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?
Click to EnlargeThe MacBook Air is just as beautiful and portable as before. The notebook is still the same size (12.8 x 8.9 x 0.11-0.68 inches) and weight (3 pounds). It's no surprise that Apple patented its wedge design. The all-aluminum chassis, elegant and functional, is now a classic.
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.
Click to EnlargeNo changes here. The MacBook Air's 13.3-inch screen has a resolution of 1440 x 900, which, while not the Retina display some were hoping for, still provides the same wide viewing angles and bright colors as last year. A 1080p YouTube Trailer for "The Avengers" showed excellent contrast, deep, true blacks and fiery red explosions.
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
Click to EnlargeThe backlit keyboard on the MacBook Air hasn't changed since last year, and that's a good thing. It's hard to improve on perfection. The island-style keyboard has just the right amount of spacing, travel and feedback. We've found on other Ultrabooks that keyboard ergonomics occasionally take a backseat to thinness. And, no one has yet to offer a wide a range of backlighting levels as the Air.
Click to EnlargeIn the same vein as the keyboard, the 4.1 x 3-inch glass trackpad is as spacious and accurate as ever. Multitouch gestures, such as the four-finger swipe to reveal Mission Control and pinch-to-zoom, were effortless. Clicking always feels solid, and we never had to deal with poor palm rejection when typing, which plagues some Ultrabooks.
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.
Click to EnlargeIt's nice to see that the MacBook Air now houses two USB 3.0 ports (one on each side) to accommodate high-speed peripherals. The Thunderbolt port on the right is faster, but the universe of compatible devices is still quite small. The left side also houses the MagSafe connector for power as well as the headphone jack. The SD Card Slot on the right still doesn't let you insert cards fully, which is a bit annoying.
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.
Click to EnlargeThe Air's 720p FaceTime camera delivered crisp, clear images with accurate colors. It's a definite step up from the VGA camera in the last Air. However, as with most webcams, it had trouble when there was a bright light source behind us; our face became silhouetted. When we captured our face with the old and new Air side by side, there was a much greater level of detail coming from the FaceTime HD camera.
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.
Click to EnlargeThe 13-inch MacBook Air remains our favorite ultraportable notebook. In addition to best-in-class ergonomics, loud speakers and a svelte profile, you now get faster performance and much longer battery life than the Ultrabook competition for $100 less than before. The only reason we dropped the rating from a perfect 5 stars to 4.5 stars is because some Ultrabooks offer higher-resolution screens and more compact designs. Nevertheless, the MacBook Air is still the one to beat.