Laptops

New MacBook Air, Now With Extra SSD Goodness

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 US$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.

Comparison with the MacBook

Last month, when reviewing the new MacBook , I wondered whether it might cannibalize sales of the Air, given that the MacBook has a faster processor, a built-in optical drive, more storage and better expansion prospects. (You can double the RAM to 4GB and easily access the hard drive for a quick swap.) And you get all that in a laptop that sells for $1,599, a cool $200 less than the cheapest Air.

Apple doesn't think so. Todd Benjamin, director of Apple's notebook marketing, reiterated in an interview that the Air is designed with a specific market in mind: buyers who want a lightweight yet comparatively powerful laptop. These are not up-and-coming Spielbergs crunching high-def video or high-end designers plowing through hundreds of photos a week as they apply filters in Adobe Photoshop (though Photoshop runs fine on the Air). MacBook Air owners are more likely do Web surfing, e-mail, word processing, some light digital photo work and maybe even light gaming on red-eye flights between coasts.

That is one reason Apple made no changes to the maximum RAM installed in the Air. Personally, I'd hoped for 4GB as an option, as have various would-be buyers in numerous online forums, some of whom are ready to open up the Air themselves if need be.

According to Apple, the Nvidia integrated graphics processor gives the new Air four times the 3-D gaming performance of the last model.

I'm not a gamer, but I did find that the Nvidia chip improved video playback. In my time with it, I noticed no stuttering when viewing YouTube videos or clips on news sites like CNN or MSNBC. Nor did video playback push the temperature up so high that it caused any problems. Users had complained that some of the early models would freeze up when playing videos -- until Apple released a software update that apparently changed how quickly the built-in fans kicked in for first-generation machines.

Those fans helped keep things pretty cool. Although the review unit usually chugged along with an operating temperature of around 122 to 130 degrees, it did jump to 180 degrees at times when I was watching a video. (Processor usage never topped out either, generally hovering around 70% to 75% during playback.) I could hear the fans kick in to keep things from overheating -- turning at about 6,200 rpm, according to the iStat menu monitoring app I use.

And I never noticed the aluminum casing getting hot. Even the bottom was only slightly warm to the touch, a far cry from the early days of Apple's move to Intel chips in 2005. Some of those early MacBook Pros could get darn toasty.

What a difference an SSD makes

For me, the biggest eye-opener with the new Air is how much the hard drive shapes perception. I worked with one of the first-generation Airs, the one with an 80GB hard drive, and while I found it fast enough in day-to-day use for most tasks, moving up to the SSD makes a real difference. I'm beginning to think that SSD, which is also available as a build-to-order option on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, really stands for Speedy Sweet Delight.

That's because it makes the Air feel a lot faster than it really is. And perception goes a long way toward dictating how a person feels about his or her computer.

When I reviewed the first MacBook Air , I recommended that buyers eschew the SSD. At the time, it offered less storage space than the standard drive and cost $999 more, pushing the price for the Air beyond $3,000. That's no longer the case, which is one reason I've warmed up to the SSD.

Another reason: With an SSD, there aren't any moving parts, so if you drop the laptop, there are no delicate spinning platters and heads to worry about.

Finally, the SSD makes the Air feel exceptionally snappy. For instance, that first Air took 70 seconds to boot up from Mac chime to desktop; my 2007 vintage MacBook Pro takes 48 seconds; this new Air needs only 28 seconds.

Now, boot time does not an ownership experience make. But when you combine that with how fast applications launch -- Adobe Photoshop Elements took 8 seconds on the new Air, 16 seconds on my MacBook Pro -- you feel like you're driving a BMW M3 when in fact you're tooling around in the Apple equivalent of the diminutive BMW 1 Series.

New owners have been delighted to find that Xbench benchmarking scores are coming in higher than those for Apple's more powerful MacBook Pro lineup. (With Xbench, higher is better.) I can attest to this. My MacBook Pro, which has a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a 160GB hard drive spinning at 7,200 rpm, checks in with a score of about 118; the new MacBook and MacBook Pro models return scores of around 123; this particular Air hit 141. In comparison, the first-generation Air with a standard hard drive returned an Xbench score of 43.

To reiterate: Benchmark scores are not real performance. While SSDs are very fast at reading data compared with platter-based hard drives, they can be a little slower when writing data. Thus, while Photoshop may launch lightning quick, applying a filter to a photo and saving it will even out much of that speed boost.

As with all drives, the amount of advertised space differs from the amount you can actually use. In fact, the 128GB SSD gives you the same room as the 120GB hard disk drive -- about 112GB. That's because a small portion of the SSD is set aside in case some of the cells wear out prematurely.

All in all, I'm very happy with the SSD. From now on, if I'm buying a computer and an SSD is a viable -- and not too pricey -- option, I'm buying.

Battery life down slightly

The speed gains that I noted aren't solely due to the SSD. Faster DDR3 RAM, a faster front-side bus and the faster Nvidia chip all contribute. On the other hand, battery life is down a bit, with Apple estimating that the Air will last roughly 4.5 hours with the screen brightness turned down by half and Wi-Fi on.

The first-generation Air had an estimated battery life of five hours; according to Apple's Benjamin, all of Apple's laptops now range between 4.5 and 5 hours of battery life. If you're playing videos or watching a movie, Apple says you can expect between 2 and 2.5 hours of use. And since the battery is integrated, there's no swapping.

I had the brightness at maximum for about an hour, turning it down gradually as the light in the room changed. I managed 3 hours and 49 minutes, and could easily have squeezed out more time by dimming the screen more aggressively.

One of the big changes to arrive with the new MacBook and MacBook Pro was a new all-in-one trackpad and clicker button covered by a thin layer of glass for smooth tracking and gestures. The laptops also offer a restyled screen bezel in shiny black.

Neither of these features made it to the updated Air, though I'll be surprised if they don't show up sometime in 2009 -- unless the thinness of the aluminum under the trackpad makes it physically impossible. The Air does get the new four-finger gestures offered with the glass trackpads on the other models.

The Air also continues to rely on a single speaker, with the sound largely emanating from the right side of the keyboard. (It still lights up.) Other than the move to the Mini DisplayPort -- located behind the small door that swings down on the right side of the Air -- the new model is externally identical to the old.

And for those hoping for an added USB port -- your wait is not over. With the Air, you still get just one, and if you need an optical drive, it's sold separately for $99.

Final thoughts

If the first MacBook Air was a revolutionary take on the Apple laptop line, this is an evolutionary step -- which is exactly what you'd expect from a second-generation release. Aesthetically, the two generations are virtually the same; technologically, the new one offers a speed boost and better storage options at a better price than when the Air debuted.

Having said that, if you don't think you need the ultimate in thinness and style -- and to my eye, this really is the ultimate in the looks department -- do yourself a favor and check out the new MacBook while you're comparison-shopping. Sure, it's chunkier -- compared with the Air, just about everything is -- and heavier at 4.5 lb. But it's faster, offers more storage and is more expandable. Oh, and it's cheaper.

But if only the thinnest will do (you know who you are, road warriors) and you held off last winter when the first MacBook Air appeared, now may be the time to buy. Now you get a faster laptop with more storage that's every bit as attractive and lightweight as the first one. And the top-end model is substantially cheaper than it was in January.

This MacBook Air will no doubt show up on a lot of holiday wish lists.

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