First Look: 11.6-inch, 1.4GHz MacBook Air


The new MacBook Air instantly made friends with my 15-inch Core i7 MacBook Pro. Well, until they started to battle. (See the video below.)

We walked out of Apple’s “Back to the Mac” event today with a shiny new MacBook Air on loan from the mad scientists at Cupertino. In fact, I’m writing this on the new 11.6-inch, 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air right now.

What’s it like? So glad you asked.

For starters, it’s hott. As in gorgeous, not that it heats up your lap. (It really doesn’t.) The president of our company and the chief executive of our parent company happened to stroll by my desk a few minutes after I’d set up the Air, and both these titans of industry stopped dead in their tracks, and then spent the next couple of minutes passing the Air back and forth and marveling over its svelte beauty. Measuring 11.8 inches wide, 7.56 inches deep, and merely 0.68 inches high at its thickest point, it tapers down to a practically-invisible 0.11 inches at the thinnest point, down near the thumbscoop.

The screen measures 11.6 inches diagonally, but it’s a true 16:9 widescreen, a little shorter than the iPad’s 4:3, 9.7-inch diagonal screen when the iPad is in landscape mode. I wish Apple had followed the design precedence set by the current MacBooks, Cinema Displays, and the iPad by surrounding the MacBook Air’s screen with a glossy black bezel instead of the regular aluminum unibody bezel, but Apple most likely opted for a unibody with no extra parts stuck onto it to keep the Air thin and light as possible. The iPad weighs 1.5 pounds (Wi-Fi only; the Wi-Fi + 3G model is 1.6 pounds), and this 11.6-inch Air is only a little heavier, at 2.3 pounds.

The full-size keyboard is a pleasure to type on, although we already miss the backlit keys of the MacBook Pro. Apple positioned the internal stereo speakers directly underneath the Air’s keyboard, with no visible grill or perforation. An Apple rep explained that the sound comes up from below the keyboard through the tiny bits of space around each key. That’s a super-cool idea, although when we blasted some music through iTunes, it sounded a little on the tinny side. Still better than the last MacBook Air, though. The glass Multi-Touch trackpad is a little shorter than on the larger MacBooks — it’s 4.1 inches across by 2.5 inches high, for about 4.7 diagonal inches total. But it’s a breeze to use, with all the one-, two-, three-, and four-finger Multi-Touch gestures working like a dream.

The LED-backlit display is plenty bright, a high-res 1366×768 pixels natively, and visible from a wide angle. Apple put the MagSafe port, one USB 2.0 port, the audio in/out (Apple’s Earphones with Remote and Mic are supported), and the integrated mic on the left side of the Air, and the Mini DisplayPort and a second USB 2.0 port on the right side. Our 11.6-inch Air doesn’t have the SD card slot that’s on the 13.3-inch Air, but other than that the ports are the same. We were able to connect the Air to our new 27-inch Cinema Display, where it ran great in lid-closed mode at a maximum resolution of 2560×1440. But in mirrored-display mode, the 27-inch display could only show 1366×768 pixels, which made things look big and blurry. So stick to extended or lid-closed mode for the best experience.

The 27-inch Cinema Display’s three-headed cable has Mini DisplayPort and USB connectors that go in these ports, and a MagSafe power tip that stretches around to the left side of the Air. But it fits.

There’s no optical drive, so Apple included a tiny USB stick with your software on it in case you need to reinstall any included applications or the Mac OS itself. (Yes, this runs the full Mac OS, not some watered-down version or iOS hybrid.) You can also borrow the optical drive of another nearby Mac — just insert your disc, then launch a Finder window on the Air and select Remote Disc from the sidebar. There’s no Ethernet port, just 802.11n Wi-Fi, but Apple sells an USB Ethernet Adapter for .

And there’s also no hard drive. Apple instead opted for flash memory sticks, the same kind of memory in its iPod line (except the hard-drive-equipped iPod classic), the iPhones, and the iPad. But to save space and weight, they didn’t even use a true SSD, or solid-state drive, which is made up of flash memory but in a traditional hard drive shape. Instead, Apple put the flash chips right on the logic board, saving space in the enclosure for more and bigger batteries. Apple claims this 11.6-inch Air will get 5 hours of productivity and a whopping 30 days of standby time. We can’t wait to test that spec out, but so far so good…

The flash memory also provides an incredibly speedy experience. The Air comes to life virtually instantly when you press the Power button or open the case. And even with its 2GB of RAM and 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo, this Air launches all of Apple’s packed-in applications in, well, in a flash. We did a side-by-side app-launching test to compare launch times for Mail, Safari, iChat, Address Book, iCal, iTunes, Preview, and the iLife 11 applications on the Air and on my brand-new work machine, a 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM. With that kind of processor speed and double the RAM, you’d think the Pro would smoke the Air, huh? Not so. Thanks to the flash memory, the Air’s applications launched almost instantly, while the Pro’s apps are stored on a regular hard drive with spinning platters, and took longer to launch. Check out the video below:

We’ll have a full review of the MacBook Air in an upcoming issue of Mac|Life, as well as here on MacLife.com, of course. But even after having it for just a few hours, we can say with confidence that it’s more compelling than the original (and more expensive) MacBook Air released in 2008, and quite a fun little machine to use.

We still don’t know if users can upgrade the RAM (Apple will let you upgrade to 4GB of RAM at the time of purchase for a fairly reasonable 0) or the memory (this 11.6-inch model comes in 64GB and 128GB flavors) after buying the Air. It doesn’t seem likely — there are no seams or doors to access the insides; it’s all sealed up like an iPad. But we’re still checking with Apple to be sure, and will update this when we hear back. Anything else you’d like to know about the new MacBook Air? Let us know in the comments.

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