When Apple first launched the Air in 2008, it was an extraordinarily thin, but under-powered and expensive, laptop. The company's second attempt, last year's model, was much more feasible for a mainstream audience, offering a reasonable price point and great power for day-to-day activities like surfing the web and consuming media. Less than a year later, the MacBook Airs have returned. We've spent the last week testing out the 13 inch model, and if you're in the market for a new laptop, you should definitely pay attention.
MORE SPEED, ESPECIALLY FOR GAMERS
It hasn't been very much time at all since the last version of the MacBook Air, but there are significant differences between this year's model and the 2010 model. For one thing, the 2011 models have markedly faster processors, Intel's latest i5 and i7 chips (code named "Sandy Bridge").
The increase in speed was obvious the moment I tried to run "StarCraft 2." This game simply would not run on last year's Air models. The size of the MacBook Air would imply that semi-recent games were out of the realm of possibility. After all, we were thrilled that the original "Portal" ran well on the last Air.
As it happens, the new 13 inch MacBook Air runs "StarCraft 2" rather well. I couldn't play it with completely maxed settings, but with all the settings on Medium, the game ran smooth as silk and looked terrific. The same can be said about "Portal 2," which I was able to run at around 30 frames per second with most of the detail settings on High. And yes, in case you're wondering, it also runs "MineCraft" like a champ.
There are, however, a few limitations. This is not a gaming PC. If you're really looking for a portable gaming machine to run the latest and greatest releases with maxed out settings, the Air should not be your go-to. But, for a machine not primarily designed to play games, it manages to do just that extremely well. Based on its success with "StarCraft 2," I'd be shocked if these new Airs didn't handle the forthcoming "Diablo 3" just as well.
As for you non-gamers, standard utilities like iMovie and PhotoShop are well within the grasp of the new Airs. Netflix lovers will also be happy to know that the new Airs can stream video in HD without a hiccup... another thing tthe 2010 models couldn't do.
Another addition to the new MacBook Air is Thunderbolt, a data port we first looked at with this year's iMac models. The obvious benefits of a Thunderbolt port is that you can move data from one Thunderbolt device to another at much faster speeds. In our testing, transfers over Thunderbolt were consistently over 500 MB per second. That means you can transfer a 4GB HD movie in less than 10 seconds. It's fast.
It's also handy as a multi-use display port, if you want to hook it up to your TV or to a larger monitor. Your TV will probably require an adapter, but Apple will soon start selling a 27 inch monitor with a Thunderbolt port, so you can plug in your Air directly.
THE BACKLIT KEYBOARD
The last big change between this year's Air and last year's is the addition of a backlit keyboard. It's a relatively minor improvement, but if you're often travelling or typing before you go to bed, it's very handy to have. I was a little annoyed that there was some light bleed through on the keyboard, which may annoy a sleeping plane companion, but it's a small price to pay for those who can't touch type.
THE 11 OR THE 13?
So here's the big question: do you get the 11 inch model or the 13? If you're looking for a computer to take with you to work every day, you're going to want the 11 inch. In addition to being more compact, it weighs about half a pound less, which is significant when you're carrying it with you every single day. The 11 is also much better for regular air travelers, as the 13 inch model will have some trouble fitting comfortably on a standard tray table.
That being said, if you're mostly looking for a computer that you're going to leave on your desk or couch at home, the 13 inch is the better choice. The larger screen and more powerful specs make it better for gaming, and the solid-state hard drive is larger on the 13 inch model (128GB instead of the 11's 64GB), giving you plenty of room for tons of music and video.
Here's the deal, early adopters: If you picked up a 2010 MacBook Air, you shouldn't be cursing yourself right now. The 2011 Airs definitely outclass last year's models in just about every way, but those Airs were capable machines to begin with. All you're really missing out on is some better gaming and HD streaming performance. Much like the jump from the iPad 1 to the iPad 2, if you sit out this round, you're not going to be missing the boat entirely.
That being said, if you didn't pick up last year's MacBook Air and are in the market for a laptop, I couldn't recommend these Airs more. The size makes them ideal for every-day use while the performance boost lets you play some of the biggest games with smooth frame rates and stream HD movies without a hitch. The addition of the Thunderbolt port, sure to be an Apple device standard for several years to come, also makes the new Airs semi-future proof. And hey, who doesn't like a backlit keyboard?
NOTE: The new MacBook Air models come with the latest version of OS X, called Lion. Lion has a number of improvements, but gamers should be aware that some games may not be compatible right away. "Plants vs. Zombies," for example, requires an update before it can run. So, if your favorite game isn't working straight out of the box, doing a quick search for Lion updates is a good idea. That being said, the games I listed above worked entirely without issue.