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Customer Review

107 of 127 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars APPEAL: Yes. VALUE: Yes. Apple understands., July 23, 2011
This review is from: Apple MacBook Air MC965LL/A 13.3-Inch Laptop (Intel Core i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB Solid-State Hard Drive, Mac) (OLD VERSION) (Personal Computers)
Those that saw my previous review of the 2010 11" MacBook Air will fully understand that title. The 2010 MacBook Air suffered from a lack of true value, attempting instead to do the absolute minimum in an attempt to appeal to people's aesthetic tastes while sacrificing key features and not pushing the envelope. Well, with the 2011 version, they have gone back to the drawing board. Indeed, they have released what the MacBook Air should have been all along. You can read the specs above for details about what is all here. I'm only focusing on what's improved over the last gen.

After re-reading my review, I decided to reorganize things for fluidity. So I'm going to first start with the general hardware and its approach. First, let's talk about what's good.

- Base 13" is a great deal if you don't need storage on the device. The price is set just right, and there are very few compromises here. You can go to the higher storage for $300 if you want, but honestly, just buy an external for $100. My opinion.

- Apple has returned the backlight keyboard. There was huge consumer demand for this feature, and removing it was pointless. The machine is so much better with it back, and did great on the night flight back to San Diego.

- Mail is no longer a battery killer. In the older version of the MacBook Air, running the Mail app used to destroy the battery something fierce. Battery life is a little lower, but realistically it's good enough for the majority of uses. If you're a heavy user don't expect to get more than 4 hours out of it.

- Backlight keyboard alone does not seem to have very much impact on the battery. This was a worry for some, it really does not make that much of a difference on the battery at all, to my pleasant surprise.

- More, faster RAM included this time around. This is important for application multitasking. I don't like that it's soldered on again, but I give them a pass due to the 4GB being standard on the base 13" unlike last year's debacle.

So why'd I knock it down a star? all fairness, there's absolutely no logical reason that Apple should have ignored USB 3.0 by now. Even accounting for the addition of the Thunderbolt port, the reality is that USB 3.0 being backwards compatible with 2.0 makes it the best future proofing choice for computers, and one that all competitors have made. Apple refusing to jump on board is going to hurt their chances of pushing units. They'll sell a lot of machines as always, but there will come a breaking point. Even if they wanted to push Thunderbolt harder, it would not have harmed them financially or competitively to include at least one USB 3.0 port.

Also, I wasn't really impressed with the quality of the screen. There's just the screen. It's hard to put into words. But it just doesn't have that same visual presence as the Pro, or even the 2010 Air. My understanding is that the panel type has been changed, likely causing this phenomenon. There's pixelation in places, and the text doesn't have the same clarity as with the Pro line. There were some compromises here. For day-to-day usage it's not a deal breaker, but it's noticeable and thus I note it here. Don't expect "magical" screen quality. If the screen quality all around matters and you have a keen eye like me, go for a Pro.

Battery life is also quite finicky. I know it's rated at "up to 7 hours" but I want to stress that this is under EXTREMELY conservative use cases. I'm talking Safari only, no flash, low backlight keyboard, low screen brightness. On the plane when they dimmed the cabin lights, I was able to go to one notch on the screen and backlight, which let me see perfectly, and then it lasted quite well. But here at home, with the screen brightness at just over halfway, running Mail, Firefox and Safari (because right now Safari is the default browser for Mail links), I'm hovering around 5 hours, which isn't bad. Yet if Spotlight gets fired up and indexing, I watched in horror as that figure went down to 2 hours under the same conditions.

Lastly, I am compelled to knock them for their refusal to at least include a USB restore drive in the box. I know they're pushing downloads and streaming media, but the reality is that physical media for computer restoration is almost a necessity. The novelty of an internet-based reinstall is nice, and they can keep that, but I still say that they should have included the Lion OS on a USB drive like they did with the 2010. The additional cost is pennies for that drive, so cost isn't the reason. They're pushing an agenda, and I don't like being tethered to the internet if and when I need to reinstall my operating system. There is a hidden recovery partition for this purpose that you can also use. But I think Apple is missing the boat here. What if the drive itself, the physical drive, goes toast? You're stuck unless you pay money. Thus the value of having external media for restoration if and when that were to happen. The SSD bar in the Air is replaceable, and there are already options from OWC for those users. But it's useless unless you pay $30 to download Lion and burn it/write it yourself or pay Apple $70 for a USB stick with Lion on it. To me both are unacceptable alternatives for something that should be in the box of every computer.

-_- Mac OS X 10.7, CODE NAME LION -_-

I want to interject here and state for the record that the majority of what bothers me with this purchase really has more to do with Lion, the newest operating system from the Apple, rather than the Air hardware itself. Based on my experience, the Lion OS is a step in the wrong direction. Apple is attempting to blend what we know of Mac OS with what certain users know of iOS, and the output is a very clunky experience at times. They introduced plenty of new features, and changed some tried and true features at the same time. It's clear they are attempting to create a single OS for both tablets and the desktop OS, but it's just...wrong.

Apple introduced a new feature, Mission Control, which is designed to act as the evolution of Exposé and Spaces. The problem is that Mission Control is finicky. It wants each app to be run in Full Screen to be able to separate them correctly within a single desktop. However...running apps full screen is a bit of a pain because it disables the Dock. Thus if you're running Firefox, let's say, in full screen you can't then see the unread count on Mail in the Dock. This basically forces you to run a Desktop that is just a Desktop and then run other apps in their own Desktop space. If you don't run apps in full screen, Mission Control then just "Paper stacks" them in a very unorganized fashion within the same Desktop. If an app is minimized into the Dock, it does not show in Mission Control. This seems bass-ackwards...if it is minimized into the Dock it should be one of the icons on top in Mission Control automatically. The only way to force this is to manually create the Desktop and assign the app to it, or full screen the app and then switch out of it.

I know that's hard to understand, but the bottom line is that the approach isn't very well implemented.

Apple has introduced another feature, Launchpad, which is essentially an iPad view of all of the local applications. It supports the grouping concept also found on iOS. Anyone who owns an iPod Touch or an iPad/iPhone will instantly recognize this. The idea is obvious; the concept of it just does not work on a full computer. It translates on a simple touch interface, but not a computer where you're not really touching. It should be obvious that the intent is to have one operating system for both desktops and tablets in an attempt to extend iOS beyond its limitations and dumb down the desktop experience. I get it. But beyond the obvious issues, there are more functional problems. Launchpad shows queued up downloads or updates to existing apps rather than the app itself. So for example, I saw there was an upgrade for iPhoto and started it from the App Store when I was on the plane. But when I saw it was over 600MB I stopped it. Problem is that made iPhoto unavailable from Launchpad because it changed to a download prompt instead of the app. It's not a deal breaker, as one could go to the Applications folder by exiting Launchpad or not using it, but it's something to note...Apple's got some work to do.

"Natural scrolling" is a joke. It turns over 20 years of computing on its head and not in a good way. I turned that stuff off the moment I saw it. For those that don't know what this is, Apple has set the default scroll behavior to where the window will scroll in the same direction as where you scroll your fingers/mouse. So for example, right now if you scroll a window down, the the page will go up so you read down the page. That's logical. In the default scroll of Lion, if you do the same downward scroll, the page will move down. So if you want to read towards the bottom like normal people, you would scroll up, because you're "pulling the page up" in order to read downwards. If it sounds confusing, it is. I disabled this immediately.

Those who are on the fence about this, think of this way. If I asked you to get to the bottom of the stairs, what direction are you moving? DOWN. Down = Bottom. That's logical, right? So when looking at a piece of paper, if I wanted to go to the bottom of the page, I am reading DOWN the page. The analogy I stated before of "move the paper up to read downwards" works if my hands are directly on the paper. But when I am not touching the paper, my eyes go down; the paper itself, say if laying on table, goes up. That's why computer-based scrolling has worked for over two decades. It's designed to work for your eyes, not for your hands.

"Natural scrolling" makes perfect sense on an iPad, because you're "touching the paper" directly, thus you would move the paper so that you can get to the next parts of what you're reading. I didn't find it to translate well on a disconnected input medium like the trackpad at all. Your Mileage May Vary, but in my opinion it's more clunky than it's worth, and I would rather it had been disabled by default, with options for users who want to try that input type that are converts from the iPad.

Lion wants to remember open tabs by default in Safari. So let's say you have 3 tabs open and you shut the browser down because you're finished. In my mind if I close all three tabs it's because I'm done using them and the next time I open the browser I expect a clean slate; otherwise I would just use bookmarks. In Lion, by default, when you open the browser multiple times, it will reopen whatever tabs you had open the last time you ran it. Even Reset Safari does not stop this behavior. You have to disable it in System Preferences if you don't want it.

Lion has taken a questionable direction with regards to design strategy. It feels very much like Apple's strategy was to create an OS that could be used on both a computer and a tablet, and I'd be shocked if we didn't see a Lion version of the iPad down the road. The problem is a lot of the features just don't translate well to a computer environment at all, yet would feel right at home on a tablet. Things like rotating and the new Mail interface. I know some people have reported things as bugs with Lion...I don't think they are. I think a lot of what we are experiencing are intentional changes...and anyone who thinks it's a bug, is really feeling the negative impacts of the changes. Call a spade a spade.

In I recommend it? That's a big YES. The 2011 Air is a solid machine that IMO is hindered somewhat by a questionable OS design. The hardware is spot on and what the Air really should have been in the 2010 revision. The backlight keyboard adds significant value to the Air, and the 2011 just feels right. The base 13" is a great value and well worth the money you spend on it. It's not going to replace a Pro for many reasons. But it's strong enough to be someone's primary if they really want it to be. The review may sound like it's lower than a 4, but the more critical negatives are with Lion, not with the Air itself. The Air itself is rock solid. It's a strong VALUE and well worth the dollars you spend on it. The higher end 13" is pushing it in terms of true value, as is the low end 11", but the high end 11" and the base 13" both are the best values in the Apple lineup right now. The 13" Pro has a stronger processor but not by much, and you must add a SSD to make it slightly superior to the base Air. That's the way it should have been from the get-go. VALUE, people. Value.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 24 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 23, 2011 10:58:37 PM PDT
Sam Sheddan says:
Since about half of your review is really about Lion, I'm going to comment on that.

I've been using Lion on multiple Macs for a couple of days now (27" iMac and 15" & 17" MBPs).

- Natural scrolling: it's very easy to get used to, and it's more intuitive than the old way. With natural scrolling, I scroll down and the page moves down. Simple. And it's exactly the way things work in the real world. The old way is scroll-bar-centric and counter-intuitive. Just because you're used to it doesn't make it right. I mean, which is more important to the user, the scroll bar or THE TEXT BEING SCROLLED?

- Mission Control and Exposť/Spaces: I'm a power user, and I made extensive use of Spaces. I don't miss it at all, because Mission Control separates different apps into logical spaces, and "positions" them according to most-recent use. So I can easily switch between screens that I'm using without the need to "skip around" my old-style Spaces grid.

- Full-screen apps: I haven't had any problems with this. As I type this on my 27" iMac, I have 3 app windows visible (Safari, Mail, and iCal). None of them take up the full screen, and I can still see my dock (although I keep it hidden unless the mouse moves over the lower edge of the screen).

- Mail: after a bit of configuration to get it to look like the iOS mail app (descending sort, newest mail at the top), I adjusted just fine. I like the three-column view, and the conversations make life quite a bit easier than the old app's "highlight similar mail" feature.

So it sounds like the reviewer doesn't like Lion simply because it's different than what he's used to. That's cool. I mean, his review is his opinion.

But for anyone else who's considering a MacBook Air or upgrading to Lion, I strongly recommend both. (I'm going to buy an MBA in a couple of weeks when my state has its Tax-Free Weekend.) Apple has a long and successful history of innovation, especially when it comes to User Interface.

As far as the changes go, give them a chance before you pound your stick even deeper into the mud. We humans are very adaptive creatures, and you'll quickly get used to the new scrolling, new mail interface, or whatever else is different. Trust me. I make a living developing iPad apps, and I've spent 15 years doing UI/UX.

Apple has steadily raised the bar for ease-of-use, making computers work like people instead of the other way around. Lion is the next step in this evolution.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 24, 2011 10:09:56 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 24, 2011 10:14:15 AM PDT
It's not a matter of like or dislike. Lion has questionable design decisions around it. Some things are good...the ability to resize a window from any corner, which is a no-brainer that Windows had right all along. Some things are simply clunky. It's not about "used to". It's about "don't break what works".

On full screen apps the Dock on the left or right does NOT show in full screen mode. Maybe it shows on the bottom. On a screen this tiny, putting it on the bottom affects navigation more than having it on the sides. I would consider it a questionable design decision if the Dock does show on the bottom but not on the sides. It's the same dock. Mind you, I have auto hide on. Don't know if that affects anything, but again, It's the same frickin dock. It should show up regardless of what my setting for it is.

Your last sentence screams of Jobsian, and I feel compelled to express to readers not to buy into this. There is no such thing as "making computers work like people". It's a fallacy. Computers are tools. They are designed to work FOR the user. To that end, there are tried and true things about computing in general that Apple is desperately trying to change to nobody's benefit but their own financial gain. Apple tried to change behaviors with a single button mouse; we saw where that got them. They tried to get rid of the notion of right-click; we saw where that got them. They tried to get rid of the notion of frequent updates; we saw where that got them. One day they have to learn that some things just are, and nothing they do will change them on the desktop computing side. For iPad, they can do whatever they want and let people buy that device if they really think Mac OS is difficult to use.

That you "make a living developing iPad apps" is evidence as to why you enjoy these interface changes...because they're designed for iPads. That's fine...enjoy the iPad and what it brings, and add these features to that device for simpler computing. Keep using that device, keep enjoying that device, ignore Mac OS completely. Don't try to force iOS features onto computers. I guarantee the day that iOS is all that's available will result in a mass exodus from Apple, because it's the wrong move. Leave the gimped OS for the mobile devices. Leave the power for the computers. Keep them separate, even if they can ultimately communicate with one another.

Now IF Apple decides to release a FULL TABLET...not what the iPad is today, but a FULL tablet with FULL Mac OS - then Lion makes perfect sense, and I support it wholeheartedly, because then you're using full screen touch for input. Until then, and while we continue to use mice and keyboards, the OS needs to work for those input devices. Period.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 24, 2011 1:16:38 PM PDT
Sam Sheddan says:
Computers and user interfaces EVOLVE. They change because of flaws in the original design, outdated design decisions, or simple user preference. And user preference is CLEARLY headed toward a more real-world interface like iOS. Swiping is a natural motion that has a real-world analog. Scrolling (the way it was) is backward. You scroll down but the page moves UP? WTF?!?

I agree that computers are tools, but abstract tools need to use the metaphors that people understand from the world around them. I swipe down on a piece of paper and the page moves down. It doesn't magically move up. Current scrolling is like pulling a rope to raise a curtain--it's fine when you're on the side of the stage and focused on the rope. But what happens when you're center-stage and you're staring at the curtain (the content)? You raise it with a natural motion.

I can debate the rest of the design decisions with you, but I'd be wasting your time, my time, and everyone else's who's reading these comments. So let's move on...

Just because you disagree with Lion's design decisions doesn't make them "questionable." Apple has one of the best human interface labs in the business, and you can call me Jobsian all you like, but Apple knows how people work and how we use our tools. I mean, why do you think everyone copies Apple? The Cool Factor only explains a fraction of the copycats and imitators.

Now, I make iPad apps for a living and I like iOS. But guess what I did for 15 years before I got my iPhone and iPad? Yep, I made consumer software (for mice and keyboards and everything). And I studied people and how they use the tools I gave them. I changed my designs when my interface didn't fit how people naturally expected something to work. That's what Apple is doing with Lion.

For me, I'll take Lion and all its iOS features. Fortunately, Apple knows its customers well enough that they added preferences so BOTH of us can work the way we like. Gee, it's almost like they know their users and how we use our tools.

We obviously have different opinions about Lion and its design decisions, but I hope new users will try the features before they simply disable them and go back to the old way. I mean, imagine what would've happened if everyone had ignored iPods because CDs worked just fine, or didn't buy a DVR because they were a whiz with VCR Plus+. I could go on, but you get the picture.

So (to everyone else), try the new features in Lion. I love them. You may or may not, but you'll never know if you turn them off straight out of the box.

On a personal note (to M.D.C.), I agreed with most of your review. I marked it as Helpful even though I disagreed with some of your opinions about Lion. I think you did a great job outlining the strengths of the new MBA, and I agree with you completely there (I skipped the previous generation for many of the reasons you mentioned).

Oh, and one more thing (since I'm in a Jobsian mood): the Dock still pops up from Auto Hide in full-screen mode. You can even access the menu bar by hovering at the top edge of the screen. It was the first thing I tried when I tested it. Like I said, Apple knows how people think.

Posted on Jul 24, 2011 3:27:28 PM PDT
fargo010 says:
thanx for the review but what u recommend 128 gb or 256 gb ? i mean the air 13 inch

i had 1 terabyte external hard drive western digital ,,

Posted on Jul 24, 2011 4:32:49 PM PDT
buybot181 says:
Please comment on vertical and horizontal viewing angles of the display.
Thanks for making such a lengthy review easy on the eyes.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 24, 2011 5:41:29 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 24, 2011 5:50:29 PM PDT
Nobody "copies" Mac OS. Mac OS is Unix with a pretty face. Apple didn't do anything revolutionary here. That's my point.

Scrolling a page via "natural" scrolling makes sense if I'm touching the paper directly. it doesn't make sense when I'm disconnected from the screen as in a laptop. That's why that behavior is totally natural on an iPad. It doesn't translate on a laptop. Why? Because you see the scroll bars out of the corner of your eye and your first instinct is to move that. If the touchpad never existed and all you had was a scroll wheel mouse - which is what 99% of PC converts will have had prior to Lion - do you think it honestly makes sense to them to scroll totally opposite of the way mousing has been for the past 15 years? No. I don't mind them having it as an option; but it should NOT be the default set when you first fire it up. That's my problem.

Do you know why the conventional scrolling method works so well when not touching the paper? Walking.

When you are on a long page like this Amazon page, your arrow is basically "walking down the page" as you scroll downward using the conventional scroll. If I wanted to get to the bottom of any page, I am scrolling in a downward direction. Down = bottom. Up = Top. I walk DOWN the stairs to get to the bottom. I walk UP the stairs to get to the top. I walk DOWN the street to get to the end. I walk UP the street to get to the start.

And I did verify the dock does NOT show when it's pinned to the sides. It only shows when pinned to the bottom and even then it's erratic; sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. I consider that a questionable design, that your dock exhibits different behavior depending on where it's pinned.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 24, 2011 5:43:33 PM PDT
Sizing choice depends heavily on whether you can justify the $300 premium. I'd much rather store work/personal files on externals instead of directly on the machine, because an external USB drive can be had for a fraction of the cost. I don't find the 256GB worth it, but there are people who don't like to carry accessories around. As long as you can justify the extra $300 it's fine.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 24, 2011 5:46:48 PM PDT
Depends on what you mean. They're the same they've always been. If you're asking whether it's full 180 degree visibility, the answer is no, but it's always been no. The Air uses TN panels. For that you'd have to go to the Pro. But even the Pro has a horrible top-down viewing angle due in part to the glass.

I'm probably the worst reviewer to ask about viewing angles for one reason - I find they don't ever matter in my workflow. I'm always staring directly at the screen, never off to the left or right or top. If I'm sitting above or below the screen I just adjust the screen so that I'm looking dead on at it. It's all about ergonomics.

Posted on Jul 25, 2011 1:43:46 AM PDT
Awesome review! Thanks, M.D.C - your review is very helpful and knowledgable and I will certainly consider your points when it comes to deciding whether to buy a MacBook pro or the Air (basically, you delivered all the arguments for what I wanted my decision to be: go for the Air). One more question though: I have read a lot of reviews about the MacBook Pro which basically claimed that the machine has a serious heat problem. Some claim the Pro gets so hot - even when not using it excessively - that you can fry eggs on it. Did you experience the same with your Air or does it keep its cool?
Oh, and one more question: You made a statement regarding the 128 GB vs 256 GB SSD. How about getting the i7 processor -do you have any view on that and do you, by chance, know what difference it makes with regards to overall performance?
Once again, thanks!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 25, 2011 2:41:56 AM PDT
I own the 17" 2011 MacBook Pro. It gets fairly hot when you do intensive tasks or certain games. Hot enough to fry an egg? Hardly. The first release did get rather abnormally hot, but if you were to buy a Pro now, they aren't nearly that bad unless you're doing intensive stuff, and even then the fans keep it pretty well in check. smcFanControl allows you to take it even further.

Realistically, any machine is going to get hot with intensive tasks. The MacBook line is no different, it's just that the aluminum casing makes it seem worse than it really is, the Air is the same. If you push it with intensive stuff it will get hot. Egg fry? Nah. I've had hotter machines for sure. My work Dell gets twice as hot.

As far as the i7 I just don't find a value in it unless you're just dead set on having the absolute top of the line. It will get a bit hotter than the i5 for obvious reasons. Most regular users won't see an appreciable performance difference between the two. It's the heavier users that will see a difference, and in that use case, I would send them to the Pro.

One concern I always have about the Air with the Sandy Bridge chips is how much room it has to breathe inside. Being so slim means no real ventilation compared to the Pro, and that may very well play a factor. We just don't know at this stage. The i7 would make that worse as it would run hotter than the i5 under load.
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