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

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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