Apple goes subnotebook and has one of the best CULV notebooks yet. (October 24th, 2010)
When questioned about netbooks, Apple's chief operating officer Tim Cook said the company had "a couple of interesting ideas" about tackling a segment that has focused on bargains over speed. We've now seen what was meant by the plurality in that statement: after the iPad, we now have the 11-inch MacBook Air, the smallest Mac ever. But is this Air providing a better direction, or is it simply the closest Apple will ever get to a netbook or a CULV notebook? Our review finds out.
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $999 (1.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, 64GB SSD)
- Very thin and light for any notebook.
- Extremely fast SSD.
- Sharp, color-rich LCD.
- Full-size keyboard and trackpad.
- Good graphics performance.
- Very long standby time.
- Finally two USB ports.
- Expensive compared to some CULV systems.
- Uses an older Core 2 Duo instead of Core i3 or i5.
- Battery life is strictly adequate.
- No card reader or FireWire.
- No backlit keyboard.
Key specs and design
The entry-level Macbook Air 11-inch ($999) is the subject of this review. The first feature that immediately presents itself, other than its sleek design, is of course the 11-inch display. It is the first Apple notebook, along with its 13-inch sibling, to feature a 16:9 aspect ratio, making it a potentially better proposition for viewing widescreen movies or simply using your notebook on an airplane tray in coach. The keyboard is also full-size, which is something that Steve Jobs was keen to highlight at the recent Back to the Mac presentation. The only notable difference from the typical chiclet-style keyboards the Apple has adopted in recent times is that the function keys are not full height, but are full width. The power button, too, is now part of the keyboard; gone is the silver button, replaced with a black key to the right of the eject key. The trackpad is the same glass, "buttonless" design that is standard across Apple's range.
We should further note that Apple has finally addressed a common complaint of every system without an optical drive: it ships an 8GB USB thumb drive with both Mac OS X and iLife onboard. You don't have to find a USB optical drive or use Remote Disc just to get a system back to working order. We could only wish that Microsoft would take heed for Windows, where the only USB drive installs are after-the-fact downloads.
Under the hood, Apple has for the first time adopted an ultra-low voltage chip, in the form of a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo SU9400 running on an 800MHz front side bus; a 1.6GHz chip is an option. The graphics is provided by way of the NVIDIA GeForce 320M that has been present in the 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro. This shares its 256MB of video memory with the pre-installed non-upgradeable 2GB of system RAM on the mainboard. Owners of existing Macs, or higher end Windows notebooks, may look at it as a step down, especially for the memory: 2GB is considered low by most standards. You can thankfully move up to 4GB of RAM, but as it's soldered in, you have to order it from the factory to get the extra headroom.
The most vaunted feature of the new Air is the inclusion of solid-state drives (SSDs) across the range, although these are a bare metal (no external case) variation with 64GB or 128GB memory, in this case inserted on a removable (but not user-replaceable) card not much bigger than the RAM. This saves on both size and weight when compared with an enclosed SSD and leverages Apple's engineering design principles adopted in the iPad and iPhone, but it's a step back if you're the sort to upgrade storage. In this category it's acceptable, but we'd definitely advise deep thought about your choices. If you live in the cloud, 64GB is just fine; but if you have a significant media collection or lots of apps, 128GB should be considered mandatory.
As a unibody design, the Air's build quality is high with a remarkable level of rigidity for something that's just 0.68 inches at its thickest point and 0.11 inches at its thinnest. It's also extremely light: at 2.3 pounds, it's even lighter than most netbooks. It's also a minor miracle in Apple engineering as it still manages to fit a second USB port -- which the original 13-inch Air couldn't manage -- as well as the usual audio and Mini DisplayPort jacks. While this still probably wouldn't be an only system, it can now sync your iPhone while still leaving room for an Ethernet adapter, a Time Machine backup drive or something else you'd want to use at the same time. USB ports on opposite sides also paradoxically fixes complaints of mouse owners across the entire MacBook line: a mouse can now hook up without having its cord wrap around the back.
That said, while minimalism has earned Apple much of its reputation, it also leaves the MacBook Air somewhat stripped of expansion compared to its peers. It doesn't have a card reader like many CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) notebooks or even the 13-inch Air, nor does it have three-plus USB ports, FireWire, a dedicated microphone jack or some of the other expansion ports on other notebooks. If you're simply looking for a slim system, Acer's TimelineX and its Gateway equivalents will give more expansion; there's no doubt, however, that the Air wins for sheer portability.
Screen and audio quality
The 11.6-inch display at the heart of the display is said to be manufactured by AU Optronics and may have been made specifically for the MacBook Air. It's a high-resolution screen that has the same 1366x768 density as many 13-inch and larger notebooks, which gives the 11-inch Air a very high density, Retina Display-like quality. The text and fonts appear crisp and highly legible, and the LED backlighting gives it excellent brightness and contrast; both are qualities that previous users of the 13-inch Air will be pleased to see carry through to the smaller model.
As what's believed to be a TN (twisted nematic) screen, the LCD has a horizontal viewing angle that's much better than the vertical viewing angle. Both are quite satisfactory, but no match for the any-angle IPS (in-plane switching) panels Apple uses on the iPad, the iPhone 4 and its iMac range. It's an excellent notebook display by typical standards, but it is getting to the point where we would be surprised if Apple doesn't start using IPS across most of its entire product range. For browsing and completing productivity tasks in iWork or Office, it performs extremely well. The color gamut is also much wider than with the early Intel MacBooks or our aluminum MacBook, which makes it a viable option for some mobile photographers.
For an 11-inch, ultra-thin notebook, the audio quality through the hidden stereo speakers is quite good. It would not be the preferred way of listening to music for any audio buff, but it's quite adequate for casual listening. Compared to the previous generation Macbook Air, though, it's clear Apple has given the audio quality of this diminutive device special consideration. The earlier model's mono speaker wasn't up to the standard of what is now shipping in the new 11-inch model. We could see some college and university students listening from the Air, though only if there's no outside headphones or speakers.
Keyboard and trackpad
Simply speaking, the full-size keyboard on the new 11-inch MacBook Air is excellent; even the narrower function keys are perfectly adequate. While it has a relatively short travel, it's extremely easy to use and is no different than typing on any other Apple notebook in most ways, which can't be said for some of the smaller CULV notebooks in the Windows world. Having a full-size keyboard is, however, only half the story as to why it works so well on the Air. It's the palm rest that makes all the difference. As it's still sizeable and comfortable, typing with it even on a train was a breeze, and it was possible to power through a Word document without giving the typing experience a second thought.
We have virtually no criticisms about the glass trackpad. It's very generously proportioned and works extremely well. That it's oversized for an ultraportable really makes a huge difference to the overall usability of the device and is a great complement to the keyboard in everyday use. Moreover, it's larger than what usually appears on many large PC notebooks, and especially so for the usually cramped CULV notebooks it's up against. If you're new to the platform, you'll also be sold on the full array of Apple's multi-touch gestures, which really helps to make a notebook more user friendly as a whole. Two-finger scrolling and three- or four-finger swipes let Apple skip many of the scroll strips and shortcuts that take away from trackpad real estate, and they're usually more intuitive after a few tries.
Performance, benchmarking and battery life
The 11-inch Macbook Air is not equipped or designed for outright performance. While Apple believes that features such as its instant on, and fast cold boot up times make this the 'next generation' of MacBooks, it's just not suitable as a primary computer for anyone who needs performance as a value. Still, it may well make for the perfect student notebook for doing research and writing papers, or using Excel to complete formulas. For other users, it may make the ideal secondary computer for productivity that an iPad doesn't (or can't) fulfill.
In some real-world conditions, it could actually feel faster than notebooks with considerably more power, owing largely to the SSD. Since flash memory has zero latency and much more bandwidth -- we were told it reaches up to 160MB per second on the Air -- things that would normally chug on even a 7,200RPM notebook drive can pop up almost instantly. It's not uncommon to be ready to go from a cold boot in about 15 seconds, and many apps load much faster than they do even on a well-equipped desktop; from sleep, the system is completely ready in four seconds. We're a bit concerned about how long this will last, though. Signs have appeared that Apple may be adding TRIM support to keep its SSDs optimized for their lifespans like on a Windows 7 PC, but there is a chance that the system may lose some of its advantage over time.
We chose CINEBENCH R11.5 and Geekbench as our main benchmarks this time around as they provide an easy way to gauge the relative strengths of the Air's general processing and graphics. They don't make for particularly impressive viewing, but they show just why Apple was willing to skip Core i3, i5 or i7 in return for faster graphics:
As you can easily discern from the performance charts, the ultra-low voltage Core 2 Duo is not going to be ideal for users looking to do rendering or other very CPU-intensive tasks. It's still well off the pace of the 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo P8600 in our unibody MacBook from 2008. All the same, the graphics jump is a surprise: NVIDIA's claims that the GeForce 320M has up to 200 percent more graphics performance is validated by our performance tests. In the CINEBENCH test, the 48 graphics cores (versus just 16 earlier) nearly doubles the frame rate of the superseded GeForce 9400M, running at 11.6 frames per second versus 5.8 frames per second. While we'd still advise against getting an Air with gaming, 3D modelling or video encoding primarily in mind, the tiny MacBook Air could actually be a step up from an older system for anyone who leans heavily on the GPU.
Real-world battery life reflects Apple's claims of five hours of use. We used it in a real-world trial, on the train between home and the office running a Citrix client with the notebook tethered to an iPhone 4 over a Bluetooth connection. We were not only able to use it for the two-hour trip in to the office and another two hours on a return trip but, back home, use it for just over another hour surfing the web. Formal tests have also confirmed these figures. This puts it on about on par with some other ultraportables. It's not outstanding by any means, and an Atom netbook can sometimes go a few hours more, but the battery life is useful. We had the screen set at about 50 percent brightness, which was quite sufficient and something we'd expect to use from day to day. Where it excels on the battery front, though, is its unique 30-day standby ability. That's right: 30 days, not 30 hours. Apple used the same approach it adopted to extending the standby time on the iPad, which caches the state of the system, shuts virtually everything off, and through the SSD restores almost immediately on wake. We never had to shut the MacBook Air down during our battery tests, since there was virtually no difference in charge over the space of several hours. Those more interested in performance over mobility might not care, but for an ultraportable where longevity matters, we liked the notion of rarely if ever having to completely shut down.
Software and the value equation
One of the Mac's continuing strong points is software integration, and particularly iLife '11. While Microsoft now has some rough equivalents in its Windows Live Essentials pack, iLife '11 is an overall more feature-laden suite in its current form and, more importantly, already comes pre-installed. Most users aren't immediately likely to start making music, but those of us virtually raised on Flickr and YouTube will like having photo management, website creation and video editing out of the box. And like with most Macs, there's no unwanted trial apps or background utilities already installed and thus sucking away system resources; not having to spend your first hour or two cleaning your system may be worth it, especially if you have to restore the Mac later.
But what about the value proposition of the hardware? As we hinted earlier, its main competition isn't netbooks, all of which are well behind in performance, but the in-between ultraportables running CULV chips. Its most conspicuous challenger is the $899 Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T. Superficially, the Acer notebook should have most things in its favor: a 1.46GHz Core i7, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive clearly trump the Air. It also offers an additional USB port, HDMI and VGA for video out, Ethernet and an SD card slot. A TimelineX owner could ultimately use the notebook as a sole system where we can't see many MacBook Air users going the same route. The Intel graphics, however, sour the experience. It's just unusable for most gaming, and it would actually be slower in anything compute-intensive that can use the general purpose functions of a GPU. And again, if portability is your primary concern, the Air will just be that much easier to carry and live with; ask any journalist who's had to work a show floor for three hours which notebook they'd rather have in a bag slung over their shoulder.
For some users, the other dilemma is whether to buy the MacBook Air as a secondary machine or to buy an iPad. We still see the purpose of having both if your budget can stretch that far. In fact, the combined purchase cost of the entry-level iPad and entry-level MacBook Air combined ($1598) is less than the asking price of the entry-level 15-inch MacBook Pro. Having already previously purchased an iPad, I had hoped that I would not need to buy another notebook. But the reality is, is that the iPad is not a notebook replacement, and Apple never intended it to be -- at least, not in the near future. Where the iPad excels at and remains better than the 11-inch Macbook Air is for entertainment and quick bites of information. The iPad's IPS display, even though not 16:9, is also better for watching movies than with the MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air is unbeatable by the tablet for everyday productivity. Until the iPad can run a more desktop-like environment from the outset, the Air may be the system you want if you spend most of your type typing while on trips or while traveling. We certainly miss the 10-plus hours of battery life when using the 11-inch Air, but it's a Mac that's now small enough to always be with you, and that could change its value equation not just for Mac veterans but for newcomers. If you look to the long term, you may also want to consider the Air a bet on the outcome of Mac OS X Lion, which should be more optimized for multi-touch.
The performance of the 11-inch MacBook Air, its form factor coupled with its bundled iLife suite of apps makes it a compelling purchase for many Mac fans as well as Windows switchers who either need a gradual easing-in with a notebook. As people who travel regularly but don't want the (slightly) added bulk of most notebooks or even the 13-inch MacBook Air, we've been waiting for Apple to make this notebook for a long time. The only real disappointments are the lack of a newer Intel Core processor and keyboard backlighting, but the 13-inch model does exist to at least address the first issue.
It's certainly not for everyone in the broadest sense. If you're willing to pay $999, many notebooks are faster or have more expansion if you're willing to allow some bulk. Toshiba's Portégé R700 series comes to mind; while you're saddled with Intel graphics that limit the real performance of the system, you get a one-inch thick, three-pound notebook that for $890 has a full-power Core i3 processor and even an optical drive. In the 11- to 12-inch category, though, Apple comes out looking superb. Its CPU difference becomes a non-issue or even an advantage, and the faster graphics along with a much more comfortable keyboard and trackpad could easily tip the balance.
For our money, the 11-inch MacBook Air is just about spot-on. A better processor would be great, as would a backlit keyboard and more battery life, but these aren't deal killers unless the 13-inch Air isn't an option. At this size, weight and level of comfort, the Air can win simply because it's the system you'd most want to carry with you. It's also arguably the true speed leader in the category. Even with a Core 2 Duo, the new MacBook Air can run rings around other CULV models through the faster graphics and the instant responsiveness of the SSD. It's not quite the future of notebooks, but it's definitely headed in the right direction.