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Apple MacBook Air (11.6-inch) Review

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

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.

Image used with permission by copyright holder


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.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

Desktop performance

With a scant 1.4GHz on tap and 2GB of RAM, we didn’t expect the MacBook Air to get out of its own way in a hurry, but surprisingly, the little processor that could pulls off just about everything you could ask of it in everyday computing.

From popping open browser windows in an instant to photo editing and word processing — at the same time — the MacBook Air performs nearly imperceptibly close to its larger siblings in and around OS X. Only loading Flash-heavy websites manages to butt us up against the limits of the humble Core 2 Duo, and even then only momentarily as the page stutter-scrolled before everything loaded.

Apple played coy when we tried to ask if — like the last MacBook Air — this one clocks itself down significantly under most use. But if it does, Apple engineers have done a marvelous job hiding it. Tasks that would trip up your average Atom-powered netbook get a pass from the Air. It plays back 1080p YouTube videos and QuickTime trailers with perfect fluidity, and pumps out, (for its size) surprising volume from the stereo speakers located under the keyboard – enough to catch an episode of South Park over lunch, anyway.

Amazingly enough, the little runt of notebooks plays games, too. Real games. We loaded up Portal, which runs on Valve’s Source engine, and had to do a double-take at our frame rates. With most settings at medium and resolution set to the native 1366 x 768, the Air delivered an easy 40 to 50 fps. Stepping things up by ratcheting settings to high, we still managed playable framerates in the high 30s with an occasional dip down into the 20s.

Yes, you can game on a MacBook Air. Almost makes us wish anyone made games for OS X.


Apple loves resolution. From the iPhone 4’s Retina display to the stamp-sized screen on the latest iPod Nano, the company’s screens are never hurting for sharpness, and 11.6-inch screen on the Air continues this tradition. It sports resolution of 1366 x 768, an unusual amount of pixels for a screen this size (you may recall us raving over the same resolution in the Sony Vaio X, which had an 11.1-inch screen). At maximum brightness, it has the same eye-popping quality we’ve come to expect from MacBooks and viewing angle to match. Unfortunately, like all glossy screens, it suffers from glare under too much fluorescent light or sunlight, and it only leans back about 45 degrees, which can be frustrating in small confines.

Battery Life

Apple brags of a five-hour battery life for the MacBook Air, and true to its promise of offering less exaggerated battery life claims than the PC industry, it seems to deliver. We managed to get an honest four hours out of it while surfing and writing, with brightness cranked all the way up, but more judicious use of the Web and dimmer lighting will yield the full time. While that’s not quite as impressive as the eight-hours-plus you can milk from some of the most battery-laden netbooks, we found it reasonable relative to the performance of the machine.

Keyboard and trackpad

Apple has managed to squeeze a full-size keyboard onto the MacBook Air, but it’s still a MacBook keyboard… which is to say, entirely too soft. We’ve never been too fond of the company’s spongy Chiclet-style keys, but if you can ignore the shallow feeling under your fingers, which seem to ground out about halfway to where they should depress, everything is in the right place. Only the row of F keys, which are roughly a third their normal height and don’t particularly matter to begin with, betray the fact that it’s not on a much larger notebook.

The trackpad on the 11.6-inch MacBook Air shrinks a bit from the full-size model you’ll find on the 13-incher, but it’s still a marvel, and Titantic-sized compared to the trackpads on most comparably sized PCs. We measured it at about 4.8 inches across, diagonally. The textured glass delivers just the right resistance beneath a finger, and it’s particularly adept at detecting multiple fingers, eliminating any jumpiness from laying multiple fingers on the pad. Like all MacBook trackpads, you can click down the pad itself in place of actual buttons, which does lend it a learning curve, but we never looked back.


Repeat after us: This is not a netbook. This is not a netbook. This is not a netbook.

While we tip our hats to that particular class of notebook for sliding prices for compact notebooks south, along with consumer expectations, the MacBook Air makes few of the same concessions in a form factor that no company outside Apple can really contest. For users who prize both mobility and utility, this may be the most livable 11.6-inch notebook we’ve ever had the pleasure of using.

Expensive? Put it in context. Sony’s $1,299 Vaio X is anemic by comparison, and the Dell Adamo XPS comes close to matching specs for $1,999. Stop comparing it to $400 netbooks, and the MacBook Air looks comparatively affordable — or at least reasonable.

If you’re looking for a pint-sized notebook that won’t leave you itching for a full-sized computer the moment you leave the hotel room, empty out your piggy bank and step up to the 11.6-inch MacBook Air.


  • 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


  • Shallow, mushy keyboard
  • Limited port selection
  • Display doesn’t lean back past 45 degrees
  • No removable battery, RAM, HDD

Editors' Recommendations

Nick Mokey
As Digital Trends’ Managing Editor, Nick Mokey oversees an editorial team delivering definitive reviews, enlightening…
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