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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  • name99 - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    "
    The WLAN solution in the Air is capable of up to two simultaneous spatial streams, topping out at 270Mbps.
    In practice this results in peak performance over 802.11n at around 128.8Mbps.
    "

    This is a horribly misleading way of stating the issue. It implies that Apple or the chipset or something are somehow defective, in only delivering 50% of the available performance.
    The ACTUAL problem is the 802.11 MAC & protocol, which wastes about 50% of the available bandwidth doing god knows what. The packets that go out, go out at of order 270Mbps, but 50% of the time packets are not going out.

    This would be a good topic for a future AnandTech article --- just what the hell is the 802.11 MAC doing that wastes so much airtime?
    A useful issue to discuss in the same article is the following:
    I read once that there was an advanced option in the 802.11n MAC that reduced this wasted time to only (hah!) about 25%, but I have never seen details on this (and I have looked). Is it real? If it is real, does anyone support it?
    Reply
  • ninjaquick - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    The relevance of SSDs is really only synthetics and low ram high cache situations. I do like seeing these get beat out squarely by an i3 in pretty much everything else in the win7 tests. Reply
  • bji - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    How do you draw that conclusion about SSDs? Reply
  • KPOM - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    They only get beaten out by the i3 in the 3D tests, which are driven by the GPU, so it's more fair to say that the HD 3000 gets beaten out by a discrete graphics adapter, which is no surprise. The Airs handily beat out the i3 in the CPU-intensive benchmarks.

    I've used an SSD since November 2008 and won't go back. I still need to use a HDD-equipped machine at the office, and I can't stand how long it takes to restart, shut down, or do anything disk intensive. The SSD made the Core 2 Duo-equipped MacBook Air tolerable in a world of i3s, i5s, and i7s. The Sandy Bridge-equipped MacBook Air with SSD makes it that much better.
    Reply
  • Baron_Fel - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    When are you guys going to review the new Vaio Z? I want to know if that external GPU is worth anything. Reply
  • TwoStreetCats - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    I'm a very happy owner of the 2010 11" version and have to say that the form factor was the primary draw for me as I travel quite a bit. It fits quite nicely in the hydration pocket of my backpack and I hardly know that I have it with me.

    The only thing that is occasionally frustrating is the vertical resolution as the article mentions.

    However, I use Mac Screen Rotate to rotate the screen and touchpad for portrait viewing when browsing or viewing pdf's and this problem is solved. If size and weight are serious factors for you, I highly recommend trying this out with the 11" before you decide that you need the 13".

    www.macscreenrotate.com
    Reply
  • bji - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    If the TDP of the processor + graphics is 17W, why does the Macbook Air even need a fan?

    My Panasonic Y2, which I still use because I can't find a laptop I like better (just sold a Sager NP5160 that I only owned for 2 months because I couldn't stand the fan noise or the horrible keyboard), has a 22 W max TDP on just the Pentium M 1.4 Ghz processor. Probably the crummy Intel integrated graphics doesn't add more than a few watts but together they must be at least 25 W.

    And yet, the Macbook Air, with a 17 W processor + graphics combined, has a fan. There is plenty of aluminum in the body of the Macbook Air to act as a heatsink, why does Apple even need to put a fan in there? If the Y2 can go fanless, surely the Air can.
    Reply
  • bji - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    OK, turns out the Pentium M in my Panasonic Y2 is the 10 watt Pentium M 738, not the 22 watt Banias Pentium M.

    The Intel 855 GME chipset is listed at 3.2 W.

    Is it really the case that 10 W can be fanless but 17 W cannot?
    Reply
  • tipoo - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Might be possible in 17w, but it already gets pretty hot WITH a fan. Reply
  • hellknight - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    I couldn't believe that Intel included AES instruction set in such low voltage chips. Even the base model has those.. This is something very great.. It would be great for all Truecrypt users.. Reply

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