The 11

The 11-inch MacBook Air comes with a 1366 x 768 display (16:9) measuring 11.6-inches along the diagonal. Ports and features are near identical to last year's model. Up top there's a 640 x 480 camera. Along each side is a USB 2.0 port. Mag Safe and headphone jack are on the left, while Thunderbolt is on the right. There's a single fan inside the chassis that vents between the keyboard and the display hinge.

The 11 is still an amazing form factor. It's painless to carry around and you end up with a tablet sized device that makes no functional sacrifices. To make things even better, now you get a full blown Sandy Bridge CPU inside the ultra slim chassis.

There are really only two things that the 11-inch MacBook Air lacks. For starters, the lack of an integrated SD card reader means anyone looking to do photo work on the go will either need an Eye-Fi or an external USB card reader. Neither is too much of a pain however an integrated reader would be much appreciated.

The second issue with the 11 is its screen size/resolution. At 1366 x 768 you get great pixel pitch on the 11-inch 16:9 screen but there's just not a lot of vertical resolution on the display. The 13-inch model gives you only 5% more horizontal resolution but 17% more vertical, and that's noticeable.

Lion does alleviate some of this problem thanks to its full screen mode. Viewing Mail or Safari in full screen is almost necessary on the 11. Thanks to the 16:9 ratio of the panel, watching movies on the 11 is nearly equivalent to watching them on the 13-inch Air.

The base $999 configuration only comes with 2GB of DDR3 and a 64GB SSD. The latter is excusable if you just don't do much with your system (and technically it's something you can upgrade down the line if you'd like) but the former is a major problem. Memory on the MacBook Air is soldered directly onto the motherboard. Not having to build in a socket helps keep the z-height of the system down to a minimum, but it also severely limits flexibility. For most users interested in a dual-core machine under OS X I'd say that 4GB is probably good enough. While I'd prefer the option of upgrading to 8GB, I think 4GB is livable; 2GB is not. If you're considering the entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air I'd strongly recommend at least upgrading the memory to 4GB. The only exception is if you're just going to spend your time doing very basic tasks on the machine and plan on upgrading again in a year or two. If that's the case save your money and enjoy a 4GB version with Ivy Bridge next year. For everyone else, make sure you get the memory upgrade.

The 13

While the 11 is almost tablet-like, the 13-inch MacBook Air still looks and feels like a normal notebook. A really thin, really light notebook. You get a 1440 x 900 (16:10) display that measures 13.3-inches along the diagonal. The port layout is identical to the 11 although you get an integrated SD card reader along the right of the machine.


From top to bottom: 11-inch MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Air, 15-inch MacBook Pro

The 13 is really a pleasure to use, despite feeling a lot like a traditional notebook. The biggest difference for me between it and the 11 is the height of the display. Seated on a couch with the notebook in my lap the 13 doesn't force me to look down as much to see the screen. I still have to tilt my head down a bit, just not as much as with the 11.

The 13-inch screen maintains a relatively high pixel density, just shy of the 128 pixels per inch you get from the 15-inch MacBook Pro with the upgraded 1680 x 1050 display. I find the 13 is a bit easier to look at than the 11 with its 135 PPI display, but that's a personal preference. Apple really needs to increase the resolution of its 13-inch MacBook Pro which is a paltry 1280 x 800.


13-inch MacBook Air (left) vs. 11-inch MacBook Air (right)

The 13's base configuration is actually really good. You get 4GB of memory (neither Air supports more than 4GB of RAM) and a 1.7GHz Core i5. The 1.7GHz part here is a bit more interesting than the 1.6GHz chip in the 11 because it supports much higher max turbo frequencies (2.4/2.7GHz vs. 2.0/2.4GHz). If you don't need more than 128GB of internal storage, my recommendation would be to go for the base 13 at $1299.

A New Thunderbolt Implementation It's Back: The Backlit Keyboard
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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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