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Apple MacBook Air (13-Inch) Review
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Date: Nov 30, 2010
Section:Mobile
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction and Specifications
Apple decided to refresh their MacBook Air lineup this year, but rather than simply upgrading the existing machine with a new CPU, GPU or Blu-ray drive, Apple introduced some entirely new pieces of hardware with the new 11" and 13" MacBook Airs. While the 11" machine is certainly intriguing, and a compelling addition to the overall lineup, we're focusing today on the revamped 13" version here.




Arguably, this 13" model deserves the most scrutiny, largely because it's the third 13" notebook that Apple offers. Apple doesn't have as many options at any other notebook form factor, so it's of particular importance to weigh your options when looking for a 13" Apple ultraportable. There's the 13" MacBook, 13" MacBook Pro and 13" MacBook Air. And with the new specifications and overhauled design of the Air, it's more attractive than ever before.


MacBook Air 13-inch Laptop
Specifications & Features (as tested)

  • Mac OS X 10.6.4
  • 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (6MB shared L2 cache)
  • 2GB of 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM
  • 128GB of Flash storage
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 320M GPU (256MB)
  • 13.3-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen display
  • 1,440x900 native resolution (16:10)
  • No optical drive
  • AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
  • Two USB 2.0 ports
  • SD/SDHC/SDXC Card Reader
  • Mini DisplayPort video output socket
  • No Ethernet port
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + Enhanced Data Rate (EDR)
  • Built-in FaceTime video camera (640x480 resolution)
  • Built-in stereo speakers
  • Internal omnidirectional microphone
  • Built-in full-size non-backlit keyboard with 78 keys
  • Multi-Touch trackpad with support for Multi-Touch gestures
  • Built-in 50-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
  • 45W MagSafe Power Adapter with cable management system
  • 0.11-0.68 x 12.8 x 8.94 inches (HWD)
  • 2.9 pounds

Direct Price: $1,299 (as tested)




We had the opportunity to take a look at the base 13" MacBook Air model, which was configured as you see above. Being that this is an ultraportable, and one of the thinnest at that, you'll be giving up amenities like an optical drive and an Ethernet socket. These are two of the major features that are found on Apple's other 13" notebooks (the MacBook and MacBook Pro), so those are probably more your style if you can't imagine life without an internal optical drive or an Ethernet jack. There are also only two USB ports (many ultraportables offer three), and a very atypical video output. The Mini DisplayPort socket isn't widely adopted yet, so you'll probably need to factor in $20-$40 for adapters that will enable you to output video via the more common HDMI or DVI.
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Unique Features and Design
This new 13" MacBook Air is Apple's thinnest 13" notebook. The original MacBook Air was already razer thin, so improving that at all is an impressive feat. When comparing the original to the new model, the slimness doesn't immediately pop out at you, but when you stack them on top of one another, you can see a few millimeters have been shaved off. The reality of the situation is this: we have never seen a sleeker, more aesthetically pleasing 13" notebook.

Apple has been a design leader for years. The iPod is widely viewed as the most well-designed portable media player on the market, and the company's iMac is definitely one of the most stylish, if not the most stylish, all-in-one PCs on the market. The same is true for their MacBook line if you ask us. The all aluminum, unibody construction is both rigid and eye-pleasing, and while many 13" machines have a good deal of flex due to a mostly plastic construction, that's not the case here.


On the front edge, there's simply no room for any ports or status LEDs. It's just 0.11" thick on the front end, which feels barely thicker than a few credit cards. Along the right rear edge, there's the SD/SDHC/SDXC card reader (a feature that is left off of the 11" MacBook Air), a single USB 2.0 port and a Mini DisplayPort video output socket.

    

No ports are installed on the rear. On the left edge, there's a MagSafe power connector, another USB 2.0 port, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a small microphone for voice input. Along the top of the LCD, there's a FaceTime video camera (i.e. a webcam) for video calling/chatting. There's also room for a full-size, chiclet-styled keyboard, but this brings up one of our main gripes with the machine.


The original MacBook Air (also 13") included a backlit keyboard. This model doesn't. We guess that Apple cut out that feature to save on space and a little battery life, but it's a bad thing to cut in our opinion. This would have been a huge differentiator. Hardly any 13" ultraportable machines have a backlit keyboard, and Apple could've been a market leader here. It's always aggravating to lose a feature when a system is being upgraded, and this one is no exception. We would have preferred a system that's a tiny bit thicker in order to have a backlit keyboard for using it at night or in low-light situations.

Below the keyboard is a huge all-glass trackpad. There's no click button; the entire pad is a button. It's essentially a smaller Magic Trackpad, right in the notebook. There's just no competition here -- the 13" MacBook Air has the best trackpad of any 13" notebook on the market, period. No other 13" machine has a pad this large, this smooth, and this reactive to inputs. It also supports a very long list of multi-touch gestures, all of which work perfectly the first time you try them.


The 13.3" glossy LCD has a 1440x900 resolution, which is actually the same as the company's 15" MacBook Pro. So you're getting the same amount of pixels in a package that's tighter and smaller. It's a glossy display, and no matte option is available. Viewing angles are world class, and the screen is as sharp, bright and crisp as any 13" LCD that we have seen. It's simply beautiful to look at, and movies look great on it. The silver bezel around the LCD seems unnecessarily large; it's the one design aspect that seems un-Apple like. We would have preferred a little more screen and/or a little less bezel.

As for unique features on this machine, we've covered some of them already, but the gigantic multi-touch trackpad is unparalleled, the unibody construction is also unique to Apple machines, and the integrated Flash storage is both a blessing and a curse. There's no 2.5" HDD or standalone SSD in the machine; the 128GB of storage is soldered directly to the motherboard. This enables very quick transfer rates similar to a separate SSD, but it really hampers your upgrade path. You have to buy a higher end configuration from Apple to get 256GB of storage; you can't simply pop out a drive and replace it with another.


The battery is also non-user-servicable. You can't just buy a second battery to pop in once one dies. The upside is that the battery life is also world-class; Apple claims 7 hours of Wi-Fi enabled use, or up to 30 days in standby. We'll test the battery claims on a later page, but we find it hard to complain about this fact when Apple has managed to squeeze 7 hours of untethered use into a machine that's so thin.
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Apple's Included Software

For those not familiar with Macs, once you log into the Mac OS, the MacBook Air (by default) places a group of icons located on the bottom of the screen. You'll see this on any OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard)-enabled Mac.


The Dock

This is called the Dock and it includes shortcuts to a number of applications. Similar to Windows' Taskbar, you can control where and how the Dock appears and what applications you want to include in it.


Included applications.

Similar to Windows' Start menu, you can also access all of the system's pre-installed applications from the Applications icon in the Dock.


iPhoto

All new Macs ship with Apple's iLife suite (which sells for $49 as a stand-alone software suite). iLife is a very robust software suite that provides a number of multimedia-based, consumer-grade applications. Windows machines really don't have a similar suite of apps that are bundled with every single Windows license. iLife '11 was just released, and that's the version that ships with the new 13" MacBook Air. A couple of the iLife apps are similar in functionality to Microsoft's free Windows Live Essentials apps for Windows PCs; but the iLife applications tend to be much more in-depth and feature rich than what the Windows Live Essentials apps offer. For managing your photo library and doing some light image editing, the included iLife app is iPhoto. The Windows equivalent would be Windows Live Photo Gallery.


iMovie

For video creation and editing, the included app is iMovie. The Windows equivalent would be Windows Live Movie Maker, but most would agree that iMovie is far more intuitive and easier to grasp and use. We definitely feel that way; iMovie is a very solid included app that's perfect acceptable for most anyone save for those looking to make professional movies for clients.


GarageBand

GarageBand is a surprisingly sophisticated audio-creation and editing app that is ideal for budding composers and podcasters. For some potential Windows-based software titles that share at least some similarities with GarageBand, check out the article on the Microsoft at Home Website here. GarageBand '11 includes a wealth of new features, with one of the most notable being the auto-sync feature that helps tighten up recordings that are just slightly out of sync. For starting bands, this feature enables them to take 'so-so' takes and make them 'good enough.' The feature is dubbed Flex Time.


iWeb

The iWeb app is a fairly simple tool for designing, editing, and publishing Websites. It is primarily meant to be used with Apple's MobileMe subscription service ($99 per year, or $69 per year if purchased with a new Mac, iPhone, or iPad), but it can be used to design and upload Websites to virtually any host. There is no loss of Windows-based Web creation/editing software titles, including a handful of free apps, such as The CoffeeCup Free HTML Editor and Mozilla's SeaMonkey--albeit, neither of these apps are as easy to use as iWeb (note: SeaMonkey is also available for the Mac OS as well).


iDVD

The final member of the iLife family is iDVD. As its name implies, it is meant for simple authoring of DVDs for home movies and similar projects. It comes with a number of templates that make setting up the DVD's menu design as simple as dragging and dropping. A couple of free Windows alternatives are DVD Flick and DVD Styler.


One of the most interesting things about the software here is how it's bundled. Since there's no optical drive on the MacBook Air, the only way to install software is to either purchase a $79 USB-enabled external SuperDrive, download software via Wi-Fi or install via USB. Apple has chosen to include with the MacBook Air a small USB drive with the full version of OS X 10.6.4 on it as well as the full iLife '11 suite. If you ever need to re-install your OS or iLife '11 suite, simply pop this USB drive in and continue the install. This is a very nice extra, and a well-thought-out inclusion. It definitely eases the pain of having no optical drive.
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Cross-Platform Tests / Benchmarking

Our Test Methodologies: As the MacBook Pro uses the Mac OS, we weren't able to use our normal arsenal of Windows-based comparative benchmarks. So we devised a number of new tests that we could use to compare the MacBook Pro against a number of other Macs and Windows systems. These tests are broken up into three sections: The first set (below and on the next page) are cross-platform tests, where the same workload was run on both the Mac and Windows systems. The second set is Mac-only tests. The third set is Windows-only tests that were run on the Windows comparison systems, and the MacBook Pro using Boot Camp and a native installation of Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit). All tests were run several times on each system to ensure consistency. The comparison systems are as follows:
  • An older MacBook Pro that dates back to what is referred to as a "Late 2006" model. This older MacBook Pro's config is: a 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo T2500, 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, an ATI Radeon X1600 (128MB), a 120GB 5,400-rpm hard dive, and running Mac OS X 10.6.4. We readily concede that due to the age and low-end components (comparatively speaking) of this model, it is not the best comparison system; however, we chose to include it to exemplify how far the MacBook Pro's performance has come since the model was first introduced.
  • A two-year old, 24-inch iMac. The iMac's config is: 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X7900, 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro, 750GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, and running Mac OS X 10.6.4. When this iMac was released, it represented close to the top-end of available configs, and it is still considered reasonably powerful--especially when compared against a laptop.
  • One of the two Windows comparison laptops has this config: 2.13GHz Intel Core i3-330M, 4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, Integrated GMA HD, 320GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and running Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit).
  • The other Windows comparison laptop has this config: 1.2GHz Intel Core i3-330UM, 3GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, Intel GMA HD and ATI Radeon HD 5450 (512MB) switchable graphics, 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, and running Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit).
 Performance with Half-Life 2: Episode 2
Gaming Performance

To touch on gaming performance, we chose a cross-platform title that draws moderately on system resources, Half-Life 2: Episode 2. We then ran a pre-recorded demo on each machine. The resulting performance achieved is indicated in frames per second in the graph below.




As always, comparing an Apple machine to a Windows-based machine isn't a true Apples to oranges comparison. We compared the Half-Life 2: Episode 2 test to a slew of other Windows based machines, all of which hovered relatively close to the $1299 asking price of the 13" MacBook Air. Some of the PCs were able to easily outclass the MBA in gaming thanks to Core 2010 processors and more robust GPUs, but those PCs all had one major advantage: larger form factors.

Also, the EliteBook (as an example) isn't an ultraportable. It may hit 60fps in a game, but it won't last 7 hours on a charge and it definitely won't slip inside of a larger purse without attracting some complaints from the person carrying it. This test isn't meant to pit Apple's slimmest 13" machine against beastly PC counterparts; it's simply meant to give some perspective and show that the MacBook Air is actually capable of running some 3D games. The graphics in this game, even at the native 1440x900 resolution, were smooth and totally playable. Again, we don't suspect anyone is buying a MacBook Air for their gaming abilities, but at least it's possible when you're shelling out so much cash.

CineBench R11.5 (64-bit)
Content Creation Performance

Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and it tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads to process more than 300,000 total polygons; while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.



What's most impressive here is just how close the 13" MacBook Air comes to matching a Core i5 / GT330M-based MacBook Pro on these scores--at least in the GPU test. And beyond that, it actually does manage to outpace a slightly older iMac. That's pretty impressive for an ultraportable, and we'd expect nothing less from a machine that costs $1299. This proves that the MacBook Air is capable of handling some higher-end tasks, but it also shows that it's not an ideal machine for that type of work. If you're doing serious editing tasks, you're better off with a full-sized notebook or desktop, but at least this ultraportable will get you by in a pinch.
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Mac-Only Tests / Benchmarking


Performance benchmarking: Geekbench
http://www.primatelabs.ca/geekbench/

To touch on overall system performance, we chose Geekbench, by Primate Labs. This is a widely used, highly respected Mac benchmarking suite that "provides a comprehensive set of benchmarks engineered to quickly and accurately measure processor and memory performance."




These Geekbench scores help to prove two things in particular: the first is that the MacBook Air is no slouch. It manages to hang fairly close to three sibling Apple machines here, all of which are expected to outpace the MBA. The second is that the MacBook isn't a powerhouse in an ultraportable's clothing. It's easily the slowest of the four here, and that's largely due to the 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo chip inside. Also, the GeForce 320M hasn't been known to shatter any records. But again, both of these components were probably chosen due to their low power consumption more than anything else. If you're looking for a Mac notebook with lots of muscle, clearly the MacBook Air isn't the one you're after. But the score is definitely respectable considering the trade-offs that have to be made to produce a machine as thin and low power as the MBA.


Performance benchmarking: XBench
http://www.xbench.com/
XBench, created by Spiny Software, is another widely used, highly respected Mac benchmarking suite that touches on nearly every aspect of performance.



It's a similar tale with the XBench scores. The 13" MacBook Air simply cannot hang with the crowd on the CPU and Quartz (graphics) tests. It doesn't lag too far behind, but it's definitely not a powerhouse when it comes to benchmarking. The Disk test, however, is interesting. Having 128GB of Flash storage is basically like having an SSD under the hood. Look at how poorly the 5400RPM HDD equipped machine did (scoring 36.6 on the chart), and then look at the rest of the systems with SSD/Flash-based scores. Huge difference. We've said this for years, but using Flash or an SSD can really turn a lackluster machine into one that's peppy and quite usable. Kudos to Apple for getting Flash storage into a machine that's $1299; many of the PC ultraportables in this price range still use a hard drive.
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Battery Performance

Battery Performance
Testing With Vdeo Playback
To measure the battery performance, we played back a 2GB MP4 video file (3ivx MPEG-4) from the laptop's hard drive--the file had been transcoded and compressed from the main feature title of a DVD movie. On Mac laptops, the file was played back using the QuickTime Player. On Windows laptops, the file was played back using Windows Media Player. Brightness and volume were set to 50-percent and headphones were plugged into the laptop's headphone jacks. The Windows systems' power settings were set to Balanced. In those instances when the movie ended before the the battery died, the movie was started again from the beginning.


Apple claims that this MacBook Air can last 7 hours even while surfing the Web via Wi-Fi. We saw the machine last 6 hours, 20 minutes even looping video. That's really impressive actually. We're confident that you could stretch that to 7 hours if you didn't do something as intensive as loop video. When we test Windows laptops, we typically use Battery Eater Pro; with that test, the best we typically see is in the 3 to 4 hour range--sometimes 5 hours if we're really lucky. We can't really compare the video playback results here to the Battery Eater Pro results, as the two methodologies use very different workloads. Regardless, many scoff at Apple for choosing to keep the battery sealed with the new Macbook Air, but there's not too much need for a secondary battery anyway when 7 hours of run time is within reach with the current setup.
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Summary and Conclusion
Performance Summary: The revised 13" MacBook Air performs very well. Much better than we expected when we first considered the machine's 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo processor. We're crediting a lot of the performance to its 128GB of Flash storage. Not having to wait for the random access speeds of the average 5400RPM notebook hard drive really helps applications fly. Boot-up takes around 10-15 seconds, from and off state. Wake from a sleep state is literally instant. The vast majority of applications are launched within a second of clicking on them, and we never saw any notable lag when playing back 1080p content, rendering files in Photoshop and surfing the Web. We also credit a lot of fluidity to Apple's OS X. Snow Leopard is a fantastically streamlined operating system, with no bloatware whatsoever loaded on. It takes care to not hog resources unnecessarily, so you get the most from the hardware. The benchmark scores also were impressive; the integrated GeForce 320M GPU was plenty powerful for some of the light duty game tests we put it through, yet the battery can easily last 7 hours when not under heavy duty use.

It's also important to remember how far the 13" Air has come in just 2 years; this product launched with a base price of $1799 in 2008, and now we're getting a slimmer, faster, more powerful revision for some $500 less.  Many of our gripes from our 15" MacBook Pro review are still exist with this machine however. As we noted before, that excellent battery life has a trade-off, and that comes in the form of a battery that is not removable or user serviceable. For most users this probably won't be an issue, particularly since you can go 7 hours away from the AC outlet; but for those who spend more time on the road than at a desk, this issue could prove more significant. Another "feature" of the MacBook Pro that can also turn into a minor annoyance for some users is that its sole video output is a Mini DisplayPort. Using the new-fangled Mini DisplayPort interface is all well and good but the vast majority of us have monitors that don't have DisplayPort inputs. This means that anyone who wants to connect their MacBook Air to a display that has VGA, DVI, or HDMI inputs has to make an additional investment in an adapter, since one isn't bundled with the machine. At a time when so many laptops come standard with HDMI and VGA ports, this feels like an oversight on Apple's part.


We also take issue with only having two USB ports, and moreover, neither of them are USB 3.0. Even mid-range netbooks these days are shipping with USB 3.0.  Unfortunately here's no native USB 3.0 support within OS X yet (LaCie has a workaround, though). This feels like another "we aren't going to adopt the future, just because we don't want to" from Steve Jobs and Apple. We'll give Apple the benefit of one more refresh cycle to get with USB 3.0, but we wish they would've included it here.



The only other major gripe we have with the MacBook Air is the lack of a backlit keyboard. We wouldn't even feel the need to really harp on this if the original 13" MacBook Air also omitted it, but that's not the case. The original MacBook Air from 2008 had a backlit keyboard, so why drop that great feature on this one? If that was a corner that was cut to shave a sliver of space, costs, or battery life (which can come with an on/off toggle), it feels like the wrong feature to cut, in our opinion but then again, this may not be an issue for you.  It's a little subjective some might say.



That said, overall, as a whole package, the 13" MacBook Air is fantastic machine. It's unbelievably thin, and it's easily the most rigid and most beautiful ultraportable on the market. Having a high-res 1440x900 resolution display gives this machine just as many pixels as Apple's 15" MacBook Pro, and the giant trackpad makes this the most easy to operate ultraportable that we've ever used. It's quick in everyday tasks, fast enough to handle a little gaming on the side, and it manages to stay relatively cool and quiet throughout use. The iLife '11 suite is mostly unmatched, as far as what's included in the average Windows installation of virtually any notebook on the market now (Windows Live Essentials is getting better but not quite there yet).  Not to mention, OS X is absolutely bedrock stable and ships with absolutely no bloatware.  The software experience definitely adds to the price premium, but it's one that we feel is merited. At $1299, it's not "cheap," but it's not out of line with a number of high-end Windows-based ultraportables currently.

Do we wish Apple would've gone with a Core i3 CPU?  Sure, but if you need even more power there's always the 13" MacBook Pro. The Air is remarkably responsive, and while it's not cut out for heavy A/V editing, there's more than enough here for the casual Photoshop user. If you're okay with the simple elegance that the new Macbook Air 13 is designed to deliver, with perhaps a few of the inherent limitations that come within its sleek packaging, you'll have a tough time finding a nicer 13-inch thin and light notebook.


     
  • Great overall performance
  • World-class battery life
  • Gorgeous design
  • Rigid "unibody" design
  • Multi-touch gesture trackpad
  • Incredibly thin
  • Robust iLife apps included
  • Pricey
  • Battery is not removable
  • No optical drive
  • Must purchase adapter cable for VGA, DVI, or HDMI out
  • No USB 3.0 ports


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