|Introduction & Specifications|
|So here it is, the mid-2012 refresh of Apple's trend setting MacBook Air line.
It's been four long years since Apple first introduced the MacBook Air
to the world, which at the time was almost considered a luxury item, with a comparatively steep price tag versus other ultralight machines. That changed a couple of years later, and in the process of making the MacBook Air more affordable, Apple helped shift the mobile market away from chunky desktop replacements, to a trend where competent computing power exists within thin and light profiles. In all likelihood, the MacBook Air inspired Intel's Ultrabook specification, created so that Windows users would have access to the same overall experience on their platform of choice.
The MacBook Air is the real McCoy, so to speak, and though technically not an Ultrabook, the newest models cross over to Intel's 3rd generation Ivy Bridge Core processor microarchitecture. In fact, Ivy Bridge is at the heart of Apple's mid-2012 refresh, bringing with it not only greater processing power, but a graphics speed bump from Intel HD Graphics 3000 to Intel HD Graphics 4000, topped off with DX11 compatibility and improved power efficiency to boot. Simply put, Intel obviously benefits by remaining platform agnostic, so long as both platforms buy their weapons from the Santa Clara chip maker. Apple left the Power PC architecture what seems like an eternity ago for X86 and they're obviously not looking back, at least on the desktop and mobile side of the house.
Ivy Bridge isn't the only new addition to the latest generation MacBook Air line. System memory is doubled to 4GB (configurable up to 8GB), SuperSpeed USB 3.0 finally makes a debut, Apple upgraded the power connector to MagSafe 2, the FaceTime camera is now 720p, flash storage is supposedly twice as fast as the previous generation, and Thunderbolt makes its inevitable appearance. None of these upgrades are particularly groundbreaking, though collectively, it's an enticing assortment of enhancements, all of which are packed into the same thin and light frame as before. But how does the new MacBook Air compete versus the current crop of Ultrabooks and is it enough to warrant an upgrade?
For all that Apple upgraded in the current refresh, there are some notable omissions to point out, some of which comes with the territory of an ultra-portable system. The MacBook Air still doesn't -- and probably never will -- have an optical drive, a component that's often disregarded in this class of laptop. It's also missing an Ethernet port, but perhaps the most disappointing feature exclusion is that of a Retina Display upgrade. The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is capped at a pedestrian 1366x768 (16:9), and the 13.3-inch model reviewed here features a 1440x900 (16:10) native resolution. The only notebooks that receive a Retina Display upgrade are Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro systems. Still, for a 13-inch platform, the new Air's 1440X900 resolution is respectable, with only higher-end Ultrabooks offering 1600X900 native resolution displays.
If you're a Windows considering a transition to Apple, be prepared to play with less ports than you're probably used to. Whereas most Ultrabook models sport three or four USB ports, the MacBook Air has two. It does have a Thunderbolt connector, but if you want to hook the MacBook Air up to your HDTV's HDMI port, you'll need to purchase an adapter for its DisplayPort.
Trade-offs aside, the MacBook Air is reasonably well fleshed out, and though it's not the thinnest or lightest notebook on the market currently, it's not far from it, either.
|Design & Layout|
|The refreshed MacBook Air's dimensions are virtually unchanged from the previous generation, measuring 0.11 inches at its thinnest point and 0.68 inches at its thickest, 12.8 inches wide, and 8.94 inches deep, and weighing 2.96 pounds. It's only slightly bigger and heavier than the 11.6-inch model, which sports the same height dimensions but measures 11.8 inches wide by 7.56 inches deep and weighs 2.38 pounds. For the sake of comparison, the Zenbook UX21E-DH71 from Asus that we reviewed a year ago is just a hair thinner overall and slightly lighter at 2.43 pounds. And versus the recently launched Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the MacBook Air is even lighter and thinner still.
From a construction standpoint, Apple has pretty much perfected the thin and light form factor on the MacBook Air, which is also sturdy and stylish. There's nothing overtly unique about the MacBook Air's styling compared to the dozens of Ultrabooks that have tried to emulate a similar look and feel while injecting their creators' own design cues; instead, the MacBook Air's aesthetics rely on subtleties, like rounded corners, an all-aluminum unibody frame, and Apple's simply stated logo that's featured so prominently on countless movies and TV shows these days.
At less than three pounds, the MacBook Air is plenty light enough to wield with one hand as you toss it in your book bag or carry under your arm.
Staying true to past iterations of the MacBook Air, the latest models retain the tapered shape that's slightly thicker in the rear and increasingly thin in the front. There's a 0.56-inch difference in thickness between the opposite ends. Ever protective of its designs, Apple actually owns a patent -- D661,296 -- that, in part, covers the wedge-shaped profile of the MacBook Air. So far that hasn't prevented Ultrabook makers from implementing similar designs.
As we pointed out earlier, the MacBook Air doesn't offer a smorgasbord of ports to play with. On the left side is a nifty MagSafe 2 connector, which is magnetic and allows the power cord to pop right off if you accidentally trip over the cord; a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port; a headphone jack; and a tiny microphone. Over on the right side is the second of two USB 3.0 ports; an SD card slot, and a Thunderbolt connector.
Apple shunned outfitting the MacBook Air with a Retina Display, but to the company's credit, the Air's panel is one of the best we've seen in a non-IPS screen. Off angle viewing shows very little deterioration, including at extreme angles, and the LED-backlit display is both bright and vibrant. Colors pop and text appears crisp on what's a rather remarkable TN panel. In fact it looks so good, we had to double check the specifications to make sure Apple didn't quietly slip an IPS panel into the refreshed models.
The generously sized Multi-Touch trackpad takes up about a third of the width of the MacBook Air and sits dead center beneath the keyboard. With support for gestures, it's the next best thing to a full-fledged touchscreen. Tap to zoom, two-finger scrolling, multi-fingered swipes, and a whole lot more are supported on the responsive touchpad,
Apple retained the same keyboard as found on the previous generation MacBook Air, complete with a backlight, which is a bit of a rarity in the Ultraportable space. The chiclet style keys offer just the right amount of tactile feedback with sufficient spacing in between each key. About the only negative we came up with is the lack of a dedicated numpad, a tall order for a notebook this size and not in existence from any manufacturer currently that we're aware of.
|Apple's Included Software|
|Our MacBook Air is running Mac OS X 10.8.2, which is the latest version of Mountain Lion (at the time of this writing), Apple's newest operating system. We already covered Mountain Lion in depth when we reviewed the OS back in August so we're not going to spend too much time rehashing those features, but we will point out some of the highlights that ship with the MacBook Air.
To quickly recap, OS X 10.8 introduces over 200 new features to the OS X platform and represents a synergy of sorts with Apple's mobile iOS platform -- master one and you'll feel reasonably comfortable poking around the other. It's just as easy to use, and if this is your first rodeo with an Apple notebook, you'll quickly fall in love with the Dock, which is where your favorite applications reside (assuming you take the time to customize it with your favorite apps).
Facebook integration plays an prominent role in the OS X experience, if you want it to. Linking your Facebook account to OS X merges your online friends into your Contacts, adds profile photos for contacts, delivers Facebook notifications on your MacBook Air, and generally makes the social experience more accessible.
Apple opened its Mac App Store back in January of last year, further reinforcing the fact that that Mac OS X and iOS are on a convergent path. That's especially true of the MacBook Air, which isn't much larger than an iPad, albeit with a keyboard permanently attached.
FaceTime isn't new to the MacBook Air, but the integrated webcam -- *ahem* FaceTime HD camera -- is improved to 720p. It's still not fantastic, but it's a definite improvement over last year's model. You can make out more detail, which is always a bonus when you're FaceTiming your significant other while you're stuck in a hotel room. How you take advantage of the higher resolution is up to you...
|Max OS X Performance Testing|
|Our Test Methodologies: As a Windows-heavy test site, we generally leave the Mac stuff to the Apple gurus, but every once in awhile, we start to feel frisky and wonder what's shaking on the other side of the fence. This is obviously one of those times. In doing so, we're challenged with devising a new benchmark scheme, since we're not able to use our normal arsenal of Windows-based comparative benchmarks. But don't worry, being the undeterred folks that we are, we assembled a collection of benchmarks that run natively on the Mac OS X platform and compared them with other Mac-based systems we've worked with in the past. That's what you'll find on this page.
On the next page, you'll find benchmark results of the MacBook Air running Windows 7 64-bit using Boot Camp. This allows us to see how the MacBook Air compares to several Windows-based Ultrabooks, and while it's not a total apples-to-apples (or Apples-to-Ultrabook) face-off, it's pretty darn close.
Our 2012 model MacBook Air, represented on the top of the graph, managed to distance itself from previous Mac models in the always-brutal Cinebench run, but because it's a cross-platform benchmark, it also allows us to compare the system with Windows-based Ultrabooks. To our surprise, the MacBook Air was able to race ahead of Ultrabooks built on the same Intel CPU and GPU foundation. Notice how the MacBook Air score nearly 4 points higher in the OpenGL testing compared to the fastest Ultrabook of the bunch, which is a significant margin in this test. Since the hardware is identical, we can only attribute this to software, and Apple's driver team has done a great job taking advantage of Intel's integrated Ivy Bridge graphics.
To touch on overall system performance
Ah, the march of technology -- ain't it grand? The MacBook Air is about portability first and foremost, and then performance, as opposed to the MacBook Pro, which prioritizes performance slightly above portability. What a difference a generation makes. Today's MacBook Air models are not only lighter and thinner than previous and current generation MacBook Pro laptops, they're considerably more powerful than previous generation MacBook Pros. That's impressive. Apple claimed that the new MacBook Air SSDs are twice as fast as before, and the benchmarks help back that claim. Again, Intel deserves a bit of credit here as well, but no matter how you distribute the kudos, the MacBook Air is a powerful piece of machinery.
XBench, created by Spiny Software, is another widely used, highly respected Mac benchmarking suite that touches on nearly every aspect of performance.
Here we have the greatest evidence yet that the SSD in the 13-inch MacBook Air is much improved over previous generation storage subsystems. The Disk portion of XBench was almost off the charts (compared to some older Mac models), and when paired with a strong processor, the MacBook Air packs a pretty mean punch. At the same time, the results appear slightly skewed, as the benchmark seems to heavily favor storage performance, which can mask the GPU. Still, it's impressive and underscores how advantageous flash-based storage can be.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, we concluded our Mac OS X testing by loading up BlackMagicDesign's Disk Speed Test and, well, the storage system is really flippin' fast. We let the test run for an extended period of time, and on average, it showed the internal SSD performing writes at 243MB/s and read requests at 447.3MB/s.
|Windows 7 64-bit (via Boot Camp) Performance Testing|
|Here we're evaluating the MacBook Air's performance in Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, which we installed using Apple's Boot Camp utility. Boot Camp sets up a separate partition so that you can have a multi-boot environment on your Intel-based Mac system (yes, it only works with Intel) -- one for Mac OS X and the other for Windows 7. The neat thing about Boot Camp is that it allows you to run Windows natively, so you don't have to worry about losing performance to overhead like you do with virtualized solutions.
After installing Windows 7, we applied all the current updates and patches, including Service Pack 1.
Right out of the gate, the MacBook Air proves it can hang with the Windows crowd. It's not the fastest, and in fact is outclassed by Ultrabooks sporting similar hardware (likely due to slightly lower performance of its SSD), but it's definitely a serviceable for Windows users to still be able to run their apps, making the switch to Mac OS X.
The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, uses advanced 3D graphics features that are only available with DirectX 11. 3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test. We tested the MacBook Air with 3DMark11's Performance preset option
While the MacBook Air does a decent job with Windows applications, it's not a system you should consider if your primary objective is gaming, keyword there being "primary." You can get away with some light gaming, but by and large, pushing pixels across the battlefield is not this system's strong suit.
Far Cry 2 is an older title that doesn't put a ton of stress on systems, which further illustrates that the MacBook Air isn't a gaming machine (but you knew that). By dialing down the settings to Medium or Low, you could manage mostly playable framerates, and to its credit, the MacBook Air put almost every other Ultrabook we compared it with in its rear-view mirror. That's pretty neat, so long as you keep a proper perspective on the results. Peggle, Plants vs Zombies, and even Left 4 Dead is probably fair game. For higher end titles, however, a MacBook Pro (or dedicated Windows box) is your best bet.
|To measure the battery life of the MacBook Air, we ran two tests. First, we subjected the Mac OS X 10.8.2 partition to our web browsing test, and then we loaded up BatteryEaterPro on the Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit partition (Boot Camp) to see how it system compares with an assortment of Ultrabooks. For many of you, battery life is one of the most important metrics when shopping a notebook. Here's how the MacBook Air stacks up.
As we always do when testing battery life, we set the screen brightness to 50 percent and disabled various power saving features that could disrupt the benchmark, like screen savers, sleep mode, etc. When we did that, the MacBook Air shined by staying awake for more than 8 hours before it finally conked out. It lasted 42 minutes longer than the next closest competitor, an Intel Whitebook built on top of the same hardware foundation. This test was performed in Mac OS X 10.8.2. Impressive.
For our second test, we booted into Windows 7 via Boot Camp and ran our BatteryEaterPro benchmark, which shined a different light on the MacBook Air. BatteryEaterPro is especially brutal on systems and represents, realistically, a worse than worst-case scenario, if such a thing can exist, which is why these scores always seem low compared to each manufacturer's battery life claims.
That said, the MacBook Air lasted 109 minutes before checking out. That's right on par with Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon and pretty good overall, but not nearly as great as, say, the Asus Zenbook.
According to Apple, the 13-inch MacBook Air is good for up to 7 hours of battery life on a single charge, and we actually squeezed out an additional hour in our first test. Real world battery life always depends on how you use a system, but in general, the MacBook Air should last at least five hours under normal use.
A Note on System Acoustics
For the majority of our tests, the MacBook Air was a silent performer. Not just quiet, but silent. The only time we ever heard its cooling subsystem was during longer benchmark runs and extended battery life tests (BatteryEaterPro), where the fan kicked on and made itself known. It can be fairly audible if you're fully stressing the machine for an extended period of time. The rest of the time, it's a silent performer.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: It seems as though everything Intel's Ivy Bridge architecture touches turns to gold, and Apple's refreshed 13-inch MacBook Air is no exception. Running Mac OS X 10.8.2 (latest version of Mountain Lion at the time of this writing), the MacBook Air kicked all kinds of tail compared to previous generation Mac systems. Its Geekbench score was nearly twice as fast as a MacBook Pro running a Core 2 Duo foundation, which is just as much a testament to Intel as it is Apple. But Intel doesn't get all the credit, either. Apple still has to build a capable machine, and it did that by pairing the Ivy Bridge processor with a fast solid state drive that was determined not be a bottleneck.
When we switched gears to Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, which we installed via Boot Camp, the MacBook Air proved it was up to the challenge of running with dedicated Windows based Ultrabooks. It ran Far Cry 2 faster than any other Ultrabook we tested that wasn't sporting a discrete GPU (albeit managing only a meager 24 fps), and in PCMark 7, its score of 4,528 was above average.
That doesn't mean we like everything there is about the MacBook Air. There are too few ports on this thing, the non-removable battery is a downer (and no longer unique to Apple), we wish it came lit with Apples higher-end Retina Display, and the price is on the high side of the spectrum for an Ultrabook-class systems, though not out of line with premium Ultrabooks.
Our gripes are all outweighed by the positives, however, which start with the ultra-thin design. It might not be the thinnest or lightest notebook ever at this point, but at under three pounds and a mere 0.11 inches at its thinnest point, you could toss this thing across the room like a Frisbee, if you ever wanted to (we don't recommend it). Equally important is the construction. The MacBook Air is is made from a single, solid chunk of aluminum that's incredibly sturdy and always ready to hit the road. It doesn't flex the way some of the cheaper Ultrabooks do (particularly Toshiba's Portege Z835-P330), and we wouldn't be afraid to toss the Air in a book bag, day after day.
The MacBook Air, now with an Intel Ivy Bridge foundation flanked by a snappy-fast SSD, has a lot going for it. Toss Boot Camp into the mix, which lets you run all your Windows applications natively on a dedicated partition, and all of a sudden this becomes a viable option not just for Apple users, but anyone in the market for a thin and light notebook. Well played, Apple.