When the new 13-inch MacBook Air arrived on our messy desks, we were blown away by its razor-thin good looks and equally impressed by its powerful interiors. We were just about getting over the excitement when the new 11-inch Air turned up and we boarded the emotional rollercoaster once more.
Our 2011 MacBook Air 11-inch was configured to include a top-end 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB RAM and a 256GB solid state drive. At £1,399 you may have to decide whether you want food and shelter or a tiny, shiny new laptop, but you can sleep soundly on your friend's sofa knowing you've got a superbly crafted and excellently powerful machine.
The standard top of the range model (without our customised configuration) features a 1.6GHz processor and a 128GB SSD. It will cost you £300 less. The lower-end model comes with a 1.6GHz processor, 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD. That chap will cost you £849.
If you've always wanted a laptop so thin you could use it as a melee weapon during a sudden zombie outbreak, look no further than the 11-inch MacBook Air. At 3mm at its thinnest edge, it'll slice clean through the living dead.
It still boasts the unibody construction, meaning the whole thing is machined from a single piece of aluminium. As there are no different sections to the chassis that could come apart, the Air is very sturdy and durable -- we poked and prodded and didn't detect any flex or weak spots. We wanted to use it as a sledge down the stairs, but thought that might be overkill.
Many laptops have fairly weak hinges with a tendency to bend a little when you open them up, but the Air felt strong as an ox. We had a fun time just opening and closing the lid, trying to find any kind of flex, but we failed miserably. We were forced to conclude this is a really well built laptop.
The 11-inch screen makes the whole Air a very portable size. At 300mm wide and 192mm deep, it's nearly exactly the same size as a piece of A4 paper -- grab a sheet from your printer and see how it feels balanced on your knees. Looks good, doesn't it?
The Air is somewhat heavier than paper though. It weighs 1.08kg -- surprisingly substantial for such a small bit of kit when it's sat in your hand. It's not so heavy that you'll feel weighed down by it when you're carrying it around though, and it's still lighter than some netbooks, such as the Toshiba NB520.
It's also lighter than the Samsung Series 9 ultraportable, which comes in at 1.3kg -- although we'd naturally expect that 13-inch model to be a little weightier than the 11-inch Air. The weight it does have gives the Air a premium quality and helps make it feel more robust.
The only feature on the outer shell is the classic glowing Apple logo. Think of it as a flashy, bragging badge of honour, letting everyone know how much disposable income you have. Or simply how much you enjoy looking at glowing half-eaten fruit.
Around the sides you'll find a tiny smattering of ports.There's two USB 2.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port and a headphone jack. Unlike on the 13-inch models there's no multi-card reader, so you won't be able to supplement the SSD with a high-capacity SD card for extra storage and you won't be able to slide in a card from your camera to quickly transfer your photos if you're away on holiday, unless you're also carrying a USB SD card reader.
Having only two USB ports does allow the Air to remain incredibly thin at the edges, but it'll prove awkward when you need to use more than two USB devices. The Air is designed for life on the road though, so you probably don't need a bunch of USB sticks hanging out of your laptop as you're travelling about. If you do need more, you'll have to carry around a USB hub too.
We're a little disappointed to only see USB 2.0 rather than USB 3.0 on the Air -- it means we won't get a super high-speed data transfer to an external HDD. There is the rapid Thunderbolt port, but right now, there are very few peripherals that use this connection.
Under that ridiculously slim lid you'll find the classic Apple keyboard. It's a full-sized keyboard that takes up every bit of available space, so you can still have an extremely comfortable typing experience without having to squash your fingers up to fit them on the keys.
Apple has brought back the backlight on the new Air's keyboards too so you can happily type away in the dark without buying expensive Infrared goggles or undergoing some kind of horrendous experimental surgery.
We took the Air to a rather nice Indian restaurant to test the keyboard under the low lights and found it very easy to type while ignoring our friends. We were quickly able to immerse ourselves in our work while blocking out the barrage of abuse that was hurled around the table.
On the top row of the keyboard are the usual set of hotkeys controlling screen brightness, keyboard backlight, media controls, and OS X Lion-specific controls for quick access to Launchpad and for switching between virtual desktops.
The trackpad is still a large size and very easy to slide your finger across. As the whole thing is clickable, there's no space taken up by extra buttons. It also supports the numerous multi-touch gestures you can use in OS X Lion. There are various gestures that help you navigate through the new OS, but you'll find you use some more than others on the Air.
Clicking the trackpad with two fingers allows you to right click on an item, while pinching in and out allows you to zoom into text -- very handy if you're often reading on the small screen. Swiping left and right with three fingers allows you to jump between virtual desktops and currently running full-screen apps quickly.
Above the screen is a webcam that allows you to FaceTime (that's video call to everyone else) other Macs, Apple's iPhone 4, iPad 2 or iPod touch. It's not an HD webcam sadly (which would have been too bulky to fit into the slim lid), but it does the job adequately of displaying your own gawping mug on the screen. We found video calling somewhat grainy, but it did the job well enough. There's no port to plug in your own mic, but there's a little built-in one that does the job adequately.
Power and performance
There's very little difference in aesthetics between last year's Airs and this year's. The differences that matter are to be found inside these slim beasts.
Our model sat right at the top of what is available in an 11-inch Air, having been configured to include a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, so we expected some pretty swift performance.
We found navigating around OS X Lion on the Air a breeze. Lion is Apple's latest iteration of its operating system and brings in a bunch of new features including auto saving, full-screen apps and a reversed direction of scrolling, which is totally annoying until you get used to it. You can read our full review of Lion here.
New Macs come preinstalled with bits of software such as Apple's iLife suite for photo, video and music editing, but you can also access the Mac App Store to find and download new software if you need something more serious. You've always been able to go and buy whatever software you like for the Mac, but the App Store allows developers to sell their wares through one location, making it a very handy place to go for new software. It's doubly useful as there's no optical drive on the Air to install software yourself.
To test the performance of the new Air, we chucked some of our hearty benchmark tests at it. The Cinebench 11.5 benchmark test returned a CPU score of 2.22, which is a mere 0.2 less than the 13-inch model we reviewed. Our 11-inch model has been configured to include a slightly faster processor than the 13-inch, so we would expect to see a better performance from the 11-inch.
We then demanded the 11-inch Air encode our 11-minute 1080p video file into 24fps H.264, which it managed to do in a lightning-fast 17 minutes -- a whole 3 minutes faster than our 13-inch model.
Running the Geekbench benchmark test, the 11-inch Air returned a score of 6,285, easily beating the 13-inch model's 5,851. It's not quite matching up to the performance of the new Mac Mini -- that achieved 7,012 -- but that machine contains a 2.5GHz processor, so we'd be amazed if it wasn't more powerful.
Those scores really are quite astounding for something so small and slim. It easily played back 1080p footage while simultaneously doing some multi-tabbed Web browsing -- although the 1,366x768-pixel screen resolution isn't quite big enough to display the 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution of 1080p. Still, many lower powered netbooks are unable even to play the high-definition files, so we were pretty chuffed the Air could play and convert them, while doing other things at the same time.
If you want to properly view 1080p video, you can hook the Air up to a high-definition TV via the Mini DisplayPort (which is also the Thunderbolt port). The Mini DisplayPort only sends video, not audio through to a TV, so you'll have to hook the Air up to a sound system of some kind using the 3.5mm headphone jack if you want to hear what's going on.
Gaming on the Air
To see how the Air handles gaming, we installed Valve's wonderful first-person shooter Half Life 2 and took it for a spin. We set the screen resolution to 1,024x768 pixels and left the other settings on max. The average frame rate when we were sending Gordon Freeman running through wide open spaces was 40fps. This went up to around 80-90fps in areas that required less computing power, and down to around 30 when there was more intense action going on. Overall, the gaming experience was very smooth.
The 11-inch Air may well be the size of a netbook, but it's a completely different world performance-wise. It manages to breeze through playing and converting 1080p video and will happily turn its hand to gaming too. Of course, that's the key reason why this costs a cool grand more than most netbooks.
Whatever you do decide to play, it's probably going to look pretty good on the Air. Its 11.6-inch screen has a native resolution of 1,366x768-pixels making even tiny text on web pages look dangerously sharp. It's very bright too and does a great job of handling colours and contrast. It may not be big enough to show movies as they're meant to be seen, but rest assured that when you do watch high-definition content on it, it'll look gorgeous.
For a machine that's designed for mobile use, you'd be right to expect it to have a battery capacious enough to get you from point A to point B without needing to connect to the mains for a top-up in between. To test the Air's battery, we ran a 1080p video on a continuous loop and timed how long it took to die. It's really not as morbid as it sounds.
Our 11-inch Air managed to keep going for 2 hours 39 minutes, a whole hour less than the 13-inch model achieved. It's not a bad time though, and you'll find you'll get much better performance with more cautious usage.
Apple claims you can get up to 5 hours of wireless Web time on the Air, which is probably about right if you're browsing mostly text-based pages -- if you're visiting sites that make use of Flash or embedded video, your battery life will undoubtedly be shorter.
Both the 11-inch and 13-inch models of the Air claim to have a standby time of up to 30 days. That number may sound impressive, but the laptop is essentially switched off so we'd expect the battery to last a long time in this state -- although why you wouldn't just switch it off if you're leaving it for a month is perhaps a more pertinent question.
Which Air should I buy?
With both the 11-inch and 13-inch Airs packing some meaty specs in their slinky skins, it may be a little difficult to decide which model is best. The tiny proportions of the 11-inch make it a great choice if your computing is primarily done on the move. It can be easily slid into a tiny little bag and thrown over your shoulder without a second thought.
If you plump for the high-end model we reviewed you'll be able to tackle fairly intense tasks while sitting on your train without the worry of it conking out in feeble protest. The base model of the 11-inch Air comes with only 2GB RAM, however, which is unlikely to provide much grunt for processor-heavy tasks such as photo and video editing. It can be yours for £550 less than our top-end model, however.
If media functions are on your agenda, you may better off with the larger screen real-estate offered by the 13-inch model. The 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 version we reviewed gave a speedy performance, but can also be customised to include a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor if you want your laptop to pack a serious punch. That model will cost you the princely sum of £1,449. The 13-inch model also offers the benefit of an SD card slot, which will come in useful if you're a shutterbug.
Air, Pro or iPad 2?
Neither models of the Air offer an optical drive, so playing DVDs or ripping CDs is out of the question. If that's important to you, you should consider the MacBook Pro. The Pro is available in 13-, 15- and 17-inch varieties with specs available up to a 2.3GHz Intel Core i7 processor and up to 8GB RAM. That will help you power through even the most demanding of tasks, but at £2,459, you'd better hope you strike oil or befriend a rich elderly gentleman.
An alternative Apple option is to go for the iPad 2. It has a 9.7-inch screen which isn't too far off the Air's 11-inch. You'll also be able to take advantage of the 90,000 apps designed specifically for the iPad that take advantage of the multi-touch screen and various motion sensors inside.
Typing on a tablet isn't as easy as it is on a regular laptop keyboard, so if you're going to be editing office documents or sending numerous emails, you'll be better off with the Air. If you're into mobile gaming and need a travel-friendly device primarily for Web browsing and checking email, the iPad will save you money.
The 11-inch MacBook Air is a laptop that will undoubtedly cause heated debates. It's undeniably tiny and packs a serious computing punch, but its sky-high price and meagre scattering of ports will definitely not appeal to everyone.
We were certainly impressed with the amount of processing grunt Apple has managed to pack into such a slim body. If we needed a powerful ultraportable purely for travelling purposes, we would go for the 11-inch Air. However, the larger screen size, better battery life and inclusion of an SD card slot makes the 13-inch Air a better compromise for general use.
Edited by Nick Hide