(For a comparative look at the entire Apple MacBook line, read our 2012 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air roundup.)
Remember Netbooks and ultraportable laptops? Those 10- and 11-inchers were all the rage a few years ago, but thanks to the rise of larger-screened ultrabooks and smaller-screened tablets, they've been disappearing from the computer landscape.
One significant 11-incher still remains: the 11-inch MacBook Air. When it first debuted in late 2010, it was the answer to the Netbook Generation. Now it stands alone, not only as a speedy ultraportable, but as one of the few 11-inch ultrabook-class laptops around. The closest Windows equivalent we've reviewed recently, the Dell XPS 13, is larger and heavier.
Last year's 11-inch Air was a beautifully compact and surprisingly powerful machine, nearly as quick as a 13-inch Air, but with sacrificed battery life due to its tiny size.
This year's model is faster, packing a third-gen Intel Core i5 processor that's nearly indistinguishable from the one in the larger 13-inch MacBook Air. USB 3.0 ports have been added, and battery life is better, finally clearing 5 hours and then some on our tests.
The other problem had to do with price: last year's attractive $999 entry-level MacBook Air came with a diminutive 64GB solid-state drive (SSD) and only 2GB of RAM (which couldn't be upgraded). The package you really had to upgrade to was the one with a 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM, which cost $1,199.
This year, the entry-level 2012 11-inch Air is still $999 -- the least expensive MacBook in Apple's lineup -- but still only has a 64GB SSD (though 4GB of RAM this time). The good news is that the configuration you'll want, with a 128GB SSD, costs $1,099, $100 less than last year's step-up. (If I were to be really nitpicky, I'd say that that $100 bump-up only buys you more SSD space as opposed to last year getting the SSD and RAM, but the total cost for components is $100 less either way).
A thousand dollars is a lot to pay for such a tiny laptop, but this Air's shocking portability and comfortable keyboard will win travelers over, with performance that's pretty much as good as that of the fuller Air. You're giving up about 2 hours of battery life and an SD card slot for the privilege compared with the 13-inch. Then again, some might enjoy saving an extra $100 off a similar 13-inch configuration. Either way, the 11-inch seems better as a luxurious secondary computer than a primary one.
|Price as reviewed||$999|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5 ULV (third-gen)|
|Memory||4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||64GB SSD|
|Graphics||Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||OS X Lion 10.7.4|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.8x7.56 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||2.34 pounds / 2.78 pounds|
Unlike Microsoft and its Windows 8 strategy, Apple has pursued two nonoverlapping paths for mobile computing in the iPad and the MacBook Air. The Air is a full OS X laptop, but it feels iPad-size when closed.
Its dimensions, while longer and thicker, aren't far off. From the front, the 0.11-inch edge looks iPad-thin; it's 0.68 inch thin on the back. At 2.38 pounds, it's a little under a pound heavier than the third-generation Retina Display iPad.
The new 11-inch Air is identical to last year's in size, shape, and design, and hasn't changed at all since its introduction in late 2010. It still looks cutting-edge; the all-metal aluminum construction gives it a seriously solid feel despite its blade-thin profile, and the whole package feels thin and light even to someone used to working with very small laptops (such as myself).
Yet, even though the Air is small, it manages to avoid compromising the keyboard and trackpad -- they're full-size -- or even screen resolution, which is a standard 1,366x768 pixels. You can see upon lifting the Air's lid that the 11.6-inch screen has a significant aluminum bezel around it, enough space, it feels like, for a 12-inch screen. The reason for the extra bezel is clear when you look below: the large, wide keyboard is basically identical in size to the 13-inch Air's, fitted snugly edge to edge. The Dell XPS 13, a 13-inch ultrabook shrunk into a 12-inch footprint, is still larger and heavier at 3 pounds versus the 11-inch Air's 2.38, and thicker all around.
The backlit keyboard has the same shallower raised keys as the 13-inch Air, but the typing experience, once you get used to it, feels excellent. The multitouch glass clickpad below is still the best in its class, perfectly responsive and tuned to Apple's operating system and software. The pad's surface area is smaller than on a 13-inch Pro or Air, but there's plenty of room for basic navigation -- although four-finger pinch gestures can get a bit cramped.
The only cosmetic change to the Air's exterior is a new MagSafe 2 connector that fits with a new charging cable that juts out rather than riding snugly along the Air's side. The connector port isn't compatible with older MagSafe cables.