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MacBook Air: Initial impressions

updated 11:30 am EST, Mon February 4, 2008

MacBook Air: impressions

Following our MacBook Air teardown, delivery/unboxing, accessory photos and benchmarks, we have our first impressions of the MacBook Air: Having had the pleasure of using the new MacBook Air (MBA) for the past two days, I can say that Apple has accomplished an amazing feat of engineering and delivered a truly impressive subnotebook computer, although not completely without compromise. The MacBook Air is shockingly thin and light - qualities that were readily apparent in Apple's promotional material, but are even more so in person.

In terms of aesthetics and style, Apple has clearly borrowed a page or two from the iPod design book, using some of the iconoclastic MP3 player's more subtle elements that have a proven record of attracting and resonating with consumers. The rounded, tapered edges make the computer appear even thinner than it already is, a trick also applied successfully to the impossibly thin Nano. To people already familiar with Apple's historical product lineup, the aluminum casing associates the laptop within Apple's traditionally 'Pro-oriented' family of computers, although in this case Apple is clearly targeting a travel-oriented consumer where mobility is of paramount importance.

To those less familiar with Apple's computer offerings, the aluminum case makes a clear mental connection with the ubiquitous iPod giving it an immediate sense of familiarity. Even the MBA's retail box and packaging more closely resembles that of the iPhone or iPod Touch, conveying the sense that one is buying a luxury good rather than a computer. Overall, the machine screams sleek and sexy, and is bound to turn a few heads when used out in public.

Physical Properties

Weighing in at 3 lbs (which sounds heavier than it feels), the MBA can be picked up, held and maneuvered in a single hand with ease. And despite a lightness and thinness that might imply fragility, in person the MBA gives the impression of being as solidly built as its larger MacBook and MacBook Pro siblings. Both the screen and keyboard areas are completely rigid and show no signs of flexing upon applying pressure, alleviating any initial concerns that this subnotebook might be more prone to damage than others.

At its thinnest the MBA is 0.16-inches when closed, although towards the rear it gets to be 0.76-inches in height, a little less than the thickness of the MacBook. In terms of width and depth, the MBA is of comparable size to the MacBook, allowing Apple to retain the full size keyboard. The keyboard itself is somewhat of a hybrid between two of Apple's existing styles - the layout and spacing of the keys resembles the MacBook but also has backlighting feature found on the high end MacBook Pros.

The screen is a beautiful 13.3-inches glossy LED display, also the same size as found in the MacBook. Compared to a Dell Latitude notebook (standard issue for corporate road warriors these days), the brightness and sharpness of the screen were outstanding. In fact, the MBA has one of the best portable screens I've come across. The MBA's track pad is large and roomy although the click button is narrower than I was used to. It will take more time to see if the button's narrowness inhibits its usability, or whether there is simply a learning curve to adapt to its exact position.

The track pad also employs some of the same multi-touch gesturing capabilities as the new iPhone and iPod Touch. While not yet intuitive, over time these gestures are likely to become as familiar and useful as one's favorite shortcuts. The MBA also features a magsafe power cord and a magnetic closing mechanism.

The MacBook Air compared against a 15-inch PowerBook G4

Of course, in order to make a notebook as thin as the MBA, Apple was forced to strip out some features found on standard notebooks, and even some subnotebooks. The most obvious feature missing from the MBA is an integrated optical drive, which is available as an optional, external accessory via USB connection.

Additionally, in order to accommodate the MBA's sleek profile, the standard array of ports found on other Apple laptops have been condensed into a single USB port, a micro-DVI port, and headphone jacks. Most notably, that omits any sort of Firewire or Ethernet port from the MBA. Also missing are slots for an ExpressCard slot or a security lock, which may present a problem for anyone looking to secure their laptop to a desk.

The ports that are available, however, are accessed via a recessed, drop-down dock that helps maintain the MBA's overall aesthetics when closed. The recessed nature of the dock causes potential problems for bulky USB accessories and may require the use of USB extension cable to connect properly.

Performance & Use

The MBA can come in a few different configurations, the most important differentiating factors being the processor (1.6 or 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) and the hard drive (80GB PATA drive or 64GB solid-state drive). Our test model for review had a 1.6GHz processor, 80GB hard drive and was equipped with the standard 2GB of memory, essentially representing the 'entry level' MBA. The solid-state drive, while slightly smaller in terms of storage and costing roughly $1000 more, holds the (as of yet untested) promise of faster boot up times, better power consumption, and better vibration/shock resistance.

To put the hard drive space in perspective, 80GB is now the capacity of the low end iPod Classic. This means, of course, that anyone with a substantial digital music library or video collection will likely find the MBA unsuitable as a standalone computer due to space constraints (or require the purchase of an external hard drive). For standard text documents, excel sheets, email archives, and reasonable photo libraries, the hard drive space will likely be adequate. Whether or not the MBA can serve as one's standalone computer will likely depend on whether or not that person is inherently a "media-based" person or not.

In terms of pure processor speed, the 1.6GHz processor places the MBA firmly in last place among Apple's current products, even behind the Mac Mini. Despite a processor on the low end of the lineup, the MBA felt snappy and responsive during general use, with most of the standard applications (iPhoto, iTunes, Safari, etc) loading in just a few seconds. Boot times to the login screen were just shy of 70 seconds - a length of time that will likely seem a bit slow to anyone used to Intel based PC and seem quite fast to anyone upgrading from a prior PowerPC based model.

A fresh start of Microsoft Word 2008 took 30 seconds to open a blank document; quitting and subsequently launching Word again took ~5 seconds. Based purely on recollection, I had the distinct impression that performance was actually improved over a MacBook Pro running Word 2004 via Rosetta, a process that often seemed agonizingly slow. The preliminary results of Xbench testing are listed below. The MBA's slower processor does, however, have some beneficial side effects. Throughout the entire initial testing period the notebook never heated to a level more than what could be described as 'mildly warm' and no noticeable fan noises were heard. The MBA ran silently as if in stealth mode, with the exception of occasionally audible clicks from the hard drive (when writing a >1GB movie rental to the disk).

Apple rates the MBA's battery life at 5 hours, although actual battery performance will depend on usage and energy management settings. In two separate tests, this MBA's battery lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes using the default "Normal" energy saving settings. Usage during these test periods included standard web browsing, playing music through iTunes, downloading an iTunes movie rental, and subsequently watching the rental. WiFi was constantly engaged throughout.

Although clearly not optimized for maximum battery life, the results were significantly less than the advertised battery life and therefore somewhat disappointing. Compared to other standard laptops; however, results seemed "typical" if not slightly better than usual. Fully charging the battery and selecting "Better Energy Savings" resulted in a calculated battery lifetime of ~4 hours, 45 minutes. Further testing will be required to see just how far the battery life can be extended. Given that the MBA's battery is not user-replaceable (at least not with ease while traveling), battery life considerations will likely weight heavily on most potential purchasers' minds.

With regards to general usage, the MBA worked flawlessly for all basic tasks (as should be expected). The notebook detected and connected to an SBC cable modem/router that controls my home network immediately with no issues. The MBA was able to detect the WiFi with a weaker but steady signal from the far reaches of my apartment - a distance that causes my work Dell Latitude to frequently drop signal.

For all intents and purposes, there was no noticeable difference in general usage performance (internet, email, basic apps, etc) from other Apple notebooks. More computationally intensive programs, such as Photoshop, will likely show more noticeable performance hits but were not tested. And despite lacking an internal optical drive, the MBA delivered as a portable media device via Apple's newly launched iTunes movie rental service. The MBA has no noticeable speakers like those found on the MacBook Pro. Instead, sound emanates from a mono-speaker located beneath the right hand side of the keyboard.

While fine for notification alerts, music and video played through iTunes sounded better using the headphone jack. The main downside to this model of "media on demand" is that it requires the foresight and time to plan ahead one's media purchases when traveling on the road where a wireless connection cannot be counted on.

Initial Conclusions

Without a doubt, Apple has delivered a valuable and unique addition to its product lineup. While not for every user, the MBA fulfills a niche in the subnotebook space and does so with the utmost style and grace. Although some crucial, quantitative assessments of performance and battery life remain to be explored in further detail to delineate limitations, the MacBook Air continues to tempt with every glance.

XBench Test Results

CPU Test78.00
Thread Test131.10
Memory Test140.43
Quartz Graphics Test94.95
OpenGL Graphics Test17.05
User Interface Test105.02
Disk Test25.69

Full Detail:

System Info
Xbench Version1.3
System Version10.5.1 (9B2324)
Physical RAM 2048 MB
CPU Test78.00
GCD Loop183.04 9.65 Mops/sec
Floating Point Basic82.64 1.96 Gflop/sec
vecLib FFT49.60 1.64 Gflop/sec
Floating Point Library73.77 12.85 Mops/sec
Thread Test131.10
Computation135.72 2.75 Mops/sec, 4 threads
Lock Contention126.79 5.45 Mlocks/sec, 4 threads
Memory Test140.43
Allocate183.59 674.22 Kalloc/sec
Fill118.36 5754.98 MB/sec
Copy138.79 2866.56 MB/sec
Copy128.08 2645.52 MB/sec
Scale126.33 2609.92 MB/sec
Add153.07 3260.67 MB/sec
Triad152.06 3252.92 MB/sec
Quartz Graphics Test94.95
Line105.14 7.00 Klines/sec [50% alpha]
Rectangle106.60 31.83 Krects/sec [50% alpha]
Circle87.90 7.16 Kcircles/sec [50% alpha]
Bezier99.15 2.50 Kbeziers/sec [50% alpha]
Text81.28 5.08 Kchars/sec
OpenGL Graphics Test17.05
Spinning Squares/td>17.05 21.63 frames/sec
User Interface Test105.02
Elements105.02 481.97 refresh/sec
Disk Test25.69
Uncached Write51.22 31.45 MB/sec [4K blocks]
Uncached Write51.36 29.06 MB/sec [256K blocks]
Uncached Read25.26 7.39 MB/sec [4K blocks]
Uncached Read56.59 28.44 MB/sec [256K blocks]
Uncached Write6.31 0.67 MB/sec [4K blocks]
Uncached Write44.51 14.25 MB/sec [256K blocks]
Uncached Read49.62 0.35 MB/sec [4K blocks]
Uncached Read71.06 13.19 MB/sec [256K blocks]

by MacNN Staff



  1. dimmer

    Joined: Dec 1969



    No security slot? For real? It would have busted the aethetic that much to have a hole smaller than the IR detector somewhere? That seems kinda... silly.

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