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

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