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Apple MacBook Air (11-inch review: Apple MacBook Air (11-inch

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Last October, Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air debuted. The tiny, slim ultraportable was the smallest laptop Apple had ever made. Its combination of size and power earned it a four-star review, with caveats: it had a last-generation Core 2 Duo processor, lacked a backlit keyboard, and omitted an SD card slot. We're glad to find the newly released, back-to-school-timed 2011 MacBook Air update fixes two of our three complaints, while keeping a $999 starting price.

Apple MacBook Air MC969LL/A (Summer 2011)
8.4

Apple MacBook Air (11-inch

The Good

The new 11-inch <b>Apple MacBook Air</b> is dramatically faster than last year's version, has a backlit keyboard, and comes with a high-speed Thunderbolt I/O port.

The Bad

The $999 entry-level Air still has the same limited fixed flash storage and RAM as last year's version, which most people will want to upgrade from--and there's still no SD card slot, Ethernet port, or 3G wireless option.

The Bottom Line

This year's 11-inch MacBook Air improves on last year's model in several significant ways and is by far the fastest ultraportable you're likely to find, though some users will consider the limited flash storage space to be a hindrance.

Both 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs have been updated with new, faster second-gen Core i5 processors. The new Air also, finally, has a backlit keyboard. There are more bonuses, too: Mac OS X Lion, Apple's brand-new operating system update, comes preinstalled. A Thunderbolt I/O port for high-speed data transfer and HD audio/video has been added.

Unfortunately, there's still no SD card slot, and memory and storage configurations remain both fixed and limited: the entry-level $999 configuration still only has 2GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage, which many will consider inadequate. We recommend the $1,199 configuration, which has 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.

Perhaps the biggest change to the MacBook Air is how it's being sold. Now that the $999 white MacBook no longer exists, Apple has made the MacBook Air the entry-level laptop for everybody (everybody with a grand to drop on a laptop, at least). The $999 11-inch MacBook Air is the most affordable MacBook in Apple's stable.

The 2011 11-inch Air is, undeniably, an improvement over the fall 2010 version. Is it a MacBook for everyone, though? Not yet, unless you can live with the Air's still comparatively limited storage space. For a more full-size laptop with even better battery life, many might be tempted to get the 13-inch MacBook Air or even the more full-featured 13-inch MacBook Pro. But, for sheer portability and performance, nothing can beat the 11-inch Air.

Price as reviewed $999
Processor 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M
Memory 2GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 64GB SSD
Graphics Intel HD 3000
Operating system OS X 10.7 Lion
Dimensions (WD) 11.8x7.6 inches
Height 0.11-0.68 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 11.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 2.34 pounds / 2.68 pounds
Category Ultraportable

The new 11-inch Air is identical to last year's model in terms of physical design. There's nothing wrong with that; the trim, elegant Air cuts a blade-thin profile and is one of the lightest little laptops we've ever seen. The all-aluminum body feels rock-solid and has no flex at all, while the magnetically closed upper lid smoothly opens on its center hinge to rest at a perfect viewing angle. The all-metal construction keeps it from feeling too fragile, often an issue for ultrathin systems. The body tapers at the front down to a razor-thin .11-inch edge, creating an optical illusion of even more thinness, although it's still only 0.68 inch thick at the rear.

The Air feels so minimal, it almost resembles an iPad when closed, and its dimensions, while longer, thicker, and heavier, aren't far off. The 2.38-pound chassis and tapered design make this 11-incher slip almost unnoticed into a small bag, and with Apple's square charger it wraps up into a neat, tiny package. The Air even feels thin and light to someone used to working with very small laptops (such as Sony's Vaio Z). Even the 11-inch Samsung Series 9, an impressive little ultraportable, feels thick by comparison.

The large keyboard and trackpad (the same glass version found on other MacBooks) both work well, although the function keys at the top are very small. The keyboard feels excellent for such a small laptop, nearly identical to what you'd find on a full-size MacBook, except the keys are shorter and thus have less travel to them. The newly added (or should we say, restored) backlighting is a huge boon for low-light work conditions. Backlight brightness controls have been added to the function buttons at the top, along with new Launchpad and Mission Control hot keys. The complete use of function keys as function-reversed media/panel controls is efficient and well laid-out.

The palm rest below the keyboard is also generously sized, a rarity on ultraportables. Those who might criticize the excessively large bezel around the 11-inch Air's display need only do the math and realize that this space was added to ensure a large keyboard/trackpad/palm-rest zone unlike the compressed working landscape we've seen on other 11-inchers. However, the footprint of the 11-inch Air really could accommodate a 12-inch screen. We'd like to see that in a future Air model.

Apple's large multitouch trackpad remains the best available. The pad is hinged at the top, allowing the entire pad to click down, but we prefer traditional tapping (which is off by default and must be activated in the Preferences menu). We've seen other clickpads from other manufacturers, but none have the size, responsiveness, or construction quality of Apple's. It's a huge amount of trackpad space on such a small laptop, but you'll need every inch of it and then some, as Mac OS X Lion, which comes preinstalled on the new MacBook Airs, has an elaborate multifinger multitouch vocabulary that's much more demanding of trackpad space than the more conservative Windows 7 multitouch universe. However, one of the most challenging new multifinger gestures--the four-finger squeeze to bring up Launchpad that we've come to call "the claw,"--has a simple hot key in the F4 button. We'll be pressing that instead in the future, thank you very much.

The new Air comes with an impressive set of software programs installed, starting with OS X Lion. The newest version of Mac OS X launched at the same time as these new Airs, making the MacBook Air the first Mac laptop we've used with the new OS. (For more on OS X Lion, read our CNET review.) Lion maximizes screen real estate on the 11-inch Air: applications more easily pop to full-screen, and swiping between full-screen apps eliminates the hunt for tiny buttons. But Lion also suffers from a few too many viewing modes, such as Mission Control, Launchpad, and Expose.

Applications installed via other methods can't be instantly deleted from the iOS-like Launchpad (thank goodness), and the Mac App Store, while useful, has too many holes in its software library to be considered comprehensive. It's the start of an iOS-like experience on the Mac, but it still has a ways to go. You already get the standard suite of iLife programs, iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand, which all include tons of useful and fun features and are ideal for casual consumers.

Like last year's model, the 11-inch Air boots and starts up from sleep extremely quickly. Apple calls this Instant On, and though it's not exactly instant, it does boot up very, very fast--faster even than an iPad. In sleep mode, the Air can go for an extremely long time without much loss in battery life, much like the iPad. After putting it in sleep, we opened our Air up the next morning and found practically no drop-off.

The 11-inch Air is still the only MacBook with a 16:9 display (the 13-incher is still 16:10), and uses the same 1,366x768-pixel native resolution as most laptops from 11 to 15 inches. The screen area lacks the edge-to-edge glass over a black bezel found in other MacBooks; instead the screen is surrounded by a thick silver bezel. While small, the screen is incredibly bright and crisp. Not only could we view video from nearly any wide angle, but text, even small text, popped off the white space on documents. The only screen we've seen recently that equals it is the one on the Samsung Series 9.

The built-in speaker offers crisp sound, but its volume is limited. Listening to a TV show in a bedroom with air conditioning on became a nearly impossible task. In terms of overall volume output, it felt comparable to the iPad 2. It's best to use headphones instead.

The included Webcam, unlike the one on the new MacBook Pros, isn't HD. The video quality in our basic tests with Photo Booth and FaceTime was a little grainy, but serviceable. We'd have preferred an HD Webcam upgrade, especially with Apple's focus on video calling.

Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, Summer 2011) Average for category [ultraportable]
Video Thunderbolt I/O with Mini DisplayPort VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/mic combo jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion Thunderbolt I/O with Mini DisplayPort None
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None None

Even though the 11-inch Air is small, it still gets a Thunderbolt port, replacing the Mini DisplayPort on last year's model. Thunderbolt is Apple's new high-speed I/O port for HD audio, video, and data, allowing multiple hard drives and monitors to be connected via a single cable. Thunderbolt will still work with older Mini-DisplayPort monitors and with HDMI converters, but the added connectivity could theoretically help restore missing ports via a dock connector, although currently that's not the case.

Barely any Thunderbolt peripherals currently exist, but Apple is releasing a Thunderbolt Display in August that has extra USB ports, an Ethernet port, and an extra Thunderbolt port in the back, and will connect directly to the Air. Such port-studded devices and peripherals could act like docks for the MacBook Air and extend its limited port functionality, but we'll have to wait and see how many emerge and how useful they'll be. The Thunderbolt Display will cost $999. For some students with large pocketbooks and executives or home office workers, this could be an appealing solution. Alternatively, you could buy a separate iMac for nearly the same amount.

The 11-inch Air still lacks an SD card slot, which we griped about last year. There's no excuse for its absence: even $300 Netbooks have them, and there's plenty of room even on the Air's slight frame to have slotted one in. Considering the Air's fixed and limited amount of onboard flash storage, it would have been very helpful. There's no onboard Ethernet or built-in 3G wireless, either.

In its entry-level $999 configuration, the 11-inch MacBook Air retains the same limited SSD/RAM as last year, with 2GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage. The 64GB would work if you rely on the cloud or external drives for most of your large-media storage, but it's not an acceptable amount for most mainstream users accustomed to at least 160GB of hard-drive space on even a discounted Netbook (and after the OS and preinstalled software, you really start with only about 48GB). Flash storage is solid-state and faster-access, but you can't replace it without voiding warranty (the RAM is fused on, so it can't be added to at all). Therefore, choose wisely when buying--we'd nearly insist you spend the extra $200 to upgrade to Apple's other fixed configuration, which has 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. A third tier of 256GB storage is new to the 2011 11-incher, but costs an extra $300, bringing the total cost to $1,499.

A new second-generation 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor replaces last year's older Core 2 Duo CPU. It's actually like skipping a generation in terms of processors, since last year's Airs had the same older processors that they had the year before. The difference is dramatic: in our single and multitask benchmark tests, the new 11-inch Air was very close in performance to the $1,199 entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, despite technically having a lower-voltage ULV processor. That's with 2GB of RAM, too. Expect the 4GB version to handle multitasking more adeptly. Despite its size, this little Air is a full-blown MacBook under the hood, and will handle apps nearly as robustly as its larger, heavier Pro cousins. And, despite having a similar processor to the thin 13-inch Samsung Series 9, the 11-inch Air bests it in speed (as well as price). If you care for even more power, an upgrade to a 1.8GHz Core i7 processor costs an extra $150 on Apple's Web site, but it's only available as an upgrade to the $1,199 configuration.

Intel's HD 3000 graphics have replaced last year's Nvidia integrated graphics, with an expected drop-off in performance. Call of Duty 4 played at 18.9 frames per second in native 1,366x768-pixel resolution with 4x anti-aliasing, or 29.8fps at 1,280x720 pixels. Last year's 11-inch Air ran COD4 at 40.5fps at native resolution and medium graphics settings. Still, this Air's more than capable of running most mainstream and casual games, provided they're not too 3D-intensive. Apple's Mac App store offers plenty of options in that regard.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Juice box
Apple MacBook Air, 11.6-inch, Summer 2011 Average watts/hour
Off (60%) 0.15
Sleep (10%) 0.6
Idle (25%) 4.39
Load (05%) 29.3
Raw kWh number 23.76
Annual power consumption cost $2.70

MacBooks have become known for their long battery life, and this year's 11-inch Air edged out last year's in our video playback battery drain test despite its much faster processor. With its large, sealed battery, the new Air ran for 4 hours and 36 minutes, while last year's Air ran for 4 hours and 23 minutes. That's very close to Apple's 5-hour estimates, but not as good as you'd get from a MacBook Pro, an iPad, or the 13-inch MacBook Air. Size means sacrifice.

Service and support from Apple are always an issue to think about. Apple gives a one-year parts and labor warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support. Upgrading to a full three-year plan under AppleCare will cost an extra $249 and is pretty much a must-buy, considering the proprietary nature of Apple products. Support is also accessible through a well-stocked online knowledge base, video tutorials, and e-mail with customer service, or through in-person visits to Apple's retail-store Genius Bars.

If you're looking for a small, fast MacBook and don't mind paying a higher price for superior design and performance, the 2011 11-inch MacBook Air is flat-out the fastest ultraportable we've ever used. Just be forewarned that OSX Lion takes some getting used to, and the fixed and limited memory and RAM options get costly and keep this laptop, in some regards, from being the "MacBook for everyone" for those with large media libraries.

System configurations:

Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch (Summer 2011)
OS X 10.7 Lion; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 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 1,333MHz; 256MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 64GB Apple SSD

Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch (Fall 2010)
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 2,048MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce GT 320M; 128GB Apple SSD

Apple MacBook Air 11.6-inch (Fall 2010)
OS X 10.6.4 Snow Leopard; 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U9400 (ULV); 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 320M; 128GB Apple SSD

Samsung 9 Series
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M; 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 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 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 64GB Samsung SSD

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Spring 2011)
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; 2.3GHz Intel Core i5; 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 320GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Apple MacBook Air MC969LL/A (Summer 2011)
8.4

Apple MacBook Air (11-inch

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9Battery 8Support 7