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

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MSRP: $1,599.00

The Good The 13-inch MacBook Air 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.

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8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 9
  • Support 7

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'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.