[Update: We've added First Look videos for both MacBooks. The 13-inch MacBook Air video is above, the 11-inch MacBook Air video is just below. ]
As with most Apple products, the MacBook Air has moved into an annual update cycle, taking it from the original niche product version to its new perch as Apple's mainstream laptop. And make no mistake about it, with the quiet discontinuation of the basic $999 white MacBook, the 11-inch Air (and to a lesser extent, the more expensive 13-inch version) is now considered the entry point for potential Apple laptop buyers.
We've gotten our hands on both the new 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air models, and will be testing them throughout the day. These are our initial hands-on impressions, to be followed by our full reviews with complete benchmarking and battery life scores.
Physically, the new MacBook Air models look and feel identical to the ones from October 2010, with one important exception. Both sizes now include a backlit keyboard, a much-missed feature in the previous generation (in a CNET poll, 26 percent of readers listed a backlit keyboard as their most-wanted new MacBook Air feature).
That's welcome news to most, because the Air's always been a laptop with heavy appeal for writers and on-the-go bloggers; now, low-level lighting isn't a threat to productivity. The lighting's exactly the same as what you'd find on a MacBook Pro.
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Apple quietly discontinues white MacBook
Can the MacBook Air replace the White MacBook?
Apple's new Air models hold last year's prices, but dramatically upgrade the processing power: the new second-generation Core i5 processor in the base 11-inch and 13-inch Air looks to be on par with what we've seen in so far in 2011 from ultrathin laptops such as the Samsung Series 9.
Thunderbolt's been added to the both Airs as well, replacing the Mini DisplayPort. For most users, it'll be an Easter egg to discover as the year goes on. Using it for large port-studded monitors like Apple's forthcoming Thunderbolt Display could be hugely appealing for back-to-schoolers looking for a dockable laptop/desktop combo.
With the look and feel staying the same, and a CPU bump that you may not notice outside of gaming, video editing, and other high-end tasks, the next most obvious change to the MacBook Air line is the preinstalled OSX Lion software.
Lion is still new to us, so we haven't fully appreciated all the ins and outs yet, but one of its most visible features is a shift in user interface to a more multitouch, gesture-based, nearly iOS-like experience. Some might not care that Lion now can show all its apps in an iPad-like grid, or that many applications can now be seamlessly expanded to full-screen modes with minimal side bars or menus, but such changes make the biggest difference on laptops with smaller screens--namely, the 11-inch Air.
Maximizing and utilizing the small-screen landscape properly has always been a beef for us on Windows 11-inchers and Netbooks; with Lion and the 11-inch Air, it makes the most of limited screen real estate. Similarly, the newly added application resume feature, which restores all open windows and documents since last used, feels perfectly suited for a quick-on, quick-off computer like the MacBook Air.
While the keyboard and trackpad are the same (backlighting aside) as on the previous 11- and 13-inch models, using the new OS X Lion gestures can take some getting used to. The gestural language is now even further divorced from the Windows standard. For example, you no longer double-tap-and-drag to move a window. Instead, just use three fingers while hovering over the title bar. The four-finger flick to return to the desktop has been reassigned to a feature called Mission Control, which shows all your active apps, alternative desktop screens, etc. To get back to a clean desktop, you now pinch out from your thumb and three fingers. There are several other new gesture tricks, and fortunately the System Preferences menu shows animated examples of each one.
Our standard enthusiasm for the unmatched Apple trackpad and excellent keyboard remains, and applies to both sizes. Other laptop makers have also moved to larger clickpad-style touch pads, but we have yet to find a touch pad that comes close to this for multitouch gestures. The pad is again hinged at the top, allowing the entire pad to click down, and we suggest going into the Preferences menu and turning on all of the tapping options for further ease of use.
On the larger 13-inch MacBook Air, the default 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD feels like enough for everyday use. On the smaller 11-inch model, you only get 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD for that much-hyped $999 entry price. Of that 64GB, only about 48GB is available to use after accounting for the operating system and preinstalled apps. With a big music or video collection, or lots of high-end games, that can start to feel crowded pretty quickly. Upgrades to both 128GB and 256GB drives are available for the 11-inch, and adding a 256GB drive brings the price to $1,499. Both sizes can also trade up to a Core i7 CPU, which costs $1,349 for the 11-inch and $1,599 for the 13-inch.
We are currently running both MacBook Air laptops through our application benchmark and battery life tests, so stay tuned for full reviews of both systems (as well as the new Mac Mini desktop) later this week.