Apple MacBook Air (13in, mid-2011)

Apple MacBook Air review: The Air remains a relatively expensive proposition, but Apple's entry level MacBook offers excellent performance and portability

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Apple MacBook Air

Pros

  • Excellent performance
  • Superb design
  • Great battery life

Cons

  • RAM isn't replaceable
  • No matte screen option
  • Still pretty pricey

Bottom Line

Apple's latest MacBook Air still lacks replaceable components, still has an annoying glossy screen and remains relatively expensive. However, its performance upgrades with new Core i5 processors give it the extra grunt previous models were missing. Combined with a superb design and great battery life, the MacBook Air is an excellent notebook for any user after a combination of speed and portability.

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Apple MacBook Air: Internals, performance and battery life

The new MacBook Air's biggest upgrade comes in the form of Intel's Core i5 and Core i7 processors. Apple claims the processor upgrade makes the Air up to 2.5 times faster than the previous model. Both the 11in and 13in models (four in total) all come standard with Core i5 processors, but the top 11in and 13 in models can be built-to-order (BTO) with an optional 1.8GHz Core i7 processor for an extra $100.

Our review model was the top of the range 13in model, which comes with 4GB RAM, an Intel HD Graphics processor with 384MB of memory and a 256GB SSD hard drive. The SSD makes the Air a speedy machine, with Apple's "instant on" feature particularly impressive. While it is not exactly instant, the Air wakes up from sleep in less than three seconds, and boots up from power-off in just over 10, giving it immense appeal as a grab-and-go computing device.

The Apple MacBook Air delivered excellent performance in our tests. It took just 57sec to encode 53min worth of WAV files to 192Kbps MP3s. We also benchmarked the MacBook Air using Geekbench; it scored 5443 — by comparison, the previous 11in model scored just 2045. The MacBook Air has no trouble running multiple applications and felt fast and snappy throughout testing. The lack of serious graphics power means it will never be a gaming machine, but the MacBook Air has enough grunt for serious business or power users.

The biggest disadvantage of the MacBook Air is the fact that it isn't designed to be opened, so users wanting to upgrade RAM or hard drive modules will remain disappointed. The fact that the RAM isn't replaceable in particular is a concern, given that it is relatively cheap to upgrade this component. Technically, the MacBook Air case can be opened, but doing so will void the Apple warranty.

The new MacBook Air now has a Thunderbolt port, Apple's official name for Intel's Light Peak technology. Thunderbolt is an input/output port like USB, but much faster. It's twice the speed of USB 3.0, 20 times faster than USB 2.0, and about 12 times faster than FireWire 800. It employs the connector Apple has been using for its Mini DisplayPort since late 2008.

Thunderbolt is an excellent connection standard — it's fast at up to 10Gbps transmission, supports bus power at up to 10W and has plenty of future potential. However, at the current point in time, there is next to no accessories that make use of it. Though these will come in time, Thunderbolt remains a future proposition rather than a current one, so it is unlikely to add any value to a MacBook Air right now.

Apple claims that the MacBook Air's battery life is "up to seven" hours; it lasted almost six hours in our battery rundown test, where we looped an XviD file in full screen mode. Just like the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air has a non-removable lithium-polymer battery.

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