Hands-on with the 11.6-inch MacBook Air: This one goes to 11

Our first hands-on impressions of the new 11.6-inch MacBook Air.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read
Watch this: Apple MacBook Air (Fall 2010, 11.6-inch)

Update: We've updated our hands-on video with additional impressions after our first 24 hours with the new MacBook Air.

The new hardware announced at Apple's Back to the Mac press event was on display immediately after for attendees to poke and prod, including the new 11 and 13-inch MacBook Air models. Beyond that, our review sample of the 11-inch version is now winging its way back to CNET's New York labs for testing and benchmarking.

My initial hands-on impression of the new MacBook Air is largely positive. This is a product that--in its previous life--had a dedicated cult following but never found a real mainstream audience because of its high price and because it didn't do enough to distinguish itself from the rest of Apple's 13-inch laptop lineup. It was thinner and lighter, but still not quite different enough to justify the hefty investment.

By doing more to differentiate the product, and dropping the entry price, the new MacBook Air may succeed in carving out more than an enthusiast niche for itself.

MacBook Air 2010 (photos)

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If anything, the addition of an 11-inch size is a nod to the past several years of laptop development, where small, inexpensive Netbooks started as a niche market, with 7- and then 9-inch screens, then moved into the mainstream with 10- and 11-inch versions. Since the start of the MacBook era, Apple had largely ignored the shift in laptop prices and sizes, opting instead to stick to the higher end of the market, and not going below 13 inches (although there are still many fans of Apple's older 12-inch PowerBooks out there).

It's also worth noting that the two most common wish-list items we heard from Mac fans over the years were for a smaller laptop, and for a price cut on the expensive MacBook Air. This new model seems to accomplish both, so it will be very interesting to see what the public reaction to it is.

The new Airs, in both the 13-inch and 11-inch formats. are incredibly thin and light, even to someone used to working with very small laptops (such as Sony's SSD-only Vaio Z models). The all-metal construction keeps it form feeling too fragile, often an issue for ultra-thin systems. The shape is closer to the previous Air than we would have expected, given the radical redesign the iPhone 4 got over its predecessors. The body is tapered towards the front, creating an optical illusion of even more thinness (although it's still only 0.68 inches thick at the rear). Interestingly, the 11-inch and 13-inch both narrow down to the same 0.11-inches.

Another big development that got scant mention at the Apple press event: this is the first MacBook with a 16:9 display (the 13-inch is still 16:10), making 1,366x768 even more common as the native resolution of most laptops from 11 to 15 inches.

As with its other laptops, Apple built the MacBook Air with a single-piece aluminum chassis to strengthen the thin design that might be too fragile otherwise. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Doubling the USB ports over the original Air from one to two is a welcome gesture, but only the 13-inch has an SD card slot (seriously, Apple: every 10-inch $300 Netbook has an SD card slot, it's not that hard). Even more disappointing, both models lack backlit keyboards. Likewise missing: dedicated VGA or HDMI outputs are no-shows (you'll need an after-market adapter for the Mini-DisplayPort jack). Don't look for onboard Ethernet or built-in 3G wireless, either.

The large keyboard and touchpad (the same glass version found on other MacBooks) work well, although the function keys at the very top are very small. The F5 key is the only one missing an alternate function--on other MacBooks, it's for the keyboard backlight.

In anecdotal use, the 11-inch Air feels speedy enough, closer to a full-size laptop than even a dual-core 11-inch premium Netbook. That makes sense, as the Core 2 Duo/Nvidia 320M combo is the same as you'd find in the current $999 white MacBook (although this is a ULV version of the Core 2 Duo in this case). It'll be especially interesting to compare this to the 11-inch Acer Timeline, which has a low-voltage Intel Core i7 CPU for $899.

Our only other initial design issue with the 11-inch MacBook Air is the lack of edge-to-edge glass over the display. Instead, there's a large silver bezel that, while not affecting the functionality, simply doesn't look as good as the glass-over-black look of Apple's other laptops.

This system will be run through its paces in the CNET Labs over the next several days, so stay tuned for benchmark scores and a full review.