Apple MacBook Air (11.6-Inch, 2012 Version) Review
PRICE AS REVIEWED: $999.00
Surprisingly Fast and Powerful
Love the SSD Speed
Thunderbolt can also be used for HDMI or RJ45 Ethernet with adapter- cool!
The screen is bright, crisp and clear
Battery doesn't last as long as the 13" Air, but then there is also no space for a larger battery.
Apple updates its smallest MacBook Air for 2012 with a speedier CPU and USB 3.0 ports, while retaining the design elements that make it an outstanding ultraportable. It faces more competition these days (from Windows ultrabooks), but it's still the best 11-inch laptop you can buy.
About a year ago, when we looked at Apple's 2011-model 11.6-inch MacBook Air, it didn't have much in the way of Windows-based competition, unless you counted pricier ultra-premium machines like Samsung's Series 9 or less spendy but much less powerful netbooks. Since that time, thanks to a massive marketing push from Intel, we've seen the rise of the ultrabook, a category of devices meant to compete directly with Apple's MacBook Air duo in design, features, and price.
We've seen some impressive machines along Intel's lines since then, including, most recently, Sony's VAIO T Series and Lenovo's IdeaPad U310. Both of those machines pack brand-new, third-generation Core "Ivy Bridge" CPUs, just like Apple's refreshed-for-2012 MacBook Airs. And their prices hover around the $800 mark, undercutting Apple's entry-level lightweight by $200. But most of the ultrabooks we've seen so far have sported larger 13.3-inch screens, which also means extra weight. For instance, the Sony VAIO T weighs 3.5 pounds, while the 11.6-inch MacBook Air tested here floats in at 2.4 pounds.
That makes most of the ultrabooks we've tested—with the exception of Asus' 11.6-inch ZenBook UX21in October 2011—better competitors to the 13.3-inch MacBook Air than to the 11.6-inch model we're looking at here. So while this year's junior Air isn't a huge upgrade over last year's model, it's still the best option in its class. With an updated Intel "Ivy Bridge" processor, speedy USB 3.0 ports (along with a single Thunderbolt port), and a starting price of $999 (our review unit was the $1,099 model, hopped up with a larger 128GB solid-state drive), it's an excellent option for those looking for an extremely compact, surprisingly powerful laptop.
As with its larger sibling, the new MacBook Air 11.6's design remains pretty much the same as the 2011 model. But with Apple's aluminum "unibody" chassis, a maximum thickness of 0.68 inch (at the back), and weighing in under 2.5 pounds, the design here hardly feels stale.
Asus' ZenBook UX21, the last 11.6-inch ultrabook we looked at, certainly didn't stray much from Apple's aesthetic: It's also aluminum-clad, and it weighs nearly exactly the same as the Air. And while its 0.67-inch thickness might technically be thinner than the Air's 0.68 inch, you'd need a pair of calipers to tell the difference. Samsung's 11.6-inch Series 9 varies a bit more from Apple's design while still looking great. But it's pricier, at $1,199, with a previous-generation, 1.33GHz Intel Core i3 processor, where the Air sports an up-to-date, 1.7GHz Core i5.
While we felt the Zen Book's keyboard didn't have enough travel to please our fingers, the 11.6-inch MacBook Air's keys feel pretty good. They're somewhat shallow (the laptop is very thin, after all), but we'd still take the Air's keyboard over those found on most ultrabooks. The Apple machine also flaunts a backlit keyboard, a feature the UX21 lacks (although Asus has fixed that with the forthcoming model UX21A), and the company's incomparably gesture-friendly one-piece touch pad.
Compact, super-slim laptops mean keyboard compromises must be made. But the Air's backlit board is the best we've seen on a laptop of this size, offering a fair amount of travel.
Port selection is sparse, of course, due to the size and thickness limitations, but Apple has at least made some of the ports speedier with the 2012 model. The left edge houses the MagSafe power connector, a USB 3.0 port, and a headphone jack. On the right edge, there's a second USB 3.0 port and the Thunderbolt port.
Unlike its 13-inch sibling, the smaller Air keeps the same MagSafe power plug as last year's model. Its magnetic connection remains a boon to anyone who's ever tripped over a laptop power cable.
The upgrade from USB 2.0 to 3.0 is a nice touch by Apple, offering users access to a plethora of speedy USB 3.0 peripherals. That's important, seeing as potentially faster Thunderbolt devices remain less common, due in large part to high prices. (See, for example, our review of the Mac-gearedBuffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt, a portable Thunderbolt hard drive.)
We still wish Apple could find room for a flash-card reader somewhere here (one is present in the larger 13.3-inch model). But as small and slim as this laptop is, we're willing to let that go. An inexpensive external card reader won't add much bulk to your bag.
If you were wishing for an ultra-high-resolution Retina display like the screens in the 2012 iPad and the premium version of the 2012 MacBook Pro, you won't find one here. Both of the MacBook Air models' screen resolutions remain the same as last year's, at 1,366x768 pixels for the 11.6-inch Air and 1,440x900 for the 13.3-inch model.
That said, the 11.6-inch, LED-backlit panel is quite bright at its highest setting, and viewing angles are pretty good. We just wonder if the Air's screen resolution might start to lag behind the competition if, as seems likely, Apple doesn't offer another major refresh of the Air until 2013. After all, Asus has announced a 1,920x1,080-screened 11.6-inch ZenBook Prime UX21A, and we wouldn't be surprised if other ultrabook makers follow suit, especially after all the hype over Apple's own MacBook Pro with Retina display.
Speaking of resolution, Apple has at least upgraded the Webcam that sits above the screen. Previous models made do with just VGA resolution, but the new models sport 720p FaceTime HD cameras with three times the sharpness. Those who rely on video chat to keep in touch with far-off family and friends will certainly appreciate this update.
Configurations & Software
For $999, the base model of the 2012 MacBook Air 11.6-inch gives you a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel "Ivy Bridge" processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of solid-state storage. Our $1,099 review unit bumped the last up to a much-appreciated 128GB. Unless you're very reliant on cloud-based storage like Google Drive or Dropbox, we'd suggest spending the extra $100 to double your local storage space.
Other internal upgrade options Apple offers when ordering the $1,099 Air directly include more storage (up to 512GB for a hefty $800), and the option to step up to 8GB of RAM for an extra $100. Unless you really plan to push your laptop by editing large image files in Adobe Photoshop or performing similar tasks, you should be fine with 4GB. (If those types of jobs are something you often do with your laptop, a bigger-screened MacBook Pro is likely a better fit for your needs, anyway.)
On the processor front, if you simply can't live with a Core i5 CPU, you can bump things up to a 2GHz Core i7 for an extra $150. But again, for most everyday computing tasks, the Core i5 should be more than sufficient.
When Apple launches a new wave of laptops, it usually brings an updated version of the company's OS X operating system along for the ride, and this time is no exception. If you buy a new MacBook Air or Pro before late July 2012, it will be running the current version of OS X, Lion, out of the box. But you'll be eligible for a free upgrade to Mountain Lion, Apple's ninth iteration of its current operating system, when it launches later this summer.
Like Lion before it, Mountain Lion brings more features found in the company's mobile iOS (found on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod) to Apple's laptop and desktop operating system. Things you can expect include better integration with iCloud, Apple's data-sync service. And familiar iOS apps like Notes, Reminders, and Game Center will all be available as well. A new Notification Center means apps will be able to get your attention with pop-up alerts showing up in the upper right corner of the screen, similar to the way alerts work in Apple's mobile OS.
Mac OS X Mountain Lion's Notification Center will let applications catch your eye with iOS-style pop-up alerts in the corner of your screen.
Those who have spent years relying on their iPhone or iPad will probably appreciate this move to make Apple's traditional laptop and desktop OS more closely mimic the company's mobile operating system. But the update won't only be available to buyers of new hardware. If you own a relatively recent Mac, you'll be able to upgrade it to Mountain Lion for a $20 fee and a trip to the App Store. Apple expects to release the update sometime in July of 2012.
Along with the OS, the Air, of course, also ships with Apple's excellent iLife software bundle. iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand are as pretty and feature-packed as ever. We've said it before, but we really wish all Windows machines came preloaded with software this well-designed and downright useful, instead of the cluttering of paid links and dubious third-party software that often encumbers retail Windows machines. The lack of this stuff is a big part of what makes using an Apple system feel more like a premium experience.
The improved internals of the updated Air definitely help make it a snappier performer. Its CPU has a base clock speed of 1.7GHz that can ramp up as high as 2.6GHz in certain situations, thanks to Intel's Turbo Boost tech. That's a healthy bump over last-year's model, which maxed out at a Turbo Boosted 2.3GHz. But the Air's performance wasn't improved on all fronts, as we'll see in our benchmark tests.
To get a sense of the new Air's performance, we'll be comparing it to last year's model; to Asus's 11.6-inch ZenBook UX21 ultrabook, which you can find online (as of this writing) for as little as $899; and to the larger, 13.3-inch Sony VAIO T Series ultrabook, which was available for as low as $799 when this review was written.
We started our tests with the CPU-stressing Cinebench 10 benchmark trial, which pushes all processing cores at once while rendering a complex image. Cinebench gives a good sense of how a PC handles high-end, processor-taxing tasks...
On this test, the new Air sailed past its predecessor, but it couldn't best the competing ZenBook or the larger-screened Sony machine.
iTunes Conversion Test
On our custom iTunes Conversion Test, in which we convert 11 MP3 tracks to AAC format, the "Ivy Bridge" Air was exceedingly speedy...
While the Air's performance here was indeed impressive, it should be noted that because the new and last year's Air were running Mac OS X and the Asus and Sony were tested under Windows, the scores aren't necessarily comparable. Still, this year's Air 11.6 was over 30 percent quicker than its predecessor on this test, which isn't to be taken lightly.
We didn't test the storage speed of last year's MacBook Air, so we don't have comparative test numbers to judge against this year's model. But we did see pretty respectable results in Black Magic Design's disk speed test...
Write speeds around 150MB per second and read speeds close to 400MB per second certainly surpass (by far) what you'll get with a traditional hard drive. And that extra speed means faster boot times, speedier app launches, and a near-instant resume when you open the lid. That said, we did see faster speeds (in the 250MB per second write and 430MB per second read range) with the larger 13.3-inch MacBook Air.
In our stopwatch boot-time test, the 11.6-inch Air was also slightly slower than its larger sibling, but only by a couple of seconds. And we're not going to complain, considering the Air goes from a switched-off state to the Mac OS X desktop in just 14 seconds. There are definitely solid-state drives available that offer faster speeds than the ones found in Apple's MacBook Airs, especially when it comes to write speeds. But read speeds are more important when it comes to opening apps. And there's no reason to complain about that here. The 2012 Air is extremely responsive when opening programs.
Battery Rundown Test
Battery life is the one area where the Air doesn't fare all that well, both against competing Windows machines and against the 2011 model it's replacing...
In our Battery Rundown Test, we stream video from Hulu.com over Wi-Fi, with the volume and screen brightness set at 50 percent. As you can see, the 2012 Air came in 18 minutes behind the 2011 model, and conked out an hour earlier than Asus' 11.6-inch ZenBook. Still, keep in mind that this test represents a close-to-worst-case scenario for battery life. If you're writing e-mails or documents while intermittently surfing the Web, the Air's battery will last much longer.
When we looked at the mid-2012 model of the larger-screened 13.3-inch MacBook Air, we were quick to point out that, impressive as it is, we've seen quite a few Windows ultrabooks with similar displays and internals but lower prices. But that's not so much the case with the smaller model. We've reviewed Asus' 2011 ZenBook UX21, but as of this writing, we haven't yet seen the Asus UX21A with its newer "Ivy Bridge" processor and backlit keyboard.
Samsung's Series 9 comes in an 11.6-inch model as well, but its Core i3 processor isn't up to the speed of the Air's Core i5 chip. And the base model makes do with just 2GB of RAM, which isn't great for multitasking in Windows 7. Sony seems to have a promising competitor with the upcoming VAIO T11, but as of this writing, pricing wasn't available, and Sony's T Series line lacks a backlit keyboard.
The 11.6-inch Air is skinny enough to make even relatively trim Windows laptops, like HP's 0.8-inch-thick Envy Sleekbook, look plump.
In short, while we've seen several 13.3-inch ultrabooks that offer some strong competition for the larger MacBook Air, the 11.6-inch part of the laptop market doesn't seem to be nearly as crowded, at least in the United States. So if you're looking for a laptop that's nearly as small as a netbook, but powerful enough to handle demanding tasks without getting bogged down, the smaller Air is still our favorite offering. Its keyboard is great for its class, and while battery life could be better, its performance is impressive, thanks to its solid-state storage, USB 3.0 ports, and new Intel CPU.