One of the thinnest, sexiest ultraportables ever makes its return in grand style. The updated Apple MacBook Air may keep the same svelte appearance and sturdy aluminum unibody build as its predecessor, but under the hood lies a faster processor, a powerful new Nvidia GeForce 9400 discrete graphics card, and a 128GB solid state drive. Priced at a hefty $2,499 as configured (and starting at $1,799), the MacBook Air may be worth the investment for those on the hunt for a premium ultraportable, but only if they can live with short battery life and the same design trade-offs of the first model.
The MacBook Air maintains one of the sveltest profiles in mobile computing. When closed, its profile is unbelievably thin, measuring just 0.7 inches at its meatiest point. As with the previous MacBook Air, the new model keeps the same minimalist look by housing the lone USB port, headphone, and Mini-DisplayPort connections behind a small door built into the right, rear corner of the chassis. On the opposite side of the notebook you’ll find the MagSafe power jack, which represents the only other port on the entire system.
Still, you get a full-size keyboard with Chiclet-styled keys that are the staple of Apple notebooks. The individual keys delivered good tactile feedback as we keyed in URLs and crafted e-mails. The backlight-ready keyboard project a cool, white illumination in low-light situations (you can adjust brightness with the F5 and F6 keys). The multitouch trackpad allowed us to scroll through Web pages in Safari effortlessly by swiping three fingers across its surface, and zoom in and out of photos using pinch gestures.
The 13.3-inch (1280 x 800-pixel resolution) LED display remains one of the best in the ultraportable space. Colors were brilliant and blacks were rich when we viewed downloaded Flickr images and movie trailers at Apple.com. The high-gloss screen kicks back reflections (especially when viewing a Web page with a dark color scheme), but viewing angles were quite good.
The Trade-Offs Continue
If you thought the previous MacBook Air demanded users to accept too many sacrifices to own a razor-thin machine, you’ll feel the same about this iteration. There’s still no ExpressCard slot, memory card slot, Ethernet port, or optical drive. If you want to install software from a disc or watch a DVD, the Remote Disc feature leverages the 802.11n connection to tap into the CD or DVD drives of nearby Macs (that are running OS X 10.5.2 or higher) and PCs (that have the Remote Disc software installed). If you prefer a more traditional external optical drive option, the SuperDrive can be purchased from the Apple Store for $99. The battery is still not user-replaceable; you’ll have to bring your machine to Apple for $129.
Our biggest beef with the MacBook Air is the lone USB 2.0 port, which doesn’t properly accommodate all peripherals due to the flip-down panel. We had no problems connecting external storage drives, but an AT&T mobile broadband modem fit awkwardly into the system. A mini-USB hub is a must if you frequently plug gear into your notebook.
The 1.86-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (an upgrade from the previous model’s 1.6-GHz CPU) and 2GB of non-expandable DDR3 RAM may not be breathtaking specs, but they were more than capable of delivering a very smooth Mac OS X Leopard experience. Applications loaded quickly, and we didn’t encounter many instances of the dreaded “pinwheel” that appears when the system hangs even while videochatting with friends in iChat, streaming audio from Slacker Internet Radio, and working within Google Docs. The smooth performance even held up when we converted a 2-minute-and-16-second video clip (720 x 480-pixel resolution) from MP4 to AVI in just 65 seconds.
Using Geekbench (which evaluates CPU and RAM performance), the MacBook Air notched a score of 2,526, which was lower than the aluminum MacBook (3,512) and the 15-inch MacBook Pro (3,672), which feature 2.4-GHz and 2.53-GHz processors, respectively. The OS booted in a quick 31 seconds, approximately half the time of typical Vista-powered notebooks.
The Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU produced a score of 3,159 on Cinebench OpenGL, a GPU benchmark. That was slightly lower than the aluminum MacBook with the same GPU (4,064) and 15-inch MacBook Pro with a Nvidia GeForce 8600M GPU (5,163). Still, the robust integrated graphics solution allowed us to tour the world using Google Earth without too many hiccups; when we zoomed into our dense Times Square location, Google Earth experienced a slightly jerky frame rate, but it wasn’t anything that ruined the experience. When we decided to check out far less crowded areas, such as Coney Island, building and houses loaded very quickly, and the map rotation was smooth.
We tested the GPU’s polygon-pushing muscle by downloading a demo of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary. The Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics smoothly handled the high-octane action as we battled enemies across the opening level, and we were impressed with the water effects; we could even see the fine detail of water clinging to Croft’s body after swimming under a waterfall.
Lightning-Fast Solid-State Drive
Our model came configured with a 128GB solid state drive (the previous version contained a 64GB SSD), which proved to be a speed demon on our test. Although we couldn’t run our usual LAPTOP Transfer Test, we manually copied a 4.97GB folder of mixed media that lived on the desktop to the SSD. The MacBook Air completed the transfer in a blistering 2 minutes and 8 seconds. That’s a best-in-class rate of 39.7 MBps, which bested the Samsung X360 by 3.3 MBps, and shredded the 20.9-MBps ultraportable average.
Wi-Fi and Battery Life
The latest version of the MacBook Air’s biggest weakness is its short endurance. It simply doesn’t have a long enough runtime for a system that’s so easy to carry. In our LAPTOP Battery test (a script that simulates continuous surfing over Wi-Fi) the MacBook Air lasted only 2 hours and 8 minutes before needing a recharge. That’s over 3 hours less than the ultraportable category average, so we recommend keeping that power cord handy.
Web surfing was snappy using the 802.11n Wi-Fi radio. For example, we loaded CNN.com completely in 5.4 seconds (we could begin reading at the 2-second mark). Streaming high-definition content from Hulu.com showed only occasional buffering.
Software and Warranty
Apple continues to bundle its notebooks with some of the most productive and entertaining software. The MacBook Air is preloaded with the ever-creative iLife ’09 multimedia suite, which includes updated versions of GarageBand, iMovie, iPhoto, and iWeb. Other excellent applications include Photo Booth (which uses the integrated VGA iSight camera to take fun photos using the Comic Book, Light Tunnel, and face-altering Fish Eye lenses, among others) and Spaces for managing desktop real estate. Apple covers the MacBook Air with a scant 90 days of phone support and a one-year limited warranty. Both can be expanded to three years with the optional $249 AppleCare Protection Plan.
If you were hesitant to pull the trigger on the original MacBook Air because of the short battery life and limited port selection, Apple hasn’t done much to win you over with the latest version. Road warriors who require good endurance should pass, but the addition of Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M GPU and a larger, faster SSD may prove enticing for those looking for extra performance in a sexy, thin package. If you don’t mind a little more bulk, the latest 13-inch, 4.5-pound MacBook Air is a much better deal, because it offers nearly 5 hours of runtime, easily accessible ports, and the same graphics punch for hundreds of dollars less.