Final Words

Whereas last year's MacBook Air was a good machine for light work, the 2011 models are true replacements for mainstream portable Macs. There's still no dethroning the MacBook Pro (although the 13-inch model clearly needs a higher resolution display option), but for the rest of the world there are now some excellent ultra portable options that don't force you to really compromise on performance.

Both the 11 and 13-inch MacBook Air are fast enough to replace your 3 year old MacBook Pro and still deliver better performance. You can even move from a 2010 MacBook Pro to an upgraded MacBook Air and not notice any drop in performance. All of this is thanks to Intel's Sandy Bridge CPU.


From left to right: 15-inch MacBook Pro, 13-inch MacBook Air, 11-inch MacBook Air

It's the GPU performance that I'm less excited about. While last year's GeForce 320M isn't significantly faster than the HD 3000 in the new MacBook Air, it's still faster in our tests. There's not much Apple could've done about this. I don't believe a discrete GPU in an Air makes sense, but this should be a clear message to Intel. Sandy Bridge's GPU is the bare minimum, we need to really see a real ramp in performance from here on out. Ivy Bridge will give us a bit of that but not another doubling in GPU performance. Perhaps we'll see something significant from Haswell in 2013. For now, if you like gaming on the go you'll have to get a MacBook Pro.

When it comes to battery life the new MacBook Air doesn't break any records, but it doesn't disappoint either (at least under OS X). With the exception of the our light web browsing test, the new MacBook Air behaves pretty similarly to last year's model on battery power. The new 13 doesn't do anywhere near as well in mostly idle scenarios but under moderate to heavy load the new MBAs last at least as long as their predecessors.

The only move I would be careful about is a downgrade from a 13-inch 2011 MacBook Pro. The new 13-inch MBP is still considerably faster than the MacBook Air, while the more portable form factor is tempting you're better off waiting to see what Apple does with the next update to the MacBook Pro.

If you were a fan of the original MacBook Air, the 2011 models are just as significant of an introduction as the very first one in 2008. They may not look any different from the outside, but the new 11 and 13-inch MacBook Air are a significant step forward. These systems are no longer niche ultraportables, they've instead brought the ultraportable niche into the mainstream.

If you're stuck deciding between the two I think it breaks down like this. If you've got a beefy system at home and just need something portable for travel, the 11-inch Air is perfect. It's now fast enough to get real work done on the road and portable enough to feel like a tablet with an integrated keyboard. If you're replacing a primary notebook however, the 13 is the safer bet. It is sized like a normal notebook, you get longer battery life and a bigger screen to look at. If you're a fan of extremes, the 11 is for you. If you like balanced compromises, go with the 13.

What happens from here on out is what's really interesting. Intel has already committed to moving the TDP of its mainstream parts from 35W - 45W down to 10 - 20W. Since the Air is the new mainstream Mac notebook, Apple has already made that move. The performance in this 10 - 20W segment is going to get much better over the next two years, particularly once Haswell arrives.

The Thunderbolt Display is the first sign of what's to come. Moving IO controllers and expansion into the display, and potentially even moving discrete GPUs out of the notebook are all in store for us. Apple is really ahead of the curve here, but it's easy to imagine a future where laptops become a lot more like the new Air and shift to a couple high bandwidth ports instead of numerous lower bandwidth connections.

There's a lot to like with the new MacBook Airs; the last update was good, but performance was still often lacking. The MBA 11 in particular is now much more useful, and the 13 rightfully spells the end of the line for the old MacBook. While pricing is higher than typical 11" to 13" Windows laptops, you really can't find a competing Windows laptop with all the features the MBA offers without paying a similar price premium. You get a nice chassis with excellent build quality, decent displays that trump every budget laptop we've looked at, and reasonable battery life. If you like thin and light ultraportables, the MacBook Air continues to be one of the best options around.

Windows 7 Battery Life
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  • netmask254 - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    It's really surprising to me that the huge random speed difference, and how can Apple tolerate such an inconsistent behavior among different machines? I heard that the buyer will randomly get a Sumsung or Toshiba SSD even for the same model, that's too bad. However, maybe most Apple users don't care about it or don't know it. Reply
  • beginner99 - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Yeah, especially since you would actually pay an apple premium for knowing what you get. But then these are more priced like windows laptops so they probably had to lower some standards.
    The so called ultrabooks according to rumors might even be more expensive than MBA. IMHO especially the 256 GB version is a bargain (if you get the Samsung ssd). That alone costs you like 400$ if you would manually upgrade a cheap windows laptop.
    Isn't the 4k random read the main thing that prevents stuttering issues ins ssd compared to hdds?
    Reply
  • lyeoh - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    I think the stuttering is more to do with the max access latency.

    You could have a very fast drive that averages 100MB/sec over 1 minute, but if every 30 seconds it "hangs" for one second, you would notice it.

    e.g. for one second your transfer rate drops to 0MB/sec, but for the other 29 seconds it transfers at 104MB/sec.

    That's why many of those benchmarks don't tell you everything about how it feels.

    Same goes for fps you could get 120fps but if what appears on the screen is actually delayed by a 100 milliseconds, it's worse than something that "only" does 60 fps with 5 millisecond delay.

    Not many reviewers test for latency. Anandtech does have some latency tests for a few SSDs, but so far it does not appear to be a standard benchmark.
    Reply
  • KPOM - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Interestingly, on the MacRumors forum someone posted results of another benchmark that suggested that the Toshiba outperformed the Samsung on random reads and writes, though the Samsung outperform on sequential.

    http://translate.google.com/translate?u=http%3A%2F...

    Anand says the Samsung outperforms on both. Note that this was also the case in the 2010s. Toshibas started shipping first, and Samsungs made their way into the system in January. Apple seems to have carried them over unchanged to the 2011. I wonder what impact supply chain issues (e.g. the tsunami) and legal issues (e.g. Apple's lawsuit against Samsung) have on their purchasing decisions?
    Reply
  • fericia - Monday, August 15, 2011 - link

    My wife's 13-inch one came with SM256... Reply
  • arthur449 - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Light Web Browsing Battery Life
    13-inch MacBook Air (Mid 2011) - Core i5 2.7GHz

    This message will self-destruct after reading.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Fixed :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • refresh_time - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Thank you for a very in-depth review.
    I was ordered the i7 13" without needing the bigger ssd, but after reading this, I think i should exchange it for a i5 :D
    All I wanted from i7 was video work on imovie but if there is only about a 10% gain in performance, I think I'm better with i5.. (right?)
    But i read the mba review here (http://www.gadgetreview.com/2011/07/apple-macbook-... and they seem to recommend i7 highly. what do you think?

    I'll use the return money to buy a 1tb hardrive and a nice sleeve
    Reply
  • iwod - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    I think we need something thinner, lighter, and more size to choose from. Not everyone's home can fit a bloody 27" Monitor. Reply
  • ImSpartacus - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Apple doesn't do low margin products.

    Even if they offered a 24" IPS panel with all the fixings, it would approach $500. It's hard to explain to a customer why they need to spend twice as much as a bargain bin 24" TN panel.

    There aren't a lot of 1440p 27" monitors on the market today for less than $1000, so Apple doesn't run into any comparison problems. The camera, speakers and connectivity features are just gravy.
    Reply

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