There's one easy way to sum up the new 11-inch MacBook Air: It's always ready to go. Not only does this notebook weigh a mere 2.3 pounds and boast a razor-thin profile, its use of flash memory means you'll never have to wait to start surfing the web, touching up photos, or making FaceTime calls. Starting at $999 ($1,199 as configured), the 11-inch Air features a Core 2 Duo processor, Nvidia graphics, and more than 5 hours of battery life. That's pretty remarkable for something you barely notice is in your bag. Still, some cheaper Windows-powered ultraportables combine better CPU performance with longer endurance. Is this MacBook mini worth it? (Click here to read our review of the Editor's Choice Award-winning 13-inch Apple MacBook Air. )
Apple has applied its expertise in miniaturization to achieve a design that's unconsciously portable yet super sturdy. The 11-inch Air's 2.3-pound weight is more than a full pound lighter than the 12-inch Asus Eee PC 1215N (3.4 pounds), and easier to tote than the Acer Aspire 1830t (3 pounds). Even 10-inch netbooks such as the Toshiba NB305 (2.8 pounds) feel bulky by comparison. Part of the reason why the MacBook Air is so much lighter is that Apple put flash memory chips right on the logic board without using the typical storage enclosure.
Thanks to the 11-inch Air's unibody aluminum housing, this machine feels a lot more durable than its plastic competition. It's also very, very thin. The wedge-shaped profile measures from 0.11 to 0.68 inches yet manages to include two USB ports (one on each side), a headphone jack on the left, and a mini DisplayPort on the right. The only thing missing is an SD Card slot, a feature available on the new 13-inch MacBook Air. This is a disappointing omission, especially since 10-inch netbooks have had this slot for years. Apple simply ran out of room.
Our biggest issue with the design is that the lid on this Air sometimes tilted backwards when we picked the machine up. This also happened when in a moving vehicle, especially when we hit bumps in the road or if the vehiicle slowed down somewhat abruptly. The display hinge is designed so that it doesn't tilt all the way back, but we still found this movement annoying.
Keyboard and Touchpad
A good ultraportable keyboard will make you forget that you're using a smaller notebook, and the 11-inch MacBook Air passes that test with flying colors. We typed this review, URLs, and other notes rapidly on the chiclet-style layout while enjoying crisp feedback. As per usual with Macs, the layout includes dedicated keys for adjusting the volume and brightness, playback controls, and both Expose and Dashboard. You'll also find a power button in the upper right corner. The arrow keys are a bit small, but we had no trouble using them. The only bummer is that the keys aren't backlit; that's the price you pay for such a slim profile.
Apple leverages its extra-large glass touchpad to full effect on the 11-inch MacBook Air, which provides pinpoint accuracy and a smooth navigation experience. It also integrates well with Mac OS X Snow Leopard, allowing users to execute all sorts of multitouch gestures. Pinch-to-zoom worked well in iPhoto and Safari, and it was a cinch to minimize all open apps with a four-finger swipe downward. A three-finger swipe let us zip through pictures in iPhoto. Overall, this ultraportable offers a stellar ergonomic experience.
Display and Audio
At first we thought the somewhat thick bezel around the screen would prove distracting--until we turned the 11-inch MacBook Air on. You won't find a brighter, crisper, or more colorful display on an notebook this class. Photo and video editors will find this 1366 x 768 panel easy on the eyes. Websites looked good as well. The Air's wide viewing angles allow you to share slideshows and videos with a couple of people.
The 11-inch MacBook Air may be thin, but the sound is anything but. Two stereo speakers project audio right through the top of the keyboard, pumping out surprisingly loud sound. When we cranked up the volume of a track by The Kooks on Pandora, we managed to annoy a few people while sitting in a hotel lobby. The audio wasn't tinny either, which means you won't necessarily have to don headphones to edit sound in iMovie and GarageBand.
Thanks to a new FaceTime desktop beta application, MacBook owners can make video calls to other Mac owners, as well as to those who have an iPhone 4 and the latest iPod touch. The setup process was a bit of a pain, requiring us to create an account and verify our e-mail address online before proceeding. After that, though, we just gave a friend the e-mail address we used to sign up and he called us from his iPhone 4. While the video window was small, the quality was better than we expected, with warm colors and pretty good detail. We also found it neat that our video window automatically reoriented itself when the other caller turned his iPhone to landscape mode. Of course, the built-in webcam can also be used for other chat apps and to record clips using iMovie.
The 11-inch MacBook Air features a 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM. Some might reasonably expect a low-voltage Core i5 or Core i7 CPU and more memory at this price, but these components--in combination with the 128 GB of all-flash storage and Nvidia graphics, give this ultraportable plenty of muscle for running Mac OS X Snow Leopard. In the GeekBench test, for example, the Air scored 2,159, which is nearly 900 points higher than the Asus Eee PC 1215N. Still, other ultraportables have beefier processors, including the 11.6-inch Acer Aspire Timeline 1830T. That $899 system's Core i7 CPU helped it notch a whopping 3,742 in GeekBench, better than even the 13-inch MacBook (3,685) and MacBook Pro (3,686).
Yes, benchmark results are important, but the 11-inch MacBook Air just feels fast, especially when it comes to waking up from sleep mode. That's because this configuration's 128GB of flash memory was always ready to snap the machine to life. For example, after simply opening the lid once we'd reached cruising altitude on a recent flight, the Air lit up instantly. No twiddling thumbs required. Anyone from business travelers to students can appreciate this responsiveness. Just as impressive, the Air cold booted into Mac OS X in just under 15 seconds, the fastest time we've ever seen from a Mac or PC. The notebook duplicated a 22.55GB folder in 9 minutes and 28 seconds, a rate of 40.7 MBps. While that's below high-end SSDs, it's about 15 MBps faster than the average ultraportable.
Thanks to the Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics, which has 48 processing cores, Apple claims the 11-inch MacBook Air is more than twice as fast as the 9400M card inside the last-generation, 13-inch model. In our tests, this notebook proved snappy when rendering video in the new version of iMovie, as well as when manipulating photos in iPhoto.
Still, this is by no means a powerhouse. In the Cinebench benchmark, the 11-inch Air scored 2,751 in the OpenGL portion of the test, compared to 4,417 and 4,447 for the 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro, respectively. In the multi-CPU portion of the test, the 11-inch Air notched 2,635, while the larger MacBooks got 5,066 and 4,936. This notebook can be used to get real work done, but don't think you're getting a workstation-class machine.
While Call of Duty is a bit too much for the Air, users will be able to play less demanding titles fairly well. In World of Warcraft, the Air averaged 30 fps at native resolution and graphics at the recommended settings; that's twice as good as the Acer 1830T (14 fps), but a bit behind the Ion2-powered Asus Eee PC 1215N (37 fps). When we increased graphics settings to Ultra, the Air dropped to 9 fps, the same frame rate as the 1215N.
Battery Life and Wireless
Apple rates the battery life of the 11-inch MacBook Air at 5 hours, and we saw 5 hours and 18 minutes of runtime in our LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi). This test is run with the display on 40 percent brightness, so you'll get less endurance if you have the screen on full brightness. The MacBook Air's battery life is good, but it trails similarly sized systems such as the Asus Eee PC 1215N (5:40), Alienware M11x (5:59), and Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T (5:53).
Apple also claims that this laptop gets up to 30 days of standby time, so you don't have to shut the Air down. You can just pick it up and use it, just like the iPad. (Stay tuned for long-term test results.)
The 11-inch MacBook Air includes 802.11n wireless and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. We experienced fast load times and long range in our preliminary testing, but we'll update this review once we've run our formal throughput tests in the lab.
While our 11-inch MacBook Air configuration (1.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, Nvidia GeForce GT 320M graphics, 2GB of RAM, 128GB hard drive) cost $1,199, consumers can get the same processor and graphics, but a smaller 64GB hard drive, for $999, the starting price for the 11-inch MacBook Air. That's not a lot of storage, but it should be enough for those who do most of their computing in the cloud. Other options include a slightly faster 1.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor ($100) and 4GB of RAM ($100).
Software and Warranty
Apple bundles the new iLife ‘11 multimedia suite with the 11-inch MacBook Air, which includes improved versions of GarageBand, iMovie, and iPhoto. iPhoto now features a more friendly full-screen view for enhancing photos, and lets you easily share your favorite pics via Facebook, Flickr, e-mail, and other options. You can also create slideshows using fun new themes. For instance, Places zooms around a map based on where the photos were taken before zooming in on them. Meanwhile, iMovie adds the ability to turn your creations into Hollywood-style trailers, and GarageBand boasts a new How Did I Play? feature, complete with accuracy meter.
Mac OS X Leopard also comes with an easy-to-use mail client, iCal, iChat, Photo Booth, and Time Machine for backups. In approximately 90 days, Apple will roll out a new Mac App Store for downloading all sorts of apps and games, making finding programs for your Mac as easy as it is for your iPhone and iPod touch.
Apple backs the 11-inch MacBook Air with 90 days of free telephone support and a one-year limited warranty. To see how the company fared in our Tech Support Showdown, click here. (Spoiler alert, they won again.)
Apple said it would never make a netbook, and it hasn't. The 11-inch MacBook Air is a powerful ultraportable that makes other systems in its class look positively bloated. More important, this machine never keeps you waiting, thanks to the way it uses flash memory. We just wish the hinge for the display were a bit tighter to prevent unwanted movement. Some may prefer the new 13-inch MacBook Air ($1,299), which offers a higher-resolution screen, faster CPU, and a SD Card slot. If you're torn between Windows and Mac, the $899 Acer Timeline 1830T offers a much faster Core i7 processor and longer battery life but integrated graphics and a much less compelling design. But if you want the thinnest, lightest Mac experience ever, this Air will leave you elated.