The new MacBook Air: with its first-rate GPU and SSD, its real-life performance belies the paper specs

I’ve always been enamoured of miniature objects and have since childhood been fascinated by the technical prowess involved in reducing the size of electronic devices: mobile phones were probably the area in which this process has been most spectacular, but it’s worth putting this post, written on my new gadget using my favourite WriteRoom Text editor for the Mac, in perspective by recalling just how much laptop size has changed a lot since I acquired my first ‘portable’ computer, a black, French-made 1990 SMT Goupil Golf that cost an absolute fortune. When I switched to Mac in 2003, one of my greatest frustrations was that Apple had just discontinued its iconic 12-inch PowerBook G4 aluminium laptops. Of course these were fully half an inch thicker even than the first generation MacBook, as a side-by-side comparison makes clear.

In the spring I’d complained about the iPad, despite being adorably tiny, being a useless gimmick in the absence of multitasking and of a reasonable supply of applications (an omission that has since been partly corrected) and had said what I really wanted was a better MacBook Air. I ended up getting an iPad anyway, using it quite a lot for things like reading my RSS feeds and, more recently, writing. Then, just a few days ago, I rather conveniently—although, I promise, not deliberately—spilt some Diet Coke on my 2008 MacBook first-generation unibody’s keyboard which, as always, led to a few problems [i] and provided me with the perfectly-timed excuse for getting one of Apple’s new MacBook Airs when they did come out yesterday:

Unboxing the MacBook Air
Unboxing the MacBook Air: the 11.6" model was too compellingly cute and tiny to resist my passion for technological miniaturisation. Picking up a 13.3" Macbook afterwards feels like carrying a ton of bricks.

I hardly ever use the optical drive, since I download pretty much all my software, but I still purchased a MacBook Air SuperDrive [ii]. Apple provides a much more convenient Software Reinstall Drive—which I hope I'll never have to use—instead of the traditional install CD to whose extinction, I have to say, I am looking forward:

Apple's Software Reinstall Drive
Apple's Software Reinstall Drive replaces the traditional installation CD.

While I was thrilled that the rumours about the new device being offered in 11.6” as well as the now-traditional 13.3” size had turned out to be true, I was initially extremely annoyed, when I saw the specifications, and how uninspiring they were: the Core duo processor with which the new machines were equipped dated back to 2006, clock speed had actually gone down compared with the previous model, now ranging from 1.4GHz to 2.13GHz, and most irritating to me was that the 11.6” model, which was the one I wanted, was only available off-the-shelf with 2GB of RAM, not upgradeable since soldered to the motherboard, installed. On paper, those statistics didn’t look good enough for me to actually want to make the jump, especially since the 4GB RAM was only available from the online Apple Store, whose notoriously unreliable delivery timeframes—they once famously made me wait three months for a my first machine, after promising me delivery within three days—I had decided I didn’t want to depend on again. As Crunchgear put it:

Look at the new MacBook Air: there’s nothing to it hardware-wise. The components are generations old. The original Core 2 Duo processors were introduced way back in 2006. Even the 128GB and the 256GB SSD options aren’t exactly top-of-the-line options in late 2010. Apple simply improved on the motherboard design that was introduced with the original Air.

The 11.6-inch model is far, far sexier: it’s obviously the better choice if you want to get a MacBook Air

After postponing the decision until I’d actually had an opportunity to try out each of the new devices, I was immediately confirmed in my feeling that the smaller MacBook Air was far sexier than the larger one, despite the frustratingly lower performance it boasted on paper. It also looked far prettier. Also, the 2GB models I tried were snappy enough to instill a gut feeling that actual performance would belie the apparent performance gap in bare stats.

So as I write this, I’ve been playing with a 11.6” MacBook Air with the standard 2GB of RAM just over a day, and I’m able to share some initial impressions, though I’ll spare the usual unboxing video. I started by doing a fresh reinstall of all the applications I actually use on the new machine, my lifesaver Dropbox is downloading the 76GB of data stored in the cloud, including all my music, photographs, blogging stuff and application settings (which will take another couple of days to be complete though), and I’m well on the way to using this new device more than any of my other machines.

While it can’t really be described as an iPad with a keyboard, if only because it can’t be held and manipulated in the same way, it doesn’t really feel much bigger, and fits in the same Timbuk2 iPad case; this is the whole point of getting the 11.6”’ model rather than the larger one: you can carry it anywhere with ease, and the 13.3” MacBook Pro is absolutely massive in comparison. I wasn’t really taken with the wedge-like shape, however, but that’s probably because I had got used to my laptops being strictly rectangular.

Because I’ve had hard disk capacity issues in the past, I was worried about the small drive size available on the smaller Macbook Air (I just can’t imagine who would actually manage on 64GB, even an incredibly ordinary user who would just read the occasional email and surf the Internet). Still, the 128GB SSD drive is more than enough for my needs, even as a main computer. I try to keep my number of applications down to the bare minimum and delete ones I find I don’t use, and anything I need to store and have access to but don’t have room for will go on my Amazon S3 account, where it can easily be reached and mounted on my desktop with Expandrive.

Apple have vastly improved booting and wake-up speeds, as well as wireless reception and graphics

Apple, as expected, have improved the new MacBook Air compared with older devices in a number of areas:

  • the most talked-about improvement, which I won’t dwell upon since everyone has already done so, is how quickly it boots up and wakes from sleep mode (practically as quickly as an iPad): this is a real boon for me, as my nomadic lifestyle means I’m constantly moving my computer from place to place;
  • wireless reception is flawless, which is more than its predecessor model, or even the iPad could say: Apple have been bugged with Airport issues in recent years, but appear to have risen above them, although this is probably more a software than a hardware issue.
  • the MacBook Air now has two proper speakers, and a standard glass trackball, which its predecessor didn’t have;
  • the machine can only be described as deafeningly silent: this could be expected with the SSD drive, but it’s still impressive when you try it out, cooks one’s thighs far less than a MacBook Pro, if at all;
  • the 1366x768, 16/9 screen is wider than the average, which feels odd, but the resolution, clearly as a result of the new Graphics processing unit, is stunning, clearly on a par with the iPad’s, although I haven’t yet tried it on a really demanding interface such as Second Life, which used to bring my 2008 17” MacBook Pro to a grinding halt. On applications that warrant it, like Writeroom, all you need to do is adjust font size and/or magnification settings to feel totally comfortable reading the screen.

The MacBook Air’s performance and snappiness, even with just 2GB of RAM, is better than a MacBook with twice the RAM and a faster processor

Yet the biggest surprise of all was that, as I had sensed instinctively when I tried it out in the Apple Store, the MacBook Air’s 2GB of RAM seem to suffice for doing most things including opening several apps at once. In fact, it does this faster than my MacBook despite the latter being equipped with a faster processor.

The trend, in any event, is clearly towards the end of multitasking. This machine, with its extremely fast storage, is in keeping with Apple’s new philosophy, embodied by iOS 4 and by the lack of indicators in the dock of the prototype version of Lion presented this week, emphasising ease of switching rather than multitasking. A quick test I made certainly bore this out, with some of the most resource-intensive applications (Adobe Photoshop, Coda, Spotify, Aperture) opening much more snappily than on my two-year-old unibody MacBook, despite the latter’s 2.4Ghz CPU and 4GB RAM:

Resource-demanding applications, even the notorious Adobe Photoshop CS5,that takes ages to start on my MacBook, will launch rapidly on the new MacBook Air, whose performance speed belies its paper stats. the same goes for Panic's Coda. Lightweight applications such as Red Sweater Software's MarsEdit launch instantly.

Despite the device being powered by a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, applications launch extremely fast: Spotify, which used to take quite a while on my MacBook, launches instantly on the MacBook Air. The Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor is clearly one factor that helps with this, the SSD drive is the other. In fact, I also found myself running as many application as on my MacBook, without, ironically, the issues I had with the latter with its factory RAM of 2GB, meaning the MacBook Air uses RAM more efficiently.

So it looks as if Mr Steve Jobs was serious when he recently sent a customer the following email:

We chose killer graphics plus 10 hour battery life over a very small CPU speed increase. Users will see far more performance boost from the speedy graphics.

Ars Technica recently explained this in greater detail, and my impression so far is that the ‘geriatric’ CPU, and even being stuck with 2GB of non-upgradeable RAM on the models available from the Apple Store, are not issues at all.

A few compromises in design were necessary, probably prompted more by the lack of space than by economics, but they don’t impact the overall experience which remains superb

I do have a few remaining bones to pick with Apple over the MacBook Air, nonetheless; but they are not anything amounting to a deal-breaker:

  • the absence of black bezel and glass around and on the screen, while easily explained by the need to save on bulk and weight, looks slightly cheap compared with other recent models;
  • the keyboard is the same size as other MacBooks, an unmistakable case of Apple’s design superiority over other firms that would have tried to make it smaller; yet annoyingly, given the lack of space for it, there is no backlit keyboard, unless this is another example of the small cost-savings that allowed Apple to reduce the price to levels that would appeal to consumers; the keyboard lettering is silver-white, however, meaning it will glisten slightly in the dark and thus still remain relatively legible in unlit conditions.
  • the top function keys are noticeably thinner, height-wise, than on standard keyboards; while this is not really a problem, as most people would only expect to use them relatively infrequently [iii], I did also notice—and this has gone relatively unreported—that the bottom layer of keys, though the same width as the rest of Apple’s laptop range, was also slightly smaller in height: I found this would flip me unwittingly into Locked Caps mode when pressing the Shift key; still, the user would rapidly get used to the keyboard’s ergonomy, despite it not being exactly identical to standard MacBook range ones, contrary to what was initially believed.
The function keys are notably thinner
The function keys are notably thinner (above), while the on/off button has reverted to an old-world type button lodged on the keyboard. Both of these developments were dictated by the need to save space.

While test-driving my MacBook Air, I suddenly found myself using a Mac again for a lot of things I had got into the habit of doing on my iPad: it’s so light that reading on a couch, or even in bed, with it makes a 13.3” Macbook feel like a ton of bricks in comparison, it’s totally unnoticeable at a café table—although I suspect iPads with a wireless keyboard will continue being the best option for taking notes at meetings [iv]. I even started occasionally reading my Google Reader items on a Mac (with the excellent Google Reader Snow Leopard Safari extension installed, though, for the first time in two years (pending the arrival of a Mac version of my favourite, Reeder). Once Lion is actually released next summer, Mr Jobs’s boast that the MacBook Air is the point at which the Mac and iPad meet will indeed have become a reality, and the on-paper stats should henceforth be taken with a grain of salt, until a better way of analysing actual performance of the new-generation machines, with their combination of CPU minimalism, ultra-modern GPUs and SSDs, emerges.

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  1. Spilling a liquid on a MacBook keyboard will usually render one or more keys, and possibly the backlighting, useless. It’s not covered by Apple Care, obviously, and though it’s repAirable, it hardly makes economic sense on an older machine. []
  2. Which, by the way, is about the lousiest optical drive I’ve ever used. But that doesn’t really matter. []
  3. I use F1 to bring up a new note in my notepad app, F4 to send an item to CloudApp, and F6 to archive emails in Mail App. []
  4. I used to do this ten years ago with a plastic foldaway keyboard and my Palm V, which had my colleagues in stitches at the time. []