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11-inch MacBook Air review: Tiny awesomeness

Those TUAW readers who watched TUAW TV Live last Wednesday afternoon were treated to a live unboxing when an 11-inch MacBook Air arrived at my office. The Air was a replacement for a MacBook that I sold to a client, and since I had previously owned (and loved) one of the original MacBook Airs, I decided to go for the 11-inch model.

To be honest, I had a bit of cognitive dissonance after I ordered the little laptop, but that's gone now since I gave it a real workout last Friday and Saturday at the 360MacDev conference.

In the rest of this short review, I'll give you my opinions on the speed, battery life, display and other features of the 11-inch MacBook Air. If you're considering purchasing a MacBook of any type as a Christmas present, be sure to at least take a look at this model.

The price of the 11-inch model starts at US$999 -- that's for a machine with 2GB of RAM, a 64GB SSD and a 1.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. While that doesn't sound like much power, the combination of the CPU, the fast SSD and an NVIDIA GeForce 320M GPU makes for a laptop that is much faster than the raw tech specs would indicate.

The first indication I had that this thing is small was when the box showed up at my door. The FedEx delivery dude was holding it with one hand, which was a first for a computer delivery. That box, after I opened it on the show, contained an even smaller box with the MacBook Air nestled inside.

So, how small is the 11" MacBook Air? Check out the photo below. That's an iPad sitting on top of it. It's the same depth as the MacBook Air, just about as thin, and about two inches less wide than the laptop. Weight-wise, the MacBook Air is 2.3 lbs, and the iPad tops the scales at 1.5 lbs. Considering that you can pop both devices into a small bag and the combo (3.8 lbs) weighs less than a 13" MacBook Pro (4.5 lbs), this is the perfect road machine.

The MacBook Air is also amazingly thin, as the current TV ads will attest. I'll let a picture do the talking for me as well -- the photo below shows an "unskinned" iPad on top of the MacBook Air. At its thinnest, the MacBook Air is indeed thinner than an iPad.

How speedy is the MacBook Air? I did a "configure-to-order" version of the MacBook Air with a few upgrades, so I have 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and the 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. In apps that aren't necessarily processor intensive, it's actually faster than my iMac with its 2.8 GHz, 8GB RAM Intel Core i7 quad-core CPU. Here are some everyday examples: launching Microsoft Word 2011 after a reboot of the machine took about 3.5 seconds on the MacBook Air, about 5 seconds on the iMac. Reloading the app on both machines took about the same time. Next example: launching Ustream Producer. That took about 4 seconds on the MacBook Air, about 6 on the iMac. The Air feels snappy, and most of that speed is due to the SSD.

Whether or not that speed will still be there in a few years is another question; System Profiler currently shows the SSD as not supporting TRIM. TRIM is a command that allows an OS to inform a SSD which blocks of data are no longer in use and can be wiped. This sort of garbage collection keeps the speed of the SSD up to snuff. Whether this is something that will need to be included in a future firmware update for the Apple SSD and/or added to Mac OS X is unknown.

Apple advertises the battery life of the 11" MacBook Air as being "up to five hours of wireless web." So far, that seems about right. I was using the MacBook Air to blog from 360MacDev, and on both days, I worked continuously for over 4 hours without the battery life indicator going into the red. If I had pushed it, I probably could have worked for 5 hours straight. I also like the fact that this SSD-based laptop can remain in standby mode for up to 30 days. Previously, if I put a regular laptop into sleep mode, the battery was usually drained in a few days.

The 11.6" diagonal LED-backlit display is crisp, bright and clear. At a native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels, it seems extremely sharp -- even with my aged and myopic eyes, I can easily read small print on the screen from several feet away. If only my eye doctor would use this for eye examinations...

The keyboard and trackpad are awesome. If you recall my experiment in late 2008 / early 2009 with a Dell mini 9" netbook converted to a Hackintosh, you'll know how irate I became at the tiny, nonstandard keyboard on that machine. Not so with the MacBook Air; even with the tiny case, the keyboard is full sized. In fact, there's a half-inch space between the keyboard and the sides of the MacBook Air, so Apple could have made the Air even smaller if they had wanted to. The feel of the keyboard is almost identical to that of the Apple Wireless Keyboard that I use every day with my iMac.

The trackpad is a bit smaller than the one on my wife's 15" MacBook Pro, but it's very usable. It's the standard glass trackpad with multi-touch capabilities, so if you're using a Magic Trackpad or any of the other recent MacBooks or MacBook Pros, the trackpad will feel right at home.

There are two things that I love about this computer already -- the lack of noise and heat. When you're using the MacBook Air, you hear nothing but your keystrokes and trackpad clicks. Booting is quiet, since there is no internal SuperDrive (I have the external drive from my previous MacBook Air, which works with the new model as well) or mechanical noise from an HD. The old MacBook Air used to heat up a lot under certain situations, and it was even the only Mac I've ever had that shut down due to overheating (of course, I was using it outside on a day when it was over 100°F in the shade). I don't think that's going to be an issue with the new machine.

Another thing I welcome is the addition of a second USB port. With my old MacBook Air, I routinely carried a small four-port USB hub so that I could share the port between a wireless remote for presentations, a 3G AirCard dongle and the MacBook Air Ethernet adapter. I no longer need the AirCard dongle, but if I ever need to use the Ethernet adapter and wireless remote together again, I'm in luck -- and that USB hub won't need to take up space in my travel bag.

Do I miss not having a built-in SuperDrive? Nope. I have the MacBook Air external USB SuperDrive for those rare occasions when I absolutely have to install software via a DVD or CD. That's a good thing, too, since my experience with the built-in DVD Sharing feature on the MacBook Air is that it's slow. How about not having a built-in Ethernet port? The only time I ever use Ethernet now is when I'm at some hotel that doesn't have Wi-Fi or when I'm troubleshooting a network. The external USB Ethernet adapter is perfect for those situations as well.

One thing I was very happy to see was the inclusion of a Mini DisplayPort port for connecting external monitors. I have a Moshi Mini DP to HDMI adapter for connecting the Air to HDTVs, as well as the Apple Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter for connecting projectors. There are also Mini DP to DVI and Dual-link DVI adapters available from Apple and other vendors.

So, is there anything that I don't like about the 11-inch MacBook Air? Although the speakers are a vast improvement over the previous generation, I still wish they were capable of a bit more volume. There's also a problem that should go away soon -- there are no nice cases made especially for the 11-inch model. If I can find one with enough space for the MacBook Air, iPad and a few power adapters, I'll be happy. The WaterField Designs bags are looking pretty good right about now.

If you have any questions about the 11-inch MacBook Air that you'd like to ask, please let me know in the comments below.



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Mac

Those TUAW readers who watched TUAW TV Live last Wednesday afternoon were treated to a live unboxing when an 11-inch MacBook Air arrived at...