Processors and specs
The 11.6-in. models use a 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, the lowest clock-speed chip Apple now offers in a laptop. You can't upgrade the processor in the base version, but you can bump up to a 1.6-GHz chip in the $1,199 model for an extra $100. I seriously doubt you'd notice the small difference in clock speed. Save the bucks.
The 13.3-in. models start off with a 1.86-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, so if you opt for the larger screen, you get a little more speed. And you can upgrade the processor on the $1,599 model to 2.13 GHz if you want. Again, I don't think the difference in those two chips is worth the $100 it'll cost you. The stock processor should be plenty fast enough for most daily chores, and remember: These aren't designed to be speed demons anyway.
All of the Airs come with 2GB of RAM and the Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics chip. The graphics processor uses 256MB of main memory and is the same one used in the Mac Mini and the MacBook. With that in mind, I'd recommend doubling the RAM to 4GB. That's something you couldn't do in the previous model and is a $100 investment well worth making.
While I didn't notice any big hiccups with just 2GB of RAM installed, additional RAM will help Mac OS X run more smoothly if you have numerous apps open and in use. That's especially true if you're running any version of Windows in a virtual environment using Parallels or VMware's Fusion.
The big news is that Apple has done away with the hard drive, opting to use NAND flash memory for storage. That allows Apple to save room inside the laptop and should offer most users a noticeable speed boost over traditional hard drives -- especially if you've been using the first-generation Air, which came with a slow 4,200rpm drive.
NAND flash storage is basically like having a solid-state drive (SSD) installed. Indeed, the previous-generation MacBook Airs offered an SSD option, as do some of the current MacBook Pros. The difference with the new MacBook Air is that the flash storage is mounted right on the logic board rather than having an SSD in a drive slot, leaving room for Apple to squeeze in a larger battery. (IFixit did a teardown on the 11.6-in. model, if you want to see more of what's beneath the keyboard.)
Flash storage is more expensive than traditional hard drives for the same capacity, but prices have been coming down as flash storage has gained popularity. Because there are no moving parts, it's seen as more reliable, especially in a laptop that might get bounced around. And it's faster.
According to Apple, flash storage is twice as fast as a hard drive in accessing data and in overall responsiveness. As someone who's used an SSD in my own laptops over the past couple of years, I can vouch for the speediness of the technology and -- so far -- its reliability. Having fast access to data offsets the lower clock speed of the Core 2 Duo processor, giving the Air a far faster feel than it would have with a regular hard drive. Oh, and boot-up times are super-fast: 13 seconds from start-up chime to desktop.
Jobs, in his announcement last week, noted that this is the direction in which Apple sees laptops going. As prices continue to come down, I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple roll out flash storage in all of its laptops over the next couple of years. At least I hope it does.
Given that the internal storage isn't upgradeable after you buy, make sure you get enough to hold all your apps and files. My advice is to get as much storage as possible. That would mean opting for the $1,199 MacBook Air (which has 128GB of storage) if you're getting the 11.6-in. model, or the $1,599 Air (with 256GB of storage) if you want the larger 13.3-in. version.
It's worth noting, too, that Apple has done away with the traditional DVD discs for installing or reinstalling the Air's operating system and apps. Now you get a small USB drive. Reinstalling the OS is simple: Slip the USB drive into a USB port, restart the computer while holding down the C key, and you're ready to install Mac OS X from the USB drive.
Using a USB drive makes sense, given that the Air doesn't come with an optical drive. (You can buy an external one from Apple, though, for $79.)