Apple’s 13″ MacBook Air

I’m not going to hem and haw: As far as I’m concerned, Apple’s new 13” MacBook Air is just about perfect.

Usually, when I’m reviewing laptops, I wind up with a variety of caveats that weed out potential buyers for whatever I have in hand. The screen isn’t big enough. There’s not enough RAM. The processor is outdated. The keyboard is spongy.

I’m having a tough time finding similar flaws in the new Air, which Apple rolled out last month when it released OS X 10.7, better known as Lion. Part of what makes the Air such a great little laptop is Lion. Part of it is the hardware itself. Put those two pieces together and you have a solid nexus of modern OS and top-notch hardware that makes this laptop a real pleasure to use.

And I’m saying this as someone who always — always — defaults to a larger screen, aiming for as much high-resolution real estate as I can get. Preferably with the fastest processor available. (Right now, my personal laptop of choice is the top-of-the-line 17” MacBook Pro.)

Still, I find myself realizing I’d be fine with the 13” MacBook Air I’ve been using for a couple of weeks now. And as someone who had one of the first-generation Airs, all I can say is: Ain’t evolution grand?

The new Air — I reviewed the larger, US$1,299 model — is cutting-edge stylish, lightweight (less than 3 pounds), speedy (almost twice as fast as its immediate predecessor, thanks to a Core i5 Sandy Bridge chip), well-built (aluminum unibody construction), and a showcase for the new Lion OS. I’m already a huge fan of full-screen apps and swiping back and forth between desktop spaces using Mission Control gestures. With the Air, Apple’s melding of desktop OS and mobile iOS really shines.

As a friend noted, “It’s like having an iPad with a keyboard.”

The Air lineup

There are four models in the Air lineup: Two feature an 11.6”screen, and two come with a 13.3” screen like the Air I’m using now.

Prices start at US$999 for the 11.6” model with 64GB of storage and 2GB of RAM. If you want a really lightweight, netbook-like laptop, then this is your model. I find the screen size too small, even though the resolution is 1366 x 768 pixels. It’s too much like looking through a mail slot.

Because Apple has killed off the old white plastic MacBook, this is now the entry-level model for Apple laptops. If you can live with the screen and limited storage, it’s a good choice. Do yourself a favor, though, and bump up the RAM from 2GB to 4GB. (You can’t install extra RAM yourself so you have to do this when you buy.) That adds US$100 to the cost and edges you closer to the US$1,199 model, which includes 4GB of RAM and comes with 128GB of storage.

The extra RAM is important, too, since all of the Airs use the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 chipset. If you have 2GB of RAM, you’ll have up to 256MB of video RAM available; moving to 4GB of RAM allows the integrated chip to use up to 384MB of video RAM.

Storage is solid-state on all four models, ranging from the aforementioned 64GB (too small) to 128GB (probably fine for most people) to 256GB (what I’d want). Using flash storage is a smart move for Apple because it allows for a thin form factor and because it speeds up everything you do.

The SSD storage also plays well with Lion’s “Resume” feature, which re-opens all apps and windows just where you left off when you shut down the machine. Sleep is instantaneous, and waking the machine back up takes about two seconds. SSDs also have no mechanical parts to break and help with battery life.

More important, the SSD storage now used across the line is speedy. Start-up time from Mac chime to desktop takes about 15 seconds, and apps launch in much less time than that. Programs like Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 and Dreamweaver CS5.5 are up and running in only 6 seconds or so; most others — Safari, Mail, Microsoft Outlook and Word — launch even faster.

New to this generation of Airs are Intel processors based on Sandy Bridge technology. The smaller MacBook Airs come with a 1.6GHz Core i5 processor; the larger models start out with a 1.7GHz Core i5. You can also bump up the processor to a slightly faster Core i7 chip, though I doubt most people would notice the speed difference in daily use.

For most people, the sweet spot will be the exact model I’m using: the MacBook Air with 13.3” screen, 1.7GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM and 128GB storage.

Old vs. new

The Air has evolved quite a bit since it arrived in early 2008. The first-generation model — I bought mine at Apple’s flagship store in New York — wowed buyers by being incredibly light and thin. It was also slow and underpowered, especially if you got the one with the 4,200rpm PATA hard drive. That’s the one I bought, and it’s still in use; my partner’s mother now keeps it for light surfing and e-mail.

Over the next three years, Apple gradually updated the internal architecture with faster processors and better storage options. But the Air always led first with style and form, even when it received a major update last year.

Weight has remained pretty constant: the 13.3” model weighs just under 3 pounds; the 11.6” version checks in at a svelte 2.38 pounds. Both are less than 7/10 of an inch thick. And either will fit in one of those standard-size interoffice mailers.

For comparison purposes, the lesser Air weighs about a pound more than an iPad.

With the changeover to Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors and better integrated video hardware, this is a laptop that can keep up with the MacBook Pro line. True, the Core i-series processors in the Air models are all dual-core, while those in the MacBook Pro line are quad-core processors. But the dual-core models are more than fast enough for the Air, and they’re noticeably faster than last year’s versions.

More RAM, new Thunderbolt port

Part of what makes these new models a delight is the 4GB of RAM included with all but the entry-level unit. Until now, all Air models came with 2GB of RAM, half what Apple says Lion works best with. Sure, you could double the RAM on most of the 2010 models, but it added to the cost.

Another important way the Air has evolved since ’08 is with the addition last year of a second USB port, and the arrival with this year’s model of a Thunderbolt port. As noted in my review of the 15” MacBook Pro in March, Thunderbolt is a high-speed interconnect technology for peripherals that holds great promise, but is still a little ahead of the curve. There just aren’t many Thunderbolt-ready peripherals available yet, though a few hard drives are starting to hit the marketplace.

Thunderbolt, which Apple developed jointly with Intel, essentially gives you two channels for data, whether you’ve connected up an HD video camera, an external monitor, a hard drive — or all three. (You can daisy-chain up to six peripherals using the lone Thunderbolt port on the Air.) And it’s fast: Double the speed of USB 3.0, Thunderbolt offers up to 10Gbps of data I/O per channel. Though options are limited now, the inclusion of Thunderbolt should keep the Air on the cutting edge of tech for the foreseeable future.

Sharp screen and a lighted keyboard

The new Air models offer the same screen resolution as before: the 11.6” screen is 1366 x 768 pixels; the 13.3” Air has a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels. That’s the same resolution as the 15” MacBook Pro, which sells for $1,799. While it makes icons and text a bit smaller, it also makes them incredibly sharp. Even with my near-50-year-old eyes, I found text to be crisp and clear, with colors that are well-saturated. And I had no problems with viewing angles.

For those who keep tabs on the details, the smaller Air screen packs in 135 pixels per inch; the larger model has 128 pixels per inch. The more pixels per inch, the smoother things look. The screen, which has a glossy finish, is extremely bright, too — useful even on a sunny outdoor porch.

Almost as important to me, since I don’t touch type, is the return of the lighted keyboard. Apple inexplicably dropped the backlit keyboard from the 2010 Air lineup, and as someone who enjoys working in low-light situations, that omission alone would have been a showstopper for me. I need to see the letters on the keys.

Apparently, so do a lot of users. They let Apple know that they were displeased by the change last year, and Apple responded by bringing back what has long been one of my favorite features. The keyboard, by the way, feels as solid as the one on the 17” MacBook Pro I use. Credit the unibody aluminum construction technique that is now de rigueur for Apple laptops.

Working with Lion

Apple waited until Lion was ready before rolling out the new Air models. Doing so gets Lion into the hands of users quickly, because the Air continues to be a popular model. In fact, some spot shortages were reported last week as buyers snapped them up.

Better yet, Lion works really well with the Air — almost as if they were built for each other. I say that because, as noted earlier, I tend to like big screens and high resolutions. With Lion, you can now expand a lot of apps to full screen and then use trackpad gestures to swipe back and forth between those apps on virtual desktops. (I do the same thing on my larger MacBook Pro.)

Flicking back and forth between screens makes the Air feel practically expansive. No longer do you have to crowd various windows on one screen, something that in the past left me feeling cramped on smaller laptops. I’m not quite ready to give up on my 17” laptop, but if I were in the market today, I’d be tempted. (More about this in a minute.)

On a final note regarding Lion, the Air is the first laptop from Apple that uses the company’s new Internet Recovery feature. In essence, if your hard drive gets corrupted — and the Recovery partition created by Lion gets hosed, too — the Air can get the files needed to reinstall Lion online. (Of course, you’ll need to have an Internet connection to do so.) Basically, the Air can “phone home,” download the files you need to get Lion reinstalled, and you can then copy your apps and files back from a Time Machine backup. (Apple also released a disaster recovery tool on Monday that you can use to make your own recovery disk.)

Day-to-day use

The MacBook Air is great as a traveling companion. The sturdy construction means you can slip it in a backpack and not feel like it’s going to get damaged when you’re carrying it around. And the light weight means you’ll barely notice that you’re toting it. This is truly a road warrior’s delight.

Battery life is very good, though I always have a hard time hitting the numbers Apple advertises. It says the Air will last about 7 hours on battery, which is pretty remarkable given how thin the Air is; there’s just not much room for a large battery inside. With the screen brightness turned all the way up, Wi-Fi on and a few apps like Mail, Safari and TweetDeck running in the background, I’ve been getting about 5 hours while doing text editing, checking messages, surfing and listening to music via iTunes.

Turning down the brightness and using the default energy-saving preferences will give you more time. I tend to tweak those preferences, though, as I find them overly aggressive; the screen dims too fast during periods of inactivity for my taste.

In terms of raw processing power, I ran the Geekbench benchmarking app (in 32-bit mode), which returned a score of 5,452. The equivalent model from last year got a score of 2,678, according to Primate Labs, which has a rundown on all of Apple’s recent laptops and the Mac mini here. The upshot: The Air is no longer a stylish but underpowered laptop. You can have your cake (a lightweight laptop) and eat it too (with speeds in the same ballpark as low-end MacBook Pro models).

To compare extremes, I also ran Geekbench on my top-end 17” MacBook Pro, which has a 2.2GHz Core i7 chip, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. That score: 10,161.

The buying equation and final thoughts

I was at a cocktail party this past weekend when a friend asked me about getting a new MacBook Air. He has an older Windows machine and is tired of malware problems and the need to reboot often. He has an iPhone, which he likes, and wondered if it’s time to jump to Apple. Before I answered his question, I asked two of my own: 1) How often do you use or burn CDs and DVDs? And 2) Do you have a lot videos and music you need to store?

As it turns out, he almost never burns discs and doesn’t keep a big collection of stuff. I recommended that he check out the Air, and pointed out that he can always get the US$79 external optical disc if he needs one down the road.

A co-worker had a variation on that same question. Should he get a 13” MacBook Pro or the 13” Air? My hunch is that a lot of buyers may be weighing the same choice. The entry-level MacBook Pro starts at US$1,199 — US$100 less than this Air. It comes with more storage (a slow 5,400rpm 320GB hard drive) and a slightly faster dual-core i5 processor. It also has a built-in optical disc, more ports and a FaceTime HD webcam. (The Air’s camera isn’t HD.) Oh, and it weighs 50 per cent more: 4.5 pounds.

I still recommended the Air, mainly for the advantage the SSD storage offers in day-to-day usability. That alone transforms the way this laptop feels — and a lot of what we think of as speed when it comes to computers, rightly or wrongly, is about perception. (He remains on the fence.)

Personally, this is the first Air I could see myself using daily for the indefinite future. As much as I loved the style of the first model, I knew when I bought it that I was making a trade-off in terms of processing power. That trade-off no longer applies. While I remain enamored of the 17” MacBook Pro and hopeful that Apple will one day release one that uses the same form-factor as the Air, it’s still a 6.6-pound beast that isn’t getting any lighter.

There may well be a MacBook Air in my future.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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