- Review Date: 08/22/2012
- Bottom line: The ultrabooks are catching up to the pioneer Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (Mid-2012) in terms of portability and capabilities, but the latest iteration is a nice system for those who want a second or third Mac around the house. However, for the price, competition is fierce.
- Pros: Thin, Light. Third Generation Intel Core processor. Bright screen. Nice multi-touch trackpad. Backlit keyboard. USB 3.0 ports. Thunderbolt port. Dual-band Wi-Fi.
- Cons: Ultrabooks are catching up on weight and performance. Middling battery life. Chassis precludes full sized HDMI or Ethernet ports. New MagSafe 2 port needs adapter for old MagSafe adapters and monitors. No SD card slot. Small amount of flash storage.
If you don't need quad-core processing power, but still need a stable, comfortable keyboard to do your writing, the Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (mid 2012) ($999 list) might be the chariot you're looking for. It's the MacBook for those who already have a larger MacBook Pro, iMac, or Mac Pro at home, but need something more portable. Its full keyboard makes it a better writing tool than simply carrying around an iPad or other tablet. Plus, it fits perfectly on an airplane tray table. However, competition from ultrabooks and other ultraportables has narrowed the lead the MacBook Air once enjoyed. It's still a nice machine to be sure, and it's improved over previous models, but now there are alternatives.
Design and Features
The 11-inch MacBook Air's chassis hasn't changed too much from the previous iteration. It still measures 0.68 by 11.8 by 7.56 inches (HWD) and it still tapers down to a 0.11-inch wedge point. It has the same updated, chiclet-style, backlit keyboard as the MacBook Air 11-inch (Thunderbolt), as well as the same glass touchpad with multitouch functions. The trackpad supports one-, two-, three-, and four-finger gestures, and while it can take a while to get used to using four fingers to bring up stuff like the iPad-like Launchpad, but it's easy to get used to. For example, two fingers swiping from the right edge of the trackpad brings up the Notification Center, a new feature of OS X Mountain Lion. The keys are comfortable to type on, though they understandably have a shorter key travel than you may be used to with a full-sized laptop. The key travel is not as short as on uncomfortable Vizio laptops like the Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15-A1), but the keys may feel stiff if you're used to a desktop keyboard. The palm rest, like the rest of the unibody construction, is made from machined aluminum. The system weighs a feather-light 2.36 pounds alone, and 2.79 pounds with its AC adapter.
The system's screen measures 11.3-inches diagonally, with a 1,366-by-768 resolution and a 16:9 aspect ratio. While 1,366-by-768 is starting to feel cramped on larger 13- and 14-inch ultrabooks and laptops, the screen resolution is fine for the 11-inch form factor. Text and images look crisp without any pixilation. Still, 11-inch laptops are still an odd size, with most ultrabooks centering on the 13-inch form factor, like the 13-inch Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A-R5102F with its 1,920-by-1,080 resolution display. You'll find other outliers like our business ultraportable Editors' Choice, the 12.5-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X230. The X230 has the more common 1,366-by-768 display.
The top of the screen houses a 720p FaceTime camera, which can be used to video conference with other Macs and iOS devices like iPhones and iPads. The left-hand side of the system has Apple's new MagSafe 2 port, which uses a slimmer connector than the older MagSafe AC adapters that came with previous MacBook laptops. It's not an inconvenience if this is your first MacBook, but you'll find it to be a pain if you have older MagSafe AC adapters lying around your house or office. Apple has a $9.99 MagSafe to MagSafe 2 converter in its stores that you can use with older AC adapters or Apple displays. Apple displays like the 24-inch Cinema display and the 27-inch Thunderbolt display have built-in leads for MagSafe charging.
The MacBook Air comes with a single Thunderbolt (10Gbps) port on the right, which can drive a Mini DisplayPort monitor without an adapter. You'll need separate adapters for HDMI, VGA, or DVI output, none of which are included. There are two USB 3.0 ports, one on each side, which are themselves ten times faster (5Gbps) than the old MacBooks' USB 2.0 ports (480Mbps). Last but not least is a headset jack that works with the one that came with your iPhone. Notably absent is a SD card reader, because there doesn't seem to be room for it, (the previous 11-inch MBA didn't have one either). Like all new Macs, the MacBook Air comes with iLife apps (iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand, etc.) and iTunes for music and videos. Speaking of videos, 720p videos display fine on the system's widescreen, and even 1080p HD videos look OK (downscaled to fit the display). We didn't see any stuttering or missed frames while viewing 1080p trailers like the ones for Wreck It Ralph and Star Trek.
The MacBook Air comes with 64GB of Flash Storage, which isn't a lot. If your top-of-the-line (64GB) iPhone 4S or iPad is full, you won't be able to sync it with this MacBook (you'll run out of space). Therefore, the MacBook Air 11-inch is best thought of as an adjunct to a more powerful MacBook Air or iMac at home or in the office. It's got enough space to load Photoshop, Office, and a couple of other programs, but it's not large enough to keep your entire iTunes music and video libraries, unless you leverage iTunes Match heavily by keeping all those files in the cloud. Speaking of iCloud, you can use the MacBook Air to remotely access your Mac at home over Wi-Fi, a 4G USB Modem, or some external mobile hotspot. It worked great at this task. The system comes with dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi built in.
The MacBook Air isn't really a power machine, but it gets the job done. It is able to complete our Photoshop test in 5 minutes 16 seconds and the Handbrake video test in 2:55. Both tests were done in OS X. The previous MacBook Air (Thunderbolt) with the same clock speed, but an older second generation Intel Core i5 processor was slower at 5:36 for Photoshop, and 2:27 for Handbrake. The MacBook Air was able to complete the video rundown test with a battery life of 4 hours, 14 minutes, which is a lot less than its sibling, the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2012) which lasted almost 7 hours (6:56). We ran MobileMark 2007 under Windows 7 in Boot Camp, and got 5:19, which lags both the Asus ZenBook Prime UX31A (6:21) and the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 (7:45). The MacBook Air got a decent 4,246 point score on PCMark7 (again under Windows 7 Boot Camp), on par with the Zenbook Prime (4,315 points). That score isn't surprising, as the Zenbook Prime and MacBook Air both have speedy flash-based storage and ultra low voltage Intel Core i5-3317u processors under the hood. The takeaway is that the MacBook Air will feel fast doing day to day tasks, but don't expect all day battery life nor should you expect the 11-inch MacBook Air to be the photographer's best friend. It's really best suited for on the road writing and college student use.
The MacBook Air 11-inch (Mid 2012) is a great laptop for writers. It's light at less than 2.5 pounds, and even if you cart along the AC adapter, you're still carrying less than 3 pounds. It's speedy enough for day to day use, and its keyboard is more comfortable to use than the virtual keyboard on a tablet. Unfortunately, ultrabooks like the Asus Zenbook Prime have caught up in features: the UX31A is imperceptibly heavier, yet has a larger 1080p screen and much more storage space on its SSD. Full blown business ultraportables like the Editors' Choice Lenovo ThinkPad X230 are better still at most tasks, including battery life and storage. The 11-inch MacBook Pro is best as a secondary laptop for when you need more than a tablet.
More laptop reviews:
• Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (Mid 2012)
• Samsung 17-inch Series 7 Chronos (NP700Z7C-S01US)
• Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15-A1)
• Toshiba Satellite U845-S406
• Toshiba Satellite U845W-S410
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.