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Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch (Mid-2011) Review

DT Editor's Choice

Highs

  • Excellent backlit keyboard
  • Glass touchpad is still great
  • Beautiful high-resolution display
  • Surprisingly enjoyable audio
  • Second-gen Core i5 packs a punch
  • Absurdly thin and light

Rating

Our Score 9
User Score 9

Lows

  • Average battery life
  • Port selection remains limited
  • Can become too warm for lap use
  • Gaming performance takes a step back
The Air nails down the fundamentals. The keyboard is superb (and now backlit), the touchpad is excellent as always, the display offers a wealth of pixels, and performance is on par with much larger laptops.

Geeks the world over swooned when Apple released the re-designed MacBook Air in the latter half of 2010. Now forged from solid aluminum and offering high-resolution displays (as well as a brand new 11.6-inch model), the update transformed the company’s thinnest laptop from a niche product into an option with appeal to many consumers.

macbook-air-13-3-lid-open-sideNot all was perfect, however. Performance was commonly criticized, as the new models were equipped with merely adequate Core 2 Duo processors. Apple hasn’t been deaf to those concerns, and has now released an update that offers the latest Intel Core hardware. Other new features of note include a Thunderbolt port in place of Mini DisplayPort, a backlit keyboard, and the latest version of OS X Lion.

These changes are joined by 4GB of RAM and 128GB of solid state storage in the base 13.3-inch model, which starts at $1,299. The 11.6-inch model received the same updates as this 13.3-inch model and is now available with up to 256GB of storage, although we are not reviewing it today.

While the chassis remains the same, these changes are significant. How do they improve this already excellent laptop? And do the fundamentals remain competitive?

Slim but durable

Aesthetically, the Air is perfect. The thickest portion of the laptop is the rear, and the chassis tapers from there to an extraordinarily thin front which curves into a flat edge. No angle is unattractive, not even the bottom, which is nearly as smooth as the lid.

Aluminum is everywhere. Use of this metal has defined Apple’s products for years now, and some PC manufacturers have begun to use the material in their own laptops. Yet the Air remains a cut above, not only because the entire body is made of aluminum but also because of the finish and build quality.

The seamless uni-body chassis eliminates most gaps in the chassis. The only visible seam is found on the laptop’s underbelly, where the removable bottom panel mates with the upper half. Despite its thin profile, this laptop feels more solid than many laptops twice as thick.

A new backlit keyboard

One feature new to the refreshed Air is a backlit keyboard. Typing in dark environments is now a cinch, and there’s a wide range between the dimmest and brightest settings. That’s helpful, as a backlit keyboard can be an annoyance in a pitch-black room if only a few levels of brightness are available.

macbook-air-13-3-backlit-keyboardWhile the keyboard’s excellent layout remains nearly identical to the previous model, there are a few changes. The F5 and F6 keys now control the keyboard’s backlight, while the F3 and F4 keys are now dedicated to OS X Lion’s Mission Control and Launchpad, respectively. Key feel also seems to have changed slightly in comparison to the outgoing model. Each stroke is firmer, and the keys themselves are attached more tightly. These small changes further improve the quality of an already pleasant typing experience.

Subtle changes have been made to the touchpad, as well. It’s still a large, glass-coated surface, and users still press down on the touchpad itself rather than a dedicated button to replicate a mouse click, but the spring mechanism is lighter than before. Previous models were firm to the point of annoyance, so this is a welcome change.

Superiority on display

Apple is the only laptop manufacturer that has consistently demonstrated a belief that the display on a laptop is important. All variants of the 13.3-inch MacBook Air feature a display resolution of 1440 x 900, while most competitors make due with 1366 x 768. Only Sony offers a higher resolution on a 13.3-inch laptop.

Unlike the MacBook Pro, the Air doesn’t feature edge-to-edge glass trim. This may be a blessing in disguise, however, because the lack of glass reduces reflections. No one will mistake the display as matte or semi-gloss, but it is more forgiving than most.

macbook-air-13-3-display

Display quality is a series of trade-offs. Contrast appears excellent, and horizontal viewing angles were impressive. Brightness is another strong point, as the backlight can overwhelm most glare.

On the other hand, black-level performance was average, and gradient test images revealed significant banding in their darkest quarter. These disadvantages were evident in several movie trailers. Dark scenes were washed out, and details that should be visible were obscured.

Usable audio is rare among thin laptops, but the Air surprises despite the lack of visible speakers. Instead, audio seems to slip right out of the keyboard. This voodoo provides a reasonable amount of bass with minimal distortion. Volume is far from ear-shattering, however, which means the speakers could be drowned out in a loud environment.

Few ports, served warm

Thin as this laptop may be, it’s cooling solution is virtually identical to the Pro line. Air is exhausted through a vent that’s found beneath the display hinge and taken in through the keyboard itself. Somewhere inside a tiny system fan does lurk, but it’s quiet even under load.

Allowing it to be louder may have been wise, because the laptop’s bottom is warm even when restricted to simple tasks, making it uncomfortable for lap use. Charging the battery makes the issue worse. Users sitting at a desk may not notice these issues, however, as the keyboard warms only slightly.

macbook-air-13-3-ports-thunderboltPorts are not something are found in plenty. Along the left, there’s a combined headphone-mic jack and a USB port, and the right is adorned with another USB port, a SD Card reader, and Apple’s new Thunderbolt port.

Thunderbolt could theoretically solve the Air’s connectivity issues because it’s possible to daisy chain multiple devices, but the number of peripherals that support Thunderbolt is currently limited. For now, the connectivity of the Air is significantly behind most competitors..

Trading size for endurance

As the name implies, the Air exists to be thin and light, and the latest model doesn’t disappoint. Reciting the hardware statistics is easy enough – the 13.3” model is no thicker than .68 inches, as thin as .11 inches, and weighs less than three pounds.

Understanding the impact of these statistics is difficult before picking the Air up yourself. Handling the laptop is easy because there’s little mass to move around, and the laptop seems to weigh nothing when stuck in a messenger bag or backpack.

macbook-air-13-3-display-angleOfficial estimates place battery life at seven hours. During our testing, however, we recorded four hours and forty-two minutes of HD YouTube playback. Restricting use to document editing with Google Docs extended life to about five and a half hours. Both of these results are solid, but far from class-leading. Cupertino’s engineers crammed in all the battery they could, but they’re limited by the slim chassis.

Lion comes roaring

OS X Lion, the recently released update to Apple’s long-running operating system, is now standard. There are a host of minor changes that users will immediately notice, such as new multi-touch gesture support. Two-finger scrolling has been turned upside down, bringing it in line with how touch scrolling works on iOS devices.

Interface refinements are immediately apparent. Minor visual changes, such as the squaring of menu buttons which were previously rounded and the removable of color in favor of a monochrome theme, create a more mature feel. One particularly nice change is the new scroll bar, which is smaller than before and can disappear completely when the user isn’t actively scrolling, freeing up space.

Far too many changes have been made in Lion to cover all of them here, yet this is indisputably OS X, and anyone who’s used a Mac in the past should become acquainted with Lion quickly.

As with OS X Snow Leopard, Lion comes with iMovie, iPhoto and Garage Band pre-installed. All three of these programs are excellent, though iMovie and Garage Band target specific users and may not be needed by everyone.

Performance

Our MacBook Air 13.3” review unit had the basic configuration, anchored by a 1.7GHz Intel Core-i5 2557M processor. This is part of Intel’s latest second-generation Core product line, which means this laptop has skipped forward two generations from the Core 2 Duo processors found in the previous model.

macbook-air-13-3-display-angleApple claims this provides performance up to 2.5 times quicker than before. While we did not have an older version for a side-by-side comparison, it’s true that this new laptop feels snappy. There is no longer an easily noticeable performance gap between the Air and the Pro.

Benchmarking backed this up. Peacekeeper, a browser benchmark that can be used on any operating system, returned a score of 6961 using Safari 5.1. Most Windows laptops with a Core i5 processor will return a similar score. The solid-state drive also provides impressive performance, offering write speeds of 183.5 MB/s and read speeds of 207.9 MB/s. Quicker drives do exist, but these scores are much better most laptop drives.

One aspect of performance that’s taken a step back is gaming. Intel’s second-gen Core processors include a graphics solution integrated into the processor itself, giving Apple a reason to say goodbye to the Nvidia GPU found in the previous model, which was already far from a powerhouse. Gaming is possible, but users will have to lower their expectations, as most titles won’t run well if their detail settings are not kept low and the game’s resolution is not reduced.

Conclusion

When Apple released the re-designed Air in 2010, we gave it a score of 8.5 out of 10 and an editor’s choice award. At the time, we were impressed by the performance of the Air, considering its absurdly thin size.

Now the qualifier to that statement can be removed. The second-gen Intel Core i5 in the new model provides performance that is almost indistinguishable from a larger laptop. The gap becomes apparent only after benchmarking, and even then it’s smaller than expected.

Some problems do remain. Port selection is still lackluster, which will surely frustrate some users. Battery life is only average, even when compared to Windows ultraportables, never mind the MacBook Pro. Finally, graphics performance has taken a step back, which makes casual gaming just a tad more frustrating than before.

Disadvantages such as these are minor, however. The Air nails down the fundamentals. The keyboard is superb (and now backlit), the touchpad is excellent as always, the display offers a wealth of pixels, and performance is on par with much larger laptops. Once considered a niche product, the Air is now among the best laptops money can buy, and well worth its intimidating $1299 price.

Highs:

  • Excellent backlit keyboard
  • Glass touchpad is still great
  • Beautiful high-resolution display
  • Surprisingly enjoyable audio
  • Second-gen Core i5 packs a punch
  • Absurdly thin and light

Lows:

  • Average battery life
  • Port selection remains limited
  • Can become too warm for lap use
  • Gaming performance takes a step back