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Apple MacBook Air 13-inch Summer 2011 review: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch Summer 2011

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch Summer 2011

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
9 min read

As with most Apple products, the MacBook Air has moved into an annual update cycle, taking it from the original niche product version to its new perch as Apple's mainstream laptop line. With that, we've also seen a continued mainstreaming of the system's components and capabilities over the course of three generations.


Apple MacBook Air 13-inch Summer 2011

The Good

The <b>13-inch MacBook Air</b> has been updated with the latest Intel CPUs for better performance and battery life. Backlit keyboards make a welcome return.

The Bad

The 128GB SSD drive is a lot smaller than a standard hard drive. This also starts at $100 more than the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The Bottom Line

The latest version of the 13-inch MacBook Air vastly outperforms its predecessor, and can finally be called suitable for mainstream use, instead of relegated as a niche product.

Apple's new Air models hold last year's prices, the 13-inch model starts at $1,299, but while dramatically upgrading the processing power: the new second-generation Core i5 processor in the base 11-inch and 13-inch Air is a jump of two Intel generations, going directly from the older Core 2 Duo CPUs past the first generation of Core i5/i7 chips and directly to the 2011 second-generation Core i-series.

Physically, the new MacBook Air looks and feels identical to the one from October 2010, with one important exception. Both the 11- and 13-inch models now include a backlit keyboard, a much-missed feature in the previous generation (in a CNET poll, 26 percent of readers listed a backlit keyboard as their most-wanted new MacBook Air feature).

Related links
Apple MacBook Air Fall 2010 (Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz, 128GB SSD, 13.3-inch)
Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A (13-inch)
Apple MacBook Air (11in, Summer 2011)

Thunderbolt has been added to the both Airs as well, replacing the Mini DisplayPort (the new combo port acts as a Mini DisplayPort output as well). At the moment, it's more of a novelty than anything else, with few accessories available, but Apple's upcoming Thunderbolt Display, intended for use with laptops, seems intriguing.

The most obvious non-component-related change to the MacBook Air line is the preinstalled OSX Lion software. If getting this new operating system update is your primary goal, it's available for any Intel-powered MacBook for $29--so there's no reason to trade in your last-gen Air just yet.

With 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage, the 13-inch Air is a better bet for trouble-free mainstream computing than the 11-inch version, which defaults to 2GB of RAM and only a 64GB SSD (of which, only around 48GB is available to use). The trend toward cloud storage makes this less of a problem than it might have been, but you may want a little more breathing room.

Now that it uses current-gen Intel CPUs, the MacBook is definitely a viable everyday laptop, rather than a specialty product--its performance was very close to the 2011 13-inch MacBook Pro in most of our benchmark tests, and its battery life similarly excellent.

Price as reviewed $1,299
Processor 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M
Memory 4GB, 1333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 128GB SSD
Graphics Intel HD3000
Operating system OS X 10.7 Lion
Dimensions (WD) 12.8 x 8.9 inches
Height 0.68 - 1.1 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 2.3/2.7 pounds
Category 13-inch laptop

Both the 11-inch and 13-inch versions of the MacBook Air have the same thickness, ranging from 0.11 inch to 0.68 inch, but spread over the larger footprint of the 13-inch chassis, the 13-inch body has always seemed especially thin.

As with the 2010 version, which this is physically indistinguishable from at first look, the rigid aluminum construction makes the Air feel sturdy enough to just throw in a bag and carry along with you without a protective case or sleeve. The trade-off there is that the 13-inch Air feels a bit heavier than its thin body would lead you to expect, especially compared with the 11-inch version or an iPad.

While the keyboard and trackpad are the same (backlighting aside) as on the previous 11- and 13-inch models, using the new OS X Lion gestures can take some getting used to. The gestural language is now even further divorced from the Windows standard. For example, you no longer double-tap-and-drag to move a window: instead, just use three fingers while hovering over the title bar. The four-finger flick to return to the desktop has been reassigned to a feature called Mission Control, which shows all active apps and alternative desktop screens. To get back to a clean desktop, you now pinch out from your thumb and three fingers. There are several other new gesture tricks, and fortunately the System Preferences menu shows animated examples of each one.

Our standard enthusiasm for the unmatched Apple trackpad and excellent keyboard remains, and applies to both sizes. Other laptop makers have also moved to larger clickpad-style touch pads, but we have yet to find a touch pad that comes close to this for multitouch gestures. The pad is again hinged at the top, allowing the entire pad to click down, and we suggest going into the Preferences menu and turning on all of the tapping options for further ease of use.

Unlike the 11-inch MacBook Air, the 13-inch screen is not a 16:9 display. The screen area also lacks the edge-to-edge glass over a black bezel found in other MacBooks; instead the screen is surrounded by a thick silver bezel. We thought this made it less attractive than the MacBook Pro back in 2010, and that continues to be the case.

On the positive side, the native resolution of the display is 1,440x900 pixels, which is a better than the current 13-inch standard of 1,366x768 pixels. The current 13-inch MacBook Pro has a lower resolution of 1,280x800, and does not offer any higher-res screen upgrades, meaning this Air has the highest-resolution 13-inch display you can get from Apple (not to be outdone, Sony's Air-like Vaio Z crams a 1,920x1,080-pixel screen into a 13-inch laptop, although at great expense).

Apple's displays are invariably clear and bright, with excellent off-axis viewing, but if you find them too glossy, only the 15 and 17-inch MacBook Pro models have antiglare screen options. the speakers are, as in the case of previous MacBooks, oddly quiet, and not great for playing music for a crowd--but fine for solo streaming TV.

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch) Average for category [13-inch]
Video Combo Mini DisplayPort/Tunderbolt port VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion Combo Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt port None
Networking Ethernet (via optional USB dongle), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None DVD burner

Even with a pair of USB ports and an SD card slot, this remains a pretty spare set of connections compared to other 13-inch laptops. Still, it's a major improvement over the very first MacBook Air, which had only a single USB connection.

There's been some concern that Apple lists the MacBook Pro models on its Web site as having an SDXC card slot, for high-capacity SD cards, and only lists the card reader on the Air as an SD card one. We tried a 64GB SanDisk SDXC card in the MacBook Air's card reader, and the system recognized it as the appropriate size, and was able to access files on it. But, if you're looking to get a massive SD card in order to augment the smallish 128GB SSD built into the Air, note that the card slot leaves the SD card hanging halfway out on the side of the system, so it's not appropriate for full-time use. Instead, you'll have to upgrade to the $1,599 version to get 256GB of storage.

With the move to the current generation of Intel Core i5 processors, the performance of both the 13 and 11-inch MacBook Air has taken a major jump. In our benchmark testing, the 13-inch Air with its default 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M, was nearly evenly matched with 2011's 13-inch MacBook Pro, with has a non-ULV version of the same second-gen Core i5. The 11-inch Air was reasonably close behind, and the 2010 version of the Air was significantly slower. Aiding the Air was its solid-state hard drive, and the fact that some of our benchmarks use Mac-friendly apps such as Photoshop and iTunes, and we've always seen Apple laptops perform especially well on them.

With the change of CPUs, you no longer get Nvidia's 320M as your not-quite-discrete GPU. Instead, like most of the Windows laptops we've seen this year, the graphics are powered by Intel's integrated HD 3000. It's certainly better than the integrated graphics Intel used to supply, but we'll miss the Nvidia part, which was simply better for gaming. In Call of Duty 4 (sadly still considered an up-to-date Mac game), we got 19.7 frames per second at 1,440x900 pixels and 32.1 frames per second when we dialed down the AA and ran it at 1,280x800. The Air will do some basic gaming, but don't expect to run, for example, Civilization V (one of the few high-gloss recent games we can think of on OS X) at extra-high resolutions with all the eye candy turned on.

Juice box
Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Summer 2011) Average watts per hour
Off (60 percent) 0.18
Sleep (10 percent) 0.59
Idle (25 percent) 4.55
Load (5 percent) 31.7
Raw kWh 25.31
Annual energy cost $2.87

At this point, Apple has been at or near the top of our battery life charts for so long, that any drop in runtime would be considered a major scandal. Fortunately, however, the 13-inch Air runs for more than 100 minutes longer than its predecessor, and even a few minutes longer than the 13-inch MacBook Pro (although that difference is small enough to be statistically insignificant). On our video playback battery drain test, the new 13-inch Air ran for 6 hours and 46 minutes. That's also about 80 minutes longer than the similar 13-inch Samsung Series 9.

Service and support from Apple is always a dual-edged sword. Apple includes 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, which, in our experience, have always been fairly frustration-free encounters.

The new 2011 version of Apple's MacBook Air laptop takes a major step forward, both in hardware and concept. With the demise of the long-serving $999 white plastic MacBook, the Air now becomes the default mainstream entry point for potential Apple laptop buyers. The parallel is clearer in the 11-inch version, which starts at the same $999, but unless you need the bigger hard drive or optical drive of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the new 13-inch Air should be your first stop for that screen size.

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Apple MacBook Air 13-inch Summer 2011

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 9Support 7