MacBook Air a great Windows Netbook, for a price

CNET's Dong Ngo's assessment of the 11.6-inch MacBook Air as a Windows-based Netbook.

The new Macbook Air's 4.2 Windows Experience Index is higher than that of most if not all Netbooks.
The new MacBook Air's 4.2 Windows Experience Index is higher than that of most if not all Netbooks. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

It's rather well-known that Steve Jobs doesn't like Netbooks, which he calls "slow, low-quality displays" that run "old PC software." And who would like a computer like that? I know I wouldn't.

However, as you more often than not should take what Jobs says with a grain of salt, Netbooks don't have to be that way. Case in point: the all-new MacBook Air. More specifically, the $999 11.6-inch 2010 version of what Jobs called "the third kind of notebook."

The computer meets every criterion of a modern high-end Netbooks. It's small and light, doesn't have an optical drive, has a limited number of peripheral ports, a limited amount of storage space, and a small screen. And most of all, it's relatively cheap (for an Apple product, that is.)

Of course, it can't be called a Netbook yet when it's not running Windows, which, however, can be fixed relatively easily.

Now that we've settled with the category, to Jobs' credit, he has just created the best Netbook ever. The MacBook Air is arguably the only Netbook on the market that is not only comparable with laptops but, in some cases, outdoes them in terms of performance. 

Just to see how well it does, I tested it against a few laptops with similar specs: the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge, the HP Pavilion dm3-1002, the Dell Inspiron 1470, the Acer Aspire TimelineX, and the same MacBook Pro that I used here. All of these machines run Windows 7. 

There are two things people generally look for in a portable computer in terms of performance: its general performance and the battery life. At CNET we have a few tests for a laptops' general performance, and you will soon find the official scores in a CNET review of the MacBook Air running the Mac OS.

The MacBook Air, running Windows 7, beats most of the budget laptops in terms of performance.
The MacBook Air, running Windows 7, beats most of the budget laptops in terms of performance. Dong Ngo/CNET

For this article, I only did two of them, including the iTunes Encoding and Multimedia Multitasking tests. The former is to measure how fast a computer converts a bunch of MP3 files into Apple's AAC music format. The second test is to have the machine convert large high-def video files into a video format that can be played on an iPod while it's also working on MP3 encoding in the background.

The MacBook Air, equipped with a 1.4Ghz Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM, did very well in the first test, taking just 287 seconds to finish, trailing only the MacBook Pro (162 seconds) and the Acer Aspire TimelineX (167 seconds). Both the MacBook Pro and the Acer have 4GB of RAM and much faster processors, however, which are  2.53Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo and 1.46GHz Intel Core i7, respectively.

In the second test, the MacBook Air also did similarly well, taking less time than most of the laptops, except for the MacBook Pro and the Acer Aspire TimelineX, with just 1,126 seconds. This was really impressive, as most Netbooks can't even handle this test.

It's interesting to note, however, that, apart from the MacBook Pro, the Air costs more than the rest of the laptops used for the comparison, including the Acer TimelineX, which has better scores. 

The MacBook Air offers a much better battery life when running Windows than the MacBook Pro.
The MacBook Air offers a much better battery life when running Windows than the MacBook Pro. Dong Ngo/CNET

Unlike the standard performance tests above, I did the battery life test slightly different from how we test laptops for official reviews, mostly to reduce the test time; the computers were set to drain the battery as fast as possible. They were made to play a high-def move on loop with its screen set to  its brightest setting, Wi-Fi turned on, and under the high-performance power scheme. To put this in perspective, the Acer TimelineX scored only 200 minutes in this test, as opposed to 280 minutes in the official test. 

Though the MacBook Air didn't score that high, it got 160 minutes, which is very good. What's even better is that, when running Mac OS, the battery life was just 5 minutes longer than when running Windows 7. This is a huge improvement over the MacBook Pro, where its Windows battery life is significantly shorter than that of the Mac OS. For general use, the Air can easily offer more than 4 hours, running either Mac OS or Windows 7.

Apart from these very good performance scores, after a week of using it, I also found that the Air's incredibly fast boot/shutdown process and the instant on from sleep mode are a few things that make it a great Netbook, if not the best out there. It's also virtually silent, as there's no moving parts inside, yet it manages to stay relatively cool, compared with the MacBook Pro.

So there you go: whether or not you call it a Netbook, the MacBook Air is a great device for both Mac and PC users who want some thing thin light, that still packs a decent punch when it comes to performance. That is, of course, if you can afford it, which is another story entirely.

Featured Video

Apple TV stretches Siri voice search in beta update

A developer preview of an Apple TV software update reveals new perks. Meanwhile, Twitter puts video ads on top of your feed and assembles a new troll-fighting task force.

by Bridget Carey