Tuesday

Apple MacBook Air review (11-inch, Summer 2012)




Remember Netbooks and ultraportable laptops? Those 10- and 11-inchers were all the rage a few years ago, but thanks to the rise of larger-screened ultrabooks and smaller-screened tablets, they've been disappearing from the computer landscape.
One significant 11-incher still remains: the 11-inch MacBook Air. When it first debuted in late 2010, it was the answer to the Netbook Generation. Now it stands alone, not only as a speedy ultraportable, but as one of the few 11-inch ultrabook-class laptops around. The closest Windows equivalent we've reviewed recently, the Dell XPS 13, is larger and heavier.

Last year's 11-inch Air was a beautifully compact and surprisingly powerful machine, nearly as quick as a 13-inch Air, but with sacrificed battery life due to its tiny size.
This year's model is faster, packing a third-gen Intel Core i5 processor that's nearly indistinguishable from the one in the larger 13-inch MacBook Air. USB 3.0 ports have been added, and battery life is better, finally clearing 5 hours and then some on our tests.

The other problem had to do with price: last year's attractive $999 entry-level MacBook Air came with a diminutive 64GB solid-state drive (SSD) and only 2GB of RAM (which couldn't be upgraded). The package you really had to upgrade to was the one with a 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM, which cost $1,199.
This year, the entry-level 2012 11-inch Air is still $999 -- the least expensive MacBook in Apple's lineup -- but still only has a 64GB SSD (though 4GB of RAM this time). The good news is that the configuration you'll want, with a 128GB SSD, costs $1,099, $100 less than last year's step-up. (If I were to be really nitpicky, I'd say that that $100 bump-up only buys you more SSD space as opposed to last year getting the SSD and RAM, but the total cost for components is $100 less either way).

A thousand dollars is a lot to pay for such a tiny laptop, but this Air's shocking portability and comfortable keyboard will win travelers over, with performance that's pretty much as good as that of the fuller Air. You're giving up about 2 hours of battery life and an SD card slot for the privilege compared with the 13-inch. Then again, some might enjoy saving an extra $100 off a similar 13-inch configuration. Either way, the 11-inch seems better as a luxurious secondary computer than a primary one.
Price as reviewed$999
Processor1.7GHz Intel Core i5 ULV (third-gen)
Memory4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive64GB SSD
ChipsetIntel HM77
GraphicsIntel HD 4000
Operating systemOS X Lion 10.7.4
Dimensions (WD)11.8x7.56 inches
Height0.11-0.68 inch
Screen size (diagonal)11.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter2.34 pounds / 2.78 pounds
CategoryUltraportable
Unlike Microsoft and its Windows 8 strategy, Apple has pursued two nonoverlapping paths for mobile computing in the iPad and the MacBook Air. The Air is a full OS X laptop, but it feels iPad-size when closed.

Its dimensions, while longer and thicker, aren't far off. From the front, the 0.11-inch edge looks iPad-thin; it's 0.68 inch thin on the back. At 2.38 pounds, it's a little under a pound heavier than the third-generation Retina Display iPad.
The new 11-inch Air is identical to last year's in size, shape, and design, and hasn't changed at all since its introduction in late 2010. It still looks cutting-edge; the all-metal aluminum construction gives it a seriously solid feel despite its blade-thin profile, and the whole package feels thin and light even to someone used to working with very small laptops (such as myself).

Yet, even though the Air is small, it manages to avoid compromising the keyboard and trackpad -- they're full-size -- or even screen resolution, which is a standard 1,366x768 pixels. You can see upon lifting the Air's lid that the 11.6-inch screen has a significant aluminum bezel around it, enough space, it feels like, for a 12-inch screen. The reason for the extra bezel is clear when you look below: the large, wide keyboard is basically identical in size to the 13-inch Air's, fitted snugly edge to edge. The Dell XPS 13, a 13-inch ultrabook shrunk into a 12-inch footprint, is still larger and heavier at 3 pounds versus the 11-inch Air's 2.38, and thicker all around.

The backlit keyboard has the same shallower raised keys as the 13-inch Air, but the typing experience, once you get used to it, feels excellent. The multitouch glass clickpad below is still the best in its class, perfectly responsive and tuned to Apple's operating system and software. The pad's surface area is smaller than on a 13-inch Pro or Air, but there's plenty of room for basic navigation -- although four-finger pinch gestures can get a bit cramped.
The only cosmetic change to the Air's exterior is a new MagSafe 2 connector that fits with a new charging cable that juts out rather than riding snugly along the Air's side. The connector port isn't compatible with older MagSafe cables.
The new Air comes with OS X Lion installed, but users will be grandfathered in to a free upgrade to Mountain Lion 10.8 when it becomes available. Apple's iLife suite of software -- GarageBand, iPhoto, and iMovie -- also comes preinstalled.
The 11-inch Air is still the only MacBook with a 16:9 display (the 13-inch Air and other MacBooks are all 16:10), and uses the same 1,366x768-pixel native resolution as most Windows laptops from 11 to 15 inches. The screen area lacks the edge-to-edge glass over a black bezel found in other MacBooks; instead the screen is surrounded by a thick aluminum bezel. While small, the screen is very bright and crisp, with decent viewing angles. It's great for single-window Web browsing or application work, but multiple windows become a challenge.
The MacBook Air's speakers deliver crisp sound for casual movie, video, and music viewing and listening (or for FaceTime), but in a noisy room you'll want to use headphones. The 720p Webcam is upgraded from last year's MacBook Air Webcam and helps make higher-quality video calls, a welcome touch.
Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, June 2012)Average for category [ultraportable]
VideoThunderboltVGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
AudioStereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jackStereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data2 USB 3.02 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking802.11n Wi-Fi, BluetoothEthernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical driveNoneNone

USB 3.0 is the only new addition to this year's Air: there are two ports, one sits on each side. There is also, just like last year, a single, versatile Thunderbolt port for video-out and high-speed data. The Thunderbolt port can be adapted to HDMI, VGA, DVI, or DisplayPort with adapters. For most people, video-out is all you'll use Thunderbolt for. Thunderbolt hard drives are still expensive, and USB 3.0 hard drives offer far faster-than-USB 2.0 connections for a fraction of the price. The Air supports a single external monitor, plus the built-in screen display.
Upgrade options are limited on the MacBook Air. Our $999 review model only has a 64GB SSD and 4GB of RAM, plus a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 CPU. That SSD fills up very fast -- fresh out of the box, you'll have less than 48GB to work with. The step-up 11-inch Air has a 128GB SSD for $1,099. The flash storage in the MacBook Air isn't the standard off-the-shelf 2.5-inch type; upgrades can be ordered from some Web sites, but it's not as easy to replace. RAM can be upgraded to a max of 8GB for an extra $100. SSD sizes and pricing beyond 128GB are 256GB ($300) and a newly added 512GB ($800).
If you're looking for a little performance boost, the $1,099 11-inch Air can be upgraded to a 2.0GHz Core i7 for an extra $150. The completely tricked-out top-end 11-inch Air comes to a lofty $2,149, just $50 less than an entry-level Retina Display MacBook Pro.
The move to third-gen Intel Core i5 and i7 dual-core processors (code-named Ivy Bridge) means faster overall speeds in the new Airs, but it's not as dramatic as the generation-skipping leap from the 2011 models. Multitasking showed the greatest gains. Side-by-side with the slightly faster 1.8GHz Core i5 processor in the 13-inch Air, the 1.7GHz Core i5 in the 11-inch produced very similar results, and wasn't even far off from the performance of the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. From a pure CPU performance standpoint, the 11-inch Air impresses. Boot time is extremely fast, too: our Air went from off to Wi-Fi on and booted in 13 seconds.
The included Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics are also a step up from the Intel HD 3000 graphics in the previous Air. Our admittedly dated Call of Duty 4 benchmark ran at 29.5 frames per second at 1,366x768 pixels, while it ran at 18.9fps last year. That's an impressive increase, but keep in mind that the 2010 MacBook Air ran the same test at 40.5fps with Nvidia graphics that came included at the time. Newer games may show better results with Intel's integrated graphics. Bottom line: many games will be playable, but graphics settings will need to be adjusted. Still, on an 11-inch machine, that qualifies as a win.$3.93
In our video-playback battery-drain test, the 2012 11-inch Air ran for 5 hours and 17 minutes, an increase of 41 minutes over last year. The entry-level 2012 13-inch Air, however, ran over 2 hours longer. For such a small computer 5 hours is decent, but if I were buying an Air, I'd choose the 13-inch's longer life and deal with the extra size.
Service and support from Apple is always a dual-edged sword. Apple includes a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support. Upgrading to a full three-year plan under AppleCare will cost an extra $249 and is pretty much a must-buy, considering the proprietary nature of Apple products. Support is also accessible through a well-stocked online knowledge base, video tutorials, and e-mail with customer service, or through in-person visits to Apple's retail store Genius Bars, which, in our experience, have always been fairly frustration-free encounters.

The new 2012 11-inch MacBook Air is a little faster and a little more powerful than last year's version. Is that enough to keep it competitive? Considering there's little left competing in the 11-inch space, this little Air remains the ultraportable to beat -- in its $1,099 configuration, if not its $999 one. Be prepared to pay at least an extra $100 to bump the laptop up to an acceptable amount of internal storage.