11-inch MacBook Air 2011 £849
9th Aug 2011 | 15:37
Can this 1.8GHz Core i7 marvel justify its asking price?
1.8GHz 11-inch MacBook Air review: Overview
The 2011 MacBook Air refresh retains the form factor introduced with 2010's line of ultraportables, but makes significant improvements to the core technologies. Apple has switched the ageing Core 2 Duo chips for new Sandy Bridge processors, the Mini DisplayPort has been replaced by a versatile and powerful Thunderbolt port and the backlit keyboard makes a welcome return too.
The new MacBook Air range (check out our 13-inch MacBook Air review) contains four off-the-shelf versions. The cheapest offers an 11-inch screen, 64GB of flash storage and 2GB of memory for £849. The next in line, also an 11-inch model, has a 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM for £999. A similarly spec'd 13-inch MacBook Air costs £100 more, while for £1349 you can get a 256GB flash drive.
You can check out a video review of the MacBook Air below:
All four MacBook Airs have dual-core Intel Core i5 processors (1.6GHz for the 11-inch models, 1.7GHz for the 13-inch notebooks), with Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics. Each has two USB 2.0 ports, usefully positioned with one on each side of the notebook, and a Thunderbolt port. The 13-inch model also has an SD card reader. All the Airs also have a FaceTime camera that supports full native resolution on the built-in display and up to 2560 x 1600 pixels on an external display.
The MacBook Air we're reviewing here is the more expensive of the two 11-inch models, but enhanced by the optional customisations available when ordering at the Apple online store. The processor has been beefed up to a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 and the flash storage drive has been doubled in size to 256GB. Naturally, these enhancements take their toll on the price.
This custom-built MacBook Air costs £1,399, which is more expensive than the priciest off-the-shelf model. But is it worth the extra money, and do you really need all that power in an 11-inch MacBook Air?
1.8GHz 11-inch MacBook Air review: Specification
The customised 11-inch MacBook Air has a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor with 4MB shared L3 cache. This is a significant step up from the Core 2 Duo chips used in the 2010 models.
These new second-generation Sandy Bridge Core i-series processors feature Hyper Threading, which enables two threads to be run on each of their two cores. This means that when you're running applications built to take advantage of multiple cores, the chip can spread tasks more evenly and work more efficiently.
Another useful feature is Turbo Boost 2.0, which increases the processor's maximum running speed at times of intense need. It's only a temporary increase and it can only cut in when power and temperature considerations allow, but Turbo Boost 2.0 activates more often and stays on for longer than the Turbo Boost feature in the original Core i-series chips. It's automatic too, requiring no user intervention.
Thunderbolt, meanwhile, is an exciting new I/O technology that can handle video as well as data transfer. A Thunderbolt port is the same size as the Mini DisplayPort it replaces and you can plug in a Mini DisplayPort external screen without using an adapter cable.
If you need a DVI, HDMI or VGA connection, you can buy an adapter. As a data port, it gives transfer speeds of 10Gbps in both directions, which is 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and 20 times faster than USB 2.0. You can daisy chain up to six devices on a single Thunderbolt port too. Interestingly, Thunderbolt adapters for gigabit Ethernet and FireWire 800 are planned, bringing both to the MacBook Air for the first time.
Like all MacBook Airs, our model lacks an optical drive. If you need to install software or rip music from a CD or DVD, you can use Apple's Remote Disc feature to share another computer's drive as long as it's on the same network, or buy a USB Apple SuperDrive for £66.
Unlike the previous generation of MacBook Air, the operating system and bundled software isn't supplied on a read-only thumb drive either. Instead, OS X 10.7 Lion can be reinstalled over the internet using its built-in recovery partition, while the bundled iLife applications (now down to iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand – iWeb and iDVD are no longer included) can be downloaded for free from the Mac App Store.
The backlit keyboard, which lights up your notebook's keys in low-light conditions, has long been a favourite feature of MacBook users. For some reason, it was removed for the 2010 refresh of the MacBook Air, but it's back on this new 2011 model, so you can once again type in the dark without tilting your screen forwards to illuminate the keys.
Some things remain the same, though. The battery is still good for around five hours of web surfing. As always, closing the lid puts the MacBook Air into Sleep mode and, like the last generation, after an hour asleep it goes into Standby mode – an ultra-low power state that takes around 30 days to drain a fully charged battery.
The screen is still a beautiful 11.6-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen display with a pixel resolution of 1366 x 768, a figure you'd expect from most 13-inch notebooks. The body is once again based on Apple's construction process, which has included the display housing from the last refresh, using 48% fewer parts and enabling a thinner yet stronger MacBook Air.
1.8GHz 11-inch MacBook Air review: Benchmarks
The 2011 MacBook Air is an awesome machine, a fact borne out by our test results. The new Sandy Bridge 1.8GHz Core i7 processor soon showed its worth. In our Cinebench test, which measures the MacBook Air's 3D rendering capabilities, the new chip's Hyper Threading feature gave it a great advantage over the previous models.
Its multicore score was almost 159% higher than the 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo 11-inch MacBook Air from 2010, and over 90% up on the 1.86GHz 13-inch model.
Our Xbench test, which looks at the CPU and storage drive, also showed a massive improvement for the 2011 MacBook Air, almost doubling last year's 1.86GHz 13-inch model's score. In fact, the only test in which the new Air didn't trounce the 2010 notebooks was our Doom 3 frame rate test.
The Sandy Bridge's integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 chipset is on a par with the previous generation's Nvidia GeForce 320M (which couldn't be integrated into Core i-series processors due to a legal dispute), but it isn't quite as good at rendering 3D games. Its score of 62.7 frames per second (fps) beat the 2010 1.4GHz 11-inch MacBook Air's 51.7fps, but was a little behind the 1.86GHz 13-inch model's 69 fps.
The SSD means boot-up time is extremely low. What's more, you can make use of Standby mode by closing the lid without switching the power off, which means your MacBook will be instantly on when you open the lid again. This is ideal for times when you're likely to use your computer frequently but in short bursts, such as blogging at a show or event.
Like all new Mac notebooks, battery life is excellent too, with a full charge giving up to five hours of web surfing and up to 30 days in Standby Mode. We also tested it by running the BBC iPlayer's live feed at full screen and it lasted an impressive two hours and 34 minutes.
The screen is amazing, with excellent viewing angles; crisp, consistent colours; and a pixel resolution that's on a par with many 13-inch laptops. Its small size and widescreen aspect ratio are ideal for watching a movie or TV show on an aeroplane or train, and the backlit keyboard makes it easy to type in low-light conditions.
We won't see the benefit of the move to Thunderbolt until more compatible peripherals (or at least adapters) are released. Third-party manufacturers seem very slow on the uptake with this one. But since it offers all the functions of the Mini DisplayPort it replaces, it's not to our disadvantage in the short term.
We've no hesitation in recommending the new 2011 11-inch MacBook Air. Before investing £1,399 in the customised, 256GB Core i7 version reviewed here, though, ask yourself what you're going to use it for and whether you need to spend that much. Are you going to use it as a convenient carry-around computer, something you can drop in your bag and use on the move, before syncing with your main Mac at home again? If so, the £849 entry-level 2011 MacBook Air might well prove powerful enough.
1.8GHz 11-inch MacBook Air review: Conclusion
The mid-2011 MacBook Air refresh sees the range move to Intel's new Sandy Bridge Core i-series processors. The backlit keyboard makes a welcome return, while the Mini DisplayPort has been replaced by a Thunderbolt port.
The new Airs have the same form factor as the previous generation and also retain many of the features, such as the solid state drive and LED backlit widescreen display. The MacBook Air reviewed here is the more expensive of the two 11-inch models, augmented with a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor and 256GB SSD, which are available as options when ordering on Apple's online store.
The new Sandy Bridge processors are awesome, with Hyper Threading and Turbo Boost features giving them a real advantage over the previous generation's Core 2 Duo chips. The backlit keyboard is a real boon and a feature that was sorely missed when dropped for the 2010 release. Meanwhile, the Thunderbolt port will prove its worth over time as more peripherals are released.
The Air's graphical abilities have stood still. Although far from poor, this area doesn't benefit from the same kind of great leap forward that processing power has enjoyed. The model reviewed here could struggle to find its niche too, proving too small to use as a main Mac and too expensive to be a convenient portable. It's a call only you as the end user can make, but an entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air might be more appropriate for your needs.
We have no hesitation in recommending the 2011 11-inch MacBook Air, but before spending £1,399 on this expensively customised model, you should ask yourself if you really need the extra power and storage. If you want your Air as a convenient portable Mac to supplement to your main machine, you might be better off with an entry-level model.