The CPUs

Like the iMac and MacBook Pro before it, Apple has blessed the MacBook Air with Intel's 32nm Sandy Bridge family of CPUs. Despite being named similarly to the Core i5/i7 in the MacBook Pro, only dual-core Sandy Bridge is offered in the MacBook Air. The cases are simply too small to accommodate any 32nm quad-core parts.

Also NVIDIA is completely out of the picture here. While the previous generation MacBook Air used an NVIDIA chipset with integrated GeForce 320M GPU, Apple is relying entirely on Sandy Bridge's processor graphics this round.

Apple opted for ultra low voltage Sandy Bridge CPUs all with a 17W TDP. The previous generation used a 10W part for the 11 and a 17W part for the 13, but remember those figures didn't include NVIDIA's GeForce 320M which is good for at least another 14W under load, and probably a watt or two with the GPU idle. The 17W SNB parts include memory controller and GPU, leaving only the chipset at 3.4W. Max power consumption is likely lower on the new MBAs, although typical power consumption could be higher as Sandy Bridge cores are significantly faster than the Core 2s used before.

There are three different CPUs Apple offers in the new MacBook Air lineup:

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

All three parts support Hyper Threading and Quick Sync, although the latter remains mostly unused in OS X. The 11 comes with a 1.6GHz part by default while the 13 ships with a 1.7GHz chip. Both can be upgraded to the same 1.8GHz Core i7, a big change from last year's lineup where even the upgraded 11-inch model was slower than the base 13.

Turbo is fully supported at the default Intel ratios (more on confirming this later). This is actually a pretty big deal because it means that for single threaded applications you actually get similar performance to a MacBook Pro. It's only in the thread heavy stuff that the Pro machines will pull away.

The default chips for both systems comes with 3MB of L3 cache. The majority of quad-core parts only have 6MB of L3 and seem to do just fine, so I don't expect that this is too big of a deal. The upgraded 1.8GHz CPU comes with an extra MB of cache.

You'll see this in the performance section but there's just no comparison between the CPUs in the 2011 MacBook Air and what Apple shipped last year. If the MacBook Air wasn't fast enough for your last year, the 2011 models should change that.

Introduction Testing Turbo
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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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