Customer Review

465 of 474 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fast and Portable / 2GB RAM and 64 GB Might Be Too Low, July 25, 2011
This review is from: Apple MacBook Air MC968LL/A 11.6-Inch Laptop (OLD VERSION) (Personal Computers)
I've been waiting for a new computer for my wife, something that she can use both as her desktop computer attached to a monitor, mouse and keyboard and still take along on business trips around the world. Ideally, something she could throw in her big purse and go. The previous edition of the MacBook Air was close, but too compromised in terms of processor speed. The Air is perfect for her.

At this writing, Amazon is selling two versions of the 11.6 inch MacBook Air, an i5 model with 2GB of RAM and 64 GB of SSD storage, and an i5 model with 4GB of RAM and 128 GB of SSD storage. You can order elsewhere a third model with an i7 processor, 4GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage--the i7 is the low voltage 2 core version. This review aims at helping the consumer decide if a MacBook Air is the computer for them, and if so, which one. Short answer is the i5/4GB/128GB model is probably the sweet spot of the lineup, but some people can get along with the 64GB model as a second computer, while others will need the ultimate and expensive model.

The strengths:
This computer is fast. The combination of a Solid State Drive (SSD) hard drive and an i5 (or optionally an i7 processor make this the fastest computer I've ever used, and I have a 2011 13" MacBook Pro as my personal computer. The SSD gives it a qualitative responsiveness--application launching, task switching--which any spinning disk laptop will be unable to match. Quantitatively, it more than keeps up with its larger siblings in CPU intensive tasks. For example, my big laptop can compile a large, commercial application I maintain using Xcode 4 in 9 minutes 38 seconds, this tiny sub notebook can do the same in 9 minutes 5 seconds.

This computer is portable. I went to the local Apple Store and compared the 11.6 to the 13 inch MacBook Air, and while the 13 is extremely portable it is not a good fit for a woman's purse. This 11.6 can nearly get lost in a purse, I can imagine my wife hunting around for a few seconds trying to find it. It's ridiculously small. The 11.6 is half a pound lighter than the 13 and a pound heavier than an iPad 2.

Battery life when not under heavy load is good. I can web browse, and as long as I stay away from Flash websites, can do it for several hours. However, under load the 5 hours Apple promises for wireless web browsing becomes sub two hours. If the fan is on, the battery will not last, so it becomes time to figure out which page is running Flash, or which application is hogging all the CPU cycles. For example, I can drain the battery in about 2 hours 20 minutes watching full screen Netflix--which uses the Microsoft Silverlight plugin--over WiFi. I believe Apple no longer pre-installs Flash to pump up their claimed web browsing battery life claims. The larger Air has more room for a battery and thus has a longer battery life. The battery life of my MacBook Pro is certainly at least an hour or two longer under the same approximate load.

The screen is beautiful and crisp. Color balance and contrast seem superior to that of my MacBook Pro's (which isn't bad either). Viewing angles are good but not the spectacular IPS angles of an iPad. I had been wary of dropping down to the 11 inch screen from the 13 inch of my MacBook Pro, but I think I could work all day at this size especially if all I were doing was web browsing or video watching. I wouldn't want to edit videos or do long term software development at this size, but of course there is a Thunderbolt port and with the appropriate MiniDisplay adaptor I could attach it to any monitor. This will spend most of its life attached to a 21 inch LCD.

The keyboard is thankfully backlit. Typing is reasonably comfortable, although I'd prefer another milimeter or two of key travel. Again, this will spend most of its life attached to an external keyboard so it doesn't matter much but I much prefer the touch feel of my MacBook Pro.

The trackpad is large and Mountain Lion ready for all your taps, pinches, swipes (one, two, three and more fingers). Apple is renowned for its trackpads and this is no exceptions. Perfect finger feel, no stutters, accurate tracking. The one noticeable difference between this trackpad and the ones in its bigger cousins and the Magic Trackpad is lack of click travel distance, until you get used to it, you are likely to slam your thumb down in hopes of the expected and satisfying button click only to be dissapointed. The Air's button clicking is by necessity a more abstract gesture which usage should make more natural.

Build quality. This is not some shoddy plastic netbook. The unibody construction is amazingly rigid and could be used to bludgeon an attacker in a pinch (and still keep on downloading).

The weaknesses:
Storage size is cramped, especially at the lower price points. I think the 64GB model targets users looking to keep all of their documents, images, videos, music in "the cloud" and while I'm sure people will live in the cloud in the future, most of us live on Earth with our limited speed Internet connections. The larger capacities are fine for many people, including my wife, but not for me, I have too many videos, photos, and music files filling up my MacBook Pro to compress myself even down to the 256GB model.

There are not many ports on the box. Two USB ports, a headset port and a Thunderbolt port are limited. Apple sells the Thunderbolt version of its well regarded but expensive Cinema display which relieves most port complaints and replaces them with "I have to pay a thousand dollars for a monitor with a Firewire port?" complaints. I own this display and it is superb, but it is definitely not for the budget minded or at least those lacking in creative rationalizations. Alternatively, desk bound USB hubs are cheap, and Belkin has announced a Thunderbolt hub, although I have yet to see it for sale.

By the way, I bought the Apple USB to Ethernet adaptor and I do not recommend doing so unless your WiFi is horrible or nonexistent. Turns out WiFi is at least as fast as this adaptor and a whole lot less trouble when dealing with a virtual machine. If anything, make sure you've upgraded to an 802.11N router like a newer Airport Express.

Fan noise under load is a bit loud. Surprisingly, this computer which is dead silent until the fan kicks in can be noticeably loud due to the small space available for the fan vent. At the request of a commenter, I measured the decibel level by laying a decibel meter on the trackpad, and under load it measured 46 dB which is fairly quiet as these things go, my MacBook Pro under the same conditions gave 51 dB. Please take this with a grain of salt as I am not a sound engineer and measuring from the trackpad is not where your ears would be.

The FaceTime camera is weak compared to the cameras in the Air's larger cousins or in the Thunderbolt display. It's OK, but not the spectacular clear HD of the camera in my laptop.

This is not a gaming laptop. The one performance compromise is the lack of a proper discreet GPU. The integrated Intel HD 3000 is OK, probably as fast as the last generation NVidia 320M used in the previous Air, but not something you'll want to throw the most demanding game at. It will be fine for watching video on, and just about anything else but high end gaming.

The maximum memory capacity of the Air, despite being a 64-bit computer, is 4GB and is non-upgradeable. If you get a 2GB machine it will stay a 2GB machine. This is a shame as RAM is cheap these days; I have 8GB on my MacBook Pro. The SSD is upgradeable although online prices for the unusual SSD on a board used in the Air are amazing; maybe in a couple years it will make financial sense to upgrade. The lowest model has only 2GB of RAM and that may be too low for many combinations of applications, or when running a virtual machine.

The lack of an optical drive. I had a USB DVD drive already but many will not. Apple will sell you a pretty one, but in most cases any cheap USB drive will do. The only time my wife used her optical drive on her old computer was once a year to install TurboTax, so this will not be a big problem for her. I did have a problem installing Windows 7 using the Parallels Desktop virtual machine in that the virtual machine would not see my cheap optical drive to install Windows. I ended up using Disk Utility to make an ISO disk image of the Windows installer disk and use that as image for installation. The only other time I needed to use an optical drive in the last year is to get a Digital Download from the Captain America Blu-ray combo pack; iTunes insisted on seeing the registration disk, so I broke out the USB drive. My advice here is to not buy an optical drive but wait to see if you actually need one, and if you do need one, first try to use the included software to use another computer's optical drive.

The lack of an SD slot reader. I use the reader in my larger notebook frequently, although less often as I take more pictures with smartphones. The larger Air has a reader, and while USB SD card readers are cheap, they are also awkward, often slower and easily lost.

The expense. On a per pound basis, this is the second most expensive object I have ever purchased. My wife will mainly be using it to run Windows software, and I guess I could have gotten a netbook for traveling at a third (or less) the price. I felt it important to get a high performance computer that she could replace her desktop with too, one with a nice screen and a decent keyboard. The previous Air wasn't there yet, this is.

Tidbits:
This laptop ships with Apple's new operating system OS X 10.7 (Lion) and should be upgraded to 10.8 Mountain Lion, which means new users will be getting used to the more gestural iOS like elements of OS X, as well as the infamous upside down scrolling. Users should know that 10.7 dropped support for PowerPC applications so longtime Mac users should check that all their needed applications are Intel or Universal. One synergy between Mountain Lion and this laptop's small screen is that many of the standard applications have full screen modes, allowing the user to maximize the space devoted to web browsing for instance.

I've installed Windows 7 under the Parallels Desktop VM on this box, and it works well. I gave the virtual machine its own core and 2GB of memory and it is zippy fast. This was the main reason for moving my wife to a new box, the 5 year old Core 2 Duo she had been using was starting to slog under the weight of dozens of Excel spread sheets and scores of browser tabs.

There are reports online that some units ship with Samsung SSD drives, and some ship with slower Toshiba SSD drives. There is no way to guarantee getting the faster drive, and you may not notice anyway. This review was based on a laptop with a Samsung drive.

Which to Buy:
There are 6 different configurations of MacBook Air. I chose the i7 4GB of RAM 256GB of SSD 11 inch model--a model available in Apple's brick and mortar stores or as a custom build. This is the more portable model and has an adequate RAM and fairly good hard drive capacity. I had been thinking of getting the 13 inch version, but on looking at them in the store, I realized the extra portability and the usability of the screen was enough to make the smaller version preferable. If you don't have a purse and will be putting the laptop in a case anyway, get the 13 inch version, everything will be a bit less cramped, the battery life will be longer and you'll have an SD reader built in. I actually only purchased the i7 because that's what came with the 256GB SSD, it probably isn't worth a premium over the i5 models for what the typical Air user would be using it for.

11-Inch i5 64 GB 2GB RAM -> People with no media who want a fast web browser, or as a second computer
11-Inch i5 128GB 4GB RAM -> People with little media who run applications occasionally on the go (Most People)
11-Inch i7 256GB 4GB RAM -> People with applications with high performance requirements such as running a VM

13-Inch i5 128GB 4GB ->People with little media who run applications occasionally on the go, like a larger screen over portability
13-Inch i5 256GB 4GB -> People needing a larger screen and high performance.
13-Inch i7 256GB 4GB -> People with applications with high performance requirements such as running a VM and a larger screen

Compared to Other Laptops:
I'll be keeping my 13" MacBook Pro with its much larger disk capacity. Replacing the 750GB laptop drive in my Pro with an SSD would be ridiculously expensive. Also, I like having an SD card reader, a high resolution camera, an Ethernet port and a Firewire port. In most other ways this Air is superior. The Air has a better screen, is much more portable, and with the SSD is noticeably more responsive.

Compared to the larger MacBook Pros. The larger models have real GPUs and bigger screens, and I think are only of interest to people with specialized needs: gamers or people who need to do video editing on the go. They won't be much faster at anything not requiring the GPU. I'm just not the kind of person who'd buy a 17" laptop. It wouldn't fit on my lap. I was at a neighbor's house today and the college bound daughter had just bought a monstrous HP desktop replacement portable, and it was ridiculous, just get a smaller laptop and an external monitor so you have the option of portability--or spend less money and get a desktop.

Compared to Windows laptops. Intel Corporation has started an initiative to encourage other PC hardware manufacturers to basically clone the MacBook Air design as a class of WinTel PCs dubbed "Ultrabooks" and these very familiar looking devices are starting to become available such as the Asus ZenBook UX21, or the Toshiba Portege Z835. I haven't had a chance to look at these, but in general terms UltraBooks will have the advantage of having Windows 7 pre-installed and not forcing the user to install Boot Camp and buy a system builder copy of Windows. The specs will be similar to the MacBook Air, and sometimes better--it seems as though the low end ZenBook has a larger SSD than the low-end MacBook Air. So Windows user now have a variety of computers to choose from, and can make a determination if the higher cost of the MacBook Air (due to purchasing Windows) is worth differences in build quality and parts quality--I would be particularly suspicious of the ZenBook's trackpad and screen. But again, I have yet to see one.

In Summary:
This is a great laptop. Apple's going to sell millions of them. If it fits your needs and you have the cash you will likely be happy with it. I know people with the previous generation Airs, and they love them, and this Air is all that and twice as fast. However, be sure it fits your needs, check to see what your disk space requirements are. Check to see if you have any PowerPC applications which need to be updated. Maybe you'll need the extra battery life of the larger models. Go to an Apple Store and try out the keyboard, maybe the short key travel will drive you nuts. Maybe the short wide screen of the 11 inch will make you feel like you are browsing the web through a mail slot. Maybe you could get a refurbished last years model for a smaller amount and make do with the lesser processor. In short, because this is a pricey little laptop, you have to be sure its the one for you.
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Comments

Tracked by 6 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 48 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 21, 2011 12:43:16 PM PDT
Very good review.

Posted on Aug 24, 2011 3:49:58 PM PDT
the Raven says:
thank you! awesome info.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 24, 2011 10:23:20 PM PDT
You're both welcome.

Posted on Aug 27, 2011 8:10:29 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 27, 2011 8:11:19 AM PDT
K.I.S.S says:
I'm gonna have to save this review. You provided more info then the Apple representative. My dilema is that I have a 2006 Macbook (white) that every now and then the battery will not charge and it's heavy for work. Brought it in and was given the option of replacing the battery for $99 or purchase a new laptop. I need something portable for work, MacAir, but I also need to have a DVD drive like the MacPro. Cost is another issue. I don't know what to do... will have to think about it for a while. I wish I could afford both.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 27, 2011 10:06:00 PM PDT
Hi Fyre,
Good luck figuring out hot to best use your resources to fill your needs.

We were lucky enough that our computer usage had moved away from needing an optical drive, Netflix, iTunes and network shares with content replacing movie disks. And backups became too big to use optical, replaced by new backup USB drives every year or so.

--glenn

Posted on Sep 4, 2011 10:54:20 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Sep 4, 2011 11:00:34 AM PDT]

Posted on Sep 6, 2011 7:16:41 PM PDT
This is the exact type of review I needed. Thank you so very much for taking the time to do this for us. Way more helpful than even the tech sites with their pros :)

Posted on Sep 9, 2011 7:19:25 AM PDT
This is an absolutely great review. It is too long, but I do not know how I could take a word out of it and have it remain as good, and that is, of course, the definition of not being too long. Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 11, 2011 7:52:22 PM PDT
Taz says:
brilliant post. helpful info

Posted on Nov 2, 2011 9:46:38 PM PDT
John says:
Glenn, thanks for a fabulous review. What would you think of using the low end version with Time Capsule for media? That is what is taking up space on my present computer, and I'd be content to leave the media at home.
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4.4 out of 5 stars (110 customer reviews)
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Glenn R. Howes
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Location: Nashua, NH

Top Reviewer Ranking: 335