Laptops

The Skinny on MacBook Air's SSD Speed Boost

I really like Apple Inc.'s newly revamped MacBook Air, which got extensive under-the-hood updates last month. And I really, really like the apparent speed boost offered by the larger solid-state drive (SSD) in the Air I've been testing for the past week.

I'll have more to say about that SSD in a bit, but suffice it to say that the drive makes a noticeable difference in how fast the Air boots up, how fast programs launch and how fast this slimmest of Apple laptops feels -- especially in comparison to the stock 4,200-rpm hard drive included in my first-generation Air.

New Core 2 Duo Processors

For those who may have missed the changes in the Air's specs unveiled by Apple on Oct. 14, here are the basics. The 3 lb. MacBook Air still comes in two models, both of which now use stock Intel Core 2 Duo processors instead of the custom jobs that powered the first generation announced last January.

The base model has a 1.6-GHz processor, the same speed as before. The top model, the one Apple sent over for review, has a 1.86-GHz chip -- 60 MHz faster than the 1.8-GHz processor that debuted on the top-end model at the start of the year. Both processors now feature 6MB of Level 2 cache RAM, 50% more than the older models.

More important, there's increased room for your files. The base model now comes with a 120GB hard drive, 50% more than the first version did; the pricier, 1.86-GHz iteration sports a 128GB MLC (multilevel cell) SSD, double the amount of space offered originally.

The 1280-by-800-pixel LED screen remains unchanged from the earlier Air, according to Apple officials, which is a good thing. It's stunningly bright, even in broad daylight with the sun shining directly on the screen.

The price for the entry model, which has yet to ship, remains unchanged at $1,799. The more expensive model, already on store shelves, goes for $2,499. That's not cheap, but it's a lot cheaper than when the SSD version went on sale in January -- the 64GB SSD cost a whopping $999 extra for less storage space than the base model. The growing use of SSDs in laptops has brought prices down from stratospheric to merely expensive.

The changes in processors and drives aren't the only new things in the second-gen Air. Apple has changed the video-out port to the new Mini DisplayPort, meaning you'll need an adapter if you're planning to use an Air with anything but Apple's new 24-in. LED monitor. Apple no longer includes an adapter in the box, by the way.

The new model also sports faster DDR3 RAM (still just 2GB), a faster 1,066-MHz front-side bus, and a notably faster Nvidia 9400M graphics processor.

Apple execs were quick to tout the quadrupling of graphics performance with the new Nvidia chip -- both when the Air and its newest siblings were released and, more recently, in interviews with Computerworld. The 9400M, which offers up to 256MB of shared video RAM, is standard in the new MacBook Air and Mac Book, and it is coupled with the 9600M GT in the MacBook Pro. (In the Pro model, you can switch between the 9400M's shared graphics while on battery and the more powerful 9600M GT when the laptop is plugged in.)

The result is a solid improvement to Apple's popular and stylish Air. Did I say solid? That's because the Air was the first laptop from Apple to premiere what the company is calling its "unibody" design. That means the main chassis for this laptop -- and for both MacBook and the 15-in. MacBook Pro models -- is carved from a single chunk of aluminum. The result is as solid a laptop as you're likely to find.

Product mentioned in this article

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