Review: 2010 MacBook Air


by Charles W. Moore

Apple just made my next system upgrade decision more difficult, but it’s a good kind of problem to have. They weren’t kidding with the “Back to the Mac” billing, The new MacBook Air machines prove that the Mac and the clamshell notebook form factor are ialive and kicking like an army mule, with no end to innovation potential in sight yet.

I had never ever seriously considered buying a first generation MacBook Air as a production workhorse computer. It was simply too power, features, and upgradability compromised and overpriced for what you got -- easily the worst value in Apple’s MacBook stable.

The original MacBook Air was nicely sized, lightweight and spectacularly styled, (I love small computers). The 13 inch,LED-backlit 1280 x 800 glossy display met (barely just) my minimum standards for size and resolution on a work computer, and the full-size keyboard was nothing to complain about, but there was the lacklustre CPU power in the form of special, (60% smaller than standard) Intel Core 2 Duo silicon clocked at 1.6 GHz or optional ($300.00) 1.8 GHz with 4MB L2 cache and an 800 MHz frontside bus, and mediocre Intel GMA integrated graphics support. Standard system memory configuratiion was a respectable 2 GB of RAM, but it was soldered to the logic board, and there was no provision for upgrading the memory.The standard hard drive was an iPod-sized 1.8”4,200 RPM unit maxing out at 80 GB, or just 64 GB for the optional (US$1,000!) SSD and no officially supported storage drive upgrade path.

There was the aforementioned lack of built-in Ethernet support, and a pathetically impoverished array of I/O ports consisting of a lone (and grossly overworked) USB port, a micro-DVI video port, and Audio out port crammed close together behind a too-clever port door on the right-hand side.

There was no internal optical drive, so disk burning, software installation from disks and emergency CD or DVD booting required purchase of the optional external USB SuperDrive for US$99 extra.

However it’s a new day now, and the completely redesigned AirBooks unveiled by Steve Jobs on Wednesday have pretty much addressed all of those gripes at much more sensible and reasonable price points, making the MacBook Air finally a serious contender as a workaday computer, albeit still a bit too low powered to appeal to real power users. Indeed, I would say that the revamped air represents the likely future of laptop computing. Apple has once again moved the goalposts that other laptop makers will have to shoot for attempting to catch up.

It wasn’t before time. It was just about exactly 500 days since the MacBook Air’s last modest refresh, and it’s specification, not terribly impressive to begin with, was getting very stale and old hat

The first and most immediately visible innovation is at the MacBook Air is now available in 11 inch and 13 inch configurations, which covers the bases for both the die hard 12 inch PowerBook G4 folks who thought the original 13 inch Air’s footprint was too large, and users like me who demand at least a 13 inch display. The motif is similar to the erstwhile iBook, which was available in 12 inch and 14 inch models.

Some commentators are expressing disappointment that Apple went with Core 2 Duo silicon again, rather than Intel’s state-of-the-art core i3 low power draw processors, however, in my estimation Apple has made the correct choice, since using Core 2 Duo CPUs enables inclusion of Nvidia’s fast and powerful GeForce 320M integrated graphics processing units with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with the system memory, whereas a licensing dispute between Intel and Nvidia would have mandated that if they opted for Core i3 it would have to be Intel’s more pedestrian HD IGPUs. In a machine the size, faster graphics arguably make more sense than somewhat greater raw processing power. As for the thermal profile issue, 11.6-inch Air is equipped with ultra-low voltage Intel SU9400 and SU9600 CPUs, at clock speeds of 1.4GHz and 1.6GHz that draw 10W of power were less, still on an 800MHz system bus but sporting an ample 3MB of Level 2 cache. The 13 inch model comes with faster 1.86 GHz or 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo’s. Personally, I’m still finding the 2.0 Core 2 Duo in my late 2008 unibody MacBook plenty adequate processor-wise, but would love to have the latest GeForce 320M graphics, so I’m certain I could be quite content with the 1.86 GHz or 2.13 GHz C2Ds in the 13” MacBook Air.

The new Air’s RAM expandability limitations still fall short of the mark set by the MacBook and 13 inch MacBook Pro, which can officially support 4 GB and 8GB of memory respectively (reportedly the mid-2010 MacBook can also go up to 8 GB total if you use matched pairs of 4 GB RAM sticks in the two memory slots), but at least you can now specify a 4 GB configuration on all four MacBook Air models. Note well however that the extra 2 GB of optional RAM must be ordered from Apple at the time of purchase, as the memory is reportedly not retro–upgradable. At least Apple is charging a fairly reasonable $100 across-the-board for the upgrades to 4 GB.

Moving along, as Steve Jobs noted in his keynote, the new “MacBook Air is the first of a new generation of notebooks that leaves behind mechanical rotating storage in favor of solid state flash storage.” That’s right, no more pokey iPod hard drives. All MacBook Airs come standard equipped with solid-state drives that Apple claims are 90 percent smaller and lighter than conventional notebook hard drives –– in storage capacities ranging from 64 GB in the base 11.6 inch model, with 128 GB optionally available for an extra hundred bucks. The 128 GB SSD is standard in the new 13 inch MacBook Air, with a 256 GB unit available for a $300 surcharge, which takes you up to a list price of $1599. Upgrade to a 2.13 GHz CPU, and the tariff will be $1699, plus another $79 if you want the optional external SuperDrive optical drive and tack on $29 more for the Ethernet adapter if you’re me.

The external SuperDrive is not quite the must-have that it was with the original MacBook Air, because new machines ship with a solid-state USB Software Reinstall Drive that facilitates reinstallation of the operating system and bundled iLife software, and to run essential applications and utilities without the necessity of using an external optical drive or DVD Sharing. If you elect to pre-install iWork at the time purchase, iWork is also included on the MacBook Air Software Reinstall Drive.

Apple also notes that “If you try to use the MacBook Air Software Reinstall Drive on a computer other than a MacBook Air (Late 2010), you will be offered two options: “Restore from a Time Machine backup” or “Restart the computer”. All menu selections are disabled.” However, on the supported MacBook Airs, you can start up the computer from the MacBook Air Software Reinstall Drive to select a Startup Disk, restore your system from a Time Machine backup disk or Time Capsule, reinstall Mac OS X, reset your administrative password, enable a firmware password, and run Disk Utility, among other tasks. This is an excellent idea, but I still want the freestanding optical drive as well. There’s still too much software that demands disk installation to try living without it. However, You can still use another Macintosh running Mac OS X v10.5.3 or later to share its optical drive with the MacBook Air (Late 2010).

The original MacBook Air’s port issues have also been addressed. First and foremost, the new air books all come with two USB ports –– one on each side. I’ve been able to live with that on my aluminum unibody MacBook. They also have a real Mini DisplayPort (you’ll still need optional adapters at $29.95 apiece in order to connect to anything, such as the $1000.27 inch Apple Cinema display), a headphone mini-jack, and the 13-incher also comes with a SD Card slot. In terms of wireless connectivity, Apple’s Airport WiFi and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR are built-in standard equipment.

The The 11.6-inch MacBook Air’s 18-bit glossy display is 1366 x 768 resolution, making it the first MacBook with 16:9 aspect ratio screen. The 13-inch model retains the previous models 16:10 aspect ratio, but bumps the resolution from 1280 x 800 to 1440 x 900, which incidentally is the same resolution as my old 1.33 GHz 17 inch PowerBook G4, and the standard resolution for the current 15 inch MacBook Pro. The 13 inch MacBook and MacBook Pro still have 1280 x 800 resolution 13 inch displays. Both displays support dual display mode and video mirroring.

Both models still have full-size keyboards, although keyboard backlighting has gone missing. Not a deal–breaker for most of us, all backlit keyboards can be a great convenience in certain lowlight situations.

Both MacBook Air’s also have MacBook Pro style glass Multi-Touch trackpads, the better to support the multi-touch capabilities Mr. jobs says are coming with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion next summer I will eliminate the necessity for the user actually touch the display (hooray! I detest display glass smeared with greasy fingerprints). Jobs noted on stage that : “We’ve done tons of user testing on [interfacing with a vertical display using a multi-touch UI], and it turns out it doesn’t work... touch surfaces want to be horizontal.” Amen. Another new wrinkle is a built-in FaceTime camera.

The compact size of the SSD units makes more room for larger built in batteries, with the 11.6 inch model rated by Apple at a not especially exciting five hours runtime, and the 13-incher at a more impressive seven hours, and up to 30 days of standby time with iPad-like instant-on responsiveness, although boot ups from a cold start will still take longer.

The MacBook Airs are of Apple’s rugged and beautiful aluminum unibody construction, and are even thinner than the original air: 0.68 inches at their thickest point, tapering to 0.11 inches. (as opposed to tapering from 0.76 inches to 0.16 on the older model) They both also weigh-in lighter than the 3 pound original machine; the 11.6-inch model at 2.3 pounds and the 13-inch unit at 2.9 pounds.

In my estimation, Apple’s designers and engineers have done themselves proud with these new MacBook Air’s. I’m salivating, which I never did over the original air. It’s still more than a year before I intend to upgrade my system, but Apple has given me plenty to think about. The other contender on my now long or short list is the 13 inch MacBook Pro, and it’s likely that it will have received an upgrade or two, or even a redesign before I am ready to make the jump, so I’ll still be in wait and see mode for some time.

I think the 11.6 inch MacBook Air it is extremely cool, and I hadn’t seriously expected Apple to bring it in at under $1000, but they did, and I expect very healthy sales, grab strong enough to steal some of the thunder from the iPad. However, for me, an 11.6 inch display it is just too small, especially for my 59-year-old eyes, so if my next system’s to be and AirBook, it will have to be a 13-incher. The larger models faster processors, ST card slot, and longer battery life our clinchers, although the price of entry for a high-end equipped 13-inch models is still more than a bit daunting, especially compared to what you get in a 13 inch MacBook Pro for a bargain $1199.

As I said, the choice is going to be more difficult.

Both the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs are available now through the online Apple Store ( www.apple.com ), Apple’s retail stores and Apple Authorized Resellers.

The 1.4 GHz 11-inch MacBook Air with 2GB of memory and 64GB of flash storage starts at a suggested retail price of $999 with a 128GB model for $1,199.

The 1.86 GHz 13-inch MacBook Air with 2GB of memory and 128GB of flash storage starts at a suggested retail price of $1,299 with a 256GB model for $1,599. Configure-to-order options and accessories include faster processors, 4GB of memory, MacBook Air SuperDrive and a USB Ethernet Adapter.

Additional technical specifications and configure-to-order options and accessories are available online at:
http://www.apple.com/macbookair