Apple MacBook Air 2011 review

Apple adds Thunderbolt and plenty more to its MacBook Air

Apple's new Macbook Air laptop boasts, amongst other things, improved Intel processors, a myriad of new features, Thunderbolt, which supports high-resolution displays, and Apple's new desktop operating system OS X Lion - but is that enough in this day and age?

Apple's new MacBook Air laptop computer has got it going on. There's hardly a new lick of paint in sight as the Cupertino-based company concentrated on boosting the specs under the hood instead. That, combined with the price drop for the entry level version, which costs £849, makes the MacBook Air one of the most fancied bits in town. However, it's still not cheap and the upgrade margin Apple charges is criminal but much like L'Oreal shampoo, it's worth it.

Apple MacBook Air: Features
Intel’s Thunderbolt port can carry video as well as being a super-fast data channel. Capable of handling up to 10Gbps in both directions, it’s around 12 times as fast as a FireWire 800 port and over 20 times quicker than USB 2.0. Mini DisplayPort screens can be plugged straight into a Thunderbolt port, and using adapters, you can also connect DVI, VGA and HDMI screens. Forthcoming adapters give FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet compatibility through the Thunderbolt port too, both of which have never before been possible on the MacBook Air. However, when news broke of Apple's Thunderbolt LED-Cinema Display plans earlier this month, T3 had a sneaking suspicion the technology would find its way into the upgraded model.

The backlit keyboard was dropped when the MacBook Air moved to the new thinner form factor in late 2010, but it returns in the mid 2011 refresh. Once again, an ambient light sensor detects when visibility is poor, and lights up the keyboard for easy typing.

Apple MacBook Air: Screen
Not everything in the new MacBook Airs has changed. The screen is still an LED-backlit 1440-by-900-pixel glossy widescreen display, boasting a similar resolution to that found in typical 15-inch notebooks. Once again, it has 256GB of solid state storage, which is much faster and more reliable than hard disk drives, and the battery is still an internal powerhouse with up to 30 days of standby time and up to seven hours of wireless web surfing.

Apple MacBook Air: Specifications
From the outside, Apple’s new 13-inch MacBook Air looks exactly the same as the previous generation, but a trio of new features make the mid-2011 refresh more than a minor update. The Core 2 Duo processor has been dropped in favour of a second generation ‘Sandy Bridge’ Intel Core-i CPU, the Mini DisplayPort makes way for a Thunderbolt port and the backlit keyboard makes a welcome return.

All four off-the-shelf MacBook Airs use Intel Core i5 processors, but the top-of-the-range model on test here has been enhanced with a 1.8GHz Core i7 chip, a customisation option available if you buy from the Apple Online Store.

Apple MacBook Air: Performance
Although dual core, all processors used in the new MacBook Airs feature Hyper Threading, allowing two threads to run on each core for four virtual cores. This greatly speeds applications coded to take advantage of multicore processors. The new chips also offer Turbo Boost 2.0, which temporarily increases the clock speed at times of heavy use. The 1.8GHz CPU used here can run at up to 2.9GHz for short periods, power and temperature considerations permitting. As a result, it proved around twice as fast as its predecessor in our benchmarking tests.

The MacBook Air’s logic board is too small to fit a discrete graphics chip and a legal dispute stops an NVIDIA chipset being integrated into Core i processors, so the new model relies on the Sandy Bridge CPU’s integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000. It’s a fair replacement for the NVIDIA GeForce 320M chipset used in the previous MacBook Air range, though in our Doom 3 frame rate test, it proved marginally slower.

Apple MacBook Air: Verdict
The MacBook Air was originally released as a secondary Mac, that was convenient to carry around and an excellent supplement to your main desktop Mac. Over the years it has grown in power until today, it’s more than powerful enough to use as your main machine. It’s not cheap, but Apple computers never are, and given the quality it’s far from overpriced.

Apple MacBook Air: £1449

Link: Apple


  • OS: Mac OS X 10.7: Lion
  • Processor: Intel 1.8GHz Core i7 (Sandy Bridge)
  • Graphics: Integrated Intel HD 3000
  • Screen: 13.3-inch, 1440x900 resolution
  • Connections: 2xUSB 2.0, 1x Thunderbolt, SDXC Reader
  • Memory: 4GB
  • Dimensions/Weight: 325x17x227mm /1.35Kg