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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