Apple MacBook Air 11 (2011)

This year's 11-inch MacBook Air improves on last year's model in several significant ways and is by far the fastest ultraportable you're likely to find, though some users will consider the limited flash storage space to be a hindrance.

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Last October, Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air debuted. The tiny, slim ultraportable was the smallest laptop Apple had ever made. Its combination of size and power earned it a four-star review, with caveats: it had a last-generation Core 2 Duo processor, lacked a backlit keyboard and omitted an SD card slot. We're glad to find the newly released MacBook Air update fixes two of our three complaints, while keeping a AU$1099 starting price.

Both 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs have been updated with new, faster second-gen Core i5 processors. The new Air also, finally, has a backlit keyboard. There are more bonuses, too: Mac OS X Lion, Apple's brand-new operating system update, comes pre-installed. A Thunderbolt I/O port for high-speed data transfer and HD audio/video has been added.

Unfortunately, there's still no SD card slot, and memory and storage configurations remain both fixed and limited: the entry-level configuration still only has 2GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage, which many will consider inadequate. We recommend the AU$1349 configuration, which has 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.

Perhaps the biggest change to the MacBook Air is how it's being sold. Now that the white MacBook no longer exists, Apple has made the MacBook Air the entry-level laptop for everybody (everybody with a grand to drop on a laptop, at least). The AU$1099 11-inch MacBook Air is the most affordable MacBook in Apple's stable.

The 2011 11-inch Air is, undeniably, an improvement over the previous 2010 version. Is it a MacBook for everyone, though? Not yet, unless you can live with the Air's still comparatively limited storage space. For a more full-size laptop with even better battery life, many might be tempted to get the 13-inch MacBook Air or even the more full-featured 13-inch MacBook Pro. But, for sheer portability and performance, nothing can beat the 11-inch Air.

The new 11-inch Air is identical to last year's model in terms of physical design. There's nothing wrong with that; the trim, elegant Air cuts a blade-thin profile and is one of the lightest little laptops we've ever seen. The all-aluminium body feels rock-solid and has no flex at all, while the magnetically closed upper lid smoothly opens on its centre hinge to rest at a perfect viewing angle. The all-metal construction keeps it from feeling too fragile, often an issue for ultrathin systems. The body tapers at the front down to a razor-thin 2.8mm edge, creating an optical illusion of even more thinness, although it's still only 17.3mm thick at the rear.

The Air feels so minimal, it almost resembles an iPad when closed, and its dimensions, while longer, thicker and heavier, aren't far off. The 1.08kg chassis and tapered design make this 11-incher slip almost unnoticed into a small bag, and with Apple's square charger it wraps up into a neat, tiny package. The Air even feels thin and light to someone used to working with very small laptops (such as Sony's Vaio Z). Even the 11-inch Samsung Series 9, an impressive little ultraportable, feels thick by comparison.

The large keyboard and trackpad (the same glass version found on other MacBooks) both work well, although the function keys at the top are very small. The keyboard feels excellent for such a small laptop, nearly identical to what you'd find on a full-size MacBook, except the keys are shorter and thus have less travel to them. The newly added (or should we say, restored) backlighting is a huge boon for low-light work conditions. Backlight brightness controls have been added to the function buttons at the top, along with new Launchpad and Mission Control hot keys. The complete use of function keys as function-reversed media/panel controls is efficient and well laid-out.

The palm rest below the keyboard is also generously sized, a rarity on ultraportables. Those who might criticise the excessively large bezel around the 11-inch Air's display need only do the maths and realise that this space was added to ensure a large keyboard/trackpad/palm-rest zone unlike the compressed working landscape we've seen on other 11-inchers. However, the footprint of the 11-inch Air really could accommodate a 12-inch screen. We'd like to see that in a future Air model.

Apple's large multi-touch trackpad remains the best available. The pad is hinged at the top, allowing the entire pad to click down, but we prefer traditional tapping (which is off by default and must be activated in the Preferences menu). We've seen other click pads from other manufacturers, but none have the size, responsiveness or construction quality of Apple's. It's a huge amount of trackpad space on such a small laptop, but you'll need every inch of it and then some, as Mac OS X Lion, which comes pre-installed on the new MacBook Airs, has an elaborate multi-finger multi-touch vocabulary that's much more demanding of trackpad space than the more conservative Windows 7 multi-touch universe. However, one of the most challenging new multi-finger gestures — the four-finger squeeze to bring up Launchpad that we've come to call "the claw", — has a simple hot key in the F4 button. We'll be pressing that instead in the future, thank you very much.

The new Air comes with an impressive set of software programs installed, starting with OS X Lion. The newest version of Mac OS X launched at the same time as these new Airs, making the MacBook Air the first Mac laptop we've used with the new OS. Lion maximises screen real estate on the 11-inch Air: applications more easily pop to full screen, and swiping between full-screen apps eliminates the hunt for tiny buttons. But Lion also suffers from a few too many viewing modes, such as Mission Control, Launchpad and Expose.

Applications installed via other methods can't be instantly deleted from the iOS-like Launchpad (thank goodness), and the Mac App Store, while useful, has too many holes in its software library to be considered comprehensive. It's the start of an iOS-like experience on the Mac, but it still has a ways to go. You already get the standard suite of iLife programs, iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand, which all include tons of useful and fun features and are ideal for casual consumers.

Like last year's model, the 11-inch Air boots and starts up from sleep extremely quickly. Apple calls this Instant On, and though it's not exactly instant, it does boot up very, very fast — faster even than an iPad. In sleep mode, the Air can go for an extremely long time without much loss in battery life, much like the iPad. After putting it in sleep, we opened our Air up the next morning and found practically no drop-off.

The 11-inch Air is still the only MacBook with a 16:9 display (the 13-incher is still 16:10), and uses the same 1366x768-pixel native resolution as most laptops from 11 to 15 inches. The screen area lacks the edge-to-edge glass over a black bezel found in other MacBooks; instead the screen is surrounded by a thick silver bezel. While small, the screen is incredibly bright and crisp. Not only could we view video from nearly any wide angle, but text, even small text, popped off the white space on documents. The only screen we've seen recently that equals it is the one on the Samsung Series 9.

The built-in speaker offers crisp sound, but its volume is limited. Listening to a TV show in a bedroom with air conditioning on became a nearly impossible task. In terms of overall volume output, it felt comparable to the iPad 2. It's best to use headphones instead.

The included webcam, unlike the one on the new MacBook Pros, isn't HD. The video quality in our basic tests with Photo Booth and FaceTime was a little grainy, but serviceable. We'd have preferred an HD webcam upgrade, especially with Apple's focus on video calling.

Even though the 11-inch Air is small, it still gets a Thunderbolt port, replacing the Mini DisplayPort on last year's model. Thunderbolt is Apple's new high-speed I/O port for HD audio, video and data, allowing multiple hard drives and monitors to be connected via a single cable. Thunderbolt will still work with older Mini-DisplayPort monitors and with HDMI converters, but the added connectivity could theoretically help restore missing ports via a dock connector, although currently that's not the case.

Barely any Thunderbolt peripherals currently exist, but Apple is releasing a Thunderbolt Display in August that has extra USB ports, an Ethernet port and an extra Thunderbolt port in the back, and will connect directly to the Air. Such port-studded devices and peripherals could act like docks for the MacBook Air and extend its limited port functionality, but we'll have to wait and see how many emerge and how useful they'll be.

The 11-inch Air still lacks an SD card slot, which we griped about last year. There's no excuse for its absence: even budget netbooks have them, and there's plenty of room even on the Air's slight frame to have slotted one in. Considering the Air's fixed and limited amount of on-board flash storage, it would have been very helpful. There's no on-board Ethernet or built-in 3G wireless, either.

In its entry-level configuration, the 11-inch MacBook Air retains the same limited SSD/RAM as last year, with 2GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage. The 64GB would work if you rely on the cloud or external drives for most of your large-media storage, but it's not an acceptable amount for most mainstream users accustomed to at least 160GB of hard-drive space on even a discounted netbook (and after the OS and pre-installed software, you really start with only about 48GB). Flash storage is solid-state and faster-access, but you can't replace it without voiding warranty (the RAM is fused on, so it can't be added to at all). Therefore, choose wisely when buying — we'd nearly insist you spend the extra AU$250 to upgrade to Apple's other fixed configuration, which has 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. A third tier of 256GB storage is new to the 2011 11-incher, but costs an extra AU$340, bringing the total cost to AU$1689.

A new second-generation 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor replaces last year's older Core 2 Duo CPU. It's actually like skipping a generation in terms of processors, since last year's Airs had the same older processors that they had the year before. The difference is dramatic: in our single and multitask benchmark tests, the new 11-inch Air was very close in performance to the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, despite technically having a lower-voltage ULV processor. That's with 2GB of RAM, too. Expect the 4GB version to handle multitasking more adeptly. Despite its size, this little Air is a full-blown MacBook under the hood, and will handle apps nearly as robustly as its larger, heavier Pro cousins. And, despite having a similar processor to the thin 13-inch Samsung Series 9, the 11-inch Air bests it in speed (as well as price). If you care for even more power, an upgrade to a 1.8GHz Core i7 processor costs an extra AU$160 on Apple's website, but it's not available on the entry-level configuration.

Intel's HD 3000 graphics have replaced last year's Nvidia integrated graphics, with an expected drop-off in performance. Call of Duty 4 (COD4) played at 18.9 frames per second in native 1366x768-pixel resolution with 4x anti-aliasing, or 29.8fps at 1280x720 pixels. Last year's 11-inch Air ran COD4 at 40.5fps at native resolution and medium graphics settings. Still, this Air's more than capable of running most mainstream and casual games, provided they're not too 3D-intensive. Apple's Mac App store offers plenty of options in that regard.

MacBooks have become known for their long battery life, and this year's 11-inch Air edged out last year's in our video playback battery drain test despite its much faster processor. With its large, sealed battery, the new Air ran for four hours and 36 minutes, while last year's Air ran for four hours and 23 minutes. That's very close to Apple's five-hour estimates, but not as good as you'd get from a MacBook Pro, an iPad or the 13-inch MacBook Air. Size means sacrifice.

Service and support from Apple are always an issue to think about. Apple gives a one-year parts and labour warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support. Upgrading to a full three-year plan under AppleCare will cost an extra AU$299 and is pretty much a must-buy, considering the proprietary nature of Apple products. Support is also accessible through a well-stocked online knowledge base, video tutorials and email with customer service, or through in-person visits to Apple's retail-store Genius Bars.

If you're looking for a small, fast MacBook and don't mind paying a higher price for superior design and performance, the 2011 11-inch MacBook Air is flat-out the fastest ultraportable we've ever used. Just be forewarned that OSX Lion takes some getting used to, and the fixed and limited memory and RAM options get costly and keep this laptop, in some regards, from being the "MacBook for everyone" for those with large media libraries.


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