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back to article Apple MacBook Air 11.6in sub-notebook

I took a look at the 11.6in MacBook Air for Reg Hardware almost a day after the new line-up of skinny Macs was announced. I've now had a chance to use one in earnest - and benchmark it - to see if my initial thoughts are born out by longer term usage. Apple MacBook Air 11.6in Apple's MacBook Air 11.6in: smaller and lighter than …

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You can get more RAM

Note that while you can't increase the 2 GB RAM once you have the machine, if you know you're going to need it you can order one with 4 GB from the factory. That should be enough for most people for a bit longer yet.

Twice the price for twice as fast isn't a terrible trade-off, even ignoring the thin and light side of the equation. If it stays a viable machine for twice as many years (which seems entirely possible) then it's hardly a trade-off at all.

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I think I shall wait

Apple have decided to release no Macs with the current generation of Intel graphics, which (given that there are no nvidia chipsets for Core i-) means that all their machines with integrated graphics (Air, 13 inch Macbook Pro, Mac Mini) are using CPUs that are one generation old (Core 2 rather than Core i-). I am not sure if this is because Apple things the current Intel graphics are simply really slow or because they want every Mac to support OpenCL, or (probably) both.

Intel have promised us much better graphics and OpenCL support in their Sandy Bridge architecture next year, and Apple will presumably use those in the next generation of all their machines with integrated graphics, and performance will jump two generations of hardware at once. The next Air should therefore have much better CPU performance and better battery life, as the GPU will be on die. The graphics might be worse, though.

Still, it will be a big jump, so I won't be buying this one now.

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I agree with everything

I agree with everything you've said.

But I still want one!

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I disagree on price

$999 is not too expensive. This is a full class (though a bit underpowered for gaming) machine, that most people can do with as a single machine and own no other. NetBooks almost require you to own another system, which not only adds to hardware, but also software license costs, time, and trouble. Even top end NetBooks pushing $600 have far inferior components to $500 Notebooks. Its often roughly double the price of comparable machines to half the weight.

You also neglect the screen quality in your data, far superior to any other 11", better than most 13 and 14" machines on the market. You also compared the battery life to machines with sub-par GPUs, which is somewhat unfair. Compare it to a machine with a similar nVidia, and you'll find its battery life superior. 6 hours of run time on a machine that takes less than 40 minutes to charge to 90% is a good long battery. Only using WiFi when you have to by disabling it (a simple keystroke), could extend that to near 10 hours.

To have a machine that can not only handle it's own needs, including full resolution video and support high res external monitors (and trust me, that video port is better than a GiG-E any day, people will hook this to TVs, not to mention projectors which is the target market - business people...), and this machine can also run a VM at the same time? or a corporate edition of Windows not permitted to be licensed on net-books, even play WoW in better than default resolutions?

If doubling the price is acceptable for half the weight, then compare this properly to a $600-700 notebook, and say this is as much as $400 less than expected.

Would I buy one? no, i have no need for the extra $500-600 in cost just to save 2lbs of carry weight. I'd rather spend that difference and have a far superior 15" machine that also has a similar screen, 7 hour better, better still GPU, and supports 8GB of RAM. That's me, I'm a power user are only travel with my machine from desk to car, to desk, not through parks and city streets and all over hell and back. If I did, I might still choose the 13" Air over the 11", i just don't like screens that small, nor does an 11" footprint feel comfortable on my lap. On the other hand, we're getting mom one for Christmas. Its actually more powerful than her last mac, which has aged well and is far from underpowered for her needs, and she could use the portability.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: I disagree on price

Small point: the Air's 11.6in screen isn't 'far superior' to the displays found in other 11.6in notebooks.

Like all of these, it has the same resolution - 1366 x 768 - and while some are a little better than others - the Air's is one of the better ones - there's actually not much to choose between them.

I say this having reviewed the Air *and* ten 11.6in notebooks recently.

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$999 != £850

Great, but it's a UK review: £850 is actually $1,350, while £999 is $1,585 today.

Does it still look as good value for that price?

Or to look at it the other way around, $999 is £630. If it was selling for that price in the UK then it may not have attracted the same comments in the first place...

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Agreed

I agree with Michael on this one. Isn't it faintly depressing how obsessed with bottom-line-cost this review this seems to be? Surely quite a lot of the people reading this site have been around computers long enough to remember when 1500 quid was a perfectly normal price for a desktop? I wouldn't expect many people at all interested in the Airs to get sticker shock just looking at a price tag of a thousand quid; compare it to netbooks and it looks like a lot of money, yeah, but I really think you can take price comparisons too far. When they're completely different classes of device and you have to try and consider whether X inches of thickness and Y cycles of computing power are 'worth' Z amount of currency, I don't think the comparison is telling you much of value. If the attributes a high-end system like an Apple or good Sony have are things that are important to you, it's probably perfectly reasonable to pay the asking price for them. It's not as if the price is in itself utterly outrageous, or anything. It's not diamond-encrusted iPod territory. A grand is a perfectly reasonable amount of money to spend on a computer.

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tax

Apples US prices exclude sales tax, their UK prices include VAT.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: tax

Yeah but minus VAT, the low end Air is £723. That's still well above the £623, the Sterling conversion from the US less-tax price of $999.

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I disagree (squared)

"This is a full class (though a bit underpowered for gaming) machine"

It's a full class last-generation architecture machine. I would not consider paying that much cash for a poxy old core 2. The screen is definitely not great. Having seen it next to the macpro 13" laptop it's screen looked decidedly wishy-washy. It's a great concept, for sure, but not a great outcome when spec and price are considered - and anyone who overlooks that price is a fool to themselves.

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Anonymous Coward

Objectively better

Shortly after the 11.6" Air was released, one of the hardware review sites did a review of the screen, objectively measuring contrast, brightness, color accuracy, etc. IIRC the Air's screen did quite a bit better than what's available from other manufacturers.

I imagine all the panels with this exact size and resolution are made in the same factory by the same people but Apple seems to have added some special sauce, perhaps with the coating or something.

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Jobs Halo

Hardwearing?

Difficult to measure on a new machine, but in general, Macs seem to last longer because they are better built - especially with the aluminium unibody construction.

I'm still running the very first Intel MacBook Pro from 2006 and its been around the world several times with me.

My female friend - possibly the clumsiest person I've ever known - used to get through a Sony Vaio a year. She also trashed a plastic MacBook, but is in love with her aluminium MacBook Pro - which has survived her and her 6-month old baby. So far.

I've not used a netbook myself - as they're generally made as cheaply as possble, how does that affect their durability compared to the very solid construction of the alu-Macs?

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: Hardwearing?

I would rate the Air as much more resilient than a netbook any day of the week.

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aside from..

...problems with internal components like logic boards etc that you see mac forums cluttered up with all the time?

Theres plenty of comments floating around about screen issues with the Air too.

Heck, there's even http://www.appledefects.com which documents the faults on all Apple machines.

My iMac lasted all of an hour before I boxed it up and took it back to John Lewis for replacement. The DVD drive didn't work.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: aside from..

At the risk of sounding like an AppleTard, there's no real evidence that I've seen that Mac kit is any more likely to need re-boxing and taking back to the retailer than computers from any other vendor.

Yes, duff motherboards, drives, screens, etc get out into the sales channel, but that's true of every other vendor's kit too.

There were screen issues reported with the 11.6in Air. I didn't see them on the one I tested - which was store-sold kit, by the way, not some tweaked model supplied by Apple PR, before you suggest skullduggery.

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Macs are not the only tough laptops

Exotic materials are used by many manufacturers. Look at the HP Elitebooks for instance - magnesium alloy chassis etc. Apple is just particularly good at making them look good.

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@Tony - reboxing

My shiny new 27" i7 iMac needed reboxing as soon as I unpacked it because it has shit stuck between the glass panel and the display which is about as big a quality-control faux-pas as you could ever wish to get save for a vital innard missing.

However the support dude and manager were suitably shocked by this and a replacement whipped out post-haste - I guess what the OEM lacked in quality control the vendor made up for in customer support. Still sucks that something so obvious (it was a large piece of debris) got missed. How this compares I do not know as I have, personally, never had to send back a machine before - perhaps you could elaborate?

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I have one

(Redacted from a post somewhere else)

I purchased one of these almost the moment they were relased (1.4 Duo, 2GB, 128GB)

I have to carry my computer with me at all times, and my unwillingness to lug much more than a Kg lead me immediately to a Netbook - I have been running a Hackintosh (MSI Wind) for a few years. After the first MacAir was released a colleague acquired one. My analysis was “almost there”. After 3 seconds with the new model, I simply took one home. Game over.

1: Metal computers are really a better option for people who carry them at all times and travel constantly. This machine is exactly the correct size to fit in my backpack. It is lightweight and durable. No additional protection required. Check…

2: The machine is sufficiently powerful for any realistic task I am likely to perform, as ripping DVDs and HD video post-production are not in my list of daily activities. Check…

3: Relatively speaking, the cost is in the same ballpark as similarly configured sub-notebook/netbook class machines. Check…

4: Like most Apple products, the MacAir simply is a masterpiece of design and engineering. For the epicurean, this is the machine to own. There really is no competitor. Check…

5: I happen to use a large flat screen monitor when stationary. I can live without an ethernet port. Check ...

6: OSX runs fine in 2GB (as do most Unix implementations). 4GB would have been overkill. Check ...

7: The single MS-Windows program that I absolutely must have for my job, that has no Mac equivalent, runs just fine in Parallels. I wish I could live without it and parallels, but until I retire I am stuck with it.

Missing: I might have liked and SD slot, but I have a USB SD that I can use on the very few occasions I need it. Ditto ethernet.

Having used the machine constantly for several weeks now, I can say that it has met my expectations 100%.

Since the speed of OSX does not degrade exponentially with every version in the same manner as Windoze (it's the opposite I think), I expect this machine to be a workhorse for many years to come, so the additional cost with sublime portability & ruggedness and acceptable battery life are a good balance.

Finally ... Why do reviewers obsess about the bandwidth rating of various networking connector options? They are for all practical purposes irrelevant for a single machine connected to any network.

Dweeb

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Ethernet speeds

"Finally ... Why do reviewers obsess about the bandwidth rating of various networking connector options? They are for all practical purposes irrelevant for a single machine connected to any network."

Because they matter if you want to move large files around. And large can mean a lot smaller than a DVD. 100Mbit/sec ethernet is slower than modern hard disks. And you can't get 1Gbit/sec out of a USB 2 port. Would have been nice if it had had one USB3 port.

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@handle

It'd be great if Apple supported a lot of modern "standard" ports - think eSATA, USB 3.0 (albeit a recent addition) - but you just kind of sigh and put up with what Jobsworth has decided upon. I would gladly forgo several of the USB ports on my machine for just one of eSATA or USB 3.0 to give decent external disk transfer times without the firewire 800 port premium.

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Paris Hilton

Reducing the score because of the price is not fair

I read all the points made in this review, and after having said how great it is as well as how beautiful and portable it is, it then got marked down in it's score (to 75%) because of it's price?

This is not fair, because if you look at all the netbooks as well as the MacBook Air, your first reaction would be "woah - that machine scored less *and* it's more expensive?" when in fact it should have scored higher, as well as being more expensive.

Also I agree with the poster above that the battery tests should have been performed while doing similar tasks on every machine. Scoring a huge score on a PC benchmark which strongly favours a GPU is going to suck the batteries a LOT faster than say browsing the Internet or running Office or similar.

Having said all this, I am surprised that the MacBook Air performed quite as well as it did. Perhaps a real CPU and a real GPU actually do make a big difference - which is why comparing the MacBook Air with a range of netbooks is probably not fair. To the netbooks.

Paris, because ... just because.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: Reducing the score because of the price is not fair

The benchmarks we use are consistent across all the machines tested, which is the only way to produce a directly comparable figure, though it does mean we can't quote 'real world' usage times.

We do this because it means we *do* run similar tasks on each machine, and stresses all the various parts of the system.

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Ethernet Connectivity

From the article:

"The Eee 1215PEM happens to have Gigabit Ethernet, but most netbooks and 11.6-inchers only go up to 100Mb/s, but the Air doesn't even have that."

Out of the box this is true, but for a piffling £19, you can get a 100Mb/s ethernet adapter which plugs into one of the USB ports:

http://store.apple.com/uk/product/MB442Z/A

And since an extra USB port is probably more useful to more people, it seems like a sensible trade-off.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: Ethernet Connectivity

This is what I mean by 'lack of extras'. For the price it's charging, Apple really should have bundled this adaptor, if only to say on the feature list that the Air does 10/100Mb/s Ethernet.

Yes, it's piffling, but on any other netbook or sub-notebook you don't have to pay it.

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It's the SD slot I would miss

I pretty much never use Ethernet on a laptop. The only occasions I recall doing so recently have been when there have been issues with Wireless drivers when installing Ubuntu. The other way of getting round this is to connect to the net using a 3G Dongle (which Ubuntu has great support for) so it is no big deal. Some people are going to have to use Ethernet for work networks and the like, but I suspect that only a minority of people would use a USD Ethernet adaptor if it was in the box.

What I would like is an SD slot. At present I take a netbook and I take a camera with me when I am on the road, and I take a lot of photographs. I like to back my photos up along the way in order to minimise the chance of losing photographs if the camera is lost or stolen. Yes, an external card reader costs about £1, but the fewer accessories that can be lost/forgotten/broken, the better.

There are a few things left out, but I doubt Apple could throw in all of them without making the machine bigger and heavier. Which are important is going to depend on the person.

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camera cards

Connecting the camera to the computer with a USB cable would be easier. And it might even charge it...

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re:camera cards

You'd be surprised just how rotten transfer times/speeds can be when connecting through the physical camera itself. I often wonder whether manufacturers are sticking left-over USB 1.1 controllers in them it can be so bad. Card adapters are always the way to go and use the same USB->mini-USB (I think) cable.

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JDX
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Eh?

When the review says a Mac is good, everyone jumps in to say it's too expensive. The one review which adversely comments on the price, everyone defends it!

It doesn't cost much more than an iPad, doesn't weight that much more and isn't much bigger... but is a full PC with a keyboard that can run MacOSX and Windows7. I certainly don't think it's overly expensive for what you get.

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Comparing apples with apples

"It doesn't cost much more than an iPad"

Yes, and? :o)

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Ummm...

... at £850, the cheapest MacBook Air is only £10 less than double the price of the cheapest iPad.

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@handle

It's a comment I often make (and will no-doubt get marked down for) but Apple products are always priced to be only competitive within the range and not so much externally - caveat that certain models in certain ranges do compare well but you need to hunt out that sweet spot. Steve has chosen his corporate pricing point in life and I guess he's doing pretty well out of it. All power to him I guess. Literally.

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Coat

I don't normally do this...

I'm a Mac and Windows user and prefer Macs, while admitting that some of their business decisions can be somewhat... controversial.

I would generally never comment on a writer's typos unless such made a significant change to the meaning of the sentence.

OTOH, "...it may be a dual-core chip, but it lacks HypeThreading..." is impossible to pass up -- the MacBook Air may be the ONLY thing to come from Apple that lacks this attribute!

Sorry about that, Mr. Smith. -- when something is that perfectly apropos, I fear I have no self-control!

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@JDX

Isn't that somewhat more of a damning verdict on the iPad's price?

Personally, nice looking machine, not sure about all the fuss - it's just another Personal Computer. I agree that it shouldn't be compared with netbooks, but rather with ultraportables, but since the Vaio TT was discontinued there is no real competition in the highly expensive, highly spec'd ultraportable category.

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FAIL

No SD slot????!!!!!

Surely this must be a joke!

I'll stick to my Hackintoshed Dell Mini thanks.

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Terminator

Awesome laptop

OK, I'm an Apple "fan", so of course I like the 13" version I have. However the first thing I did was install Windows 7 64-bit and Final Fantasy XIV on it. I was pleasantly surprised that the game runs well enough to do some solo stuff, despite CPU & GPU being quite a bit below the game's minimum specs. (This game has insane recommended graphics specs.)

As for SD slot, the 13" does have one built-in, but of course it's slightly bigger, slightly faster, etc. Neither have wired ethernet, optical drive, DVI, VGA, ...floppy drive... etc., but peripherals and adapters are available. One I really like is a "Mini DisplayPort to HDMI *with audio*", great for those of us who watch some TV off the Internet, but are still avoiding "set-top boxes".

Lastly battery life: Your benchmark results say the MacBook Air was doing twice as much work as the average, and almost 4x that of the "lasted twice as long" battery life winner, so I don't see how to draw any conclusions from that.

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Microphone in?

A mike-in would be nice for VoIP, however I suppose the internal one, or a blue-tooth headset would suffice.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: Microphone in?

The Air's mic is on the side, but despite this seemingly odd position works quite well.

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Anonymous Coward

It does have mic

The audio connector is the 3-ring sort that's used in iPhones, so you can plug a combo headset/mic into this port. I imagine there are standalone mics available with this connector. Won't be stereo but if you're just using it for voice, should be more than good enough. And if you have an iPhone, you probably have an appropriate headset just laying around.

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JB
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Netbooks vs Apple

The Ferrari did 0-60 in 3.5 seconds, but the push bike couldn't even get to 20, let alone 60!

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Expensive compared to what?

I am somewhat miffed to see this sub-notebook described as being too expensive. Traditionally sub-notebooks have been very expensive, usually over $2000. People who have to carry their laptop frequently are happily pay a little extra for reducing the size and weight. At $999 for the entry model I consider this a total bargain.

I currently have more than 10 laptops all less than 3 years old, ranging from several 15" desktop replacement models, to a few 13" ultramobiles, a 12" ultraportable wannabe, and a 9" netbook, so have a good basis for comparison. Apart from the netbook the Air was the cheapest of all the laptops I have, and gets the most use currently...

The laptop that was used the most before I got the Air was my X301, which is possibly the best 13" laptop made, so how does the Air compare:

- Speed - Despite having the same CPU the AIr blows the X301 away due to the faster disk and GPU.

- Screen - The screen on the Air is far superior, much better contrast and clarity.

- Keyboard - The Macbook keyboards are the worst I have used on a notebook. The flat tops on the keys make tough typing close to impossible. The keyboard on the X301 is far superior. The Air however does beat any netbook hands down since it is full sized.

- Ports - I have never used more than 2 USB ports at once so I don't miss the extra port. Ethernet might have been useful some day but no great loss. The only thing I miss from the X301 is the DVD drive for ripping DVDs to the hard drive.

- Expandability - I wish the RAM was expandable aftermarket. I got the 2GB model and I really hope it is enough since I am now stuck with this option. The Air is the only laptop I have that doesn't have one RAM slot that is removable.

- Battery - The battery life on the Air is the best of any of the laptops I have in every day use. Video playback is 4-5 hours (less for Divx since it uses more CPU then H264 on the Air). Web surfing is 6-8 hours depending on screen brightness. If you crank the CPU up to 100% and the screen up to full brightness you can drop the battery life to under 2 hours. This really shows how efficient the battery management is when the CPU isn't under stress. It is somewhat of a drawback that the battery is not removable, but at least the battery doesn't poke out the back like it does on some other notebooks. When the battery dies I will be forced to pay Apple to replace it, and often when traveling long haul back home I need a battery that can last 8+ hours of video playback. I have two batteries for my notebook to fill this role. Hopefully someone will come up with an external battery to plug into the Magsafe port which will solve this problem.

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Silver badge

dude!

"I currently have more than 10 laptops all less than 3 years old, ranging from several 15" desktop replacement models, to a few 13" ultramobiles, a 12" ultraportable wannabe, and a 9" netbook"

You either need to read more product reviews or try before you buy unless you run a company with about 5+ staff.

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Best laptop ever

I have owned so many laptops over the years but the 11.6" Air I bought is the best, bar none.

I also have a brand new Hp Elitebook 2540p work machine. It's interesting to compare. The HP is a Core i7 quad core 12" machine with 3GB RAM. It is SO slow in comparison to the Air. It should fly but the practical experience is so poor it is just plain horrible - in particular the regular Windows "stalls". It's clunky and heavy in comparison to the Air, and yet it is meant to be a "lightweight executive laptop". The HP costs £1600. The Air (with 128GB) cost me £1000. How is the Air expensive?

I used to love Windows to the point of monogamy. But the Windows experience continues to decline year on year whilst Apple gets better and better.

Summary - hate the HP, love the Air.

Air really is good value when compared to it's true competition.

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Alert

You forgot one key point

OS X rather than Windows. How much is not having to rebuild the machine 1-2 times per year worth?

I've been running OS X on Dell Minis for quite a while now only because Apple hasn't sold anything in a form factor I liked since the 12" Powerbook.

This is the Macbook I've been waiting for since 2006.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "How much is not having to rebuild the machine 1-2 times per year worth?"

FUD-off, Fanboy. This hasn't been a problem with since Win 98.

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FAIL

Contentious?

Interestingly, my post is currently running 6up and 4down on the thumb scale.

I wonder what criteria people use to rate a post that contains essentially no opinion and some terse statements of my owner experiences with the product? There is nothing to offend anyone and no obvious unsubstantiated bias OSX v Mac or pointless fanbois rhetoric.

So, what does my thumbs up/down ratio reflect about the raters?

Money is not a concern for me, and the fact that my previous machine was a "hacked" MSI Wind, should indicate that I (and plenty of others I suspect) have some requirements that reviewers, fanbois and journalists simply fail to recognise, to wit. the significance and value/utility people place on portability.

75% is a weird result

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Got mine at the weekend!

Speeced up to 128g, 4g ram, 1.6 processor.

plays 1080p mkvs with about 30% CPU usage with XBMC, editing my mp4 gopro HD 1080p footage in imovie no bother at all.

As a second laptop for travel/holidays it is excellent.

Absolutely amazing little bit of kit - I love it. 1200 quid well spent.

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Anonymous Coward

Backlit Keyboard

The old quote always comes to mind "the quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten".

The one feature that i really think i would miss on this is the backlit keyboard. Personal machine is an old pre-unibody 13" macbook and using it in a dark room is not good. My business HP 2530 has a keyboard light but not nearly as nice as the backlit board on the Macs. I wonder why it was left off this one?

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Anonymous Coward

Footprint matters

I bought one of these the first day it was available in local stores and so far I love it.

That said, footprint does matter a lot to some people, and the laptop could clearly be almost an inch narrower. Look at how much of a lip there is on the sides of the keyboard.

To me, that's the difference between packing the laptop "flat" on top of some travel guides at the very top of my backpack (which I've been doing with an MSI Wind) and packing it vertically, probably between some shirts, in a much less easy-to-access manner.

BTW, wifi is rare in much of Asia (e.g., I believe it's banned in China) so travelers to Asia will have to plan ahead and bring Ethernet-to-USB adapters. I have seen USB 2 devices reach over 20 MB/s in practice which is over the raw theoretical bandwidth of a 100 Mbit/s Ethernet port. Looking at half a dozen laptops randomly on Newegg, only one costing $1400 had gigabit Ethernet, so it seems like most people can make do with more pedestrian 100 Mbit speeds in < $1000 laptops.

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