After ditching my mostly unused iPad on eBay the other day, I was pleased when my recently ordered MacBook Air turned up to fill the void. I’d fallen out of love with the iPad. It was neither here nor there. I couldn’t get productive on it. Initially the lack of Flash wasn’t a problem, but I soon found out there was always one site you needed to view that still used it. I also grew quite frustrated with the various inconsistencies when form filling on web pages, sometimes selection boxes would be unusable, the keyboard wouldn’t pop-up etc. I think I should save the iPad rant for another blog post to be honest. Anyway, onward to the replacement, the gorgeous 11″ MacBook Air.
Slightly worried about the speed of the 1.4GHz model, I was pleased to see an option for a 1.6GHz upgrade. This might not seem like a massive boost, but I believe it was worth the cost, especially for future proofing the machine. I also boosted the RAM from the paltry 2GB standard config to a much healthier 4GB. Basically I pushed the 11-inch as far as it could go. Ooo-er.
Small Footprint, Big Personality
This is the first time since the much loved PowerBook G4 12″ that Apple have put out a sub 13″ laptop. I know people today who still swear by their 12″ PowerBooks, portability is the key for them. Sadly, the PowerPC architecture is long gone, as is it’s performance. So in steps the 11″ MacBook Air (or 11.6 to be precise) Does this mean Apple have given the public what they were craving, an Apple Netbook? Well yes and no. Yes, as in it’s small, it’s light, it’s ultra thin, and most of all, very portable. No, as in it doesn’t use a dreadful Atom CPU, it doesn’t have a laughable GPU, and it doesn’t have a keyboard and trackpad that make you want to shoot yourself in the face. I’ve been using it for a couple of days and it’s a joy to behold. If you like browsing the web or even blogging in bed, this machine is a dream, the full size keyboard makes typing comfortable and proficient. The large glass trackpad is as wonderful as ever, and the sheer weightlessness of the unit makes it very comfy to use.
Glossy Screen, High Resolution
One of the main problems with the slew of 10-inch Netbooks on the market is their lack of screen resolution. Most go with 1024 x 600, it’s just not dense enough to show enough on screen. Apple have upped the ante with the 11″ Air by throwing in an 11.6″ 1366 x 768 resolution screen, that’s higher def than 720p. The result is great, a 16:9 ratio full widescreen display with a higher DPI than any other Apple MacBook, and even higher than a 27″ iMac. There’s no ‘edge-to-edge’ glass here, they’ve kept the aluminium screen bezel, and I honestly quite like that. Contrast ratio is high, colour reproduction top notch, and the viewing angle as good as can be expected. Overall the screen is a beauty. One point I would like to add, Apple have not fitted these Airs with an Ambient Light Sensor, so you’ll have to manage your screen brightness manually. This is obviously a cost saving move, but I can’t say I’ve missed it as a feature.
Questionable Spec, Snappy Performance
What about performance? Many people, myself included, questioned the 1.4GHz processor’s credentials. That was the main reason I upgraded to a 1.6GHz. But after using the machine for a few days, I can safely say I would probably have been happy with the 1.4GHz model. Having said that I’m glad I took the decision to upgrade, as you will see below.
I ran the CINEBENCH tests and got a CPU score of 0.91. If you want a comparison, the 1.4GHz scores 0.80 in the same test. Putting these scores into perspective, the 2009 MacBook Air 2.13GHz got a score of just 0.83. Many people are wondering how these slower clocked processors can outperform faster ones? The reason seems down to heat. The older proccessors ran too hot and would automatically throttle down their speed to manage the heat. The new ULV (ultra low voltage) CPUs can stay full speed and still remain cool. Infact, it’s a struggle to actually get the fan spinning at all! I also ran the GEEKBENCH 64-bit test and ended up with a score of 2519. This score is on par with the 2009 1.86GHz Air. Interesting that Geekbench didn’t seem to show up the improved processor performance as much as other tests did.
In real world performance these machines are very snappy, aided by the fast SSD drives they open apps quicker than my i7 iMac on most occasions. Talking of the SSD drive, benchmarks show they haven’t got the quickest drive controller on the planet, but they certainly aren’t the slowest. Close the lid and let the machine go into standby mode, when re-opened the screen comes to life in an instant, and you’re right back where you left off. Boot times are excellent, I counted 15 seconds from cold start to being in a usable desktop environment, not to shabby eh?
Netbooks Aren’t Meant For Gaming
In the past I have tried running a few games on Windows based Netbooks, most notable the Samsung NC10, for which I made a video podcast of it running Half-Life 2. It was more of a tech demo, just to show it could actually run it, I wasn’t about to play the whole game through again. The MacBook Air comes with a GeForce 320M GPU with 256MB of shared DDR3 memory. This is Nvidia’s successor to the very successful 9400M, which made its debut in the original Unibody MacBooks. I didn’t really hold high hopes for this latest GPU, I’ve seen a lot of people ridiculing it on internet forums. I was quite surprised though, it runs Half-Life 2 flawlessy at native resolution (1366 x 768) with all effects on high (and even a bit of AA thrown in for good measure). Sure, HL2 is an old game, but I always test my computers with it, so I’ve built up my own benchmark in my mind!
I also loaded up EVE: Online, and that also ran fine in native resolution (and looks spectacular with it). The most recent experiment was Left 4 Dead 2, again it played great at 1366 x 768 with all settings on High. I’m not saying this machine is a polygon pushing powerhouse, but it can certainly hold it’s own on the gaming front. It’s always nice to have the option anyway. What would be nice to have as an option, especially on the 4GB models, would be a choice of upping the VRAM to 512MB. I could see that helping out immensely in texture hungry titles.
Great Looking, Amazingly Useable
Let’s get this straight, the MacBook Air does not choose form over function. It has both. Over the years I’ve seen a slew of good looking Netbooks with decent spec and small form factor, but the minute you start using it, it doesn’t feel right. Cramped trackpads, squashed keyboards, out of line keys, all little annoyances that’ve plagued many a Netbook in the past. Not so with the 11″ MacBook Air. This thing has a full size Keyboard, and a huge (by Netbook standards anyway) Glass Trackpad. Both of these input devices feel absolutely spot on. I could type all day long on this thing, in fact, this entire review was written on it. The Trackpad is typical Apple quality, the Glass is so smooth it’s just perfect, and that reassuring ‘click’ you get when selecting something, brilliant.
Use your laptop in bed? If so, then you will love the 11″ MacBook Air. Lying down with your knees up it sits there perfectly and feels almost weightless. Typing feels great, but the lack of backlit Keyboard can sometimes be an issue. Luckily Apple seem to have made the lettering on the keys very reflective, so the light bouncing off the screen is enough to make the keys visible.
The new low price of these MacBook Air’s hide some interesting omissions. The most obvious being the lack of Backlit Keyboard. But that isn’t the only thing they left out. There’s no sleep light on the front anymore, the official reasoning behind this is that it doesn’t actually go to sleep, it goes into standby. I think it’s just money saving myself. Also missing is an infra-red port, so no using your Apple Remote. I find this a bit of a let down, but it wasn’t really a feature I used all that much on my old MacBook. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no Ambient Light Sensor, so you will have to adjust screen brightness manually. Lastly, it lacks the SD card slot of it’s big sister, the 13-inch MacBook Air.
I could not be happier with this machine. The battery life is great, I regularly get 6 hours of web browsing, tweeting etc, and today even managed around 7 hours. It’s quick enough for everything I’ll be throwing at it, and it’s very portable. If you’re looking for a machine you can throw in your bag and take out and about, the 11″ MacBook Air is perfect. Okay the price might be high for the specs, but isn’t that always the case with Apple. It’s the all round quality that counts.1