Apple CEO Steve Jobs once famously quipped at a stockholder meeting “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk”.
He was talking netbooks. Many laptop makers were falling over themselves to rush out cheap mini laptops. But Apple had already decided that this race to the bottom wasn’t for them. “Our DNA will not let us do that,” he added, “we've seen great success by focusing on certain segments of the market and not trying to be everything to everybody, and you can expect us to stick with that winning strategy."
At the time in October 2008 Apple already had a can-do mini laptop in the svelte shape of the original MacBook Air, released nine months earlier. Few even mentioned Air and netbook in the same breath since the price difference was so huge. But when Apple launched its mini 11in Air late last year, people started to see the MacBook Air as Apple’s overpriced netbook.
Unlike the technologically hamstrung Wintel netbook though, the MacBook Air is a powerful tool to take on daily computing jobs. That first 11in version was lowly powered, for sure, starting with a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo. In our tests, it still hit a WorldBench 6 score of 74 points, pointing to surprising good speed despite the low-power processor.
As with the new 13in model also launched last month, the new Apple MacBook Air 11in (Mid-2011) has also been upgraded to a second-generation Intel Core-series processor, this time checking in at a nominal 1.6GHz. Like other Sandy Bridge chips, Turbo Boost 2.0 picks up the revs on demand, this time rising to a maximum of 2.3GHz. Hyper Threading makes the dual-core CPU look more like a quad-core to many apps.
In our performance tests of the Apple MacBook Air 11in (Mid-2011), it scored 112 points in WorldBench 6, a frankly unbelievable result for such a sliver of portable computing.
It’s the same thickness as the 13in Air, starting at 17mm at the hinge edge and tapering right down to 3mm at the front; but it’s only 300mm long and 192mm wide. And weighs just 1.07kg.
Whether folded flat for travel or with the 16:9 widescreen raised, it feels incredibly solid, ready for real-life handling without getting its paint chipped or picking up greasy fingerprints.
Thanks to the solid-state drive, it’s essentially shockproof with only the keys, trackpad and screen hinge for moving parts. And it runs blissfully quiet too.
Battery life hasn’t been eroded by the processor upgrade – in fact our MobileMark 2007 test in Windows 7 showed an extension from 313 mins to 351 mins. That could translate to nigh-on six hours of productive use without need for the compact 215g UK mains charger .
As with other entry-level Macs that now rely on Intel’s on-chip graphics, games performance has taken a hit since last year’s nVidia-powered line-up. We saw a drop from 25 fps to 17 fps in our Maximum detail FEAR game test. You can claw back plenty of gaming speed by lowering the rendering quality just a little though; falling back to High detail instead of Max let the game play at a very smooth 51 fps.
In the Geekbench test of memory and processor speed, the 11in Air scored an average of 5035 points.
Smaller than your average ultraportable
If the definition of a netbook is an underpowered mini notebook with undersized keys and cramped screen, the Air is still some way off message. It's ultraportable through and through, but at a lower price than the category once allowed for such fit and finish.
But if you’d rather your next compact computer was a long-lived lightweight laptop with supremely typable keyboard, high-resolution screen, and a multi-touch and gesture-driven interface, look very closely at Apple’s new entry-level MacBook Air.
Other stand-out features include dual-band Wi-Fi, next-gen Bluetooth 4.0 and the fastest desktop I/O interface in Thunderbolt.
And now for the first time, the 11in Air has the backlit keyboard that Apple pioneered for low-light comfort.