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MacBook Air (late 2010) review

MacBook AirLet’s be honest, the original MacBook Air was beautifully flawed. Outwardly it was a desirable laptop, but under that pretty aluminum exterior all was not swell. Overheating, under performing and overpriced, the original MacBook Air failed to achieve mainstream success. With the new models, though, Apple has rewritten the playbook.  This 13″ 1.86GHz 2/128 model has superior specs to the previous version while putting itself on offer for hundreds of dollars less at $1,299.  Let’s see what it’s like…

First impressions of the MacBook Air

MacBook Air restore USB driveAs with all Apple products the Macbook Air comes in nicely designed packaging. There’s precious little in the box, just the Macbook Air, magsafe power adaptor with extension cable, start guide and a unique USB flash restore thumbdrive. The Macbook Air doesn’t have an optical drive so the inclusion of the USB thumbdrive is a cool idea and feels like the way forward for future laptops.

The original MacBook Air was svelte, but the new model raises the bar even further.  0.68 inches at its thickest, the new MacBook Air tapers to just 0.11 inches at the front.  It really is remarkable and made possible due to the all solid-state nature of the guts of the beast.  The hard drive of the old model has given way to an SSD on a bare circuit board, which saves precious millimeters of height.  The weight meanwhile has remained at 2.9lbs, presumably because any space and weight efficiencies have allowed for more battery cells.

MacBook Air logoIt’s difficult to describe just how stunning this new MacBook Air really is, so I suggest you feast your eyes on the photos in the gallery.  In my view this is the best looking laptop ever made, it’s definitely worth making a trip to a store just to fondle it if you have the opportunity.

Around the sides of the MacBook Air are two USB ports, an SD card slot (only on the 13″ model), a mini display port, headphone socket, microphone and charging port.  The keyboard is the standard MacBook chicklet affar, the trackpad is able to register four-fingered multi-touch gestures and the screen is LED-backlit like the previous MacBook Air.  There’s a webcam above the screen and the speakers are nowhere to be seen, but they’re in there somewhere.  The underside has four black feet and that’s it.

Using the MacBook Air

In many ways using the new MacBook Air is a similar experience to the old one, except pretty much everything that was problematic about the original has been resolved in the new model.  MacBook AirFirstly, the replacement of the unpleasantly slow 4200rpm hard drive with the new SSD has resulted in a 13.7 second boot time and 1.6 second shutdown time.  That speed bump carries over to application launch times, which are fast.  Most apps seem to launch with one or two seconds and the whole system feels extremely snappy even though the processor has remained the same.  It just goes to show how much of a bottleneck can be created by a slow hard drive.

The speediness of the new MacBook Air carries over to its graphics capabilities, as the new model has been stepped up to a GeForce 320M.  While no graphics powerhouse, the new model handles full screen video very capably, without any alarmingly heat buildup.  I was able to stream a 1080p YouTube video without any problems.  Sure the underside does become warm, but far less than other laptops I’ve used recently, and when the fan does kick-in, it’s whisper quiet.

Battery life was a big disappointment with the original MacBook Air; while the specs promised 5 hours, I never seemed to be able to get more than 2-3 in actual usage.  The new 13″ MacBook Air promises 7 hours and, although I haven’t done a full drain test, it feels pretty accurate.  Apple is definitely making strides in this department, as we saw earlier this year with the iPad which also delivered as promised on battery life.

The trackpad, keyboard and screen work just like a 13″ MacBook Pro, so I’ll hold off on going into specific detail here.  On the software side, the new MacBook Air ships with OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard and iLife ’11 as with the rest of the current MacBook range.

On the downside, there is no option to specify a backlit keyboard.  In my view this is a real omission, as using the MacBook Air in a dimly lit room or on a night flight for example becomes very problematic.  This can be partially remediated by using a USB gooseneck light, but it’s not a particularly elegant solution.

The 13″ MacBook Air’s 128GB of storage (upgradeable to 256GB) is potentially limiting if you have a large media collection.  Personally I think 128GB is enough storage for most users’ music and photo collections, plus a range of apps, on the basis that most video content is streamed from the likes of Netflix and Hulu these days.  There’s always the option to use a portable drive for the rest of your content.  I could easily cope with this amount of storage for my main computer, as long as I had a little 2.5″ 500GB USB drive in my bag for video edit footage and backups.

Is the new MacBook Air a good buy?

Many commentators have suggested that there is still a viable role for the base 13″ MacBook Pro alongside the 13″ MacBook Air.  I’m not so sure.  Even though the MacBook Pro has a faster processor and more storage space, I think this will make little difference to the average user.  The new MacBook Air boots-up faster, has great performance for everyday tasks and weighs far less than the Pro.  In my mind that leaves the MacBook Pro in the hands of niche users who really need more power and the MacBook Air in the hands of pretty much everyone else.  This is going to be a big seller.

Neil Berman

Nov 6, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Computing, Hardware, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Air (late 2010): It still fits

MacBook Air manilla envelope

In case you’re missing 2008, the new MacBook Air 13.3″ still fits; the 11.6″ of course is a little loose.

Neil Berman

Oct 31, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Hardware | , | Leave a comment

Video: New MacBook Air boot time is 13.7 seconds

Here it is, the new 13″ MacBook Air.  The photo has it still napping in its box after the long trip from Cupertino, but a short while ago I switched it on.  Here’s what happened…

That’s crazy fast.

Neil Berman

Oct 27, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Computing, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three annoying things about the new MacBook Airs

1. It doesn’t have a backlit keyboard. Why Apple, WHY?????

2. My hope for a MacBook Air Touch didn’t crystallize, but it looks like the OS is going that way anyway just like I predicted. The iOSX mashup is coming to a MacBookPad near you.

3. This one hurts. If you dropped three large on a MacBook Air 128GB SSD a couple of years ago, there’s a better one in your local Apple store right now for $1299. And your neighbor just bought one for each of his college kids.

Neil Berman

Oct 20, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Computing, Hardware, Rants | , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Air to become the norm?

This time around the rumor mill was on the money, predicting an 11.6 inch addition to the MacBook Air family. The price for entry has come down to $999, or $1299 for the 13.3 inch model, while almost everything else has gone in the other direction. Battery life is now up to 7 hours, startup time is quicker and portability has been improved with the 11.6 inch option.

It’s actually hard to figure out who would choose the base MacBook Pro model now unless you really, really need the faster processor and larger amount of storage.

I have a sneaky suspicion that MacBook Air sales will start to comprise a significant portion of lower cost Mac sales, and for good reason. They have the right balance of mobile portability vs performance for everyday tasks, enough battery life for typical daily usage and, most importantly in this material world, they look incredible.

That’s a rarity for a low price Mac, but I suspect it’s about to become the norm in Starbucks.

Neil Berman

Oct 20, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware | , , , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Air’s second coming: Can Apple give it the right Touch?

When Apple launched the MacBook Air in 2008, the ultraportable laptop market was heading in a different direction. At the bottom end Asus had just created the netbook with the EEE PC 701, which was ultraportable in both size and weight. Meanwhile at the top, the Sony Vaio TZ was packing a decent processor in a small and light chassis. Lenovo’s X200 and Dell’s Latitude E4200 became the business ultraportable flag carriers with fast processors, long battery life and 12 inch screens.

The MacBook Air by comparison was hardly more portable than a regular MacBook. Even though it was a good deal lighter, its owner still needed basically the same size bag to carry it around. So the netbook and X200/E4200 sectors flourished while the MacBook Air stumbled, plagued by complaints about overheating, underperformance and disappointing battery life.

This time around it’s sounding like Apple may have reacted to the successes of the smaller form factors. Rumors suggest an 11.6 inch MacBook Air refresh possibly coming on October 20th with near instant-on capability from a bespoke case-less SSD.

Funnily enough this is close to what many were expecting to see when Apple launched the iPad; i.e. a netbook competitor with a quick SSD for instant gratification. I’d anticipate however that the MacBook Air replacement would have at least the current model’s processing power, in order to handle OSX.

Touch might be in the mix as well, but I’m 99% certain that we will not see iOS on this device just yet because that would send completely the wrong message about the iPad’s input method. I do still believe that iOS will eventually become the main Apple OS with Mac OSX becoming a niche in a few years time. But I think this will happen through increasing the touch capabilities of OSX, continuing with the new version that will hopefully be announced on October 20th along with the new MacBook Air. MacBook Air Touch anyone?

Neil Berman

Oct 16, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Hardware | , , , | Leave a comment

Adamo price cut, still way too expensive

IMG00067-20090730-1318One of the most bizarrely priced computers of recent times has finally had a price cut…sort of.

Dell’s bottom of the range not-as-expensive-as-the-most-expensive Adamo, which packs a meager 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo and onboard Intel graphics is now a bargain still very expensive $1,499.  Yes that’s exactly the same price as a 1.86GHz MacBook Air with its Nvidia 9400 chipset.

The most expensive model of the expensive Adamo family  is still the same very expensive price.  In fact it’s way too expensive for me to quote seriously here.

I still haven’t seen an Adamo in outside of CES and I have a feeling I won’t for a while yet.

Neil Berman

Jul 23, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware, Mobile, News | , | 1 Comment

Laptop prices falling hard

Today’s MacBook price cuts were both welcome and not unique in the current laptop market.  Ultraportables and desktop replacements alike have been suffering from netbooks and Intel CULV powered thin ‘n lights pulling down the whole sector.

It’s pretty cool that you can finally get a decently powered 3-4lb laptop with a 13 inch screen for well under $1,000; MSI’s X340 and Acer’s Timeline are good examples.  Both are HD video capable and provide enough power for day-to-day computing.

These machines pull down the premium end of the ultraportable market like the Dell Adamo and MacBook Air, which don’t really offer much more hardware than the MSI or Acer.  In fact the Dell is probably slower than both.  So now we have a $1,499-$1,799 MacBook Air, which is great news for consumers and effectively sets a glass ceiling for ultraportable prices.

At the heavier end of the market 17 inch laptops are under strain from all-in-ones like the Asus EEE Top which are semi-mobile and keenly priced.  I found a new Toshiba dual-core T3400 17 inch laptop on Amazon this evening for $529.  This thing was fully loaded, you really wouldn’t need much more for a day-to-day desktop replacement…and of course you can install Windows 7 RC and get almost a year of usage before you need to buy a license.

Neil Berman

Jun 8, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Computing, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Update to ‘MSI X340: Now priced-out by the MacBook Air?’ Acer throws an $899 curve ball

Acer 13" P7350Wow this bout just got a whole lot more interesting.  After initially pricing the X340 at $1,099 MSI are now listing it at $899…and several mainstream e-tailers are taking orders for $799.  That kind of pricing makes the whole proposition turn on its head.  Even as a refurb, the MacBook Air Rev A looks too expensive in this company.

On the downside for the X340, initial reviews have been mixed.  Praise for its battery life and video performance have been tempered by concerns about chassis quality and a poor keyboard.

There is another curve ball mixing up the X340’s home run plans in the form of Acer’s recently released 13″ AS3935-6504.  At 1.3lbs heavier than the X340, it offers a full power P7350 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 3GB RAM, DVD-RW and the same Intel GMA4500MHD 1080-capable GPU.  And the Acer looks and feels great.

At 2.9lbs and $799 the X340 would be my choice if running Windows 7 RC, but those needing more power or running the out-of-the-box Vista Home Premium I’d have to recommend the Acer for the greater horsepower.  Price/performance-wise the MacBook Air needs to do more to move out third place in this contest.  Especially as you could swap out the hard drives in the MSI and Acer with latest gen SSDs and still save megabucks compared to the MBAir.

Neil Berman

May 23, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware, Mobile, News | , , , , , | Leave a comment

MSI X340: Now priced-out by the MacBook Air?

mba-999I was excited to talk to MSI in January about their upcoming X320 and X340.  The ultra-light 13″ laptops closely resembled the MacBook Air with the bonus of offering a removable battery and better connectivity.

It seems the $700-1,000 price target is hopefully looking accurate for when the X340 starts shipping.  The HDMI equipped X340 briefly appeared on MSI’s website recently at $1,099.  The lower powered X320 is likely to be in the $700-800 range.

In January this pricing seemed sensible…until MacBook Airs started appearing for $999.  This week MacMall and Apple were both listing Airs starting at $999, although these may be refurbs.  Given that the Air has a way faster CPU than the X340, this looks like MSI is going to have a difficult job convincing buyers to choose their laptop over the Air.

The only sore points for the Air continue to be the weak connectivity and low capacity battery, which is outperformed by many similar weight netbooks for runtime.

On the plus side $999 now buys a super-svelte 3lb 1.6ghz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air, which a year ago cost almost twice as much and is capable of running OSX and Windows.  Nice.

Neil Berman

May 2, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Mobile, News | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

theONbutton@CES – MSI booth walking tour including X320 and U115

MSI’s X320 is about as close as you’ll ever see to a Macbook Air without an Apple logo on the back of the screen.  When the lid is closed the laptop is a dead ringer for the Cupertino model, aside from MSI’s black and white color models which accompany the silver one.  The X320 should be released in the US in Q2 this year for under $1,000, sporting an Intel Atom and 13″ screen.

The U115 hybrid has a SSD and a traditional hard drive as well for mass storage.  The spinning hard drive can be turned off for extended battery life, MSI claims up to 12 hours of total usage.

Note that the white X320 in the video is a mock-up concept.

Neil Berman

Jan 9, 2009 Posted by | CES | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MacBook Air & iPod Touch Going Cheap

Want a MacBook Air but don’t fancy paying full whack? I just spotted it for $1,635 including shipping at Abe’s of Maine. That’s almost $200 off the sticker price. Looking at the forthcoming 6-hour-batteried, 10-inch-screened, Atom-powered MSI Wind, the MBA still looks overpriced…

Meanwhile I spotted the iPod Touch 16GB with current software going refurbished on Amazon’s Marketplace for $299. That’s $50 off Apple’s own refurbished price.

If you’ve been wanting to join the Apple faithful it seems like a good time to sign up!

Neil Berman

May 17, 2008 Posted by | Apple, Audio, Computing, Hardware, Mobile | | Leave a comment

MacBook Air hands-on review

Two weeks of watching someone pulling a laptop out of an envelope on TV can leave an impression on the mind. So I was glad to see a complete absence of said stationery in the Apple store MacBook Air display.

I start giving the Air a good look over. 0.7 inches thin and 3 lbs light, with such an unblemished look that my camera has difficulty focusing on it. I instantly want one.
It will slip into an office envelope” says a store assistant to a customer standing next to me. Thanks for forcing me to recall the advert which has almost driven me into therapy.

I carry on tinkering. The multi-touch trackpad is great and makes surfing a breeze. It’s really large, with a smaller button than usual. No problem with that, I never use the button on my MacBook anyway. Surfing and general Leopard navigation seems quick with 2GB RAM and unhindered by the slower Intel 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo processor. Videos play smoothly from Apple’s website. The Air seems very quiet, although in the noise of the store it is difficult to really tell.
The little door which opens on the right hand side reveals limited connectivity options. One USB port, a mini-DVI port and a headphone output. Pretty weak, but the USB port can be converted to an ethernet connection using an optional accessory and further USB ports could be gained through a hub. There’s a mini-DVI to VGA adaptor included in the box. The optical drive is an extra $99, but remote disc (which allows access to the optical drive of a Mac or PC), is included.Placing the Air directly on top of my MacBook proves that apart from the thickness, the two laptops share similar width and length dimensions. This unfortunately is one of the weaknesses of the Air. Whilst it is thin and light, you basically need a regular MacBook-size bag to carry it around…unless you have an office envelope sitting around of course.
The MagSafe power connection is very solid, better than the current MacBook. What happens if we pull it out…? The fully charged battery calculates remaining runtime as 3h 43m. Not bad, but not the quoted 5h, and I’m not even doing anything with the laptop. Start the envelope advert running and battery life drops instantly to 2h 27m. I stop the advert and do some general surfing, after five minutes the battery life indicator settles down at 3h 05m. Once that runs down, there’s no second battery option.
After a bit more playing around I’m feeling completely comfortable with the Air. The screen size and weight make it a great Cloud computing laptop. Several people come and go, some on the phone to friends and family: “Yeah, you’re really going to like this. Should I bring you back one? It is a bit like spending a lot of money just to lose a couple of pounds on your MacBook though. I’m not sure what you’re gonna gain.”

I agree. Money no object I’d definitely get one of these, but apart from the weight advantage it’s basically the same size as my MacBook, slower than my MacBook and doesn’t do anything my MacBook doesn’t already do. But if you’re considering dropping a load of cash on a MB or you own a larger MB Pro, then the Air is worth thinking about. As a first Apple laptop it’s a very desirable option.
Neil Berman

Feb 2, 2008 Posted by | Apple, Hardware, Reviews | | Leave a comment

MacBook Air creates insomniac

Two weeks have passed.

I’ve seen the ad a thousand times, I’ve watched the extended preview online, I’ve even looked in internal mail envelopes to see if there’s anything inside.

I’m singing the freakin’ song in my sleep!

Where is it already? Stores say they’re due in the next few days. Stay tuned for a hands-on.

Jan 31, 2008 Posted by | Apple, Computing, Hardware, Mobile, Rants | | Leave a comment

MacBook Air media honeymoon turns into divorce

Battery, RAM and hard drive all sealed inside; battery replacement echoes iPod fiasco

Media coverage of the MacBook Air turned sour today as disappointing details emerged about the new laptop. Stretching from technology blogs Engadget and Gizmodo as far as Germany’s mainstream online publication Der Spiegel, articles and blog comments berated Apple’s design decision to seal in key components of the MacBook Air. Even unofficial Apple blogs were littered with ugly remarks.

The battery option for the Osborne 1 (above) could be fitted by the owner. That was 1981.

The battery, RAM and hard drive in the Air are all inaccessible to the owner, which means that when you run out of power away from home you need to stop and find a plug. There’s no way of carrying a spare battery, so owners will need to plan their journeys carefully and possibly carry the power adaptor. We will have to wait to see how realistic Apple’s 5 hour battery life claim is in real usage. My MacBook’s battery is rated at up to 6 hours, but in practise I get around 3.5 hours.

One thing’s for sure, there will be all sorts of third party add-ons to provide portable power to the Air…which will kind of defeat the purpose in the first place.

My $599 3.8 pound unltraportable (above) came with two batteries as standard, to allow me to keep on being ultraportable. That’s cool.

The Air ships with 2 GB of RAM, which is already at a decent amount but you can’t add more yourself once you get it home. The hard drive is also out of bounds for owners.

So to swap out the battery if it starts losing charge, you will need to get the Air to Apple. A bit like the old days with the iPod fiasco. If you live around the corner from an Apple store then this will just be an inconvenience. If you need to send it in by courier because you’re far from an Apple emporium, then you could be without your laptop for a while.

Let’s not even get into the data protection issues of having to hand a laptop over to a third party.

I said yesterday that the MacBook Air was stunning, but more evolution than revolution. Today it just seems like a stunning toy for people who limit their travels to the local coffee shop.

Hands-on review to come…

Neil Berman

Jan 16, 2008 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware, Mobile | , , | 2 Comments

MacBook: Is there revolution in the Air?

Apple announced the new MacBook Air today, bringing truth to recent rumors about the release of an ultra-portable from Cupertino. At 3 pounds it’s not quite the featherweight match of its PC competitors, such as Lenovo’s 2.3 pound U110, but it certainly does have the Apple family’s good looks. So is this a case of evolution, or is there revolution in the Air?

Similar to the existing MacBook range, the Air has a 13.3 inch screen with built-in iSight camera. The Air ships with a 1.6 or 1.8 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, making it the slowest laptop in Apple’s current line-up by clock speed. An 80 GB hard drive and 2 GB of RAM are also standard, with the top end model getting a 64 GB SSD.

The dimensions of the Air are almost identical to the existing MacBook, except that the latter is 1.06 inches thin whereas the thickest point on the Air is 0.76 inches. The optical drive costs an extra $99 and the graphics implementation is identical to the current MacBook.

Specs of course are not really the point. The MacBook Air is all about showcasing design, showing that Apple can go ultra-portable, and for those with the money to spare, showing off. The design itself looks like a stunner and the lack of optical drive is overcome by Apple’s new Remote Disc software, which allows a PC or Mac to share its optical drives with the MacBook Air for installing new software. The pricing is actually fairly competitive alongside PC laptops of similar weight.

Overall it seems more like evolution than revolution. But we know by now that Apple does not need a revolution to sell bucketloads of these awesome machines to willing customers. Will I be one of those rushing to turn in my MacBook for a dose of Air? Not quite yet, but stay tuned for a hands-on review soon…

Neil Berman

The 1.6 GHz, 80 GB MacBook Air costs $1,799
The 1.8 GHz, 64 GB SSD MacBook Air costs $3,098

Jan 15, 2008 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware, Mobile | , , , | Leave a comment


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