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Testing the Goods: The New MacBook Airs

• John Mahoney and Mike Haney via
I'm going to keep typing after this first sentence, but before we begin something must be said: This review can be summed up in the single moment when, after using one of the new MacBook Airs for an extended period of time, you go back to your old laptop. And it feels like it has suddenly contracted elephantiasis.

My “old” laptop is a unibody 15-inch MacBook Pro with just under two years of mileage on it, which makes the contrast even more dramatic. Both machines share the same overall design language, and both feel modern, sleek and sexy, true to their maker. One just feels grossly, almost comically oversized.

Because after using the 11-inch MacBook Air for a week, a tiny axe-blade wedge of machined metal (that folds out into a computer, I had to keep reminding myself), it's hard to remember why I needed such a "huge" machine in the first place.

Here are my thoughts on the 11-inch; on the next page, Mike Haney stacks the new 13-incher up against the previous generation Air.

The 11-inch MacBook Air in profile:  John Mahoney

What's New

Previously available only in the 13-inch configuration, the new 11-inch form-factor is the smallest Mac laptop ever made. Also new in both Airs is solid-state flash memory as the only storage option, in 64GB or 128GB sizes on the 11" (128GB or 256GB on the 13"). Graphics are handled by the same Nvidia GeForce 320M processor found in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The cases have been slimmed and sharpened and an extra USB port has been added (the previous Air only had one).

What's Good

Speed: There hasn't been a Mac laptop with a clock speed as slow as the entry-level 11-inch Air's 1.4 GHz Core 2 Duo since mid-2005. But processors have changed a lot since then. Despite running at a slower clock, the Air's brain has two cores for more power. That doesn't mean number-crunching tasks like video encoding won't run significantly slower on this machine than every other modern Mac --for that kind of stuff, you'll be better served by something with more processing beef.

But what's amazing here is how little that matters for the other 95% of the every day computing tasks the 11-inch Air handles with effortless speed. Ditching a hard drive's spinning platters for flash memory is a huge reason for this--disk reads and writes are crazy fast (it scored a 229.47 on Xbench's disk test, compared to a 33.06 for my late-2008 MacBook Pro's 5400-rpm hard disk), which boosts the feeling of real-world speed immensely. Full restarts happen before you can even decide whether to get up and fix yourself a drink, and a new ultra-low-power mode can stay asleep for up to 30 days and still snap back to life just like a wake from regular sleep. Milquetoast web work, email and word processing feel as snappy as they are on a brand new Core i7 iMac. I was most surprised to find that even running imports and image processing with Aperture, one of the biggest resource hogs I use frequently, is done without the slightest choke (something I certainly can't say for my two-year-old 2.53 GHz MBP). It almost feels like you're being tricked.

No Compromises: You could look at the spec sheet and the tiny size and immediately cry "Mac Netbook," but the 11-inch Air shares none of that class of laptops' barebones sacrifices. The screen, while small, is a crispy 1366 x 768 pixels dense--plenty of room to work with. The keyboard, save for some skinnier function keys in the top row, is the exact same full-size keyboard on every other Mac laptop. Ditto for the glass multitouch trackpad. Everything feels like a real computer, shrunken in all the right places.

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