The Ivy Bridge equipped MacBook Airs are definitely faster than their predecessors. But if you're like many and are upgrading from a 2010 or earlier MacBook Air, the difference is astounding.

The improvements don't come exclusively from the faster CPUs, but also from the significantly faster storage. For the first time since it started using SSDs, Apple is at the forefront of solid state storage and the impact on performance shows.

Boot Performance

The new Air boasts faster boot time than even the rMBP, I can only assume due to a simpler hardware configuration that allows for faster initialization.

There's a minimal performance difference between the 1.7GHz and 1.8GHz CPUs, but the upgraded 2.0GHz part offers a tangible increase in performance - especially in our CPU bound video transcoding tests. The upgrade is worthwhile if you're a power user trying to make an Air work rather than taking the portability penalty and going with a Pro.

3D Rendering Performance - Cinebench R11.5

3D Rendering Performance - Cinebench R11.5

iMovie '11 Performance (Import + Optimize)

iMovie '11 Performance (Export)

iPhoto 12MP RAW Import

Adobe Lightroom 3 Performance - Export Preset

Adobe Photoshop CS5 Performance

Final Cut Pro X - Import, Optimize, Analyze Video

The MBA as a Desktop

With Ivy Bridge, using the MacBook Air as a desktop replacement is surprisingly possible. UI performance on an external Thunderbolt Display at 2560 x 1440 is indiscernible from the rMBP with only a few windows open. It's when you start opening a ton of applications and browser tabs that UI frame rates slow down appreciably. I clocked scrolling down an AT review at 30 frames per second, and activating Exposé with 17 windows open rendered at 18 - 20 fps.

Application responsiveness is quite good thanks to the incredibly quick SSD. With last year's MacBook Air it was possible to have one of these machines serve as your older MacBook Pro replacement. The improvement in storage performance and 8GB memory offering really seal the deal for this year's model. There's still an advantage to going Pro as you've seen in the performance tests thus far, but if you don't do a ton of heavily threaded CPU work (e.g. video/photo editing, 3D rendering) then the Air really can cut it as a primary system.

The More Complicated (yet predictable) SSD Lottery GPU Performance


View All Comments

  • ShadeZeRO - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    I'm curious as to why you haven't held the apple line to the normal scrutiny typically found in your other notebook reviews.

    I've noticed a certain level of bias on most review sites most likely caused by the sudden trend in popularity of Apple products.

    If this was branded differently I'm positive the display for one would have been ridiculed as a poultry offering.

    Overall a fine review, it's not on the level of a gizmodo/engadget/etc apple circle jerk so I still respect it.

  • KoolAidMan1 - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    He criticized the display and compared it unfavorably against other ultrabooks that use IPS panels. It is one of the few points of criticism, but its there. Is your problem that he doesn't say that the MBA is a complete piece of trash?

    Anand gave a very well balanced review as per usual.
  • Super56K - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    I would gladly take a 1440x900 TN display like the Air's in a 13" Sandy/Ivy Bridge Windows laptop. Reply
  • notposting - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Paltry offering.

    Unless they are offering up some turkeys, ducks, and chickens for sacrifice.
  • Alameda - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    First of all, Anand, I want to tell you that you've once again written up an excellent review, and I'm very impressed with your thoroughness and clarity. I just purchased a 2011 MBA, so of course I read your review to justify that I made the right decision. While I understand the need for benchmarks and the real-world tests such as Photoshop and so forth, I think most people do not use their computers the way your tests imply.

    In my daily use, the performance bottleneck I experience is when making a Time Machine backup, which the new machines should improve upon -- USB 2.0 is very slow, and Thunderbolt drives are too expensive. USB 3.0 is the right solution for most users. I would also like to see networking tests. This machine needs wifi to work, and there's a lot of performance variance from one 802.11n to another. Last, sincecthe RAM is soldered, adding guidance about memory use would be useful. On my MBA, if I open all of my applications at once (except VMWare), I use less than 2 of my 4 GB of RAM. So it seems to me that 8+ GB only matters if you have a specific power-user need, particularly in a simultaneous Mac/Windows setup, but for most users, 4 GB and the stock CPU exceeds what you can use.

    I personally think these sorts of real world tests would make your reviews better reflect what most users actually do. I also feel that many people want to make excuses for taxing a machine to its limits, but we simply don't have such issues in actual use.
  • name99 - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Basically 2GiB is tight for pretty much any OSX user nowadays, but swapping on even the 2011 SSDs is fast enough that you don't really notice it. You can live it, but you will notice occasional pauses.

    You want 4GiB if you tend to keep a lot of browser windows open. Safari is a pig in this respect (hopefully improved somewhat in ML) and Chrome is not that much better.
    My collection of always-running apps is Finder, Mail, iChat, Skype, iTunes and Safari; something like this is, I think, pretty standard across most users. That, with 20 or so browser windows, will fit OK in 4GiB, but will start obviously paging if you add a few more apps, eg throw in Word or Excel or an Adobe app.

    Where does it go?
    Essentially the OS is using about 500MB for misc [process management, memory management, network buffers, that sort of thing] and about 1GB for file buffers of various sorts. Of the 2.5 GB that's left, the worst offenders:
    WebProcess, essentially the guts of Safari, is currently using 1.2GB which is pathetic, the actual Safari process, basically UI, is using 200MB, also pathetic, and iTunes is using 530 MB --- TRULY pathetic, but what else would you expect from, iTunes, apparently the team to which Apple retires their most doddering and incompetent programmers.

    For most people, however, I'd recommend 8GiB purely because
    - it's not that much more in cost.
    - you may not need it now, but you're future-proofing yourself since most normal people use their laptops for at least 3yrs before replacing them
    - the extra retail value when you do retire it is probably worth more than the extra cost now --- just think of the comparable desirability today of a 2GB vs a 4GB 2010 MBA.
  • Freakie - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    I'd definitely agree with you that 8GB really should be what most people get. Even though they wont know or understand the difference, it makes a difference in how much they will enjoy any computer, PC or Mac. You just never know when someone will do something that eats up a ton of RAM, whether it be running a game without closing their browser, or opening up 100+ browser tabs, 4 word documents, and 4 excel books (my girlfriend does that a lot, and it makes her 8GB rather unhappy).

    And if you have an Windows computer with a 64bit install, more RAM is even more important for getting the best possible experience. While I can't say while OSX seems to have such RAM hungry programs that don't offer performance gains for so much usage, I can say that I put specific 64bit programs on my Windows laptop knowing that they will perform better and be able to use more RAM and use it more effectively. My 64bit Firefox browser is a great example of that. I don't mind it using 2-3GB of RAM because I have a crap ton of stuff open, multiple flash based videos, a flash game, ect... because it's just a nice experience. Not to mention this 64bit version is way faster than the regular one :P Regular users could be having these nice experiences too if the general consensus on what a good amount of RAM is would increase.

    On a side note... I'm thinking of going up to 16GB on my laptop, maybe 24GB... Just because I'm greedy :P Might even go the full 32GB and put a RAMdisk... who knows! So many possibilities when you have MORE RAM!
  • phillyry - Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - link

    'Future proofing' = illusion

    Here's your future proofing. Buy what you need now of will likely need in the near future and save your pennies (or, in this case hundreds of dollars with of upgrades) for your next upgrade. And by upgrade, I mean your next laptop or whatever the hell else you want to do wig your money. Why leave an extra $100 lying inside a computer chassis in the shape of some soldered on RAM, if you can keep that money in your bank account and buy whatever else you want or, maybe even, actually need with it.

    Really, the upgrades should only be for the hardcore users and should not be a concern for most people.
  • name99 - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    What sort of compression does Sandforce use?

    More specifically, I imagine that within a file they use some sort of LZ variant --- it's easy, it's known to work well for this sort of problem, and there's hardware to handle it.

    More interesting is the question of what sort of cross-file de-duplication they use. The obvious thing would be some sort of hash of each 4kiB block to something like a 128b signature, then compare each incoming block to that map. But that would require an in-memory table of hashes that would be of order 256MiB in size for a 64GB drive (and twice that for a 128GB drive), which, while obviously technically possible, doesn't seem to match their actual hardware setup. You could drop the hash to 64b, at the cost of more frequent collisions (and thus having to waste time reading the drive to compare with the incoming block) and that would halve your table size --- again possible, but still looking like it uses more RAM than they have available.

    So what's the deal? They don't actually do cross block de-dup? They do it in some fashion (eg using larger blocks than 4kiB) which, while it works, is not as optimal for small files?
  • desmoboy - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Excellent Review Anand. Do you have a explanation why the 13" MBA i7 is 28 sec slower in the iMovie '11 (Import + Optimize) benchmark than the i5 version? Seems bit strange when the i7 scores higher on every other of your benchmarks (as one would expect) Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now