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Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt)

  • Category: Notebook Computers
  • Review Date: 07/21/11
  • Bottom line:

    The Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) is a formidable player in the ultraportable space, thanks to a Core i5 processor, backlit keyboard, and Thunderbolt port.

  • Pros:

    Core i5 processor and 4GB of memory provide a big performance lift. Backlit keyboard is back. Stunning design. Screen resolution is superb. Great clickpad implementation. Quick wake-from-sleep times. Thunderbolt port.

  • Cons:

    Pricey. Battery life could have been longer.

Editor Rating:

4.00

By Cisco Cheng

When the Apple MacBook Air debuted, its incredibly thin profile made it stand out in a sea of ultraportables. Since then, it has been surpassed by Windows systems with more features and faster performance. All that's changing with the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) ($1,299 direct). In the latest iteration of the MacBook Air, Apple flushed out the dated Core 2 Duo CPU in favor of an Intel Core i5 processor (albeit a low-voltage model), brought back the backlit keyboard, and added a Thunderbolt bolt port. And to sweeten the pot, it comes with the recently introduced Mac OS X Lion. With these updates, the Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) is poised to make a big run in the ultraportable space.

Design
The changes to the design of the Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) are subtle. If you see a lightning bolt icon next to what was formerly the mini-DisplayPort, it means you have a 2011 MacBook Air. There are also new labels for the F3 and F4 keys that reflect the new features that Mac OS X Lion brings. The the F5 and F6 keys are now designated to control the brightness of the illuminated keyboard. Although the backlights under the keyboard were a whopper of an addition, the key layout is unchanged. Aside from all that, the Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) looks just like its predecessor.

The Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) retains its ultrathin profile, measuring 0.68 inches in the back and tapering to 0.11 inches at the front bezel. There are other ultraportables that are almost as thin, like the Samsung Series 9 ($1,650 list, 4 stars), Sony VAIO VPC-Z214GX, and Asus UX21, but they don't taper like the MacBook Air.

The weight stays the same at 2.9 pounds. It isn't the lightest system on the market; that distinction belongs to the Sony Z214GX (2.5 pounds). The quality of its build is what continues to tie the whole design together—the Unibody aluminum enclosure remains the sturdiest and most luxurious of its kind.

The 13.3-inch widescreen actually trumps that of Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Thunderbolt), as well as many of its peers. Its brilliance and sharpness are surpassed only by the number of pixels it packs in. As you can imagine, the more pixels you pack into a screen, the more stunning photos, videos, and high-definition movies look. Its 1,440-by-900 resolution is higher than that of the Samsung Series 9, MacBook Pro 13-inch, and Toshiba Portege R835-P50X ($850 list, 4 stars). Only the Sony Z214GX has a better-looking screen, thanks to its 1,600-by-900 resolution.

Many bemoaned Apple's move to strip the keyboard backlight from the second-generation MacBook Air models. The MacBook Pros have had it since day one, and it's a feature that has made the Samsung Series 9 and Sony Z214GX very appealing from a typing standpoint. With this release, Apple gives back what it took away, and the typing experience, especially in low-lit environments, is much improved. The flat-top black keys aren't my favorite, as they lack the depth and responsiveness of those of the Toshiba R835-P50X. But that's me being picky. This same keyboard is found across the entire Apple laptop line, and very few have complained about it. The glass touchpad is not only enormous for a laptop, but it also clicks and supports numerous multi-finger gestures. It plays an even bigger role now that Mac OS X Lion incorporates iPad-centric features that bring a whole new meaning to swiping and scrolling.

Features
The second USB port and an SD slot were major feature upgrades in the previous MacBook Air, even though they're common features on every other laptop. Thunderbolt, on the other hand, is exclusive to Apple, at least for now. It's based on an Intel data transfer technology called Light Peak, which lives inside the mini-DisplayPort (The shape and physical attributes of the port haven't changed, and it can still connect to external monitors). When it's connected to a Thunderbolt-ready peripheral, transfer rates can hit 10Gbps. That's roughly 21 times the speed of USB 2.0 and FireWire 400, 12 times that of FireWire 800, and twice that of USB 3.0. What's neat about the Thunderbolt port is that it can expand into any connector technology, since data is moved through the universal pathway of PCI-Express. This means that any third-party peripheral manufacturer can create a Thunderbolt hub that works with Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0, DisplayPort, etc. Unfortunately, Thunderbolt peripherals are few and far between. As of this writing, there are currently two of them: the Promise Pegasus R6 hard drive and the Apple Thunderbolt Display.

As for the rest of the ports, the Air has the bare minimum. The aforementioned two USB ports and SD slot, as well as an audio jack should cover many of the devices that are used in a typical day. There's no Ethernet port, but many will tell you that a Wi-Fi connection is all you need. If your Internet connectivity requirements are more sophisticated than those of the average person, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 ($1,399 direct, 3.5 stars) and Samsung Series 9 have Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and Bluetooth.

Though pricey, flash storage (or solid-state drives) is used for a number of reasons. One is its physical size: A flash storage module is about the size of a chewing gum stick, a huge factor in keeping the MacBook Air is as thin as it is. It's also fast, particularly when the laptop wakes from sleep or cold boots. Apple calls it "instant-on," and I couldn't agree more. However, the 128GB capacity (upgradeable to 256GB) will seem meager when compared with the cavernous spinning drives found in the Toshiba R835-P50X (640GB) and Acer Aspire AS3830TG-6431 ($750 street, 4 stars) (500GB).

Performance
Truth be told, a three-year-old processor is all you need to run an operating system like OS X, which is exactly what the previous Air 13-inch had in the 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L9400. But when you look across the field, every other laptop vying against the MacBook Air is using some Intel Core variant. Though it's a couple of months late, the Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) finally gets a 1.7GHz Core i5-2557 processor, along with all the Sandy Bridge technology that goes with it. Upping the standard memory configuration from 2GB to 4GB was also pivotal during speed related tasks. Its Cinebench 11.5 score (2.17), for instance, was almost twice as fast as that of its predecessor (1.1), and faster than the Samsung Series 9 (1.36) (the MacBook Air has a higher-clocked Core i5 processor). It's still a low-voltage processor, though, so it trailed against standard-voltage CPU-equipped laptops like the Sony Z214GX, Acer AS3830TG-6431, and Lenovo X1, particularly in Handbrake (2:09) and Photoshop CS5 (4:55) tests. Still, the Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) is perfectly adept at running any video and photo editing software package, compiling a huge database, or watching a 1080p video clip.

Graphics power is another reason why Apple waited this long to update its components. Thanks to Sandy Bridge technology, the processor's integrated graphics chipset is now comparable to, though not necessarily better than, the integrated Nvidia graphics found in the previous MacBook Air. With the new integrated graphics, the MacBook Air 13-inch can take on moderately-intensive 3D games (at medium settings) and run a 30-inch external monitor without skipping frames or crashing to a halt. In our 3D tests, its 3DMark 06 score (4,781) was in line with that of the Toshiba R835-P50X (4,550) and Lenovo X1 (4,051). If you're an avid gamer (which is unlikely if you're considering a MacBook Air), you'd be much happier with the Acer Aspire AS3830TG-6431, which uses a more powerful Nvidia 3D chip.

The size of the battery remains at 50WH, which isn't huge compared with the Toshiba R835-P50X (66WH), Acer AS3830TG-6431 (68WH), and Sony Z214GX (45WH). Although battery life isn't a cause of concern, it's worth noting that the competition have removable batteries (the Air's is sealed in), optional additional batteries that snap on to the standard ones, and high-capacity battery that are delivering unprecedented battery life scores. Its score of 5 hours 46 minutes in MobileMark 2007 (a Windows-based battery test) is respectable, but the Toshiba R835-P50X (9:36) and Acer AS6830TG-6431 (8:18) lasted a lot longer. With its additional battery slice, the Sony Z214GX pumped out over 15 hours of battery life. Granted, performing a battery test in Windows (via BootCamp) is only one side of the equation. There are battery optimizations in OS X, so we are in the process of running down an MP4 video file in Mac OS Lion (stay tuned). Apple, meanwhile, claims up to 7 hours of battery life running its Web surfing tests, a figure that still falls short of its Windows-equipped counterparts.

Conclusion
With the MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt), Apple did what it had to do to recapture some of the momentum it lost when the MacBook Pros and its Windows counterparts migrated over to the latest Intel components. Putting in the Core i5 processor, upping the standard memory configuration to 4GB, and having a new graphics subsystem translate into a significant performance improvement over the previous Air 13-inch. That and adding a Thunderbolt port, bringing back the backlit keyboard, and the timely release of Mac OS X Lion will surely make it a formidable player in the ultraportable space. But if its looks haven't seduced you yet, your money will go a lot further with the Toshiba Portege R835-P50X and Acer Aspire AS3830TG-6431.

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This review is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.
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