Iconic, beautifully thin design; Very long battery life; Fast boot time and faster flash memory than previous Air; Superior touchpad; Vast, easy-to-use App Store; Impressively loud speakers
Other ultraportables have higher-resolution screens; SD Card sticks out
Apple makes the quintessential ultraportable notebook even better by giving the MacBook Air faster performance and longer battery life.
The 13-inch MacBook Air has become the very model of the modern notebook. Thin, light, and with instant-on responsiveness, Apple's hit is so admired by the PC industry that it has spawned an entire category of Windows-powered Ultrabooks. To keep the competition at bay, the latest version of the Air adds a faster Ivy Bridge processor, USB 3.0 and drops the starting price by $100 while keeping the iconic design intact. Are those changes enough to keep Apple in the lead?
However, other 13-inch notebooks are thinner and lighter. For instance, the Samsung Series 9 is 12.3 x 8.6 x 0.4 inches and 2.6 pounds, the Dell XPS 13 is a Lilliputian 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.24-0.71 inches, and the Toshiba Portege Z835 is just 2.4 pounds.
We wouldn't be surprised to see Apple shrink the bezel and narrow the deck on the Air next time around to create a more compact form factor. But for now, it still works.
Again, though, others have caught up. The ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A has a resolution of 1920 x 1080, and an average brightness of 423 lux. By comparison, the MacBook Air's display has an average brightness of 268 lux, which is better than average (239 lux). Even the $898 Vizio Ultrabook offers a higher-resolution 1600 x 900-pixel screen.
They may be hidden underneath the keyboard, but the speakers in the Air delivered impressively loud and clear sound. The notebook filled a room with plenty of bass and treble, lacking any distortion even when cranked to the max. When we played Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" on both the Air and the UX31A at their top volume, the difference couldn't be more stark. The Air was more than twice as loud as the UX31A, and everything sounded much richer and fuller.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Despite a more powerful processor, heat remains a nonissue on the Air. After streaming a Hulu video for 15 minutes at full screen, the touchpad measured a cool 79 degrees, the space between the G and H keys was 88 degrees, and the middle of the underside was 87 degrees. The hottest spot, toward the hinge on the bottom, was 95, which is on the edge of what we consider uncomfortable.
The most obvious change is the thinner MagSafe2 connector, and the T-shaped plug. While it's as secure as ever, the previous plug was more flush with the side of the notebook and had a more streamlined look.
Inside the 2012 Air is a 1.8-GHz Intel Core i5-3427U processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of flash storage. This combination of components offered fast performance on our tests. On Geekbench, the Air returned a score of 6,539, which bested the category average of 4,772 and outpaced last year's Air (5,860). The UX31A scored a higher 6,903, but it has a more powerful 1.9-GHz Intel Core i7-3517U processor, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
The Air booted into OS X 7 in just 12 seconds, beating last year's version by 5 seconds, and most other Ultrabooks by half. The UX31A came closest, at 23 seconds, but it was no contest. The Air also sprang back to life instantly when we opened the lid.
The flash storage performed exceptionally in other tests, duplicating a 5GB folder of multimedia files in 32 seconds. That's a rate of 159 MBps or 30 MBps higher than the 2011 Air (127MBps). This showing is also leagues better than the UX31A (51.4 MBps), not to mention the category average of 46 MBps. The XPS 13 came close, notching a rate of 138 MBps.
When it came to some tasks, the Air was no better than the previous version. It took 6 minutes and 47 seconds to match 20,000 names with the corresponding addresses in OpenOffice, which is about 30 seconds slower than the 2011 version, but almost two minutes faster than the ultraportable average.
The Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU in the Air offers improved performance over the last model. In the graphics portion of the Cinebench 11.5 test, the Air scored 17.18 fps, compared with 10.39 fps for the 2011 version, a 65 percent increase. The UX31A scored 15.52 on the same test.
We then ran the graphics test portion of the Novabench suite. The 2012 Air returned a score of 37, compared with 23 for the 2011 Air. That's also an increase of 61 percent.
The new Air can certainly handle mainstream games. On our "World of Warcraft" benchmark, the Air averaged 60 fps with the screen resolution at its native 1440 x 900, and 30 fps with the effects on Ultra. That's double the average (37/18 fps) but only slightly better than the 2011 Air (59/28 fps). On autodetect settings, the ASUS UX31A, which has the same GPU, managed 52 fps at 1366 x 768 and 36 fps at 1080p; with effects maxed, those numbers dropped to 22 and 17 fps, respectively.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that, during the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the Air lasted 8 hours and 10 minutes. That's almost 90 minutes longer than the ultraportable category average, and well above the last 13-inch Air (6:25). The new Air also beats the Ultrabook competition by a wide margin. The ASUS UX31A, for example, lasted 6:28, and the Toshiba Portege Z835 lasted 6:48.
Currently, the Air ships with OSX Lion, but in July, it will be updated with Mountain Lion, which offers new features such as Notification Center, deeper iCloud integration with apps such as Messages and documents in the cloud, and the ability to share content via Facebook and Twitter from multiple apps.
The excellent iLife suite (iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand) is included, as well as FaceTime, Mail and the Mac App Store. The App Store stocks a ton of useful apps and games, which download directly to the iOS-like Launchpad for quick access.
The MacBook Air comes with a limited 1-year warranty and an optional 3-year Apple Care warranty. Users can choose to have their computer serviced on the phone or in person at the Apple store Genius Bar. Apple's warranty was ranked No. 1 in our Best and Worst Brands Report.
Our MacBook Air was the base model, which costs $1,199, and has a 1.8-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of flash memory. If you start out with this configuration, the only thing you can upgrade is the RAM to 8GB, a $100 option.
The $1,499 model has the same processor and RAM, but twice the amount of storage. With this model, you can select a 2-GHz Intel Core i7 processor ($100), 8GB of RAM, ($100) or 512MB of flash memory, a $500 option.
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|CPU||1.8-GHz Intel Core i5-3427U|
|Operating System||OS X 10.7 (Lion)|
|RAM Upgradable to||8GB|
|Hard Drive Size||128GB|
|Hard Drive Speed||n/a|
|Hard Drive Type||Flash|
|Optical Drive Speed||n/a|
|Graphics Card||Intel HD Graphics 4000|
|Touchpad Size||4.1 x 3 inches|
|Ports (excluding USB)||USB 3.0|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Thunderbolt/mini DisplayPort|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Headphone|
|Card Slots||2-1 card reader|
|Size||12.8 x 8.9 x 0.11-0.68 inches|