Critics' Choice: MacBook Air 11 Review Roundup

A laptop that goes through airport security checkpoints without having to be removed from your bag? That's huge.

And it's small, because we're talking about the new ultracompact MacBook Air ($999 and up), with its 11.6-inch screen and 2.3 pound weight. A TSA official told CNN recently that the MacBook Air 11, as it's sometimes dubbed, can remain in a bag just like netbooks, iPads, and other smaller electronics as travelers run the security gauntlet.

So there you have it: one less hassle at airport security, and one more reason to consider the MacBook Air 11 for the relentlessly traveling road warriors in your enterprise.

But how good is the MacBook Air 11 as a laptop? Does its small size require accept big mobile computing compromises? For the most part, the answer is 'no,' according to reviewers for CNET, LAPTOP magazine, Macworld, PC Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal--though a laptop this size does come with some trade-offs.

Here's a look at what the critics are saying.

MacBook Air 11: The Pros

* Small but sturdy. Measuring 11.8 in wide by 7.56 in deep by 0.11 in. to 0.68 high, the MacBook Air 11 is like a skinny netbook in size. "Apple has applied its expertise in miniaturization to achieve a design that's unconsciously portable yet super sturdy," writes Mark Spoonauer in LAPTOP magazine, giving the portable 4 out of 5 stars.

"The 11-inch Air's 2.3-pound weight is more than a full pound lighter than the 12-inch Asus Eee PC 1215N (3.4 pounds), and easier to tote than the Acer Aspire 1830t (3 pounds)," says LAPTOP. "Even 10-inch netbooks such as the Toshiba NB305 (2.8 pounds) feel bulky by comparison." LAPTOP adds that because of the MacBook Air 11's "unibody aluminum housing, this machine feels a lot more durable than its plastic competition."

* Beautiful design. The MacBook Air has always been a head-turner, and the MBA 11 is no exception. Mossberg says the latest Airs are "gorgeous." Jason Snell of Macworld (who gave the MacBook Air 11 a rating of 4.5 out of 5 mice) sums up the Air 11's overall appeal by saying it "might be the most novel new Mac released since the Intel Mac era began."

CNET reviewer Dan Ackerman adds that the 11-inch Air "feels like a cross between a traditional aluminum MacBook and the wave of upscale 11.6-inch premium Netbooks that have caught our attention this year." CNET gave the MacBook Air 11 a rating of 4 out of 5 stars.

* Flash (SSD) storage instead of hard drives. The latest Airs forgo hard drives completely in favor of flash storage, which used to be an expensive option for Airs. PC Magazine's reviewer Cisco Cheng (who gave the MacBook Air 11 a rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars) believes the switch to SSDs is primarily positive:

"Of course, there are pros and cons to using SSDs, most of them the former. For instance, an SSD doesn't have any movable parts; hence, it's more durable…Two, the transfer speeds of an SSD are supposedly faster than a spinning drive. It allows Apple to mimic the iPad's wake-from-sleep times, a feature Apple calls 'Instant-On.'"

Apple claims you can leave the new Airs in standby mode for up to 30 days before a recharge is needed. And reviewers have noted how quickly the new Airs spring to life after being in standby mode. "The wake up from sleep is almost instant, even after long periods of being unused," notes Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal.

* Lower prices, compared to previous Airs. The original MacBook Air, introduced in January 2008, cost $1,799. The new models begin at $999 for a basic MacBook Air 11 with a 64GB flash memory drive and top out at $1,599 for a 13-inch standard configuration with a 256GB flash drive.

* Full-sized keyboards. "Although other 11.6-inch laptops are already doing it, give Apple credit for squeezing in a full-size keyboard," applauds PC Magazine. The reviewer points out, however, that "the top rows, where the function keys are, were trimmed to half their size in order to make room for Apple's signature trackpad."

* Beautiful, high-res display. The MacBook Air 11 "packs more pixels into its compact 11.6-inch diagonal screen than fit on the screen of that 13-inch white MacBook," notes Macworld. The Air 11 display has a 16:9 aspect ratio (1366 by 768 pixels), which is slightly wider than most Apple notebook screens and keeps what's on screen "from not feeling cramped."

The new Airs "feature an ultra-thin glass layer located behind the bezel," while MacBook Pro models "feature a single slab of glass across the entire front of the display," Macworld's Snell writes. "In my experience, displays (such as the Air's) with this approach are less prone to cause glare than screens such as those on the MacBook Pro models."

Finally, Macworld points out that "a new hinge design means you can now open the (Air 11's) display at a wider angle than previous Airs."

* Improved battery life. Reviewers test laptop batteries using differing methods, and so they get varying results. In general, though, reviewers feel the Air 11's battery life is pretty solid.

For his battery tests on the MacBook Air 11, the Journal's Mossberg turned off all power-saving features, kept Wi-Fi on, turned the screen to maximum brightness, and played a continual loop of music. "The 11-inch model lasted four hours and 43 minutes, versus Apple's claim of up to five hours," Mossberg notes. "This means that, in normal use, with power-saving features turned on, you'd be almost certain to meet, or possibly exceed, Apple's claimed battery life."

In its tests of the laptop's 35WH battery, LAPTOP squeezed 5 hours and 18 minutes out of a single Air 11 charge. However, LAPTOP's test, with continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi, is conducted "with the display on 40 percent brightness, so you'll get less endurance if you have the screen on full brightness."

The MacBook Air 11 lasted 3 hours and 44 minutes in PC Magazine's battery test, conducted by "running down a MP4 video file in Mac OS 10.6.4."

Macworld's tests found that "the 11-inch Air lasted for 220 minutes while looping an H.264 movie in full-screen mode at full brightness." Snell adds that "in

real-world use, I found that the 11-inch MacBook's battery definitely felt more long-lasting than the previous-generation Air's. It's probably not powerful enough to last the entire day, but it's going to give you a good, solid run."

In CNET's tests, the 11-inch Air ran for 4 hours and 23 minutes. (You can get details about how CNET tests laptop batteries.)

* 4GB RAM expansion option. Previous Airs came with 2GB of RAM but didn't offer an option for memory expansion. The new lineup of Airs come with 2GB of 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM and let you add an additional 2GB for $100.

* Supports iPhone-compatible headphones. Not a big deal, but worth mentioning: If you own a set of iPhone-compatible headphones with an inline microphone and remote, you're in luck, Macworld points out. You can use the headphones to input audio--to talk during a Skype, FaceTime, or other chat, for example--and control music and video playback.

* Two USB ports instead of one. Though most netbooks and laptops offer 3 USB ports, at least the new Airs come with 2 ports--previous Airs had only one.

MacBook Air 11: The Cons

* Older processor, middling performance. The low-end MacBook Air 11's 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 is an Ultra-Low Voltage (ULV) processor. "The only issue I have with this processor is that it's based on a previous-generation Intel technology," writes Cheng in PC Magazine.

Macworld notes that the Air 11 earns the dubious distinction of being "the slowest currently-shipping Mac laptop." Reviewer Snell adds, however, that "it's still quite a bit faster than the previous generation of MacBook Air models. That's primarily because of the new nVidia GeForce 320M graphics processor, which makes these systems blow the old Airs out of the water on all our graphics tests."

Snell goes on to say that the Air 11's slow speed probably won't matter to most mainstream users. "If you're using the Web, writing e-mail or articles or novels, and other relatively lightweight tasks, you'll find the MacBook Air plenty fast. I could even run Photoshop CS4 on it, editing relatively lightweight Web-resolution graphics, without much trouble. If you're planning on using it to edit multitrack audio or complex HD video projects, though, you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment."

* Pricey for what you get. Most reviewers point out that none of the Airs could be considered bargains, particularly when compared to Windows laptops--or even to other MacBooks, which offer more power and features (such as an optical drive) for the same or fewer dollars. PC Magazine's Cheng writes: "It's a pricey system and pricier still once you start piling on the extras--the 128GB SSD, upgrade to 4GB of memory, and adding-on the SuperDrive, bringing its final price tag to as high as an Apple MacBook (Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz) or a MacBook Pro 13-inch (2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo). If I based this laptop's success merely on its features, hardware specifications, and price, the 11-inch MacBook Air would have fared a lot worse."

* No keyboard backlighting. Reviewers lamented the loss of keyboard backlighting with the new Airs. "The only bummer (about the keyboard) is that the keys aren't backlit," writes LAPTOP's reviewer, adding "that's the price you pay for such a slim profile."

* No SD card slot. The 11-inch Airs, unlike the new 13-inch models, don't have an SD card slot. "This is a disappointing omission, especially since 10-inch netbooks have had this slot for years," notes LAPTOP. "Apple simply ran out of room."

* No HDMI port. Though this is becoming a common feature on Windows laptops, Apple doesn't offer this easy connection to televisions, Mossberg points out.

MacBook Air 11: In Summary

Macworld's Snell does a nice job of summing up the allure of the Air 11, in comparison to the 13-inch Air and other laptops:

"People seeking a small, light system for writing and e-mail will find the $999 base model irresistible…But while the 13-inch model is just as light and thin as the MacBook Air has ever been, it looks like a hog in comparison to the 11-inch model."

Snell writes that "the MacBook Air product line still isn't for everyone." He adds: "But those who value smallness and lightness above all else will find the 13-inch model more tempting than ever. And that 11-inch dynamo, the smallest and lightest laptop in Apple history, the one with the $999 price tag? It's quite possibly the most desirable laptop Apple has ever made."

The Journal's Mossberg concludes: "Overall, Apple has done a nice job in making these new MacBook Airs feel more like iPads and iPhones without sacrificing their ability to work like regular computers. But, as always with Apple, you'll pay more than you will with Windows PCs."

James A. Martin has written about mobile technology since the mid 1990s and is the author of Traveler 2.0, a mobile technology blog for travelers.


Apple, netbook, laptop, MacBook, MacBook Air