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Customer Review

90 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best ultraportable laptop produced thus far..., August 16, 2011
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This review is from: Apple MacBook Air MC966LL/A 13.3-Inch Laptop (OLD VERSION) (Personal Computers)
Background:
For the past two years or so I've gone through numerous brands/models in an incessant search to find a laptop that was easily portable and had enough horsepower to match or exceed the performance of a solid $500 desktop with enough battery life to last over four hours of real world use. In this time span I've gone through over a dozen laptops or netbooks that were eventually returned, sold, donated to family or friends, modded and repurposed, or are currently sitting collecting dust awaiting a similar fate. A short list of the more memorable laptops/netbooks that I've previously owned/used that I can remember off hand include: HP TM2T(Core 2 Duo); HP TM2T(Core i3), Asus T101MT, MacBook Air (2009), Acer 4820TG, HP Envy 14, HP dv7t Quad Edition, ASUS U36JC, MacBook Pro 13, and two lower cost laptop models made by Gateway and Acer that I won't mention because they really didn't fit the criteria I was looking for when I acquired them.

I can truly say the 2011 MacBook Air 13" is the most satisfied I've been with any laptop I've used. Although I do find some quirks with the 2011 MBA lineup they are passable and this product still deserves a full five stars. I will probably echo some of the same pros and cons that others have stated, but let's move on with my review so I can tell you my impressions of this.

HARDWARE PROS:
- Weight/Form Factor: I've always considered portability to be important in a laptop but I can't emphasize this enough. If you've never held and used a MacBook Air before you should be impressed by its weight and form factor alone. Mostly anyone could easily hold the 13" MacBook with one hand. It means I can be watching a video and if I need to move to another room in the house and can easily walk with the laptop in one hand. However, I don't think it is light/comfortable enough to hold while standing for prolonged periods of time. I've demonstrated how light it is to several people under 5 feet tall by stand and watch a YouTube video holding the MBA with one. So, if you're concerned about the 13" size because you're short you shouldn't let that deter you until you actually try it.

- Core i5 2nd Generation Sandy Bridge Processor/ 4GB RAM Standard: When I first got the 2009 MBA I was extremely impressed by its form factor and weight as stated above, but after trying to use the 2009 MBA for productivity and multitasking you realize that something is amiss in the hardware and this eventually leads to frustration. The 2009 and 2010 MacBook Air base models only included 2GB of RAM and missed an entire generation of Core i-series processors, and despite having a solid state hard drive and a dedicated graphics card their of value in price to performance was very underwhelming compared to what was available for much less at the time. I currently have 16 tabs opened across four windows in Firefox, 5 tabs in Chrome, two applications(Silverlight and Java) streaming live financial quotes, DropBox, iTunes and a P2P application running while I am typing this review. I haven't noticed any noticeable hitches in performance. I have read about others complaining about issues with various Adobe software (especially Flash) with the latest version of OS X Lion. I have only experienced some sluggishness once when resuming from deep sleep. For testing I used a downloaded Flash game. It took a little more than 10 seconds to re-render. However, this may have more to do with the integrated graphics and could possibly be corrected in the future with an update.

- Solid State Drive: There's not much to say here. If you've never experienced the performance leap from using a SSD then you will probably be more than a little impressed by the much faster load/boot times. I've installed SSDs on a few computers after talking up the performance boosts. I guess they were expecting everything to be instantaneous. Anyway, it's very noticeable in Bootcamp running Windows over the MBP 13 I've been using or when transfering/copying larger files. You can read more about the much faster load/boot times from other reviews online.

- Trackpad: Quite often, previous MacBook owners don't mention this as a Pro. However, the trackpad is the biggest reason why I prefer a MacBook as my laptop of choice. I grew tired of the jumping cursors, crappy drivers, and erratic touchpad gestures. For some reason Synaptic and most PC vendors overlook or can't seem to get it right. How do you neglect its importance as the primary functioning hardware you use to actually interact with your computer. The trackpad on the MBA just works. It works so well and is far more than accurate enough that I actually prefer not using a mouse with my laptop because of it.

- Backlit Keyboard: The keyboard itself may take some getting used to if you've never used a MacBook before. However, once you grow accustomed to the layout you will enjoy the amount of travel and "clickiness" to it. Thankfully, the backlight was brought back for the 2011 lineup. I don't understand why this feature was removed to begin with since it doesn't impact battery life that much. It's clutch and greatly appreciated in low lit environments.

- Build: It's the same aluminum casing material used in all the MacBook models and the same chassis design that was used in the 2010 model. Solid construction

HARDWARE CONS:

- No USB 3.0: Although USB 3.0 is not as ubiquitous USB 2.0 it is quickly growing and peripherals are far more abundant and less expensive than Thunderbolt peripherals. USB 3.0 will likely remain far more popular than Thunderbolt after Apple's exclusivity expires next year because USB 3.0 is more cost-effective to produce and is backwards compatible with the millions of USB 2.0 devices already available. I agree with other reviewers in that this reduces the future proofing of this model, and it seems like Apple's Firewire vs USB 2.0 situation repeated. (I digress that at least there are two USB 2.0 ports on opposite ends. My original 2009 MBA had one.)

- Facetime Camera not High Definition: I try not to show my mug on camera but sometimes I have to use it to speak to clients via remote connections and occasional video conferencing. Again, considering the profit margins on each MBA sold I don't understand the reason to exclude this feature other than Apple being Apple and including this as an improved feature for next year.

- Power Button: The power button is placed in the keyboard layout right above the delete key!!! It's where the eject button is on my MBP right above the Delete key. Yes, I just praised the keyboard in the Pros. Until you grow accustomed to this your chances of accidentally hitting the power button by mistake in the beginning is likely. It won't shut your computer down or put the computer to sleep. It simply brings up the power down dialog, but it's still a questionable button placement.

- Memory is not upgradeable: Not much more to add here. 4GB is enough for me and the SSD is definitely a huge boost to hard drive caching.

- Need adapters for HDMI, VGA, DVI. At this price and considering the profit margins on each unit sold the adapters at least an adapter for HDMI or VGA should be included. Meh...

OS X LION PROS: (because it deserves its own section)

- Mission Control and Spaces: I really like it. I used spaces on Snow Leopard with full screen apple(via third party apps) and this makes using it that much easier. You can drag windows from Space to Space to re-arrange your groups. It's a great improvement that can be improved.

- Cloud/App Store Operating System Installation: No 50 character CD Keys, scratched backup disks, or corrupt files on your thumb drive. Cheaper prices.

- Automatic Resume: It seamlessly automatically saves the last state of your applications. Some users don't like that applies universally to every open app, but it's very simple to prevent from occurring. If you are done with an and want to prevent said app from automatically restoring simply right click its icon in the dock press option and select force quit. Another app I've used is Flexiglass which adds the functionality of right clicking the red X to completely close an app and all its windows.

OSX LION CONS: (because it deserves its own section)

- Launchpad: This was a poor, not well executed integration into OS X. Out the box the Launchpad replaces the App Folder in the dock that used to be next to documents and the trash bin. I actually stared at the screen for a few moments until I dug through the search results. I've tried to use it. It keeps the desktop icon less cluttered for me and I moved many of the icons I typically place there in the Launchpad. However, customizing the Launchpad has its quirks. For instance, adding and renaming folders/icons in the Launchpad isn't just easily done on the Launchpad by right clicking the icon. You have to open it in Finder to rename it. There are no options to change the gesture in System Preference to view the Launchpad. I truly feel like the default gesture was tested using the midgets or elementary school kids. My hands are too big to consistently do the gesture. You'd think I could palm two basketballs with one hand.

Right now, the launchpad is quirky and somewhat redundant. I understand the direction Apple is heading and are thus slowly blending touch-based iOS and traditional Mac OS X, but the way Apps for OS X are distributed and the complete integration is definitely not with us today in any of Apple's lineup. Hopefully, things will improve with future updates. My hopes is that the launchpad serves as a replacement for Show Desktop in the future.

- Natural Scrolling: By default scrolling is inverted. Some like it, some don't, most people will find it awkward at first and I'd bet the majority no matter how slim will change this back. I'd prefer an opt-in integration method for this if Apple wanted to change several decades of computing.

- Three Finger Back/Forward and Scroll to Top/Bottom: I don't know why this configuration was changed from 10.6 to 10.7 but out the box you may notice when you run a third party browser such as Firefox or Chrome that you are unable to page back/forward using the old gesture three finger swipe left/right. Well, you have to change "Swipe between pages" to "Scroll Left/Right with Two or Three Fingers" under Systems Preferences->Trackpad->More Gestures. A gesture that is now missing entirely is three swipe up/down to scroll to top/bottom but I found a solution with an app called BetterTouchTool By Andreas Hegenberg. It's a very good tool to customize the trackpad gestures to your liking.

Expose: No minimized apps unless you are using another window of said minimized app. I don't understand the logic as to why this was removed. It was still featured to be working during the beta but has been removed. The last time I can remember having to click more than twice to view a minimized window was Windows 3.1. Again, I would prefer if this option was carried over from the Beta and preferred an opt-in integration method for this if Apple wanted to change a decade plus of computing.

OSX LION NEURAL OR MEH: (because it deserves its own section)

Many other changes in Lion were under the hood; complete migration to 64-bit and complete Trim support. A lot of the bundled apps have been improved particularly Mail, Lion Recovery, FileVault, AirDrop, Versions, overlay scroll bars. Some improvements are bigger/more noticeable than others. Also, you can now re-size windows from any corner/edge: Nothing innovative; better late than never; nice for those who are coming from Windows and haven't/won't use other third party accessibility apps.

OTHER THOUGHTS:

- Screen: I've seen others mention the difference in screen quality between the MacBook Air and Pro models. I have noticed a slight difference. Two things that immediately affect your PERCEPTION of the screen are the resolution and the fact that the area surrounding the display on the MBA is metallic gray vs glossy black on the MBP. When you're comparing the two you might not think that matters. The screen on the MBA does use TN panels but they are far better than your typical run of the mill 1024 x 768 that continues to flood the laptop industry that I typically see. Because of its screen resolution I can dock windows side by side easier on the 13" MBA than I could with a 17" HP dv7 quad core edition that I used. No lie.

- Battery Life: Don't believe the advertised 7 hours of battery life unless you're using a third party utility or disabling all wireless connections and dimming the screen down. However, I easily get about 5 hours surfing the web indoors. I've gotten a little under four hours streaming financial quotes and actively surfing indoors, but I'd typically have it plugged in if I need it for more intensive productivity tasks. Definitely not as good as the MacBook Pro 13".

- No Restore Drive: I understand this was a concern for some. Apple released the free Lion Recovery Disk Assistant from Apple's support page. You can make your own recovery thumb drive on a low cost thumb drive of your choice or you can order an OS X Lion Thumb Drive for Apple's Mac App Store for $69 which was released today.

- Graphics: Will it max Crysis? No... I have a desktop rig for that when I want. This is an ultraportable laptop and IMO it's the best available.

OTHER TIPS:

Screen Keeps Dimming and Brightening: At first, I thought it was because i was using the charger from my MBP and I was ruining a brand new expensive --- computer, but I was 98% certain that couldn't be the case. I went to Systems Preferences -> Energy Saver and unchecked Slightly dim the display when using this power source but that wasn't the case because it wasn't on battery. Anyway, I unchecked Automatically Adjust Screen Brightness under Display and felt as if 7 million brain cells must've died beforehand because it took a while to figure it out, but that solved it.

Security: Please change your broadcasting discoverable wireless settings and enable your firewall under System Preferences. This is especially true if you are going to use this extremely portable laptop in public areas. Although, Macs aren't targeted nearly as much as Windows or the most popular Linux Distros you are not secure if leave the door wide open.

I avoided the expensive adapters and bought two aftermarket adapters to suit my needs that have worked well thus far. Kensington USB Mini Dock with Ethernet for Mac/PC which provides 3 USB 2.0 ports and an ethernet port. You can find a HDMI adapter for very cheap. Though, they may only last several months you could order a dozen of them. Again, I strongly recommend BetterTouchTool if you are looking to gain back the same gestures from Snow Leopard.

SO, THE QUESTION IS SHOULD YOU CONSIDER BUYING AND WHAT MODEL?

Obviously, this depends on your needs and budget. I feel the MBA is the best ultraportable available and if you can go without a DVD drive an a few extra ports my recommendations are the high end 11" MacBook Air or the base model 13" MacBook Air as others have stated. The 4GB vs 2GB makes a difference. The deciding factor would be $100, portability, and how much screen real estate you feel you is adequate for you.

I considered buying one of the best alternatives, the Samsung Series 9. The included warranty was enticing but I've had to deal with servicing a laptop through the mail four times and it's never pleasant. Resale value was another factor, and though it has one of the best touch pads I've used on Windows until Synaptics releases their next generation touch pads and trackpads it still felt subpar. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to get back into cross-platform development for OS X. However, another decent alternative to consider is the Toshiba Portege R835 if you are looking for an ultraportable with very strong battery life.

I want to raise a point not many people write about in their reviews and that is SSD performance over time. Although, OS X Lion includes TRIM support the performance of all solid state drives degrades as you store more data to the drive. I've experienced this with a couple of desktop builds I've done. With some SSD's the performance degradation begins after filling up just half the disk drive, and affects nearly all drives to some extent once the drive is 70% full. This is something to consider when storing data. An external storage solution of some kind is strongly recommended.

Currently, there are two different solid state drives that ship with the MacBook Airs. One is made by Samsung and is the higher performing drive and the other is made by Toshiba. You can check which version you have by going to About this Mac->System Report->More Info click Serial-ATA and check the the first two letters of the model after APPLE SSD. Credit goes to Amazon user Wayne N for pointing this out in his review. I haven't read any benchmarks on the performance over time with the new MBA.

I personally purchased the 256GB model because I need to store financial data and I need a large Bootcamp partition for Windows to compose and sample music, coding that involves very large libraries and enough storage for music and the occasional movie if I'm not on my home network. So, everyone's needs are different. Still, SSD size and degradation is something to consider for your intended use. The MBA is not a true desktop replacement especially if you're into playing games (of any kind if you want decent graphics) but I feel that the MBA can serve as a your primary computer depending on your needs.

Thanks for reading this lengthy review. Hope it helps in your decision.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 11, 2011 3:22:08 AM PDT
Great review, thank you.

Posted on Feb 3, 2013 12:01:24 AM PST
wcyd says:
Thx so much for this detailed insightful review. It answered many of my questions.
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