MacBook Air 11-inch £849
29th Nov 2010 | 15:56
Has the MacBook Air finally come of age with this new 11-inch version?
MacBook Air 11-inch review: Overview
Although an excellent technological achievement, the MacBook Air has previously struggled to find its niche in the Apple notebook range. It was too expensive to compete with the low-end MacBook, and not powerful enough to replace the higher-specced MacBook Pros. It was light, beautiful and desirable, but unnecessary.
The late 2010 release of the MacBook Air represents a major update for Apple's ultra-thin notebook. The form factor has had a major overhaul, and there's now four off-the-shelf MacBook Air configurations instead of two. Interestingly, two of the MacBook Airs have 11-inch screens, making them the smallest Apple notebooks since the Powerbook 5300 Series back in the mid-'90s.
The two 11-inch models use 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors and cost £849 and £999 respectively, while the two higher-end MacBook Airs once again use 13-inch screens, run on 1.86 GHz Core 2 Duo processors and cost £1,099 and £1,349.
The new MacBook Airs benefit from several technologies developed for the iPad. While the last generation of MacBook Air offered a high-end flash storage model and a cheaper release that used a hard drive, the entire MacBook Air range has now gone over to solid state drives.
In fact, the two 11-inch MacBook Airs and the two 13-inch releases are differentiated only in the amount of solid state storage they have. The 11-inch MacBook Airs have 64GB and 128GB respectively, while the 13-inch models offer 128GB and 256GB.
But there's more to the new MacBook Airs than a switch to solid state storage. The new notebooks have an interesting new form factor, extended battery life and although processor speeds are nothing to write home about, new graphics technologies give them a power that belies their on-paper clock speeds.
But can the late 2010 revision reinvent the MacBook Air as a realistic alternative to a MacBook or MacBook Pro, or is it still no more than a useful second notebook?
MacBook Air 11-inch review: Specifications
The MacBook Air we're reviewing here is the more expensive of the two 11-inch models, costing £999. Like all MacBook Airs, it has no optical drive, but you can share a computer's hard drive over a network using Remote Disc or invest in an optional USB SuperDrive.
This generation of MacBook Air supplies its system software and applications on a read-only USB flash drive, so you don't need an optical drive to reinstall it.
Like all new MacBook Airs, this 128GB 11-inch model uses flash storage. Instead of encasing the chips in a 2.5-inch SATA enclosure, they're mounted on a card resembling a RAM stick. It uses an mSATA connection, and without the drive casing, is around 90 per cent smaller and lighter.
The saved space has been used to enhance the battery capacity, giving the 11-inch model up to five hours' use from a single charge.
The 11-inch MacBook Air's 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor could be seen as a backwards step. A Core-i series chip was never on the cards. A legal dispute prevents Nvidia graphics chipsets being integrated into Intel's new processor family, and a there's no room on the logic board for a discrete GPU. As a result, Apple had to stick with the Core 2 Duo.
Even so, the previous generation of MacBook Airs offered 1.86GHz and 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duos off the shelf, making this 1.4GHz CPU look underpowered. The graphics chipset has received a boost, though. All the new MacBook Airs use an Nvidia GeForce 320M, the most powerful integrated graphics chipset currently available.
Like the rest of the range, this particular MacBook Air has 2GB of RAM, expandable to 4GB if you buy online and use the custom options.
Its 11.6-inch glossy widescreen LED-backlit display has a pixel resolution of 1,366 x 768. The unibody production process has been brought to the display housing, which is now milled from a single piece of aluminium, just like the main body of the notebook. It uses 48 per cent fewer parts, allowing for a thinner yet stronger MacBook Air.
The new MacBook Air now boasts stereo audio, and has two USB ports instead of the previous generation's one. The USB ports are mounted on either side of the notebook. There's no FireWire connectivity, and unlike the 13-inch models, this 11-inch MacBook Air doesn't offer an SD card reader.
MacBook Air 11-inch review: Performance
On paper, this 11-inch MacBook Air looks underpowered, but don't underestimate what it can do. Its solid state storage is twice as fast as hard disk drives, and its integrated Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics chipset is the most powerful currently available.
As a result, it's quite capable of playing in-depth and system-hungry gaming titles. Doom 3 ran at over 50 frames per second, even with the graphics quality turned up to maximum, and it plays a mean game of Call of Duty 4.
It can also handle high-definition movies with ease. Our 1,280 x 720-resolution copy of The Hurt Locker ran perfectly smoothly. Naturally, stereo speakers give the new MacBook Air's audio greater depth, but if you're serious about your multimedia, it's best to invest in a set of external speakers.
Although the 11.6-inch screen is the smallest to grace a Mac notebook in well over a decade, it's not at all difficult to use. Its screen resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels is higher than that found on a typical 13-inch laptop, and its LED-backlit high-resolution display gives crystal clear image reproduction and great viewing angles.
Obviously those whose work demands a large screen won't be satisfied, but for everyone else, it's fine. After a while it doesn't feel any smaller than a 13-inch screen.
The 11-inch MacBook Air's battery gives five hours' use from a single charge and, like all modern MacBooks, if you close the lid without powering down, it goes into Sleep Mode. Thanks to technologies developed for the iPad, after an hour in Sleep Mode it enters Standby Mode, an ultra-low-powered state that can last for up to 30 days before it drains the battery.
Yet as soon as you open the lid again, it's instant-on. This is a fantastic feature that's great for those times when you use your notebook in short bursts instead of for long periods, such as when working away from your desk or on holiday.
There are one or two negative points. It doesn't have built-in 3G internet access, though you can get online using the Air's Wi-Fi or a 3G USB dongle. Adobe Flash isn't preinstalled, so the first time you boot up, you should go to http://bit.ly/mwfN1 and download it, and we mentioned the lack of an SD card reader.
But far more irritating is that there's no backlit keyboard for low-light conditions. This feature has proved incredibly popular in the past, but now it's back to tilting the screen forwards to light up your typing. Why this innovative and useful feature was removed is anyone's guess, but we hope it returns for the next MacBook Air release.
MacBook Air 11-inch review: Verdict
The late 2010 MacBook Air represents a radical overhaul for Apple's ultra-thin notebook, not least because of the introduction of a new 11-inch model. The Intel Core 2 Duo processors are nothing special, but they combine with the Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics chipset and solid state storage to give the new Airs a much better performance than you might expect.
The Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics chipset is the most powerful integrated solution currently available. Switching to solid state storage and installing the chips and controller on a RAM stick-like circuit board instead of enclosing them in a 2.5-inch casing the same size as a hard disk drive is a masterstroke. Not only is it much lighter, but it frees up room for extra battery power.
Standby Mode, where an Air in Sleep Mode for an hour enters a deep hibernation state, means you can leave the MacBook Air switched on closed for up to 30 days, but have it instantly accessible as soon as you open it again. It's great to have two USB ports and stereo speakers too.
There isn't much to dislike about the late 2010 release of the MacBook Air, but we do miss the backlit keyboard. It's a real shame this useful and popular feature had to go, but if you use your computer in the dark, maybe in bed, it's back to switching on your bedside lamp or tilting the screen forward to illuminate the keyboard.
Some will bemoan the lack of integrated 3G internet access, but we're not too bothered. You can always connect through a 3G dongle or a MiFi unit. It's a pity there's no SD card reader in this 11-inch model too, but we accept it had to go for the sake of space.
With the late 2010 release, the MacBook Air leaves behind its novelty image and becomes a genuine rival to the entry-level MacBook and MacBook Pro. It has a power that belies its on-paper clock speed, a gorgeous screen and with its new battery and energy-saving technology, instant-on convenience.
We miss the backlit keyboard, though, and hope it returns in the next generation of MacBook Airs. It's still pretty expensive too, with the range starting at £849 and this particular model costing £999.
It might not be a notebook for everybody, but if you want something that's powerful, convenient and portable, it just might be the notebook for you.
Follow TechRadar Reviews on Twitter: http://twitter.com/techradarreview