Review: Apple's 2011 Thunderbolt 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs
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The Evolution of the MacBook Air
The original MacBook Air (review), 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, expandability and its relatively high price.
At the end of 2008 and again midway through 2009, Apple twice (1, 2) 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.
Last year, Apple completely redesigned the 13 inch MacBook Air, adding an additional USB port, upgrading the graphics to use NVIDIA's GeForce 320M, expanding its 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 starts at $1,299.
This year, Apple has upgraded the MacBook Air to Intel's low voltage Core i5 or i7 processor architecture, a move which gives the highly mobile notebooks the performance of last year's full size MacBook Pros. Along with the faster processors, the new Air architecture provides faster 1333 MHz DDR3 RAM and a modern Thunderbolt interconnect that provides for dramatic expansion (including external support for Firewire and Gigabit Ethernet for the first time on a MacBook Air).
However, the new architecture also replaces the Nvidia graphics with Intel's own integrated graphics processor, and results in both models weighing slightly more, although hardly enough to notice. The 11 inch model is now 2.38 lb (1.08 kg) rather than 2.3 lb (1.04 kg), while the 13 inch Air is now 2.96 lb (1.34 kg) versus 2.9 lb (1.32 kg).
Two other new features for this year's batch of MacBook Airs are the return of the backlit keyboard (which disappeared entirely in last year's lower priced redesign) and the appearance of support for Bluetooth 4.0, which debuted on the new Airs and the simultaneously released mid-2011 Mac mini. Bluetooth 4.0 replaces "Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR," adding support for new very low energy devices that are designed to run from a small battery.
Position in the MacBook family
Previously, MacBook buyers had to weigh their needs for size, weight and mobility against performance, expandability and features in choosing between the Air, the entry level MacBook, and MacBook Pro options. The new Thunderbolt MacBook Air models disrupt that decision matrix by offering far more competitive performance within their slim outlines that before, along with adding greatly enhanced expandability thanks to the versatile Thunderbolt port.
Thunderbolt not only provides a very fast interconnect for external storage devices (such as a RAID appliance), but also enables Air users to connect to a hub (such as Apple's own Thunderbolt Display) that uses the new port to expose additional USB, Firewire and Gigabit Ethernet options. Third party Thunderbolt interfaces can also provide additional connectivity for video and music professionals, making the Air an option for users who formerly couldn't pick it due to its limited expansion options.
Apple has now discontinued the entry level white MacBook, which was formerly the same price as the 11 inch Air, but offered a faster CPU and more storage capacity via its conventional hard drive. The end of that low end MacBook means users will have to pay more to get a 13 inch screen, although the 11 inch Air has a resolution that is about the same as the former 13 inch MacBook: slightly wider but not quite as many pixels tall, at 1366x768 versus the old MacBook's standard 1280x800 pixel count.
The old entry level MacBook also offered an optical drive for playing DVDs, installing software, and burning discs, and provided Gigabit Ethernet for fast wired networking. However, it also had a larger, thicker, cheaper looking plastic body that weighed in at 4.7 lbs. What was once a significant differentiation (a hearty $999 general purpose notebook vs. an ultra thin $1,499 subnotebook) suddenly turned into a the choice between a general purpose notebook vs a micro-luxury, sexy device with some limitations but far fewer drawbacks than originally, with both at the same $999 price.
With the arrival of Thunderbolt connectivity and new Core i5 and i7 processors on the MacBook Air, and the increasing irrelevance of optical discs, the white MacBook lost its lease and has now been discontinued for all but educational buyers.
The new Air models now compete for attention against the full sized 13 inch MacBook Pro (first look, review), which allows for faster CPU options, more RAM (with expansion options up to 8GB compared to just 4GB on the Air), more disk storage (albeit via a conventional, slower hard drive), and a built in optical disc, FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet. The full sized model also provides an extra pound and a half of weight, a significantly lower resolution display, and a machine that's nearly twice as thick, but only $100 less than the 13 inch Air (with its somewhat less alluring TN LCD display).
The 15 and 17 inch MacBook Pros (first look, review) deliver larger, higher quality screens and faster performance, both in CPU options and in their dedicated graphics processors, 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 existing big notebook for a more portable device that's more go and less do.
Apple's MacBook Air offerings reset the definition of entry level Mac notebooks as being more powerful, more expandable, better constructed, and far lighter and slimmer than ever. However, a large portion of Apple's education business that formerly bought the plastic White MacBook is now buying iPads, making the former entry-level model as much a casualty of the iPad's success as was obsolesced by the similarly priced MacBook Air.
Interestingly, Apple now refers to the MacBook Air as "the ultimate everyday notebook," in contrast to the 13 inch MacBook Pro which it calls "the high-performance notebook for everyone." The 15 inch MacBook Pro is now designated the "the mobile computing powerhouse," while the 17 inch model is called "the ultimate mobile studio." Those who doubted Apple could find a mainstream audience for the MacBook Air may be surprised to see that the model has become Apple's entry level, "everyday" notebook offering.
On page 2 of 3: Thunderbolt; Sandy Bridge Architecture; Bluetooth 4.0; FaceTime; and I/O.
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What's new in MacBook Air hardware: Thunderbolt
The first notable new hardware feature of the 2011 MacBook Air is Thunderbolt, the high performance data interconnect developed by Intel that Apple incorporated into its Mini DisplayPort jack.
The addition of Thunderbolt allows the Air to connect to external drives at much faster rates than USB or Firewire. Thunderbolt is essentially an external implementation of PCI Express, enabling external break out boxes to incorporate interfaces for other data port specifications, including USB, Firewire and Gigabit Ethernet.
Thunderbolt is supported on the new MacBook Air models via an Intel E78296 01PB10 / E116A756 SLJ4K Platform Controller Hub chip, which replaces the Nvidia controller and graphics chip previous Air models used. The graphics processor of the new models is now integrated into the Intel Core i5 or i7 processor package itself.
Apple first added Thunderbolt to its MacBook Pro models in February, followed by the release of a Thunderbolt iMac in May. Alongside the MacBook Air, the company has also added Thunderbolt to its Mac mini this month, making the new data interconnect available across its entire consumer product line (apart from the yet to be refreshed Mac Pro).
At the release of the MacBook Air, Apple also announced its new $999 Thunderbolt Display, which connects to a Mac via Mini DisplayPort and provides a MagSafe connector for powering notebooks while in use. Unlike the previous Apple LED Cinema Display (review), the 27 inch panel uses Thunderbolt to provide a passthrough Thunderbolt port, a FireWire 800 port, 3 USB 2.0 ports, and a gigabit Ethernet port. This new offering provides the first Apple-supplied equivalent of a notebook dock for the MacBook Air, dramatically expanding its functionality beyond just being a light and thin notebook.
What's new in MacBook Air hardware: Sandy Bridge Architecture
The other major difference in the 2011 MacBook Air is the move to Intel's Core i5/i7 Sandy Bridge architecture. Apple first migrated its MacBook Pro notebooks from the Core 2 Duo architecture to Intel's Nehalem architecture in mid 2010, using Arrandale Core i5 and i7 chips. In February, the Pro line was upgraded to Sandy Bridge Core i5 and i7 chips.
However, the MacBook Air, like the entry level white MacBook, remained stuck with Core 2 Duo, primarily because of the added cost and heat dissipation of the latest core i5 and i7 chips. This summer, Intel released mobile "ultra-low voltage" versions of the Sandy Bridge architecture, finally making it possible for the MacBook Air to use the new chips without overheating, gaining significant weight related to the added cooling required, or losing significant battery life.
The new Sandy Bridge MacBook Airs are rated to last for 5 hours (11 inch) or 7 hours (13 inch). All MacBook Pros are rated for 7 hours of use, but pack in much larger batteries (rated at 63.5, 77.5, or 95 watt-hours for the 13, 15 and 17 inch models, respectively). The 11 inch Air has a slim 35 watt-hour battery, while the 13 inch Air uses a 50 watt-hour battery. The two Air models also provide 45 watt MagSafe power adapters, rather than the 60 or 85 watt power adapters required to charge the 13 or 15 and 17 inch MacBook Pros.
As previously noted, the migration to Sandy Bridge processors necessitates a move away from a dedicated Nvidia graphics processor, as Intel has incorporated its own graphics chip within the CPU package and blocked Nvidia from building supporting controller chips for its new CPUs. In addition to taking over graphics processor functions, the new mobile Core i5 and i7 processors also handle memory management, directly interfacing with the installed RAM.
This functionality was previously provided by the CPU's supporting controller chip, which Nvidia competed against Intel to sell, and which Apple preferred to use over Intel's own platform controller. While the increased performance and sophistication of Intel's Core i5 and i7 processors were enough to sway Apple to migrate away from the Core 2 Duo paired with Nvidia's controller chip, Intel's proprietary Thunderbolt interface, which is deeply integrated into the chip platform's architecture, will likely be enough to keep Apple from considering third party processors and controllers from Nvidia or AMD in the near future, outside of the high performance, dedicated GPUs the company continues to use in its MacBook Pro and iMac lines.
What else is new in MacBook Air hardware
While not connected to Intel's Sandy Bridge, the new MacBook Airs also incorporate support for the newly emerging Bluetooth 4.0 specification, aimed primarily at supporting low power peripherals. A teardown report by iFixit noted that the new Airs include a mini-PCIe wireless card powered by a Broadcom BCM4322 Intensi-fi Single-Chip 802.11 Transceiver and a Broadcom BCM20702 Single-Chip Bluetooth 4.0 Processor with Bluetooth Low Energy Support. The MacBook Air is Apple's first notebook to include support for Bluetooth 4.0.
The new MacBook Air models continue to provide standard FaceTime cameras (formerly branded iSight) rather than the higher quality FaceTime HD cameras sported by the MacBook Pro line. Using the Thunderbolt Display, Air users can switch to the higher quality FaceTime HD camera within the external display for full 720p video conferencing.
In other respects, including ports and other hardware features, the latest MacBook Air models appear identical to the previous generation apart from the Thunderbolt logo adorning the enhanced Mini DisplayPort jack (below) and the grey key labels hinting at the newly restored backlit keyboard feature.
On page 3 of 3: CPU Performance; BTO Options; RAM & Battery Performance; Mac OS X Lion; Rating; and How to Save When Buying.
Performance overview: CPU
AppleInsider tested three MacBook Air models: the entry level 11 inch Air equipped with 2GB of RAM and a 1.6 GHz Core i5 processor, a 13 inch base model with 4GB RAM and slightly faster 1.7 GHz Core i5 chip, and a custom build-to-order 11 inch model with 4GB of RAM and the 1.8 GHz Core i7 option.
In raw benchmarks, the new Sandy Bridge MacBook Air models score far higher than last year's Core 2 Duo versions, with the entry level model scoring nearly twice as high in Geekbench. Even the higher end 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air is no match for the new entry level Core i5, and is smoked by the new higher end Core i7 option, despite the Sandy Bridge chips being clocked far slower than the previous generation of Core 2 Duo chips.
The new MacBook Air Core i5 and i7 are "ultra low power" variants of the Sandy Bridge chips used in this year's line of MacBook Pros, so they're both far more efficient as not quite as capable; they're also clocked slower than their Pro sibling chips, ranging from 1.6 to 1.8 GHz rather than the 2.3 to 2.7 GHz dual core chips used in the 13 inch MacBook Pro, or the 2.0 to 2.3 GHz quad core chips used in the 15 and 17 inch machines.
Even so, the 1.7 GHz Core i5 MacBook Air benchmarks beat last year's 2.4 GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro, and the high end Core i7 dual core MacBook Air option runs nearly as fast as the latest quad core i5 MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air is officially no longer a tepid performer.
In addition to raw computing power, the Sandy Bridge architecture includes a number of specialized processing features that help boost real world performance, including an accelerated AVC (H.264) video encoder and decoder that jumps in to help both when creating your own movies, when playing back HD movies, and when making FaceTime video conferencing calls. Apple says the new MacBook Air performs up to 2.5 times faster than the previous generation (citing photo and video heavy apps).
Selecting from available options
The 11 inch base model 1.6 GHz Core i5 MacBook Air is a reasonably speedy mobile Mac at $999, although opting for the higher end 11 inch model for an extra $200 makes more sense, as it delivers not only twice as much storage but twice the RAM, something that you can't add later at any price.
The 13 inch model starts at $1299, but delivers a larger screen, 128GB SSD and 4GB standard, and includes an SD card slot along with a CPU bump to the 1.7 GHz Core i5. Opting for the 256GB SSD costs another $300, so depending on your needs for storage, you may want to live with the base 128GB SSD and make plans to upgrade in the future when you run out of space (and as SSD component prices continue to fall).
For extreme storage needs, Apple lists four options for external Thunderbolt RAID devices built by Promise, ranging from a $999 4 TB unit; a 4x2 TB or 6x1 TB unit for $1499; or a massive 12 TB (6x2 TB) system for $1999. Plugging in that kind of storage also requires a $49 Apple Thunderbolt cable.
Jumping to the fastest CPU option, the 1.8 GHz Core i7, costs an additional $150 on the 11 inch model or $100 for the 13 inch MacBook Air. That seems to be a very economical upgrade, given that the high end chip boosts its benchmarks into the realm of the currently shipping, entry level MacBook Pros (which continue to be significantly more expensive, although also offer better graphics, a higher quality screen, and several other built in options).
Adding an external USB optical drive (which can burn dual layer DVDs) costs $79; Apple's USB Ethernet Adapter (limited to 10/100 Fast Ethernet) costs $29, as do the company's Mini DisplayPort dongles for DVI or VGA (a Dual Link DVI adapter, required for powering a 30 inch Cinema HD Display, costs $99); while Apple's 27 inch Thunderbolt Display is priced at $999 (although it won't be available for a couple months).
AppleCare costs $249 for three years of service and is usually a very good deal, but you can buy it anytime within the original warranty period. Apple also offers three HP printers in a bundle deal that knocks off $100 when purchased with a new Mac, resulting in the $100, $200, or $250 printers being free, $100 or $150 after rebate.
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 the entry level 11 inch MacBook Air models seems rather inadequate. While you can order the Air with 4GB of RAM installed, 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 MacBook Pro models (which can accommodate 8GB of RAM), this lack of upgradability is a significant shortcoming, although not nearly as bad as the original MacBook Air, for which Apple offered no memory upgrade option at all 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 what is now a "build to order" model, but that it will also increase the resale value of the machine. Thankfully, the entry-level $999 11 inch model is the only MacBook Air model Apple continues to offer with less than 4GB of RAM.
It does help that the Sandy Bridge architecture supports faster 1333MHz DDR3 RAM. However, some reports also indicate that Apple is using a variety of SSD components in the latest Air models, some of which do not benchmark as fast as previous models did. Unlike system RAM, the SSD units within the 2011 MacBook Air models are not soldered in, and can therefore theoretically be replaced with higher performance units after the fact.
Apple doesn't advertise which models will ship with which components, but existing reports indicate that new Air models ship with lower performing Toshiba SSDs, while previous MacBook Airs shipped with Samsung devices that benchmark with faster data throughput. In the units purchased by AppleInsider, we found a Samsung drive installed in one 11 inch model but a Toshiba drive installed in the 13 inch unit.
There does not appear to be any consistency in what brand of SSD is installed in a particular model, and of course Apple does not report the brand of the SSD that will be installed in a given machine configuration. It appears Apple has an internal baseline of SSD performance, and that some users will get devices that exceed that baseline. This has frequently been the case in earlier models, where Apple has used components from different suppliers.
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-based reporting of how much charge you have left isn't always accurate.
Performance overview: Mac OS X Lion
The new Thunderbolt MacBook Airs boot the new Mac OS X Lion, and of course require the new release. This affords them a variety of iPad-like feature, from Full Screen Apps to Launchpad, to match their iPad-like hardware.
There's also deeper OS integration with Apple's online services, such as the new ability to reset your Mac's local password using your Apple ID (such as your iTunes, MobileMe and App Store account). Soon, Apple will also be rolling out iCloud services tied to the same Apple ID, enabling even greater integration between iOS and Mac OS X in terms of music, photos, documents, and third party app features.
Among the first things you'll notice after logging in for the first time is the Mac App Store recommending updates to the pre-installed iLife apps. Separately, you'll be notified of an update to iTunes via Software Update.
It's a little strange that some apps are updated through the App Store and others through Software Update, particularly iTunes, which isn't really a core part of Mac OS X and has historically been included in the iLife bundle. For now, you'll have to check both for updates on your installed apps. Below, iTunes asks to be updated via Software Update while other iLife app updates appear in the Mac App Store.
Any apps you've previously bought through the Mac App Store will show up on your new MacBook Air as available downloads in the Mac App Store's Purchases page, making it easy to install your apps without dealing with with DVDs (or using Migration Utility to do copy apps over). As a side bonus, the bundled iLife apps you get on your new notebook are tied to your Apple ID and therefore will show up as available downloads on other Macs you own, too.
Airs also leverage a feature of Mac OS X Lion providing a reinstallation partition, so they don't need to ship with a USB stick installer as the previous generation did. That's one less thing to lose, but don't worry that Apple is shaving 8GB of disk storage off the already limited capacity of your SSD. The recovery disk is just 650MB and a secondary partition storing a clean install of Mac OS X Lion is just 1.4GB, consuming a negligible portion of your total available storage.
Booting from the recovery disk (which you can do by booting with the Option key held down), you can access Disk Utilities, Terminal, Network Utility, and the Firmware Password Utility, as well as perform a clean reinstall of Mac OS X or restore the system from an earlier Time Machine backup. There's no DVDs or USB sticks to keep track of, and the utilities boot quickly because they're on the SSD. And speaking of SSD, Mac OS X Lion continues to provide support for TRIM features that help maintain the drive's performance over time.
One last mark left by Mac OS X Lion on the new MacBook Air models is the new configuration of keyboard icons. Replacing F3's ExposÃ© and F4's Dashboard are new icons that bring up Mission Control (which is an enhanced ExposÃ© integrated with Spaces, now presented by Apple as an unboxed icon of three boxes, launched by F3) and Launchpad (a Home-like screen of launchable apps, now designated by a grid of squares, and tied to F4).
The New MacBook Air in Review
The latest MacBook Air incorporates a variety of technologies sourced with both the simple, easy to use iPad and the high end MacBook Pro line. A combination of iPad-like speed, responsiveness and efficiency is mated with the high performance and flexible expansion options of the Thunderbolt MacBook Pros. This remakes the MacBook Air as a light, thin general purpose machine, rather than a subcompact riddled with various design compromises.
As noted last year, 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. Unibody construction means that the shell is milled from a single slab of aluminum, rather than being pieced together by thin coverings screwed onto an internal metal framework.
This design gives the MacBook Air an incredibly thin and light but strong and rigid case, with improved port access. There are no doors or panels to flip up or break off, and there's less likely hood that the body will warp and creek as it ages and deals with wear and tear.
The smaller 11 inch Air delivers significantly better performance compared to the previous model while retaining the same compact form factor that should appeal to users who'd like an iPad sized device with the features of a full desktop operating system and a full, physical keyboard. Along with its 13 inch sibling, the new Thunderbolt Air delivers a significant jump in performance while still holding on to its impressive battery life delivered via integrated batteries.
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. The exclusive use of SSDs for storage and the removal of an optical drive means that the MacBook Air has virtually no moving parts to break outside of its cooling fans.
The new Thunderbolt Airs not only pack in a lot more performance and flexible expansion potential, but also reintroduce the a backlight keyboard that was dropped last year. While Thunderbolt provides a new option for plugging into FireWire and Gigabit Ethernet, only the 13 inch model provides an SD Card slot, leaving the 11 inch model continuing to require a USB cable to obtain the photos from your digital camera.
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 may be acceptable. However, it still 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 MacBook Air offerings don't include support for Blu-Ray nor provide a dedicated HDMI output connector, 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
Solid construction despite featherweight, ultra-thin design
Great battery life and instant-on usability
Stronger Sandy Bridge CPU options, faster RAM
Thunderbolt expansion and connectivity
Bluetooth 4.0 support
Speedy SSD performance
Quite, cool operation
Optical, Ethernet, HDMI output all require dongles
No SD Card slot on the 11 inch model
Entry level model limited to 2GB of RAM, no expansion potential
How to Save When Buying
The new MacBook Airs began making their way to Apple stores and authorized over the past week, though Apple has yet to catch up with overall demand. Readers in the market for one of the notebooks can check out AppleInsider's Mac Pricing Guide (also below), where MacMall is already offering readers an additional 3% discount off its already reduced MacBook Air (and MacBook Pro) prices. The discount is instant when using the links below but available only when placing orders on line — you do not need to call MacMall to place a pre-order if the model you select is not currently in stock. The resellers are receiving new stock from Apple daily and new orders placed online will ship as soon as the reseller takes delivery of new stock.
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