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Review: Apple's 2011 Thunderbolt 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs

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Last year at its "Back to the Mac" event, Apple launched a revamped pair of 11 and 13 inch MacBook Air models that borrowed hardware details from the iPad. This year, the company's duo of light and thin notebooks get some notable hardware enhancements but also benefit significantly from Mac OS X Lion, which incorporates a variety of iPad software features.

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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.

Mid 2011 11 inch MacBook Air

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.

MacBook family mid 2011

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.