11.6-in. MacBook Air: Don't call it a netbook

Some might find this mini-laptop too small, but travelers will love it

When you first take the 11.6-in. MacBook Air out of its box, the word "netbook" will almost certainly pop into your head. After all, the diminutive size and weight of Apple's newest ultraslim laptop -- not to mention its modest 1.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor -- are very netbook-like.

But the petite Air is much closer to a fully modern laptop than the small-but-crippled netbooks you see on the Windows side of the aisle -- as it should be, given that netbooks are significantly cheaper. Though it arrives with a few trade-offs compared to other notebooks in Apple's line-up, the Air delivers a true Mac laptop experience.

And it comes with one very noteworthy technological advance: onboard flash storage that's mounted directly to the logic board. More about that in a minute.

I've had a chance now to try out this particular MacBook Air for several days, and while its small screen took some getting used to -- my 17-in. MacBook Pro is a relative behemoth -- I've generally found it to be a delight to use. It's stylish and well built, has a full-size keyboard, is powerful enough for the tasks I've thrown at it and comes in at an attractive price.

In other words, for Apple fans looking to get their hands on the latest and lightest Mac available, the MacBook Air should prove to be quite popular. That's especially true for road warriors concerned about size and weight, and those who might be tempted by the iPad but need more traditional laptop features.

Choices, choices

Apple's Air line is now almost three years old. The first one was unveiled in January 2008. (I owned one of those first-generation models and, later, an Air with a solid-state drive, so I'm familiar with the line.)

Apple now offers four models differentiated mainly by screen size, processing power and storage space. Two come with the 11.6-in. screen, and two have the larger 13.3-in. screen, the same size as before, though with a higher resolution. Prices range from $999 to $1,599, but you can spend a bit more if you upgrade the processor, add more RAM or increase storage.

The model in hand, sent over by Apple for review purposes after the new lineup was unveiled last week, offers 128GB of storage and costs $1,199. (The entry-level version has half that amount of storage, 64GB, which many people will find constraining in this era of digital video and photos.)

If you want more than 128GB, you'll need to get the $1,599 model, since it's the only one that offers 256GB of space. So right off the bat, you'll have to decide how much room you need for all your data and apps. Choose wisely, as the storage can't be upgraded later on.

Design

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the newest Air laptops, he described them as what you'd get if a MacBook Pro and iPad hooked up. I get where he's coming from: In hand, the 11.6-in. Air feels a lot like the iPad, though it's a bit heavier -- the iPad weighs 1.5 lbs., while this Air clocks in at 2.3 lbs. (The 13.3-in. model weighs 2.9 lbs.)

But in use, the Air feels less iPad-like and more like a traditional MacBook Pro. That's partly due to the operating system: The iPad is all multitouch and runs iOS, while the Air uses a traditional keyboard and trackpad, and runs Mac OS X. That distinction might get a bit blurred next year with the release of Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion," which will crib some elements from iOS, according to Apple. Stay tuned.

In revamping the Air, Apple tweaked the design by sharpening some of the rounded edges of the all-aluminum unibody case and making it even thinner than before. At its widest point, where the screen and bottom case meet, the Air is just 0.68 in. thick. And at its slimmest -- the front edge -- it tapers to an almost impossible 0.11 in, just a smidgen more than a tenth of an inch thick!

Travel note: When carrying the Air around, I found that it's safer to hold it at the thicker edge so you're less likely to drop it.

Even though this one is thinner than earlier models, the unibody design process Apple uses to shape the aluminum body makes the Air feel sturdier than before -- in particular, the screen assembly has less flex. As before, the hinge along the back operates smoothly, making it easy to raise the lid with just one finger.

The bezel around the Air's screen is different than in MacBook Pro models. It's wider, and it's aluminum, not black. I like the all-aluminum look; it makes for a more unified design aesthetic. The bezel also holds the redubbed "FaceTime" camera, which in addition to video chats over iChat can now be used for FaceTime chats with iPhone 4 users. (You'll need to download the FaceTime app first, however.)

From the side, the Air has a wedge-shaped profile when the lid is closed, and a much-needed second USB port has been added. Other ports include the headphone/speaker jack and a Mini DisplayPort that can be used to connect an external monitor. Gone is the little drop-down door that held the lone USB port in the last model -- and with it, the nagging worry that the door could break.

Also gone: the glowing LED indicator that lets you know the laptop is sleeping.

Processors and specs

The 11.6-in. models use a 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, the lowest clock-speed chip Apple now offers in a laptop. You can't upgrade the processor in the base version, but you can bump up to a 1.6-GHz chip in the $1,199 model for an extra $100. I seriously doubt you'd notice the small difference in clock speed. Save the bucks.

The 13.3-in. models start off with a 1.86-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, so if you opt for the larger screen, you get a little more speed. And you can upgrade the processor on the $1,599 model to 2.13 GHz if you want. Again, I don't think the difference in those two chips is worth the $100 it'll cost you. The stock processor should be plenty fast enough for most daily chores, and remember: These aren't designed to be speed demons anyway.

All of the Airs come with 2GB of RAM and the Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics chip. The graphics processor uses 256MB of main memory and is the same one used in the Mac Mini and the MacBook. With that in mind, I'd recommend doubling the RAM to 4GB. That's something you couldn't do in the previous model and is a $100 investment well worth making.

While I didn't notice any big hiccups with just 2GB of RAM installed, additional RAM will help Mac OS X run more smoothly if you have numerous apps open and in use. That's especially true if you're running any version of Windows in a virtual environment using Parallels or VMware's Fusion.

Flash storage

The big news is that Apple has done away with the hard drive, opting to use NAND flash memory for storage. That allows Apple to save room inside the laptop and should offer most users a noticeable speed boost over traditional hard drives -- especially if you've been using the first-generation Air, which came with a slow 4,200rpm drive.

NAND flash storage is basically like having a solid-state drive (SSD) installed. Indeed, the previous-generation MacBook Airs offered an SSD option, as do some of the current MacBook Pros. The difference with the new MacBook Air is that the flash storage is mounted right on the logic board rather than having an SSD in a drive slot, leaving room for Apple to squeeze in a larger battery. (IFixit did a teardown on the 11.6-in. model, if you want to see more of what's beneath the keyboard.)

Flash storage is more expensive than traditional hard drives for the same capacity, but prices have been coming down as flash storage has gained popularity. Because there are no moving parts, it's seen as more reliable, especially in a laptop that might get bounced around. And it's faster.

According to Apple, flash storage is twice as fast as a hard drive in accessing data and in overall responsiveness. As someone who's used an SSD in my own laptops over the past couple of years, I can vouch for the speediness of the technology and -- so far -- its reliability. Having fast access to data offsets the lower clock speed of the Core 2 Duo processor, giving the Air a far faster feel than it would have with a regular hard drive. Oh, and boot-up times are super-fast: 13 seconds from start-up chime to desktop.

Jobs, in his announcement last week, noted that this is the direction in which Apple sees laptops going. As prices continue to come down, I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple roll out flash storage in all of its laptops over the next couple of years. At least I hope it does.

Given that the internal storage isn't upgradeable after you buy, make sure you get enough to hold all your apps and files. My advice is to get as much storage as possible. That would mean opting for the $1,199 MacBook Air (which has 128GB of storage) if you're getting the 11.6-in. model, or the $1,599 Air (with 256GB of storage) if you want the larger 13.3-in. version.

It's worth noting, too, that Apple has done away with the traditional DVD discs for installing or reinstalling the Air's operating system and apps. Now you get a small USB drive. Reinstalling the OS is simple: Slip the USB drive into a USB port, restart the computer while holding down the C key, and you're ready to install Mac OS X from the USB drive.

Using a USB drive makes sense, given that the Air doesn't come with an optical drive. (You can buy an external one from Apple, though, for $79.)

Day-to-day use

In daily use, the MacBook Air performed admirably. Its chief asset is its size. It's easy to tote around and, given the construction, feels like it's solid enough to withstand daily travels from home to work or school.

The glossy 1366-x-768-pixel screen is bright and sharp, just as I've come to expect from Apple hardware. High-definition video plays smoothly at full-screen, and it looks clean and well saturated -- a credit to the Nvidia 320M graphics chip. I fired up two Lady Gaga videos -- yes, I'm a fan -- in 720p and both played side-by-side with nary a stutter. I did the same thing with a full-screen, high-definition version of 30 Rock in iTunes, where playback was equally smooth.

(The reported CPU temperature did climb a bit, from about 113 degrees Fahrenheit to around 149 degrees, but the Air never felt hot, and I never heard any internal fans kick in. This is one silent puppy.)

The small screen size and the new, higher-resolution screen combine for a higher pixels-per-inch count, making text and images look exceptionally sharp. (The more pixels per inch, the smoother the image, which is why the iPhone 4's Retina display has won kudos.) In the smaller Air, the screen has 135 pixels per inch; the 13.3 in. model has 128 pixels per inch.

Admittedly, the small screen took a little getting used to. My 17-in. MacBook Pro has a 1920-x-1200-pixel resolution and my work computer is a 27-in. iMac with an even higher resolution. As a result, I found myself using Exposé more often to arrange the various windows on the Air's screen. After a few days, though, I felt more at home on the Air -- and my own laptop suddenly felt gargantuan.

The full-size keyboard looks and feels just like the one in Apple's more traditional MacBook Pro laptops -- no cramped typing required. The black "chiclet" keys with white lettering give good feedback and are easy to hit.

Alas, the keyboard isn't backlit as it was in earlier MacBook Airs. I'm not sure if that change was for cost reasons or to save space, but I'm hoping Apple can add this feature back in the future. It's one of my favorite things about my MacBook Pro, and since I'm not a touch-typist, I need to see the letters. Still, if I were eying a new Air, the lack of backlighting wouldn't be a deal-breaker.

Apple has also upgraded the trackpad, finally bringing to the Air the glass-coated trackpad that's been available in other Apple laptops for two years. Although it's smaller than on the MacBook Pro, it works the same way. The entire trackpad is clickable and multi-touch gestures are fully supported.

When it comes to battery life, Apple estimates that the smaller Air will last for five hours without being plugged in. The 13-in. model, which has room for a larger battery, will last seven hours, according to Apple. I've never been able to hit Apple's estimates for battery life, but this Air did better than I expected in casual use.

I brought it into the office and used it off and on all day without needing to plug it in. That's because whenever I used my work iMac, the Air went to sleep, saving power and extending the battery life.

To see how the Air would fare under continuous use, I turned off energy-saving preferences so it wouldn't sleep, watched a TV show in full-screen mode, then fired up streaming radio via iTunes while I surfed the Web and worked on a document. I managed to get 3 hours and 7 minutes of use (with the screen at full brightness and Wi-Fi in use) before needing to plug it in. The stereo speakers located under the keyboard did a credible job with the classical music I had playing in the background while I worked. When I was just surfing the Web, I got just under three and a half hours. As always, your mileage will vary depending on how you use the laptop. (Turning the screen brightness down will extend battery life.)

I also wanted to see how the 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor would stack up against other chips in other Apple laptops, so I fired up the Xbench benchmarking app. Here's where the speedy flash storage works well with the processor. I ran Xbench three times and came up with an average score of 122. That's 1 point higher than the score I got on a late-2008 MacBook with a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo chip, though not as high as the 133 benchmark I got on the second-generation MacBook Air (which had a faster processor and a full-fledged SSD in it). And it's a far cry from my 2009 MacBook Pro, which has a 3.06-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and returned a score of 176.

In other words, the processor in the Air isn't a barnburner compared to other Intel processors on the market, but it doesn't have to be. If you want more processor speed, the MacBook Pro line offers Core i-series chips that are more suited to processor-intensive tasks. If you want the ultimate in portability, there's the Air.

Final thoughts and recommendations

When I showed the MacBook Air to one of our tech gurus at Computerworld, the first thing he said was, "Oh, that's Apple's take on a netbook." In a sense, he's right -- in the same way that the iPad is Apple's take on a tablet.

The Air is indeed similar in many respects to a netbook in terms of size, weight and processing power, but it's still very much a laptop. With a full-size keyboard, top-tier design and construction, and speedy flash memory that more than compensates for the 1.4-GHz CPU, the Air stands head and shoulders above today's netbooks. It nicely fills the niche between iPads and Apple's other laptops: Users looking for the portability of an iPad and the traditional feature set of a laptop can now fulfill those needs with the MacBook Air.

The most important change Apple brought to the new Air is onboard flash storage, a technology that would have seemed exotic even a year ago. But now, building on the flash-based iPad's success, it makes sense, and it allows Apple to simplify and refine what was already a sturdy and stylish laptop design.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple move to flash storage in all of its laptops over the next couple of years, and I wouldn't be surprised to see elements of this new Air's design -- the thinner chassis and sharpened curves -- migrate across the entire MacBook Pro line. I hope I'm right on both counts.

Two bits of advice if you're buying one: Opt for 4GB of RAM. Mac OS X will perform better with more memory, and while 2GB is enough for now, you can't upgrade the RAM later. And as I stressed earlier, make sure you get enough storage. It's possible to get by with the 64GB offered in the $999 model, but you won't have a lot of room for videos, photos and other data down the road. 128GB is my own minimum.

Personally, my ideal MacBook Air would offer 256GB of storage in the 11.6-in. model -- and a backlit keyboard. In the meantime, this one should fit the bill quite nicely, particularly for anyone who wants a small and lightweight laptop that offers well-balanced performance on the go and looks good to boot.

Ken Mingis is Managing Editor, News at Computerworld and also oversees the site's Macintosh Topic Center. His e-mail address is kmingis@computerworld.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmingis or subscribe to Ken's RSS feeds: articles | blogs

Tags Applemac laptopsultraportablehardware systemslaptops

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Ken Mingis

Computerworld (US)

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