Review: MacBook Air 1.86GHz

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On the outside, the new MacBook Air 1.86GHz is identical to the first generation of Apple's lightweight laptops. But inside it's quite different, offering a new and faster processor, upgraded video circuitry, a faster front-side bus, faster RAM, and a new display connector. As a result, the new generation of MacBook Air is superior to the original. However, the substantial upgrades Apple has made to the rest of the MacBook line threaten to narrow the MacBook Air's already limited appeal even further.

Bigger on the inside

This new MacBook Air gives wary consumers a bit more ammunition for the golden rule of technology buying: "Never buy version 1.0." Apple appears to have improved almost every aspect of the internals of the Air, despite the remarkably small space available for the laptop's components. The weight and size remain identical, as does the bright 13-inch display and single USB port. But the small low-power processor custom-built by Intel for the original MacBook Air has been replaced by a smaller, stock Intel Core 2 Duo processor that offers more L2 cache (6MB instead of 4MB--L2 cache is speedy on-processor memory that improves efficiency) and uses less power. The front-side bus and memory architecture has been ramped up, and the Air now uses faster DDR3 memory modules.

But perhaps the most major upgrade to be found across all the new MacBook Airs is to the video subsystem. The previous generation of Airs was saddled with Intel's GMA X3100 graphics circuitry, which was slow. The Air's Nvidia GeForce 9400M is much faster, which makes the Air a competent, if not fantastic, gaming machine. In our tests, the Air managed a Quake 4 frame rate of nearly 25 frames per second, more than six times the rate of the previous Air.

What's more, the 9400M's integrated graphics processing unit (GPU) lends a hand to the CPU when it comes to decoding and playing back video material. In the first-generation Air, playing back videos via YouTube or iTunes would inevitably push the processor to its limit and beyond, leading to stuttering playback and severe usability problems as the Air struggled to keep its temperature down by reducing the speed of its processor. This new model played back multiple YouTube videos and HD iTunes video without breaking a virtual sweat.

As I've written about on more than one occasion, my original MacBook Air suffered from serious overheating problems on a regular basis. (What good is a laptop when you can't play back videos if you're in a heated room?) Whatever Apple has done to these new models, the problem appears to be solved or at least greatly mitigated--though, sadly, Mother Nature didn't cooperate with me and allow me to test the Air on a brutally hot day just to see what would happen.

The top speed of the top-of-the-line MacBook Air increased by only 600MHz over its predecessor, from 1.8GHz to 1.86GHz, but with the improvements to all the other subsystems, the new Air felt noticeably faster than its predecessor in just about every aspect. My observations were confirmed by our MacBook Air lab tests: the new model not only boasted a faster overall score in our Speedmark test suite, but it was notably faster in our Photoshop, Cinema 4D, and Finder tests.

Moving house to an original MacBook Air required an extreme exercise of data starvation, because the original Air offered only two storage options: an 80GB hard drive or a 64GB solid-state drive. The new MacBook Air models eliminate that ridiculous storage limitation. These models come with either a 120GB hard drive or a 128GB solid-state drive. And Apple has narrowed the price gap between the hard drive and solid-state drive, too. The upgrade to the 64GB SSD in the original MacBook Airs cost $999; the SSD option is now twice the capacity, but costs only $500 extra.

Fingers and adapters

Like the other MacBook models introduced in October, the new MacBook Air connects to external displays with the new Mini DisplayPort adapter, placing it on the cutting edge of an Apple technological transition. The original MacBook Air was the only Mac to ever use the Micro-DVI connection format, so in many ways this move to Mini DisplayPort is good for the Air; it now can use the very same monitor adapters as all the other MacBook models, rather than requiring its own oddball set. And the MacBook Air can now drive the 30-inch Apple Cinema Display, albeit only via an optional $99 dual-link DVI adapter.

However, there's some bad news. In what can only be read as a cost-saving move, Apple has removed all display adapters from the MacBook Air box. (Previous models shipped with both DVI and VGA adapters.) If you want to connect the MacBook Air to an external display--and why wouldn't you?--it'll cost $29 extra per adapter. Travelers who give presentations will need to spend $58 to ensure that you can connect to either a DVI or VGA projector. Given the absolute necessity for many laptop users to connect to displays, in the office or on the road, it's unfortunate that Apple has decided to stop throwing a display adapter into the box.

Unlike just about every other display in existence, you won't need an adapter in order to connect the MacBook Air to Apple's forthcoming 24-inch LED Cinema Display. That display, with its built-in DisplayPort connector, would seem to be an excellent addition to the Air, especially given that its self-powered USB hub has enough juice to allow Air users to permanently attach Apple's power-hungry external USB SuperDrive ($99) to the monitor. Any MacBook Air user who has tried to boot from a DVD in order to restore a Time Machine backup from a USB hard drive--only to discover that it's impossible because the Air only has a single USB port--will appreciate that feature.

However, we don't yet have an LED Cinema Display in our offices, so we can't attest to how well it works with these laptops. Stay tuned for our forthcoming review after the display arrives.

Although the new MacBook Air models lack the buttonless, clickable glass trackpad offered in the new MacBook and new MacBook Pro models (Apple says the new trackpad just wouldn't fit in the tight confines of the existing MacBook Air design), they haven't been completely forsaken. The new four-finger gestures (slide up to reveal the desktop, slide down to show all windows, slide left or right to bring up the app switcher) supported on those models are also available on the new MacBook Air.

In the past months I've found that some gestures--especially two-finger scrolling--have become like second nature to me. And the four-finger slide to reveal the desktop will probably fall into that category, as well--it sure beats pressing F11 (or worse, for those of us who have set our Keyboard settings to require the Function key to be pressed in order to activate those features, the dreaded Fn-F11 death grip). It's a shame Apple doesn't allow you to customize what those gestures do, however.

The competition

There's no doubt that the new MacBook Air is a serious improvement over its first iteration. And let's recall why the MacBook Air exists in the first place: it's designed to be the lightest Apple laptop in existence, sacrificing speed, functionality, and value in order to be a svelte three pounds and razor-thin.

The MacBook Air is most definitely not a laptop for people who want the fastest laptop or the one with the best value. Even with its speed boost it's still the slowest MacBook in Apple's product line, slower than the white $999 MacBook that's a holdover from the previous generation of low-end plastic Apple laptops. The integrated Nvidia graphics processor, while an impressive update, is actually a throttled-back version of the chip used in the new MacBook models. And for the same $2,499 you'd spend on a top-of-the-line 1.86GHz MacBook Air with 2GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive, you could get a 5.5-pound MacBook Pro with a bigger screen, a 2.53GHz processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, and an additional, faster graphics processor.

So as before, the MacBook Air exists for people who are willing to spend money and sacrifice power in order to get the lightest laptop imaginable. There's just one catch: it's got more competition than it used to. When the MacBook Air was introduced, it was two pounds lighter than the MacBook and offered some pro styling (aluminum case, backlit keyboard) that the MacBook didn't.

But the new MacBook models have changed. They're now clad in aluminum, offer the backlit keyboard as an option, and--most importantly--weigh half a pound less than the previous MacBook models, putting the new MacBook only a pound and a half out of reach of the MacBook Air.

Macworld's buying advice

The question is this: Is it worth spending between $1,799 and $2,499 for a MacBook Air, as opposed to between $1,299 and $1,599 for a MacBook? In addition to the $500-$900 price difference, you'll give away an extra USB port, an optical drive, some graphics performance, a removable battery and easily-accessible hard drive, and a whole lot of storage space and processor power. (The $1,599 MacBook earned a Speedmark score of 212, 22 percent faster than the $2,499 MacBook Air's score of 174.) But you will get back a pound and a half in weight.

There's no right answer to the question. If you're someone who cares about the size and weight of your laptop more than anything else, or don't really need top-of-the-line performance, or don't care about the price of your laptop, the MacBook Air was designed specifically for you. And this new model is definitely faster than the original MacBook Air, with increased storage space that makes it less of a sacrifice to migrate to an Air.

In January, when the original Air was announced, the need for its existence was stronger. Today the MacBook is a better buy for all but the most extreme devotees of thinness and lightness. It's not that the MacBook Air is a bad laptop. It's just that Apple has made a faster, cheaper, and almost equally attractive model that costs hundreds less and only weighs 4.5 pounds.

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