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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  • z33redlinez33 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Any difference between the low end? Is the SSD suppose to say 256GB? Reply
  • zshift - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    The high-end should say 256GB. Also, none of the models can be upgraded past 4GB, so I'm not sure why that's listed at all. Reply
  • quiksilvr - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    The price is still too high and some of the specs need fine tuning but it indeed a step in the right direction. Here's hoping they stick with it and eventually can provide us with a cheaper ultraportable that tailors to a wider audience down the line. Reply
  • name99 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Uhh --- define "too high".

    I assume what you mean is "I, quiksilvr, refuse to pay that price". But the truth is, you're probably going to find something to complain about no matter WHAT Apple does, so why should they care about your opinion? If they shipped a cheaper version, you'd complain it has no USB3. If they added USB3, you'd complain it has no ethernet. Once they add ethernet, you'd complain that it's not as thin as a Vaio.

    The real issue is --- is this the price that maximizes Apple's future profits (ie both profits on this machine, and the expected future profits to be derived from bringing more customers into the Apple tent)?
    With all due respect, I'd like to think Apple's execs know rather more about this (profits, customer elasticity, etc) than you do --- as evidenced by their performance over the last ten years.
    Reply
  • lolatapple - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    Agreed. Price is a valid criticism of the overpriced Macbooks and you're sounding like a fanboy in your defense.

    That's the issue for the Apple execs, which no one here gives two shits about. Profits aren't our concern. Price/performance is our concern.

    It looks like a good laptop - but they all should be cheaper by at least a couple hundred bucks.
    Reply
  • web2dot0 - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    Profits should be your concern. Otherwise, as a consumer, I want everything for FREE. You know, $0, nada .... much cheaper than what you are proposing. I upped you one notch!!!!
    You are delusional.

    I would rather pay nothing than for something. To ignore the profit motive is like saying every company should be a non-profit organization.

    Price/performance is not the end all be all. Otherwise, everyone should buy cars based on those criterias. In fact everything for that matter.

    IMHO, the price points for Macbook Air is just about right. Get people hooked onto the base model, but sell them the higher end model at the end. While we are at it, try to sell you the 27" docking station. Touche!

    Steve Jobs always impresses me with his execution, and the results speak for itself. Give people what they want and they will pay for the premium.
    Reply
  • michaelheath - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    "It looks like a good laptop - but they all should be cheaper by at least a couple hundred bucks."

    As a non fanboy, and with all due respect:

    With a ULV Core i5/i7 mobile processor, a 64-256GB mSATA disk drive, a custom fully-machined unibody aluminum enclosure, custom battery technology and polymer, a full-fledged OS that doesn't require buying into a higher version to get features you want, a not-crappy screen resolution for either size, and completely unsubsidized by external companies trying to push their crap down your throat, you expect this computer to cost how much less?

    With the above in mind, not everyone will (nor should) see value in this lineup. Apple users are obviously going to make hard comparisons with the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air. This would be no different than a Lenovo customer putting a T420 and a T420s next to each other and deciding if the tradeoffs and benefits are worthwhile when faced with the several hundred dollar price difference.

    Or, as the kids say these days, 'Your mileage may vary.'
    Reply
  • alainiala - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Holistically speaking, I'm having a hard time spec'ing out anything close to these configurations at these prices. You can get somewhat close with something like the Lenovo E220s, which is a 12.5" screen, but it is still heavier than even the 13" MBA. Honestly, what you get with the level of industrial design of the MBA is excellent for the money. Now whether or not OSX is your cup of tea is an entirely different discussion (It's not for me, but would love to have Win7 running on that 13"). I'm not interested in anything that weighs more than 3 1/2 pounds.

    Full disclaimer... The only Apple products I've ever owned have been iPods and I never thought I'd ever even entertain the thought of owning a Macbook. But now... not so sure.
    Reply
  • daftlush - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    "I'm having a hard time spec'ing out anything close to these configurations at these prices."

    This is true. Find me better and I will buy. Till then, stop hating on something so glorious.

    P.S. Wish the RAM was pumped up too.
    Reply
  • dfacto - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    I'm in the same boat--never owned an apple product other than ipods (and those were from chooseyourfreebie.com) and I purchased the 13" MBA yesterday. I think its a fair price, has sufficiently adequate specs, and has a great chassis/body.

    I will however put Ubuntu on it the *moment* it arrives.
    Reply

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