Keyboard and Trackpad

The keyboard on the 2012 MacBook Air is the same as the 2011 model. You get a full sized keyboard on both the 11 and 13-inch models, with the alphanumeric keys measuring ~15 x 15mm. The function keys are half height on the 13 and even smaller on the 11, but there's no sacrifice in key size otherwise. Key travel and physical feedback are both as good as they can get on a chiclet-style keyboard. As Apple has now fully transitioned to this style of keyboard across all of its Macs, I can't really say I have any complaints about it. Apple's keyboard remains one of the best on the market.

The dedicated power button from the older Macs is gone and replaced with a power key that looks like another function key. The power key is functionally no different than the old power button - tap to turn on, hold to power down in the event of a hard lock.

The 2012 keyboard is nicely backlit, just like on every MacBook Air but the 2010. Apple offers fine grained controls over the keyboard backlight (16 adjustable levels). You can either choose to control it on your own or let the ambient light sensor control the intensity of the keyboard's backlight.

We spend so much time pointing out poor clickpads in the latest Ultrabooks that it's important to mention just how good the clickpad is in the MacBook Air. Apple continues to use the top hinged design on its glass covered clickpad. Clicks are easier towards the bottom of the pad than at the top where the hinge is. The clickpad is glass covered which makes it very smooth and comfortable to use. Finger rejection is handled extremely well under OS X, accidental clicks are very rare. I typically keep my thumb on the clickpad, near where the right mouse button would traditionally be, and mouse around with my index finger. While I normally have issues with this usage model on most of the clickpads I use, Apple's implementation is both the exception and the benchmark. It just works.

USB 3.0 Performance

USB 3.0 is alive and well on the new MacBook Air. Both ports support the standard and both OS X and the hardware supports the USB Attached SCSI Protocol (UASP). I have noticed that USB device compatibility is more finicky on the MacBook Air compared to the rMBP. Most devices seem to work fine but Kingston's HyperX Max 3.0 for example wouldn't work, although it worked fine on the rMBP. The hardware is actually detected by OS X, the drive simply never appears to Disk Utility or in Finder. A few folks have noticed something similar with other drives on Apple's support forums but the issue doesn't seem to have widespread implications.

USB 3.0 performance however is just as good as on the rMBP. I still need to grab a UASP enabled USB 3.0 device with 6Gbps SATA support to really stress the interface, but using Seagate's GoFlex USB 3.0 drive and a Kingston HyperX SSD in place of the mechanical drive I'm able to hit around 260MB/s:

Thunderbolt support comes courtesy of a 4-channel Cactus Ridge controller. The Thunderbolt port continues to be on the opposite side of the machine from the power connector. Anyone who owns a Cinema or Thunderbolt Display will bemoan the continued use of this configuration.

FaceTime HD Camera

Last year Apple introduced a 720p FaceTime HD camera to its MacBook Pro. The 2012 MBA inherits the same camera. Image quality remains acceptable as long as you're in a room with not terrible lighting.

Most of the Ultrabooks I play with these days try to mimic the FaceTime HD experience by using a 720p sensor. Arguably just as important as the sensor is the software that goes along with it. Photo Booth and Apple's FaceTime app are both extremely simple and quick to launch. I can't stress the importance of getting little details like this right when selling to general consumers.

SD Card Performance

The SD card reader on the 13-inch MacBook Pro had no compatibility issues with Patriot's EP Pro UHS-I SD card. Max performance of the reader appears to be capped at 40MB/s however:

The rMBP by comparison can deliver more than 80MB/s in the read portion of this test. Even writes are faster at ~40MB/s on the rMBP compared to around 32MB/s here. It's a lot of these little things that contribute to the differences between Apple's MacBook Air and Pro lines.

WiFi Performance

Wireless connectivity remains unchanged from last year's model. Broadcom is on 802.11n WiFi duty with its BCM4322. Both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are supported. The same 2x2:2 configuration (2 send and receive antennas with 2 spatial streams) remains from last year as well.

I ran the 13-inch MacBook Air through the same three location WiFi test that I put the rMBP and 2011 MBP through, on both 5GHz and 2.4GHz. Performance on 2.4GHz was unusually low on the Netgear WNDR4500 I usually test with (10 - 20Mbps regardless of location) so I had to switch to the previous generation Apple Time Capsule to ensure there was nothing wrong with the notebook itself. All of the 2.4GHz MBA numbers have a star next to them to indicate that they aren't totally comparable as they're using a different AP. The 5GHz numbers all came from the Netgear however.

  Location 1 Location 2 Location 3
2011 MacBook Pro (2.4GHz) 124.0 Mbps 12.6 Mbps 61.6 Mbps
Retina MacBook Pro (2.4GHz) 117.9 Mbps 87.6 Mbps 44.0 Mbps
2012 MacBook Air (2.4GHz) 95.7 Mbps* 75.2 Mbps* 31.2 Mbps*
2011 MacBook Pro (5GHz) 186.8 Mbps 154.6 Mbps 24.7 Mbps
Retina MacBook Pro (5GHz) 227.7 Mbps 156.8 Mbps 33.7 Mbps
2012 MacBook Air (5GHz) 159.4 Mbps 97.0 Mbps -

Overall WiFi performance is decent but obviously not as good as what you get from a MacBook Pro. Looking back at the results I almost wonder if the 2011 MBP wasn't showing some of these weird 2.4GHz issues on the Netgear router as well.

In the best conditions on 5GHz you can hit around 160Mbps, but you pretty much have to be right next to a good AP for that to work. Across a large room or in an adjacent one just under 100Mbps is possible on 5GHz as well. Go further out and you'll have to switch over to 2.4GHz.

There are no wired network options by default, however Apple's Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet adapter works just fine on the new Air as well as the rMBP.

MagSafe 2

MagSafe 2 makes an appearance on the new MacBook Air, although it's curiously absent from the non-retina MacBook Pro. Eventually I'd expect all Macs to use MagSafe 2. The current state of things is likely temporary fragmentation. Similar to the rMBP, the actual power adapters themselves haven't changed: 45W is all you need for both systems.

Ivy Bridge on Air

Apple keeps its CPU options pretty simple and straightforward. You get a choice of three different CPUs, all dual-core, all rated at a 17W TDP. The Core i5-3317U comes standard in the 11, the i5-3427U comes with the 13, and both systems can be upgraded to the Core i7-3667U.

The breakdown between the chips is below:

Apple 2012 MacBook Air Comparison
  1.7GHz dual-core 1.8GHz dual-core 2.0GHz dual-core
Standard On 11-inch MBA 13-inch MBA Optional for Both
Intel Model Core i5-3317U Core i5-3427U Core i7-3667U
Base Clock Speed 1.7GHz 1.8GHz 2.0GHz
Max SC Turbo 2.6GHz 2.8GHz 3.2GHz
Max DC Turbo 2.4GHz 2.6GHz 3.0GHz
L3 Cache 3MB 3MB 4MB
AES-NI Yes Yes Yes
VT-x Yes Yes Yes
VT-d Yes Yes Yes
TDP 17W 17W 17W
Processor Graphics Intel HD 4000 Intel HD 4000 Intel HD 4000
GPU Clock (Base/Max) 350/1050MHz 350/1150MHz 350/1150MHz

The Core i7 upgrade is likely worth it if this is going to be your primary system for an extended period of time, particularly if it's acting as a desktop replacement. As a mobile device the standard CPUs are quite fast. If you're an annual upgrader, save your money, but if you're going to hold onto the system for a while and do a lot of heavy work on it, the upgraded CPU is probably worth it.

There is a known bug with the upgraded CPU under Windows today. Turbo Boost is disabled under Windows on the 3667U, although it's fully functional under OS X. Apple is aware of the problem and I'd expect a fix at some point, but there's no indication of when.

Introduction The Display
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  • name99 - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    The most likely reason for the USB3 problems is devices that are just slightly out of spec, demanding more power than USB3 can deliver. The larger rMBP is willing to give them this extra power, the smaller MBAs cannot.

    This is a very common problem these days with flash storage. Look at a table of the power demands of various disks for either startup or sustained writes --- it is depressing how many are almost (but just over) the USB3 limit --- and there are plenty of manufacturers (yeah, OCZ, I'm looking at you) who are quite willing to sell you a "USB3" drive which kinda sorta appears to run until you generate a long series of sustained writes at which point it hangs.

    So why does the failure for these drives appear at plugin time?
    One possibility is that they need a burst of juice to start themselves going, another is that they negotiate with the host and can't negotiate as much power as they want. (I don't know the USB3 power negotiation protocol.)

    It would be an interesting experiment, IMHO, for Anand to try the problematic devices again with a Y cable that could deliver extra USB power from a second port.
    Reply
  • jospoortvliet - Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - link

    On a related note - neither can anyone sell the nice magsafe(2) adaptors, it seems. Quite annoying - I don't really get why it's legal that Apple can stop others from making those? I get they have patents on it, but wasn't the idea of the patent system to ensure inventors get decently renumerated, not to let them block others from using their inventions? I thought you HAVE to license your patents for a 'reasonable' fee... Still, all other laptops come without a magsafe-like plug... Reply
  • Romberry - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    ...or drowning in Kool-Aid. Apple cripples other OS's on their hardware (and does so for no good technical reason at all.) See my previous comment for more. Or take a look at Ed Bott's recent article on another site concerning battery life on a Mac running Windows. Or fire up Google. Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Here's what Ed Bott said:

    "I don’t blame Apple for this terrible performance. They’ve focused their engineering resources on their own hardware and their own operating system. For Apple, Boot Camp is a tool to use occasionally, when you need to run a Windows program without virtualization software getting in the way."

    It's always been obvious that Boot Camp drivers are subpar, though it is getting better. However, most people aren't buying Macs to run Windows as the primary OS. They do enough to get Windows running occasionally, but they rightfully spend their time and effort optimizing their hardware for OS X. What's the issue there?

    Incidentally, the new Boot Camp drivers do enable AHCI support, so TRIM, etc. will work in Windows 7 and Windows 8. They also generally deliver decent performance (the Core i7 bug notwithstanding). Apple doesn't need to make Boot Camp available at all.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    No good technical reason, for sure. Business reasons, on the other hand... There are many people out there who don't get the technical side of it, they just get what works and what doesn't. They see Windows running poorly on the same hardware, so they assume that with all things being equal that Windows is the source of the problem. Makes a simple kind of sense unless you know that Apple are responsible for tying the 2 together. They could easily do it properly, but they never will. Because they're Captialist Pigs! Yaaayyy! :D Reply
  • Freakie - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Wait wut... Are you being sarcastic? o_O It's not Apple's choice to allow other OS's on their laptop, it's the hardwork of the programmers for the other OS's that allow their OS's to be compatible with an incredibly large range of hardware. Unlike OSX which can't even figure out it's own small range of hardware. It's out of Microsoft's own decision that it can run on non-partnered computers that you build yourself, or buy from a company that doesn't make Windows computers. In fact. Apple puts specific features in OSX to make it not run on any hardware but theirs and users have to hack in order to get it to run on anything else.

    Apple should be hanged for their nonexistent allowances of other OS's.
    Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Uh, without Boot Camp, it would be very difficult to run Windows, because Windows doesn't support Apple's implementation of EFI (which predates Windows' support for UEFI). Also, they do write drivers for their components. Microsoft's stock drivers don't support all the hardware used. Reply
  • Freakie - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Yes, Microsoft uses a new, more advanced, and completely 64bit compatible version of EFI. Just because Apple did it first, doesn't mean they somehow do it better now xP Though from what I've seen, the ability to put Windows on a Mac without any modifications isn't a fault of Windows, but differences between the two OS's as well as Apple's insistence of only allowing Windows on their system under their own terms. If Apple was more open about things, then hackers would have had to work less =P

    I also never said they didn't write their own drivers? o_O I mean, they obviously don't write all of their own drivers 100%, as I am sure that the hardware manufacturers have to give them something to start with.

    And Microsoft's stock drivers are actually quite impressive. Of course they can' support every little peripheral, but they do an amazing job of supporting a countless range of combinations of hardware. There is no doubt that Microsoft's view on how it develops drivers is much more open than Apple's. Microsoft support DIY builders and system integrators as well, while Apple does not.
    Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Boot Camp came out before Windows supported EFI at all. Apple has no real incentive to switch to UEFI because it doesn't really offer significant benefits, and they'd have to modify UEFI anyway to keep OS X proprietary.

    My point wasn't about UEFI, though. It is about Apple enabling other operating systems to run on their computers. They actively added that capability when they didn't need to.

    Your point about MS' openness vs. Apple is well known. Microsoft is primarily a software company. Up to now, they haven't cared whether you installed Windows 7 on an Apple, a Dell, HP, or something you built yourself. However, with Windows RT, they are going partly the Apple route, since they won't sell the OS separately, and will individually approve manufacturers and designs. So apparently even they recognize there are advantages to a closed model.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    "When they didn't need to" <- What nonsense is this? A market requirement translates as a need. They would have lost all of the customers out there who require genuine Windows applications running under non-virtualised Windows. This is a non-trivial portion of the market.

    Apple do not do anything out of the generosity of their hearts. What wealthy company does?
    Reply

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