Apple's MacBook Air goes into Intel i5 hyperdrive

Apple's new MacBook Air leapfrogs from old Intel Core 2 Duo silicon to a fresh Sandy Bridge chip. That's a leap of two generations, and it shows in the performance.

Into a 0.68-inch high enclosure, Apple has dropped a modern high-performance engine where an old poky one used to be. That new powerplant would be Intel's newest power-efficient Core i5 processors, of course.

2011 MacBook Air.
2011 MacBook Air. CNET Reviews

Where a Core 2 Duo--introduced way back in 2006--was, the new MBAs house spanking new Sandy Bridge chips. Intel's newest design is two generations removed from the Core 2 Duo. And that means you get nice design extras like processors that overclock automatically when applications demand bursts of speed. Intel calls this turbo frequency.

So what's under the hood specifically? The i5-2467M (11.6-inch model) and i5-2557M (13.3-inch) processors, running at 1.6GHz (with turbo speeds up to 2.3 GHz) and 1.7GHz (can turbo up to 2.7 GHz) respectively.

There is also an option for an 1.8GHz Core i7 (add $100), which by all appearances is an i7-2677M that turbos to 2.9GHz. The i7 has a slightly larger cache, 4MB versus 3MB for the i5s. A larger cache typically means better performance.

And these processors deliver on performance--in tandem with fast solid-state drives. CNET Reviews' Dan Ackerman has run some initial tests (below) that are indeed impressive. (Also see CNET Reviews' product pages here and here.) The Multimedia Multitasking and Adobe Photoshop CS3 show impressive gains for both 2011 MBA models. And Apple iTunes encoding results show that we're talking about more than a small performance uptick.

The i5s and i7 used in the ultra-skinny Air are not gas-guzzlers. They're Intel's most power-efficient i series chips--what Intel used to refer to as ULV or ultra-low-voltage. All are rated at a cool 17 watts, rather the 25 or 35 watts for mainstream Intel laptop processors.

Intel's HD Graphics 3000 is also built into the chip. Nvidia's graphics chipset is no more. But there is no performance hit to speak of. And, besides, in the MBA enclosure's cramped quarters, the Intel-only layout apparently makes room for Thunderbolt-related circuitry, according to iFixit's teardown.

And for those willing to crack open an Air, the solid-state drive (ranging up to 256GB) is not soldered on the logic board, iFixit said. So it's user upgradable. That said, you're out of luck if you need extra RAM.

Apple MacBook Air Summer 2011 performance charts: initial benchmark scores. (Note: A full review with complete benchmarking and battery life scores will come later at CNET Reviews.)

Multimedia Multitasking test (in seconds)
(Lower numbers indicate better performance)
Apple Macbook Air 13.3-inch (Summer 2011): 233
Apple Macbook Pro 13.3 inch 2.3GHz Core i5 (2011): 239
Apple Macbook Air 11.6-inch (Summer 2011): 253
Apple Macbook Air 11.6-inch (2010): 719
Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A: 1094
Samsung Series 9 NP900X1A: 1436

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Lower numbers indicate better performance)
Apple Macbook Pro 13.3 inch 2.3GHz Core i5 (2011): 78
Apple Macbook Air 13.3-inch (Summer 2011): 85
Apple Macbook Air 11.6-inch (Summer 2011): 103
Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A: 139
Apple Macbook Air 13.3-inch (2010): 149
Apple Macbook Air 11.6-inch (2010): 199
Samsung Series 9 NP900X1A: 264

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Lower numbers indicate better performance)
Apple Macbook Air 13.3-inch (Summer 2011): 98
Apple Macbook Pro 13.3 inch 2.3GHz Core i5 (2011): 99
Apple Macbook Air 11.6-inch (Summer 2011): 110
Apple Macbook Air 13.3-inch (2010): 176
Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A: 226
Apple Macbook Air 11.6-inch (2010): 266
Samsung Series 9 NP900X1A: 321

System configurations:

Apple Macbook Air 13.3-inch - Summer 2011
OS X 10.7 Lion; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Apple SSD

Apple Macbook Air 11.6-inch - Summer 2011
OS X 10.7 Lion; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 256MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 64GB Apple SSD

Apple Macbook Air 13.3-inch
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce GT 320M; 128GB Apple SSD

Apple Macbook Air 11.6-inch
OS X 10.6.4 Snow Leopard; 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U9400 (ULV); 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 320M; 128GB Apple SSD

Samsung 9 Series
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB(Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 128GB Samsung SSD

Samsung Series 9 NP900X1A
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.33GHz Intel Core i3-380UM; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB(Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 64GB Samsung SSD

Apple Macbook Pro - Core i5 SandyBridge 13.3 inch - 2.3GHz
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; 2.3GHz Intel Core i5; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 320GB Hitachi 5,400rpm


Updated on July 22 at 12:30 a.m. PDT: with additional chart data and system configurations.

 

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