2011 has seen Intel's new Sandy Bridge processors and chipsets creeping slowly into every machine in Apple's lineup - we saw it in the MacBook Pros in February (see our review) and more recently in the new iMacs (we also reviewed those). Now that Lion is out (you guessed it, we reviewed that too!), it’s time for the rest of the lineup to get with the times.

 

 

The next product in Apple's portfolio to get Sandy Bridged is the MacBook Air, which was last refreshed in October of 2010. That refresh saw the Air line achieve the original model's potential in many ways, with a more affordable 11" model bringing it within reach to the common man and standard SSDs across the line removing the bottleneck of the first model's 1.8-inch 4200rpm mechanical hard drive. It should also be noted that things seen as deficiencies in the original Air (like, say, the absence of wired Ethernet and an optical drive) are becoming less inconvenient as time goes on, since ubiquitous wi-fi and easy-to-download software are making these missing features less essential even in workaday Windows laptops.

As usual, I'll give you the hard facts first, and get into details and analysis after:

2011 MacBook Air Lineup
  11.6-inch 11.6-inch (high-end) 13.3-inch 13.3-inch (high-end)
Dimensions H: 0.11-0.68" (0.3-1.7cm)
W: 11.8" (30cm)
D: 7.56" (19.2cm)
H: 0.11-0.68" (0.3-1.7cm)
W: 12.8" (32.5cm)
D: 8.94" (22.7cm)
Weight 2.38 lbs (1.08kg) 2.96 lbs (1.35kg)
Cores/Threads 1.6GHz dual-core Core i5 1.7GHz dual-core Core i5
Base Clock Speed Intel HD 3000
RAM 2GB DDR3-1333 4GB DDR3-1333 4GB DDR3-1333 4GB DDR3-1333
SSD 64GB SSD 128GB SSD 128GB SSD 256GB SSD
Display Resolution 1366 x 768 1440 x 900
Ports Thunderbolt, 2x USB 2.0, composite audio in/out jack Thunderbolt, 2x USB 2.0, SDHC slot, composite audio in/out jack
Price $999 $1199 $1299 $1599

As with the 13" MacBook Pro, the Air's Sandy Bridge bump jettisons the Core 2 Duo processors and the nVidia chipsets that have accompanied them since the unibody MacBooks were introduced in late 2008 (in fact, the only nVidia chips to be found in Apple's products at present are in the still-unrefreshed MacBook).

Thunderbolt also comes along for the ride - for those of you just tuning in, Thunderbolt is an Intel-developed port that replaces the previous Mini DisplayPort while maintaining compatibility with previous-gen Mini DisplayPort dongles (read more about ThunderBolt here). Thunderbolt has the potential to be more useful in the Air than in any of Apple’s other offerings – the Air’s size makes it difficult to upgrade, but a high-speed external port (with the ability to drive multiple daisy-chained displays) makes expandability less about the laptop’s ports (or relative lack thereof), assuming you can find and pay for Thunderbolt devices to suit your needs.

Without a model in-hand, I can’t give you any benchmarks, but expect the performance bump to be similar to the 13” MacBook Pro from earlier this year: CPU speed is going to get a much-needed and very noticeable bump, while graphics performance will remain just about the same as in the previous model. Especially in the 11” Air, however, keep in mind that a 1.4 or 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo may have bottlenecked the GPU in some cases, so the increased CPU speed may actually result in better framerates for the new models.

Upgrades


2011 Apple MacBook Air CPU Comparison
  1.6GHz Core i5 1.7GHz Core i5 1.8GHz Core i7
Available in 11-inch (default) 13-inch (default) high-end 11-inch (option)
high-end 13-inch (option)
Intel Model Core i5-2467M Core i5-2557M Core i7-2677M
Cores/Threads 2/4 2/4 2/4
Base Clock Speed 1.6GHz 1.7GHz 1.8GHz
Max SC Turbo 2.3GHz 2.7GHz 2.9GHz
Max DC Turbo 2.0GHz 2.4GHz 2.6GHz (?)
L3 Cache 3MB 3MB 4MB
GPU Clock 350MHz / 1.15GHz 350MHz / 1.2GHz 350MHz / 1.2GHz
Quick Sync Yes Yes Yes
AES-NI Yes Yes Yes
VT-x Yes Yes Yes
VT-d No Yes Yes
TDP 17W 17W 17W

The new models also get some spec bumps that make them more suited for use as primary machines: RAM is bumped to 4GB on all models except the low-end 11" (which is upgradeable to 4GB for $100). The “high-end” version of each model gets a CPU speed bump option (a 1.8GHz i5, in both cases, for $150 in the 11" and $100 in the 13"), and the high-end 11" model has a  256GB SSD option for $300 (otherwise, SSD configurations are the same as the 2010 models - I would have liked to see the 64GB SSD phased out, but maybe next time around). Backlit keyboards, present in the original Air but absent from the late 2010 refresh, also make a return, while screen resolution, port layout, battery life, and general construction remain largely the same as the previous model.

What about the MacBook?

The refresh makes me wonder what Apple plans for its entry-level MacBook, which is making less and less sense within Apple’s lineup as the Airs become more competitive in speed and price. I'm not sure how the new Air has impacted MacBook sales, but since the Air is clearly the way forward for Apple's laptops and since Apple is more than willing to trim fat from its product line, anything could happen. If the 11" base model came with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, I would have no reservations about recommending it to people over the bulkier white MacBook, but unfortunately that didn't happen this time around.

The rumor mill is currently speculating, based on Apple's Q3 earnings call, that the white MacBook could be dropped from Apple's lineup entirely in favor of the 11" Air - we'll likely see the rest of Apple's Mac lineup refreshed before the end of the summer, so we’ll probably know soon enough. For my part, I think Apple would clean up if they could field an entry-level laptop in the $799 range, and they certainly could afford to based on their profit margins, but the company has never displayed any interest in such a thing. 

Update: Apple has removed the white MacBook from their online store so it appears that MacBook has been discontinued.

Conclusions

The Sandy Bridge upgrade makes the Air lineup a reasonable alternative to the white MacBook or 13" MacBook Pro, especially if weight is more important than processor speed This is particularly true of the in the 13" model, where the speed of the SSD and the higher screen resolution might actually make it better suited for some production work. The Thunderbolt port can also (either through dongles or dedicated Thunderbolt devices) make up for the Air's lack of FireWire and other high-speed connectivity.

If you were on the fence about the Air before, this healthy speed bump should make the thin-and-light laptops that much more palatable. If the lack of optical drive, FireWire, Ethernet, or hard drive space still put you off, though, this upgrade isn't likely to change your mind.

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  • joe_dude - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    I'm considering the newer 3830TG, which has the Geforce 540M and better battery life. The MBA is nice and thin, but with no gaming or graphics/opengl potential, it's a lot of money to spend for a web and e-mail machine.

    Almost better off getting an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard.
    Reply
  • RussianSensation - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    http://www.laptopmag.com/review/laptop/apple-macbo...

    Actually beats the Samsung Series 9 and Lenovo X1 in just about everything from boot time, to casual gaming, to file transfer speeds, to battery life (X1 needed a slice battery to beat the Air). But with the Air, you get full unibody aluminum construction, a better screen, and the highest resale value 12 months from now. Until Asus brings out their ultraportable, the MBA appears to be the best ultraportable laptop in its segment.
    Reply
  • Gazziza - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Asus has a history of disappointing people. They've promised "the next best" ultraportable since coming out with the UL80vt and with each and every release they always seem to come up short in one way or another. It's either a creaky palm base, keyboard flex, a stiff rocker button, a sticky touchpad, abysmal LCD screens, or poor construction. Maybe not all those things at once, although a craptastic LCD and putting in some form of the Geforce 210m/310m seems pretty consistent with their products, but it's one thing or another that keeps them from earning high marks.

    Really the PC makers need to get their heads out of their asses. Apple has proven that people will pay $$$ for a top quality machine even if it might not offer the most amazing specs. Asus and Acer seem to think that people want affordable machines so they end up taking short cuts in build quality and the LCD so they can say "our machines only cost $800". Samsung may have had something on their hands with the 9 series but it costs way too much for something that has a 1366x768 resolution and integrated graphics. Lenovo dropped the ball with their X1 buy using that same crappy resolution and having poor battery life. And Sony, well they took a huge step back with this iteration of the Z-series. I mean $2k for something that has integrated graphics + $600 if you want some stupid dock with a gpu in it. It's a poor value given that the last gen Z-series had discrete and integrated graphics built in.

    If they want to beat Apple they're going to have to offering something very similar in hardware and price. You can't make a machine that costs more and does less than the MBA like the Samsung 9 or Sony Z. As well you can't expect to beat them if you take shortcuts either a-la Asus and Acer. Honestly, the attempts are pathetic. And people say Apple is overpriced...
    Reply
  • RussianSensation - Saturday, July 23, 2011 - link

    Gazziza,

    I couldn't have summarized it better myself. I am a PC user (both desktop and laptop), and the PC has nothing remotely close to the MBA in the segment. For the first time, you actually get more with the Apple computer than PC equivalents. Impressive.
    Reply
  • mgm2011 - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Deciding between the Macbook Pro 13" and the new Macbook Air 13", I should know how fast the ethernet with the thunderbold adapter can be. Does anyone know it?

    Very good review, an impressive little laptop...
    Reply
  • dhiiir - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    If they shipped a cheaper version, you'd complain it has no USB3. If they added USB3, you'd complain it has no ethernet. Once they add ethernet, you'd complain that it's not as thin as a Vaio.-.www.upsfashion.com-you can go look, miss it you will feel a great pity.Maybe you can find what you want.I like how even the slightest constructive criticism of a Mac product elicits idiotic replies from Apple fanboys such as the one above. Reply
  • mgm2011 - Saturday, July 23, 2011 - link

    ... such comments should be forgidden - very constructive. better no answer as showing no interest.

    as anyone knows macbook air doesn`t have ethernet. but it is possible with the help of adapters. would it be faster to use the thunderbold or the usb2 and how fast can it be?
    Reply
  • Omid.M - Saturday, July 23, 2011 - link

    --Screen type (IPS) ? (I know it's LED backlit at least)
    --ETA for quad core option on 13" ? (speculation)
    --Kensington lock port on any MBA models? (I didn't see mention on Apple site)
    --User replaceable SSD?
    --Max RAM (8 GB) ? Though I think this is soldered on, so not upgradeable post-purchase
    --Why no FaceTime HD? Thickness of module?
    Reply
  • burntham77 - Monday, July 25, 2011 - link

    My wife has wanted a Mac for a couple of years, especially the Air. At first I thought the Air was stupid (no DVD drive, poor hardware), but with this refresh, they seem like viable systems for a non-gamer. I am even embracing the idea of no optical media on a Mac.

    The only thing that still irks me is that they cannot get past the horrible Intel integrated graphics. I mean at least throw us an AMD 4000 series or Nvidia 300 series mobile chip. Come on Apple. It's not that she wants to game on the Air, but it would be fun to try.
    Reply
  • ebolamonkey3 - Tuesday, July 26, 2011 - link

    Hey Andrew, do you know which manufacturer makes the unibody aluminum chassis for the Macbook Air and Macbook Pros? Or does Apple manufacture them inhouse? Reply

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