Testing the Goods: The New MacBook Airs

After a week with Apple's new diminutive portables, here's everything you need to know

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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.

The 11-inch MacBook Air in profile

What’s New

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).

What’s Good

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.

The 11-inch MacBook Air

The Perfect Size:: It’s not just that it’s amazingly small. More importantly, its extremely low weight (2.3 pounds, just 0.7 more than an iPad) and crazy-thin profile (a hair over a tenth of an inch at its sharpest terminus) result in the perfect balance of durability, fragility and portability. Just like you imagine an ant could survive a ten-story leap from the roof of an office building, so too does it feel like you could safely give the 11-inch Air a pretty good manhandling. Not so with an iPad, which still feels fragile in my hands.

What’s Bad

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?

The Price

$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.

The Verdict:

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 version

The 13-inch MacBook Air

I carried the original Air for about a month, on several trips, and I loved it. The lack of ports never bothered me, the weak processor handled my life just fine, and the price kept me from buying one. After several days with the new-gen 13-inch Air, about all I can add to that is, “Yep.”

What’s New

The 13-inch isn’t radically different from its predecessor. The body feels a little thinner and more solid, as all unibody Macs do nowadays—a welcome change as I watch my wife’s two-year-old plastic Macbook literally come apart at the seams. The 13-incher adds an SD-card slot along with the extra USB port.

What’s Good

The Processor: I know I’m not breaking any new ground by saying, “It’s fine,” but that’s what it is. I’m not a processor hog in my daily computing: I surf the web, watch movies, write in Pages, Word or TextEdit, and make bloated Keynote presentations. For all of these tasks, the 1.86Ghz Core 2 Duo zipped along fine, often feeling faster than my 2.66Ghz 15-inch Pro work laptop, though the all-flash storage is also a factor in its zippiness (also, it’s a new computer I haven’t bogged down with tons of crap yet).

I even had occasion to do some light editing and voiceover on a few videos in iMovie—a task I originally moved from the Air back to the 15-inch just for the extra screen real estate, then took back to the Air so I could do it away from my desk. I wasn’t adding a lot of funky effects, but it imported the video and exported it again just as fast as the Pro had been doing. All that said, if I were buying one—something I intend to do—I’d probably splurge on the 2.13Ghz processor because if I’m already at the premium level, why not drop the extra $100 to add a little more future proofing?

All-Flash: In Xbench’s somewhat unscientific tests, the 13-incher scored a 170.44, a few notches slower than the smaller 11-inch drive, but considerably faster than a notebook hard drive. I tend to leave such questions to the pro benchmarkers, whose findings indeed suggest the drive does make a big difference in day-to-day computing). It does start fast, which is nice (though it’s still a a long way from iOS instant-on) and the 256GB is plenty of space, when most of our stuff is either on the cloud or on central storage.

The 13-incher's SD card slot

The Rest: The extra ports make this that much more able to be your everyday computer, and having the USB ports on opposite sides, allowing for oversized flash drives, is the kind of user-friendly idea I actually don’t expect from Apple anymore. This is the first Mac I’ve looked at in a while where the glossy screen didn’t annoy me by being too reflective, and the 1400×900 resolution is great—I barely noticed a change from my 15-inch MacBook Pro.

What’s Bad

Price: Although the 13-inch starts at the relative bargain price of $1,299, the 128GB drive is likely to keep many people from going in at that level. Which means you’re talking at least $1,599, and then, as I say, you’re probably just going to throw in the faster processor and RAM, not to mention the adaptors, and you’re looking at close to $2k by the time you leave the store. That’s a hefty investment for an everyday computer (as opposed to a video- or image-editing powerhouse), considering that a $300 netbook can also serve as a suitable and light surfing computer, and there are plenty of sub-$1000 thin-body PC laptops. Point is, this is not an automatic buy. I think you really have to consider whether or not you need the portability, the extra drive space and the rest. Or if you just have a lot of dough and like hot, lusty things, then maybe you don’t.

The Ports: Considering that USB card readers are practically free these days, I really wish Apple would have ditched the SD-card slot and included an Ethernet port instead. I know it was probably not a simple either/or, but the need to carry an adaptor to plug in sucks, considering that I always get the hotel room farthest from the wireless router, so I usually need a wired connection for usable internet (or internet that isn’t $15.99 a day). And I’m not looking forward to that first trip when I realize at 10 p.m. that I forgot my ethernet adaptor and I can’t just run to Walgreens to buy a new one, the way I do for ethernet cables about once every three trips.

Also, I really wish Apple would have used this moment to support USB 3.0 rather than assume its standard head-in-the-sand stance on all new technologies. Remember when this company invented Firewire?

Dark Keyboard: Apple inexplicably removed the backlit keyboard from the original Air. I consider this one of those features like adaptive cruise control: We all got along perfectly well for years without it, but it is really nice to have, and frankly, you just expect it when you’re spending this much money. I suspect it will come back in the next refresh, about two days after I’ve bought my plain-keyboard model.

Closed Case: I understand that cramming things into a case this small means you have to make sacrifices, and that the ability to easily user swap out hard drives, batteries and RAM is once of those sacrifices. But I still don’t like it. I had my last $2,000 computer—a titanium Powerbook—for five years and changed every component in it, including the CD drive. Keep my netbook closed, or my printer—they’re disposably priced. This is not. Hacker friends, please help us out.

The Verdict

The problem with this machine is that once you use it—on your lap, in your bag—it just feels like the way a computer should be. Like John, I’m now looking back at my full-size laptops, and they just don’t make sense: Why would I ever carry such a morbidly obese piece of gear? But it’s an easy answer: You get more for your money—more space, more power, more ports, more upgrades. Which means this isn’t an easy recommendation. The minute my wife saw it, she wanted one to replace her dying MacBook, but her laptop never goes any farther than couch to table to desk, so I can’t in good conscience let her spend an extra $500 to get an equivalent Air. I, on the other hand, am on the road constantly these days for work, and I need a machine that can run Photoshop and InDesign (which my little hackintosh netbook cannot), so when I look at replacing the Pro on my desk, I will likely pay to get the lightest machine that can still credibly be a work laptop.

The 11-inch is your little toy computer. This one is your light-duty workhorse, and for that task, despite a few minor nitpicks, it will not disappoint. If that’s the slot you’re looking to fill in your computing life, congrats, you get to buy a new Air.