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Apple MacBook Air (11.6-inch) Review

DT Editor's Choice

Highs

  • Class-leading boot and resume times
  • Full-size keyboard, enormous trackpad
  • Surprising power for productivity and gaming
  • Gorgeous, high resolution 11.6-inch display
  • Unmatched aluminum unibody build quality
  • Respectable volume for its size

Rating

Our Score 8.5
User Score 10

Lows

  • Shallow, mushy keyboard
  • Limited port selection
  • Display doesn’t lean back past 45 degrees
  • No removable battery, RAM, HDD
The smallest notebook Apple has ever built, the 11.6-inch MacBook Air might also be one of its finest.

A new version of the MacBook Air has arrived. Check out our 2012 Apple MacBoook Air 11.6-inch review.

Anyone who recalls Steve Jobs railing against netbooks at the launch of the iPad might have been puzzled when the same guy revealed the latest addition to the MacBook Air line in October. With an 11.6-inch screen, barebones processor, no optical drive and all solid state storage, it wouldn’t seem like a stretch to throw it in with a handful of similar models from Asus, Acer and Dell.

But make no mistake: Even after you scratch away all the Apple hype, this is something different entirely.

With a cocktail of black magic and overworked engineers, Apple has imbued this even smaller MacBook Air with a Core 2 Duo processor, full-size keyboard, and high-resolution display, to name just a few of its decidedly unnetbookly features. While it also cans the central appeal of a netbook with a price of at least $999, fans of miniature laptops who have lusted after the tiny form factor but grimaced at design and features may find their dream notebook in the latest — and smallest ever – MacBook Air.

Making small smaller

After defying physics and budgetary constraints alike to arrive at the last generation MacBook Air, Apple engineers had a real challenge on their hands to make it both slimmer and cheaper this time around. And they did it.

The MacBook Air measures only 0.11 inches thick in the front at its thinnest point and 0.68 at its thickest, while the original MacBook Air hit 0.16 and 0.76. Weight also drops, on the 11.6-inch version, to 2.3 pounds, down from 3.0 pounds. Part of the savings obviously come from the smaller screen, but the new 13.3-inch MacBook Air shares the same front-and-back thickness, and weighs only 2.9 pounds.

Running on Air

As a side effect to Apple’s liberal use of the shrink ray, the MacBook Air loses any semblance of user serviceability. Like all MacBooks, the lithium-polymer battery has been sealed inside, so you’ll need to send it back to Apple when it dies after around 1,000 charge cycles. Like the previous MacBook Air, you can’t upgrade the RAM (Apple offers either 2GB or 4GB from the factory). And new for this year, the memory chips that form the solid-state hard drive (either 64GB or 128GB) have been soldered directly to the motherboard, eliminating any possibility of a midlife upgrade. The advantages show up everywhere in the razor-thin profile, but the way your MacBook Air is born is the way it will die.

Performance enthusiasts who were disappointed that Apple didn’t step forward to the latest Core i3 chips with the new MacBook Air will be even more vexed to find the Core 2 Duo inside clocked all the way down to just 1.4GHz in the base model, or 1.6GHz in the upgraded model. However, an Nvidia 320M graphics processor does help boost the Air further out of netbook territory — and above just about everything in this size class, for that matter.

Aluminum and glass

A few extra fractions of an inch here and there really won’t help you fit an extra pair of socks in your carry on or make any substantial difference in portability, but they do help the new MacBook Air look like it deserves its price tag. Even now that the world is done marveling over how skinny the original Air was, you will get comments from this notebook.

Apple has retooled the familiar “clamshell” design of the MacBook into a wedge like the head of an axe, giving it a gently forward-slanting stature, and dimensions that appear — at the front edge — almost impossible for a working computer.

Like the MacBook Pros, the Air gets all its compact inner working tucked into an all-aluminum unibody chassis, which lends it a rigid feel we’ve yet to see any other brand of notebook match, despite its exceptionally slim dimensions. The only yield we could find with methodical poking and prodding came from the lid, which buckles down almost imperceptibly under considerable force, and a black strip of plastic along the lid hinge, which flexes a bit in the unusual event you grab it there. The rest might as well be milled from granite.

Apple isn’t immune to the occasional practical oversight at the expense of style, though. The aluminum chassis is chilly on the wrists at times — especially after making a trip outside in a trunk or backpack — and the hard edges don’t feel particularly ergonomic when you brush against them. A cutaway in the base is supposed to make it easier to get a thumb on the lid for one-handed opening, but without enough weight in the base to hold it down as you lift up, we found ourselves prying for grip on the bottom with fingernails sometimes to keep it in place.

Connectivity

After taking a hailstorm of criticism for the lone USB port and awkward flip-down port door on its first MacBook Air, Apple has wisened up in subsequent versions, but the machine remains an exercise in minimalism. You’ll get two USB ports this time — one on each side — in addition to a combined headphone-microphone jack and MagSafe power jack on the left, and mini DisplayPort jack on the right. That’s it.

No SD card reader (the 13-inch model has one), no FireWire, no expansion bays, no optical drive. While casual users probably won’t mind, anyone hoping to use the Air as a workhorse of any kind should probably avert their gaze to a fatter machine.

Always at the ready

If your average netbook is like a barnstormer sputtering to life in a field when you press the power button, the Air is something more akin to an F/A-18 Hornet charging off the deck of a super carrier. Pressing the power button catapults it from fully powered off to the desktop in 14 seconds flat, with a browser window open in 18, rivaling even the latest high-end iMac we reviewed.

The new MacBook Air models are also the first Macs to introduce a low-power standby mode distinct from sleep. The computer drops into it after about an hour of regular sleep, writing the contents of the RAM to the SSD and allowing it to essentially hibernate for up to 30 days in an ultra-low-power state. Sound familiar? It’s another one of Apple’s innovation’s supposedly inspired by the iPad, which has the same rated life in standby mode. Oh, and it’s a feature Windows has had for years. Sorry to blow the hype.

The difference? Mostly that the MacBook Air snaps out of it in about three seconds with the boost provided by the SSD, providing an experience pretty near “instant on.” While your PC is still rolling over, groaning for coffee and batting at the alarm clock, the Air is ready to go.

Small as the change may be, it managed to let the Air worm its way into our hearts over time as the go-to machine of choice. Even for those of us who don’t care for OS X, line the Air up with a dozen other notebooks, lids closed, and ask us to pull up a quick e-mail, find directions before bolting out of the house, or look up a fact on Wikipedia to gloat in an argument. We’ll reach for the Air every time.