MacBook Air review: Finally a buy!

July 27, 2011, 4:24 PM UTC

When Apple released the latest version of its featherweight notebook last week, it killed the MacBook line and positioned the 11-inch Air as the “ultimate everyday notebook.” But can it really be your one-and-only? 

Billed as the “world’s thinnest laptop” when it launched three years ago, Apple’s (AAPL) MacBook Air always struck me as a notebook that was easy on the eyes but lacked muscle.

I enjoyed the svelte look and featherweight status of my 11-inch MacBook Air ($999, 1.6 Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 64 GB flash storage), launched last October. It was so light (more than two pounds less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro), I didn’t have to think twice about toting it around Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference last week, for instance.

Problem was, my Air chugged at times on account of its older Core 2 Duo processor. Applications launched quickly, thanks to flash memory (the same storage technology used in iPads and iPhones), and the Air performed admirably if I focused on one thing at a time. But when it came to multi-tasking, it struggled, stuttering loading graphics-heavy web pages or playing video while performing other tasks like web browsing or writing. (It’s worth noting that the 13-inch MacBook Air, with its faster 1.86 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, wasn’t a speed demon by any stretch, but was a tad faster.)

That changed last week when Apple upgraded the MacBook Air line with four customizable hardware configurations, starting with the $999 11-incher — sporting a 1.6 GHz dual-core i5 processor, 2 GB RAM, 64 GB flash storage — and topping out at $1,599 for the 13-inch version with a slightly faster 1.7 GHz processor, twice the memory, and twice the storage. That model also has additional options for more RAM (for the 11-inch), a faster processor, and more storage. The backlit keyboard also makes a welcome return as a standard feature on all models. (An Apple executive we spoke with mentioned it was the most requested.)

On the surface, it seems like an incremental upgrade. The aluminum case is identical to the design introduced last October. Given how slim and light it already was, this really isn’t a bad thing. The changes reside within, and they’re notable now more than ever since the MacBook Air is the only Mac notebook option available for $1000 — R.I.P. white MacBook. (That model is now only available to educational institutions.)

But, can the new MacBook Air really be your one-and-only?

We decided to find out. Our 11-inch review unit came with a 1.6 GHz dual-core i5 processor, 4 GB RAM, 128 GB flash storage, a Thunderbolt I/O port, and the latest OS X, Lion, a significant software upgrade that introduces new features influenced by Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS.

In everyday use the Air was a breath of, well, fresh air. Apple claims it’s more than twice as fast as the previous generation. Judging from my own experience, it is a major step up in performance. It handily outperformed its predecessor and even last year’s decked-out 13-inch MacBook Pro.

As with its predecessor, apps opened swiftly and “mono-tasking” wasn’t a problem. Better yet, this model could actually juggle playing high-definition video streams with numerous windows open and other applications running at the same time. Just for kicks, I hooked it up to an external monitor, enabling dozens of windows and tabs simultaneously — Netflix Instant, YouTube, Spotify, email, Web sites. Again, no sweat.

Backlit is back.

Battery life hasn’t changed much compared with the previous generation. With WiFi, Bluetooth, and that backlit keyboard all off, we got more than 7 hours. With more realistic settings — WiFi and Bluetooth on, sound low, and the screen slightly above half brightness — we got just under the five hours, in line with Apple’s estimate. The backlit keyboard, a welcome feature that has since found its way into several PC notebooks, knocked that figure down by over an hour. It’s a respectable sacrifice, though, considering the alternative is fumbling around in the dark.

In the end, the 11-inch MacBook Air is a worthy update and an excellent ultraportable. It provides more than enough oomph to handle most people’s everyday needs.

There are, of course, caveats. Some people — arguably fewer now than when the Air launched in 2008 — may still need a CD/DVD drive and will have to opt for that $79 SuperDrive. Photo enthusiasts will no doubt wish it had an SD card slot, given that the majority of other notebooks — PC and Mac — come with one standard. Still others with vast music and photo collections may find themselves shelling out an extra $300 for the 256 GB-sized flash memory option or relying heavily on cloud-based services for additional storage. For those people, the extras will boost the Air’s price significantly, well upwards of $1,500 for some custom configurations.

Still, for the first time, veteran Mac users (and “switchers”) can buy a notebook that doesn’t just please the aesthetes but also the serious multi-taskers among us for just $1,000.

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