New MacBook Air's newness lies within

The MacBook Air looks the same. But it's not.

The latest MacBook Air masks a lot of new electronics under an old skin.

To me, the new MacBook Air (MBA) is truly a second-generation product despite its unchanged appearance. But before I explain why, let me clarify where I am coming from.

I have been using an MBA for the last eight months. Why the over-priced Air? I am a minimalist when it comes to computers (though not necessarily when it comes to spending money on computers). The more spartan the laptop is, the better. In a well-executed design this translates to more portability, which, for me, takes priority over performance and ports.

And this is especially true for the Air. The economy of design dictates lower performance and fewer connectors than mainstream laptops.

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Updated MacBook Air has new processor, chipset, graphics, and solid state drive Apple

Having said that, the new Air seems to have made significant gains in performance. (Again, this is a preview, so only benchmarks will bear this out.) The Air uses Intel's newest Penryn-architecture low-power mobile processors, not the older Merom processors--which were, let's be honest, already dated even way back in January when Apple launched the Air.

Penryn-class processors come with 6MB (versus the Merom's 4MB in the previous Air) of cache memory and faster front-side bus speeds (1066MHz versus 667MHz). Of course, other MacBooks use Penryn chips too but it is significant that these powerful mobile processors are now being squeezed into the Air's form factor.

The widely reported use of Nvidia's GeForce 9400M graphics is another big plus. This is a step up from Intel's integrated graphics, which for too long has really been the only choice for subnotebooks and ultraportables. Better game playing and the ability to drive Apple's new 24-inch LED Cinema Display as well as the 30-inch Cinema HD Display are other benefits. (More on the GeForce 9400M here.)

And let's not forget memory. The Air uses DDR3 memory versus the DDR2-specified chips of the previous Air. DDR3 delivers better bandwidth and lower power consumption than DDR2.

Storage. Generally speaking, solid-state drives are faster than hard disk drives, especially when reading data. The Air and the ThinkPad X300 legitimized SSDs. The new Air takes this to the next level with a larger 128GB solid-state drive (versus the previous model's 64GB SSD). The newer 128GB (and larger-capacity) solid-state drives are based on multilevel cell technology. MLC allows larger capacities at lower cost. But MLC-based drives typically don't deliver the performance of single-level cell (SLC) drives. Dell, for example, offers its Latitude E4200 ultraportable with both high-performance SLC drives and lower-performance MLC SSDs.

Last but not least is price. OK, so $2,499 is not a steal (for the 1.86GHz model with a 128GB SSD). But look at it this way, you get a lot more for the same price as the previous Air. You get a faster processor, better graphics, speedier memory, and a larger solid state drive. Though I wouldn't call this a great deal by any means, Apple could have priced it higher. (Apple has been known to push the envelope on pricing.)

Longstanding Issues

Let me also address some longstanding issues I've had with the Air. I currently use one of the original models--launched back in January--that comes with a 1.8GHz processor and 64GB solid state drive. The Air's aluminum body is wonderful, but it hasn't maintained the tolerances that it had at first. Specifically, the seams just below the keyboard sometimes creak (for lack of a better word) and, at times, noticeably expand and contract. Let me be clear: this is not a big issue and is noticeable only occasionally. Most users probably wouldn't notice this.

Heat. I hesitate to cite heat as an issue because every laptop I have ever owned has had heat issues--some much worse than the Air's. It's a little like complaining about your car's engine block getting warm. But because the aluminum body itself acts as a heat sink of sorts, excessive heat can become an issue when the Air is pushed to its limits. That is, a lot of open applications and a heavy workload.

Screen response time. This could be subjective to some extent but the LCD's response times seem to be slower than, for example, the response times I get from my other laptop: the 3.3-pound HP 2510p. In other words, whenever I go back to working on the 2510p after working on the Air for a while, I feel that the screen response times are better on the 2510p.

But overall the Air is an amazing piece of engineering and a delight to use.

(For another MacBook review, go here .)

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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