I'm going to keep typing after this first sentence, but before we begin something must be said: This review can be summed up in the single moment when, after using one of the new MacBook Airs for an extended period of time, you go back to your old laptop. And it feels like it has suddenly contracted elephantiasis.
My “old” laptop is a unibody 15-inch MacBook Pro with just under two years of mileage on it, which makes the contrast even more dramatic. Both machines share the same overall design language, and both feel modern, sleek and sexy, true to their maker. One just feels grossly, almost comically oversized.
Because after using the 11-inch MacBook Air for a week, a tiny axe-blade wedge of machined metal (that folds out into a computer, I had to keep reminding myself), it's hard to remember why I needed such a "huge" machine in the first place.
Here are my thoughts on the 11-inch; on the next page, Mike Haney stacks the new 13-incher up against the previous-generation Air.
Previously available only in the 13-inch configuration, the new 11-inch form-factor is the smallest Mac laptop ever made. Also new in both Airs is solid-state flash memory as the only storage option, in 64GB or 128GB sizes on the 11" (128GB or 256GB on the 13"). Graphics are handled by the same Nvidia GeForce 320M processor found in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The cases have been slimmed and sharpened and an extra USB port has been added (the previous Air only had one).
Speed: There hasn't been a Mac laptop with a clock speed as slow as the entry-level 11-inch Air's 1.4 GHz Core 2 Duo since mid-2005. But processors have changed a lot since then. Despite running at a slower clock, the Air's brain has two cores for more power. That doesn't mean number-crunching tasks like video encoding won't run significantly slower on this machine than every other modern Mac --for that kind of stuff, you'll be better served by something with more processing beef.
But what's amazing here is how little that matters for the other 95% of the every day computing tasks the 11-inch Air handles with effortless speed. Ditching a hard drive's spinning platters for flash memory is a huge reason for this--disk reads and writes are crazy fast (it scored a 229.47 on Xbench's disk test, compared to a 33.06 for my late-2008 MacBook Pro's 5400-rpm hard disk), which boosts the feeling of real-world speed immensely. Full restarts happen before you can even decide whether to get up and fix yourself a drink, and a new ultra-low-power mode can stay asleep for up to 30 days and still snap back to life just like a wake from regular sleep. Milquetoast web work, email and word processing feel as snappy as they are on a brand new Core i7 iMac. I was most surprised to find that even running imports and image processing with Aperture, one of the biggest resource hogs I use frequently, is done without the slightest choke (something I certainly can't say for my two-year-old 2.53 GHz MBP). It almost feels like you're being tricked.
No Compromises: You could look at the spec sheet and the tiny size and immediately cry "Mac Netbook," but the 11-inch Air shares none of that class of laptops' barebones sacrifices. The screen, while small, is a crispy 1366 x 768 pixels dense--plenty of room to work with. The keyboard, save for some skinnier function keys in the top row, is the exact same full-size keyboard on every other Mac laptop. Ditto for the glass multitouch trackpad. Everything feels like a real computer, shrunken in all the right places.
It Needs a Companion: I would so badly love to sell my MacBook Pro for this machine. It's everything i want in a portable computer, and is powerful enough to handle most of what I do at home. But that slow processor and a lack of storage space are still dealbreakers for this being my primary (and only) machine. I could probably plug in to a big external drive to store my media and a larger display to make things a bit more palatable when I'm at home, but the whole setup makes a lot more sense with either a huge network-attached storage drive acting as a media server, or another more powerful Mac to handle the more intensive tasks. Even though I haven't regularly used a desktop computer for over 10 years, it feels wrong for that primary home machine to also be a laptop. Maybe it's time to build that Hackintosh desktop I've been dreaming of?
$999 for the base 64GB/1.4 GHz configuration; $200 more gets you 128GB of storage for $1,199. Both trim lines can be brought up to 4GB of RAM for another $100, and the 128GB model can get a processor bump to 1.6GHz for $100 as well.
I've wanted so badly to love the iPad when I'm traveling. But if I'm traveling for work, I'm often taking photographs and shooting quick videos with a DSLR, processing them, loading them along with words into our content management system--basically working with files. I can do none of these things easily with an iPad.
What can I do on an iPad that I can't with an 11-inch MacBook Air? Hmm. On the Air I can use the perhaps less design-y but equally if not more functional version of apps like my iPad's beautiful RSS reader, my beautiful note-taker, my beautiful weather widget--many in that old-fashioned thing called the web browser. It's just as portable, more durable, has a higher-resolution screen. I guess it doesn't make quite as nice an e-reader, but I'm still an old-fashioned book devotee. So, why do I need you again, iPad?
Carry on to the next page for Mike Haney's take on the 13-inch versionsingle page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.