I've always liked ultraportables. Back when I was in college I kept buying increasingly more portable notebooks until I eventually ended up with something horribly unusable for actual work. When Apple introduced the first MacBook Air back in 2008 I fell in love. It finally stuck a fast enough CPU in a small enough chassis and gave me a full sized keyboard to type on. I was set.

Last year Apple introduced the first major update to the MacBook Air, bifurcating the lineup with the first ever 11-inch model in addition to the standard 13. With last year's update the MacBook Air did so well that it actually started outselling the base MacBook. Apple isn't a fan of large complicated lineups so it retired the MacBook. If you want a portable Mac you can buy a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro.

As the mainstream counterpart to the MacBook Pro, Apple had to do something about the performance of the MacBook Air. While last year's updates were great alternatives to cheap, underpowered netbooks, they weren't fast enough to be a mainstream computer in 2011. Last year's Air featured Intel's Core 2 Duo processors, based on an architecture that debuted in 2006. Intel has released two major architectures since then.

Just nine months after the release of the 2010 MacBook Air, Apple fixed the problem. Meet the new Air:

If these systems look identical to the ones they're replacing that's because they are, at least from the outside. With the exception of a backlit keyboard, some differences in the row of function keys and a Thunderbolt logo, these babies look identical to last year's models.

You shouldn't judge a (Mac)book by its cover, because the MacBook Air's internals are much improved.

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)
Base CPU 1.6GHz dual-core Core i5 1.7GHz dual-core Core i5
Graphics 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

The CPUs
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  • GotThumbs - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    While Apple has created a pretty cool setup. I feel their breeding a reliance of proprietary devices for Apple users and a market for accessories (similar to IPAD) to gain standard connections provided on other systems. This trend is limiting choices for apples users. I build my own systems and rarely use a laptop. I do have a tablet for light moble use (email, quick web browsing, etc.)

    I'd be interested to see if Apple uses any of AMD's Llano APU's in future systems. Else there seems to be an exclusivity reminiscent of Dell and Intel in Dells earlier years.
    Reply
  • GotThumbs - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Clarification: An Android tablet Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    The HD3000 graphics in the MBA aren't the same as the regular, the regular one clocks at 650MHz and turbos up to 1.3GHz and the Low Voltage one 350MHz - 1.2GHz. Since they score similarly in most benchmarks, I wonder if the performance would go down over time as the thermal envelope no longer allows boosting? Likewise for the CPU? Any input on that? Reply
  • futurepastnow - Sunday, July 31, 2011 - link

    Most graphics tests (and many games) don't place a heavy load on the CPU at the same time as the GPU, so the GPU can probably use its full turbo as the CPU cores are nearly idle. If both CPU and GPU are both being worked hard, that may change. This is probably reflected in the Starcraft 2 test.

    As to your second question, it depends on how much extra capacity Apple engineered into the cooling system. Performance should not decrease over time if the fan can adequately cool the processor, even at its highest heat output.
    Reply
  • papawapa - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    I've been waiting for this review since the launch of the new Air. Thanks Anand! I'm taking a close look at the 13". Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Yikes, that is a huge drop between the two. Most sites are saying the 13' usually gets the slower controller, which is a bummer because that's what I was considering. How much impact does 4k random read performance have on general feel? Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    You guys have a decibel meter in your lab, right? I'd really like to see idle and load readings for laptop reviews. I think it was there in some of them, but never in a mac article. Reply
  • frumpsnake - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    The Airs are listed as Macbook Pros under Clock Speed Scaling Comparison on page 3. Reply
  • TEAMSWITCHER - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    "Apple did almost exactly what I asked for and built a monitor with more IO. It's called the Thunderbolt Display and it features an integrated USB 2.0, FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet and audio controller."

    Please tell me your gonna review this monster when it ships. I have been wanting something like this for MacBook Pro since 2007.
    Reply
  • bji - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Can you comment on the fan noise? The fan wasn't even mentioned at all in the review except to talk about where its output vent is positioned. I have been spoiled by a fanless laptop for years now and I am really sensitive to annoying fan noise now. I had intended to wait until Ivy Bridge came out in the hopes that it would have reduced thermals and that Apple would make a fanless Macbook based on it. But in the meantime I'd love to know how often the fan spins up on the current Sandy Bridge Macbook Airs and what the volume of it is when it is spinning. Thanks! Reply

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