It's as if the 13-inch MacBook Pro won The Biggest Loser. Meet the new 13-inch MacBook Air, which weighs 1.5 pounds lighter than its beefier brother and packs in enough horsepower to be your primary computer. Starting at $1,299, this ultraportable isn't cheap, but it costs $200 less than the last 13-inch Air, lasts more than three times longer on a charge, and features a higher resolution display than both its predecessor and the 13-inch Pro. Plus, like the 11-inch Air, this laptop's all flash storage enables a lightning-fast boot time and allows it to wake instantly from sleep. Yes, you can snag a Windows ultraportable with a faster processor for hundreds less, but if you want a mobile Mac this machine is almost perfect. (Click here to read our review of the 11-inch Apple MacBook Air.)
While the 13-inch MacBook Air is as tall and wide as the 13-inch Pro, it weighs just 2.9 pounds and tapers from an astonishingly thin .11 inches to .68 inches. The last-generation 13-inch Air measured .76 inches at its thickest point and weighed 3 pounds, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro weighs 4.5 pounds and has a profile of .95 inches. Only the 13-inch Sony VAIO Z (3 pounds, 1.3 inches) and Toshiba Portege R700 (3.2 pounds, .6 to 1 inches) come close to the 13-inch MacBook Air in terms of portability, though both of those machines include an optical drive.
Apple achieved this weight loss by eschewing the traditional hard drive enclosure and putting the flash memory chips right on the logic board, resulting in a storage design that's 90 percent thinner and lighter. In addition, the lid now employs Apple's unibody design, which results in 80 fewer parts.
The all-aluminum design is certainly beautiful, sturdy, and a cinch to tote. However, frequent fliers (and others who work in tight quarters) might find that the 13-inch Air's height and depth make it a tight fit on an airline tray, especially when the person in front of you reclines. For example, while the Air has a 12.8 x 8.9-inch footprint, the VAIO Z measures 12.4 x 8.3 inches and the Toshiba Portege R700 is 12.4 x 8.9.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Given its fairly large footprint, it's not much of a surprise that the 13-inch Air features a full-size keyboard. Although the keys don't offer a ton of travel, we found the chiclet-style layout to be comfortable and typed this review quickly. We also continue to appreciate the dedicated keys for adjusting volume, brightness, and activating Expose and Dashboard. Just keep in mind that you'll have to give up the MacBook Pro's backlit keyboard to have a notebook this portable.
At 4.3 x 3 inches, the glass touchpad on the 13-inch MacBook Air is absolutely huge, yet it never got in our way when typing. It was highly accurate and offered smooth scrolling with two fingers. Pinch to zoom works better on this laptop than any Windows system. Other welcome multitouch gestures include a four-finger swipe downwards to minimize all apps and swiping sideways with four fingers to switch between open apps.
Ports and SD Card Slot
Unlike the 11-inch MacBook Air, the 13-inch version has enough room on the chassis to accommodate an SD Card slot, which makes it easy to transfer files from a camera or camcorder. The card doesn't insert fully, but at least you don't have to plug in a card reader or schlep an extra USB cable. Otherwise, this machine has all the same ports as the 11-inch model, including two USB ports, headphone, microphone, and a Mini DisplayPort for connecting to external displays. While some would prefer an HDMI connector, there are adapters available.
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Display and Audio
Click to enlargeMost 13-inch notebooks provide a standard resolution of 1366 x 768, but the 13-inch MacBook Air's panel provides 1440 x 900 pixels. This lets you see more of web pages and other documents without having to scroll. Just as important, the Air's LED-backlit display is one of the brightest we've seen in this size, making an episode of Glee on Fox.com pop. Despite its glossy treatment, we weren't bothered by glare while working on a moving bus.
Whether we were cranking The Kooks' "Naive" on Slacker or watching that Glee episode, the stereo speakers underneath the keyboard provided plenty of volume. The notebook was loud enough to fill a medium-size office, though we noticed that some tinniness at the max setting.
Once you download the new FaceTime beta application for Mac on the 13-inch MacBook Air, you can make FaceTime calls with other iOS devices. We used an iPhone 4, but FaceTime is also compatible with the iPod touch. The video on our screen looked a bit grainy, but the video coming from the iPhone 4 had good color saturation and detail. We just wish it were easier to add contacts, and that the software walked you through this process. The setup process itself was fairly straightforward, though; all you have to do is enter your Apple ID and password to get started.
Click to enlargeThe 13-inch MacBook Air doesn't have as much muscle as the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but it definitely has more pep than the 11-inch Air. Our configuration came with a 1.86-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics, and 128GB of flash memory. Both the 11-inch Air and 13-inch Pro share the same graphics, but the Air packs a slower 1.4-GHz CPU while the Pro pairs a faster 2.4-GHz CPU with 4GB of RAM.
In the Geekbench benchmark, which measures processor and memory performance, the 13-inch MacBook Air notched 2,976. That's considerably better than the 11-inch Air's 2,159, but 710 points behind the 13-inch MacBook Pro (3,686).
In other ways, though, the 13-inch Air feels more responsive than the 13-inch Pro. Because the Air uses flash memory and not a mechanical hard drive, it wakes from sleep instantly and cold boots in under 15 seconds, compared with 3 and 37 seconds, respectively for the Pro. How fast is this flash? The 13-inch Air turned in a rate of 78.3 MBps in our transfer test, way above the average of 26.5 MBps but behind the dual-SSD packing VAIO Z (108 MBps).
For a final performance test, we transcoded an 720p MPEG-4 video clip of a little less than 6 minutes in length for playback on the iPhone using Handbrake. It took the 13-inch Air 5:08 to accomplish this task, versus 3:58 for the 13-inch MacBook Pro and 6:45 for the 11-inch Air. We also tried this test on a Windows ultraportable, the Core i7-powered Acer Timeline 1810t; that machine took 4:06.
Graphics and Gaming
On Cinebench, which tested both the Core 2 Duo processor and Nvidia 320M graphics card under real-world conditions, the 13-inch Air scored 13.03 in the OpenGL portion and 1.06 in the CPU test. The 13-inch MacBook Pro actually turned in a lower OpenGL score (11.3) but a higher CPU score (1.31), while the 11-inch Air predictably turned in lower scores for both tests (10.85, .78).
Can you game on the 13-inch MacBook Air? Actually, yes. When we fired up World of Warcraft, we saw an average frame rate of 53 fps at the native resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels. When we upped the graphics to Ultra, that dropped to 17 fps. By comparison, both the 11-inch Air and the Asus U33Jc notched 30 fps at 1366 x 768 on medium settings. So you can get away with some gaming on the side as long as you keep the settings at medium.
Battery Life and Wireless
Click to enlargeApple rates the 13-inch MacBook Air for 7 hours of battery life, and this notebook nearly lived up to that claim. Using our LAPTOP Battery Test, which measures endurance by surfing the web continuously on 40 percent brightness, we saw an excellent runtime of 6 hours and 36 minutes.
That showing is worlds better than the last-generation 13-inch Air (a measly 2:08) and also beats the 3.2-pound Toshiba Portege R700 (6:01), the 3-pound Sony VAIO Z (5:04), and 3.8-pound Toshiba Satellite T235 (6:11). The 13-inch MacBook Pro lasted 7:48, but it's also much heavier.
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 13-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.
Software and Warranty
Click to enlargeApple 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 less than 90 days, Apple will roll out a new Mac App Store for downloading all sorts of apps and games, making the MacBook Air more like iPad and iPhone.
Apple backs the 13-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.
Click to enlargeThe starting $1,299 configuration of the 13-inch MacBook Air includes a 1.8-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, and 128GB of flash storage. You also get an Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics card. The higher-end $1,599 configuration comes with 256GB of flash storage. Although we wish Apple included 4GB of RAM at the baseline price, you can equip the Air with that amount of memory for $100. Other options include a $79 SuperDrive for playing and burning CDs and DVDs and a $29 Ethernet adapter.
Apple has made the MacBook Air line relevant again with its new 11-inch and 13-inch models. And between those two systems, we think the 13-inch model is a better buy. Although it costs $300 more, this $1,299 ultraportable is faster, includes an SD Card slot, packs in more flash storage, has a higher resolution display, and lasts 1.5 hours longer on a charge. For us, that's the difference between an excellent and a superior ultraportable. We'd also rather carry this notebook than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, despite the Air's somewhat slower performance.
If you're comparing Windows and Mac laptops, the Toshiba Portege R705 ($799) is a compelling choice. It's almost as thin and light as the 13-inch Air and sports a faster Core i5 CPU and a DVD drive. The Core i5 version we reviewed costs $1,299, the same as this MacBook. However, that notebook doesn't offer Nvidia graphics, has a lower-res screen, and doesn't have the best ergonomics. The Editors' Choice-winning Sony VAIO Z is even better, thanks to its 1600 x 900 display, dual SSDs, backlit keyboard, and Core i5 CPU, but that ultraportable starts at $1,799.
Overall, the 13-inch MacBook Air represents a remarkable achievement. It's light enough to take anywhere yet delivers an unbeatable combination of comfort, responsiveness, and endurance for a system in this size and price range.