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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

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

Another hot product from Apple

The Apple MacBook is a hot product.  Literally.  While MacBooks have always looked pretty, many models have been plagued by heat management problems.  My MacBook (known in Apple circles as ‘The Oven’) refuses to start when hot, the MacBook Air is famous for shutting down one CPU core out of self preservation when playing video, but PC Authority’s report on the latest MacBook Pro Core i7 heats the problem up to volcanic proportions.

The magazine found that during their testing on athe new MacBook Pro Core i7, the laptop became so hot that they could no longer keep it positioned normally on a desk.  Instead they had to turn it up on its end, which might make Final Cut Pro editing a bit of a challenge.  How hot is hot you ask?  101 degrees Celcius.  That’s a mighty hot product.  It surely flames a previous MacBook which could allegedly cook an egg.  By way of comparison PC Authority ran the same tests on a Fujitsu Lifebook SH 760 with the same Core i7 processor and it peaked at a comparatively frigid 81 degrees Celcius.

So although the new MacBook Pro Core i7 might reduce your winter heating bill, we don’t recommend this approach.  In fact quite seriously based upon the PC Authority experience, we’d advise observing a a sensible amount of caution when using this laptop if you own one.  If you notice it getting hot, put it somewhere safe and away from your lap to cool down.  It’s nice to have a pretty laptop, but it’s not worth burning your lap for one.  Hopefully Apple will work some magic into the design of this particular model to improve its heat dissipation.

Neil Berman

Apr 26, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Guides, Hardware, News | , , , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Pro refresh leaves Apple fans wanting more

MacBook ProThose long awaited MacBook Pro refreshes finally arrived today, and the news was a mixed bag.

The 13″ models are still saddled with Core 2 Duo processors, while the 15″ and 17″ models have finally made the jump to Core i5 and i7. The astute geek readers among you will recall that Dell and HP hit the market way back in 2009 with Core i7 laptops. That means Mac releases are now in danger of falling significantly behind Intel’s roadmap if newer processors come out this Fall.

The base price of the 15″ model has gone up by $100, the base 17″ is down and the base 13″ is holding steady.

GPUs have been upgraded across the board to the Nvidia GeForce 320 and 330, missing out on the top of the range GeForce 340.  There’s intelligent switching between integrated and discrete graphics and inertial scrolling is now built into the trackpads.  4GB RAM is also standard on all models.

While today’s updates are probably disappointing for Mac fans hoping for more market leading hardware, theONbutton readers shouldn’t be too surprised. These updates really fall in line with my post last month about how Apple seems to be focusing away from Mac in favor of iPhone OS devices.

Expect more of this to come as I expect Apple to continue developing its strategy in this direction.

Neil Berman

Apr 13, 2010 Posted by | Apple, News | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

theONbutton 60: The emergence of Appleiance

theONbutton 60 is a sixty second commentary on a consumer electronics topic

Question: With a hat nod to Monty Python, “What did the iPad ever do for us?”

Two second answer: More Appleiance, less Mac.

Ten second answer: iPad’s release and relative lack of Mac activity demonstrates Apple’s continued movement towards high margin easy to use consumer appliances with Macs decreasing in prominence.

The other forty-eight seconds: We continue to wait for the 2010 MacBook refreshes with current models behind the hardware curve; we have already had almost half a year of Core i7 Dell and HP laptops. There have been minimal recent OSX software releases with Google, Facebook and Windows 7 platforms stealing the large screen software industry’s spotlight.

Looking purely at component cost, the base iPad is estimated to be a 50+% profit margin product, Most Macs probably can’t get near that, especially iMacs which have low comparative volume, likely high distribution costs due to size and lower selling prices than Mac Pros. iMac and Mac Pro price points will likely increase as they continue to become niche products. Perhaps iMacs will even disappear from the line-up.

Perhaps OSX updates may become less frequent due to the expense of maintaining the environment compared to the growing range of iPhone OS devices. OSX end user support must also be that much more expensive than iPhone OS support since the iPhone OS environment is much more tightly controlled.

It is telling that Apple has chosen to focus upon a third iPhone OS device while we await MacBook refreshes. Steve Jobs recently said that Apple is now a mobile devices company. While I believe MacBooks will continue to be part of the Apple world for some time to come, looking out five years MacBooks may become the secondary devices iPad owners buy when they have a specialized need.

It used to be the case that iPhone OS device sales were seen as the way to bring in new Mac sales. I think that dynamic may alter as I expect Apple to encourage consumers towards a second iPhone OS device instead, due to their likely higher margin. I continue to view the iPad as the start of a series, with the potential for an iPad 13, 15 etc.

For a company famous for successfully maximizing its bottom line through high margin products, the temptation to turn iPhone OS consumer appliances into its main focus must be strong.

Neil Berman

Mar 20, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple | , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

Speaking Of Glossy Screens…

Here’s one that got it right:

This, for all you daywalkers, is a MSI Wind in full-on sunlight.  And here is how it compares with a glossy-screened Acer Aspire One (which is switched on, honestly):

…and with some general non-sunny window reflections:

…and compared directly to the Wind below with non-sunny reflections.  It’s worth noting that the Aspire One actually has a really nice LED backlit screen, it’s just that the Wind has the best screen I’ve ever seen on a notebook.

The Wind works if you’re a daywalker – and it’s also a little cheaper than one particular newly-announced-glossy-screened laptop.  Ye pays yer money…

Neil Berman

Oct 15, 2008 Posted by | Apple, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Early Report Card: New MacBook & MacBook Pro


Trick new trackpad looks lush.  I never used the button on mine anyway…bring on the finger contortions.

Thinner MacBook looks great

New GPUs should be cracking

Price drop for white chassis is welcome 

Needs Improvement

Price rise to $1599 for the top end MacBook doesn’t sit well with the sinking economy

Glossy screens are awful.  At home, in the sun, on the plane unless you’re an isle seat lover.

$1299 buys less CPU power than $999…?

New MBP’s wide black screen bezel put to shame by old MBP

Need to log-off to change video modes eh…?  Sony does it better with Vista.  Now that’s a bag of hurt.

Pictures to follow in due course…

Neil Berman

Oct 14, 2008 Posted by | Apple | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apple’s Let’s Rock turns out to be Easy Listening

Excitement was high in the blogosphere ahead of today’s Let’s Rock press conference by Apple.

New MacBooks have been on the rumor mill for some time, as the current black and white 13 inchers still haven’t had a chassis refresh. The subject of an Apple netbook entry continues to inspire imaginations and the initial PR push on enterprise iPhone adoption has gone all but silent.

After a summer of problematic product launches Apple needed something to restore its image to the faithful. It chose to play it safe, avoiding significant launches in favor of evolutionary product updates.

iPod Nanos get thinner (meh) with a larger screen and cover flow (seen it already). The 8GB version is $149, which is about $120 more than a 8GB micro SDHC card if your music phone happens to accept them as legal music hosting tender.

iPhone firmware goes to 2.1, which may mean it just might work this time?

iTunes goes to 8.0 with a new genius (it’s now genius vs guru in the Apple vs Microsoft battleground) feature which intelligently suggests playlists for you (nice, but not sure I’d give away the precious genius title to a single-purpose feature). NBC comes back to play on iTunes, and in HD.

iPod Touch gets revised pricing and a new curvy chassis (meh). An accelerometer gets added, hopefully it’s more reliable than the one in the iPhone.

Has any of this rocked your world? Probably not, Apple is coming out of a difficult summer, so going back to fundamentals with some easy listening may be the best choice. After all music is our life’s foundation as the Pet Shop Boys once said.

Update one day later: Oops I did it again. What has happened to Apple’s quality control…?

Neil Berman

Sep 9, 2008 Posted by | Apple | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Safari 3 restores faith in Apple software releases

I was impressed by the Acer Aspire One’s surfing speed. It blew away other mobile devices I’d tried and it easily matched Firefox on my Macbook…Until Dan told me to try Safari 3. Yeesh does that browser fly! It feels a good 20% quicker than Firefox on the same Macbook, so Apple sure have done a good turbo retrofit. It’s good to see the company putting out a good product following in the tradition of MobileMe, iPhone 3G, OSX updates.

Neil Berman

Aug 24, 2008 Posted by | Apple, Computing, Software | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aspire One still sick

…after three recoveries and two support calls, my One is definitely screwed. Anytime I turn on the wifi it goes nuts, nukes the screen and crawls into a corner until you force it to power off.

It’s going back to Acer on Monday, my fourth laptop to have problems in the last couple of years. Here’s the honor role in ascending order of annoyance:

4. eMachines AMD Sempron WinXP: f, g, h and j keys failed unless pressed really hard, went back for a new mobo, now happy.

3. Everex Intel Core Duo Vista: Resume failed sporadiacally, got annoying and went back for a new mobo, now happy.

2. Apple Macbook Intel Core 2 Duo OSX Tiger: Fails to switch on if warm, need to wait for it to cool down (known in Mac support circles as ‘The Oven‘). Basically I can only switch it on once per day. Crashes if you plug a USB device into the ‘wrong’ USB port (discovered in a M-Audio support call after getting multiple OSX crashes). Never sent it back cos I was lazy and now out of warranty.

1. Acer Aspire One…sick and about to be medicated.

Neil Berman

Aug 2, 2008 Posted by | Computing, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , | 2 Comments


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