and expandability and its relatively high price.

At the end of 2008 and again midway through 2009, Apple twice addressed the Air's critics with design refreshes that upgraded the machine's processor options and graphics, replacing its lethargic Intel GMA X3100 (driving a Micro-DVI port) with a more advanced Nvidia GeForce 9400M (standardizing on Mini DisplayPort output), while also dropping the entry level price from $1,799 to $1,499.

This year, Apple completely redesigned the 13-inch MacBook Air, adding an additional USB port, upgrading the graphics to use Nvidia's GeForce 320M, expanding the battery capacity, increasing the screen resolution (from a "13-inch" resolution of 1280x800 to a "15-inch" resolution of 1440x900), and moving exclusively to a speedy, "instant-on" solid state flash drive for storage.

Apple also shaved off a tenth of a pound of weight and two millimeters of thickness from the 13-inch model, while also introducing a new 11-inch model with a 1366x768 screen that drops an inch of width, nearly an inch and a half of depth, two millimeters of thickness, and 0.7 lbs from the original design.

The deepest design cut, however, slashed the Air's entry level price by a third, matching the company's lowest priced White MacBook model at $999 on the 11-inch model, while knocking $200 off the base price of the 13-inch version, which now starts at $1,299.

MacBook Air 10 and 13 inch

MacBook Air 10 and 13 inch

Position in the MacBook family

The introduction of the new Air models makes for some tough choices for MacBook buyers, posing the question: what's most important in your needs for a notebook: size, weight and mobility, or performance, expandability and features?

MacBook family late 2010

The entry level White MacBook is the same price as the 11-inch Air, but offers a faster CPU and more storage capacity via its conventional hard drive. It can also be upgraded to 4GB at any time; the new Air can only move past 2GB if you choose that option at purchase; there's no way to add more RAM afterward. The low end MacBook also has a larger display, although its resolution is about the same: slightly taller but not quite as many pixels wide: 1280x800 rather than the 11-inch Air's 1366x768.

The entry level MacBook also has an optical drive for playing DVDs, installing software, and burning discs, and sports Gigabit Ethernet for fast wired networking. However, it has a larger, thicker, cheaper looking plastic body that weighs 4.7 pounds. What was once an easy decision (a hearty $999 general purpose notebook vs. the ultra thin $1,499 subnotebook) is now a chin scratcher (general purpose notebook vs a micro-luxury, sexy device with some limitations but far fewer drawbacks than before, both at the same $999 price).

The introduction of the new Air models also presents a more difficult decision when compared against the 13-inch MacBook Pro. While you get more RAM (4GB vs 2GB, plus more room for growth up to 8GB), more disk storage (albeit via a conventional, slower hard drive), an optical disc, a backlit keyboard, FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet, you also get an extra pound and a half of weight, a significantly lower resolution (but higher quality) display, and a machine that's nearly twice as thick, but only $100 less than the 13-inch Air.

Or, alternatively, you can compare the smallest MacBook Pro against the 11-inch Air, which offers a much more compact outline, half the weight, and essentially the same resolution screen for $200 less. It all comes down to whether you want to work hard on a mobile notebook or have a super light and thin device that does almost everything nearly as well (at least until you start busting out the heavy lifting apps).

The 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros deliver far bigger screens and much faster performance, making them easier to choose between for users who need full sized performance more than featherweight mobility. However, if you already have a desktop system, the new Air models might tempt you to trade in your big notebook for a more portable device that's more go and less do.

In general, Apple's MacBook Air offerings reestablish the notebook as a less powerful but far more mobile form factor contrasted with the full sized desktop, which is what notebook computers used to be in the '90s. Over the last decade, notebooks generally became powerful enough to serve as both a desktop workhorse and mobile enough to last as a battery-powered portable system.

MacBook Air 11 and Pro 15

On page 2 of 4: Comparing the Air to iPads and netbooks