Apple MacBook Air (13-Inch) Review

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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