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Lab Tests: Processor, graphics boosts improve MacBook Air performance

The MacBook Air models rolled out as part of this week’s complete overhaul to Apple’s laptop line include next-generation Intel processors, faster integrated graphics, and USB 3.0 connectivity. And the latest models show a marked increase in performance, according to Macworld Lab’s tests.

Externally, the new Airs look very similar to the last generation. The only physical differences are the subtle differences between the new USB 3.0 ports and Mag Safe 2 power connector that replace the USB 2.0 and original Mag Safe power connectors found in the 2011 Airs.

Under the hood, however, all of the new MacBook Airs feature dual-core Core i5 (Ivy Bridge) processors and new integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPUs. The 11-inch comes in two stock configurations, both with dual core 1.7GHz Core i5 processors and 4GB of fast 1600 MHz DDR3L memory. The entry level 11-inch has 64GB of flash storage and sells for $999, the step-up model has 128GB of flash storage and costs $1099. The 13-inch models both feature dual-core 1.8GHz Core i5 (Ivy Bridge) processors and 4GB of 1600MHz DDR3L RAM, and cost $1199 for the 128GB flash storage model and $1499 for the same system but with 256GB of flash storage.

In our overall system performance benchmark, Speedmark 7, we found the new entry-level Air to be 22 percent faster, all around, than the previous 11-inch model with 128GB of flash storage and a 1.6GHz dual-core Core i5 (Sandy Bridge) processor.

Our file duplication test showed the new Air with just a 7 percent faster resort, but that performance may be hampered by the new system’s underwhelming 64GB capacity. We couldn’t fit all of our standard test files on the system and had to remove unused files, like our Parallels virtual machine and the DVD movie file we use for our Handbrake encode test in order to run Speedmark.

The new 11-inch, 128GB flash storage MacBook Air was 35 percent faster in our file duplication test than the last generation 11-inch model and 29 percent faster than the new 64GB flash storage Air. The new 128GB 11-inch Air was 28 percent faster, overall, than last year’s model in our Speedmark tests.

Our Handbrake encode test showed the new 11-inch Airs to be about 22 percent faster than the older 11-inch model. The new 11-inch, with its Intel Graphics 4000, was 37 percent faster in our Portal 2 tests than the previous model with Intel Graphics 3000. The Cinebench OpenGL test results show the new 11-inch models to be around 55 percent faster than the previous 11-inch MacBook Air, and MathematicaMark 8 scores were 22 percent higher on the 2012 11-inch MacBook Airs.

Compared to the new 11-inch 1.7GHz models, the new low-end 1.8GHz 13-inch model was 7.5 percent faster overall than the new low end 11-inch and the higher-end 13-inch model was about 6 percent faster than the new higher-end 128GB flash storage 11-inch MacBook Air.

The new high-end 13-inch MacBook Air model was 27 percent faster overall than last year’s high-end Air, which had a dual-core 1.7GHz Sandy Bridge processor and 256GB of flash storage. The new 13-inch, 1.8GHz Core i5 with 128GB of flash storage was 24 percent faster overall than the high end model from last year.

Faster SSDs helped the new high-end 13-inch model post file duplication times that were 42 percent faster than last year’s 13-inch model. Faster graphics helped the new 13-inch Air display 45 percent more frames per second in our Portal 2 test, and the faster processor helped the 2012 13-inch MacBook Air attain 21 percent higher MathematicaMark 8 scores than the 13-inch 2011 model MacBook Air.

Going Pro?

If you want to compare performance between the new 13-inch MacBook Air and a new 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Air’s 9 percent faster Speedmark scores don’t tell the whole story. Digging into the individual results, you can see that the 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor in the just-released 13-inch MacBook Pro was considerably faster than the 1.8GHz CPU in the Air, and its faster processor helped close a wide performance gap between the MacBook Air’s zippy solid state drive and the Pro’s standard HDD.

It took the 13-inch MacBook Pro 3.5 times longer to duplicate a 2GB folder, but the Pro was 23 percent faster than the Air in our Handbrake test and 21 percent faster in MathematicaMark test. The MacBook Pro was also able to display 14 percent more frames per second than the 13-inch Air in our Cinebench Open GL test and 16 percent more frames per second in our Portal 2 test.

Check back soon for Macworld’s full reviews of the 2012 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models. And as always, comments and test suggestions are always welcomed in our comments section.

James Galbraith is Macworld’s lab director.


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