13″ MacBook Air – Sandy Bridge, Thunderbolt, Mid-2011

5.0 Overall Score
Usability: 5/5
Design: 5/5
Value: 4.5/5

Same portable ultra-thin design | Extremely powerful computer | Effortless to use as tied to Lion

SD FaceTime camera | Runs hot at times

The MacBook Air has gone through quite a transformation as a product since its original release on January 29th, 2008. It was originally released as the world’s thinnest notebook that could fit inside a manilla envelope, but its power matched its diminutive size. The computer was nothing more than a niche model which was only capable of very basic tasks, and yet still commanded a high price tag. A lot has changed since then, beginning last October when Apple unveiled a new 11” MacBook Air to sit alongside the 13”. Apple also began positioning the Air as their main Mac, and added a number of features from the iPad, as well as a price drop.

The 5th generation of the MacBook Air was just released on July 20th, 2011, and builds upon all the new additions from the October generation. The previous generation shipped with solid state storage for instant-on technology, greater battery life and amazing standby time. The last MacBook Airs were lightweight in more than their physical weight, and the lack of power didn’t allow you to take full advantage of those features. The new Sandy Bridge Thunderbolt MacBook Airs aims to change that while maintaining the same light weight unibody design.


The new 13” MacBook Air features a 1.7 GHz Core i5 Sandy Bridge processor, 4GB 1333 MHz DDR3 memory, 128GB flash storage, and one Thunderbolt port. The new Air features the same unibody ultra-thin design as its predecessor where it is 0.68” at the thickest, and only 0.11” at the thinnest. The MacBook Air comes in four models with a couple more build to order options, but this review only applies to the 13” $1299 MacBook Air, as that is what we have extensively tested.

The first thing you notice about the Air is its slim profile which hasn’t been compromised for the new power additions. You open it up to see the full sized backlit keyboard and multi-touch trackpad. The computer weighs just under 3 lbs. at 2.96, and it’s easy to see why. The screen is mere millimeters thick, and yet provides a 1440 x 900 display that has a resolution equivalent to a 15” laptop screen. Everything on your Mac shines, though the computer does only come with built-in Intel HD Graphics 3000 that runs on the same computer processor. All movie playback, gameplay, and photo editing looks amazing with no issues what so ever.

The MacBook Air features a quick initial start-up time ranging from 15-18 seconds in each of our tests. Once the computer is powered-on and put to sleep, the computer resumes in about five seconds. The flash storage allows for these quick computer load times, and the instant-on style of the iPad. These features were present before, but now you have access to the new Sandy Bridge processor. Using the GeekBench benchmarking tool, the new Air scored 5881 compared to 2681 of last year’s model. The 17” Core i7 MacBook Pro from last year only scored 5837, and the current entry level 13” MacBook Pro scored 5884.

The MacBook Air clearly is no longer an underpowered machine, and is right in line with very powerful machines. The results are also helped by 4GB of memory standard, and the benchmark doesn’t even take into account the solid state storage read/write speeds. The performance boost is easily noticeable as the Air has been able to handle running Final Cut Pro X, Photoshop, After Effects, and Spore. It also easily manages to run Final Cut, Photoshop, Pages, multiple browser windows, iPhoto, Peggle, Quicktime, and iTunes playback all at the same time switching through Mission Control with ease. This computer packs an extremely powerful punch that will likely handle almost every users needs, and it’s tough to think of a scenario it couldn’t handle.

The new Airs also ship with Lion, and they seem to be made for each other. The trackpad is nice and big allowing for plenty of room for all the new Mulit-Touch gestures. It’s super smooth, and it’s simply enjoyable flipping between desktop spaces, going into launchpad, and activating Mission Control. You can really maneuver through your whole computer on the trackpad, and everything happens instantaneously. Full-screen apps are right at home on the 13” display, and the applications really seem to be designed for a 13” screen. The Resume functionality is that much more useful with the instant-on technology, and auto-save helps for on the go computing.

Mobility is always at a premium, and the Air fits the bill as well as any computer on the market. At only 3 lbs. with such a thin profile, it’s easy to take with you just like you would carry an iPad. You still need to use your hand or a bag of some sort to carry the iPad, and the same goes for the MacBook Air. With the portability comes the full power of Mac OS X, and all the applications that go with it. There’s nothing you can’t do, and no where you can’t go with the Air.

The backlit keyboard makes a triumphant return to the Air, and the auto adjusting backlit is outstanding. One problem with the computer is the FaceTime camera which is still relegated to SD instead of the HD camera on the MacBook Pros. The included speakers are great for a single person to watch a movie, play music, or a game. The speakers sound amazing, but don’t get that loud, so it’s not the best for a big gathering. In terms of ports there are two USBs, one SD card slot, and of course a Thunderbolt port. The Thunderbolt port doesn’t have much use at the moment with limited peripheral compatibility, and the only other option is the $50 Apple Thunderbolt cable.

With all these great features it doesn’t really matter if your computer doesn’t have the battery to support it. The 13” MacBook Air claims to have seven hour battery life, and after extensive testing, the Air has lasted six and a half to seven hours each test with the only differences in the amount and power of the applications running. There isn’t much degradation in battery life, and it isn’t severely decreased by more powerful applications. The computer does run hot when playing games, and installing software, especially in the back where the computer folds.

The MacBook Air has never been seen as a computer that could be your sole use everyday computer. The new 13” Sandy Bridge Air changes that, and can truly be anyone’s everyday computer as it really has it all. The 128 GB storage is a bit small for some, especially those with video files, but is plenty big enough for storing multiple projects. You can keep extra files that you don’t use that often on an external hard drive. For instance I have about 250 GB of data of everything, but only use about 50 GB, and the rest I only access a few times a year.

There is no optical disc drive, but so many things are digital these days, that it’s rare that you use a disc. Movie discs are the only potential thing, but you can convert them into digital files with ease. Blu-ray discs aren’t on Macs at all, but you don’t notice quality differences with blu-ray until you get to at least 42” in screen size, so on 13″ it seems like extra overkill.

The Verdict

The new 13” MacBook Air is the best computer I’ve ever used, and it’s not even close. Everything is super smooth, and there hasn’t been one thing I’ve thrown at it that has given the Air a problem. It can run powerful applications and multiple ones at once, and each works to its full potential. The Air is so easy to use with OS X Lion, and you have access to everything in just a few seconds.

The performance is amazing, and it’s finally combined with the super slim profile and easy portability of the Air. The 13” Sandy Bridge MacBook Air might be the most future-proof computer yet. When you think about more powerful processors in the future, you wonder what applications will there be that will need more powerful computers than the current Air. You can’t make a computer much thinner than the Air is, so tempting upgrades are going to be tough to come by.

The 13” Sandy Bridge Thunderbolt Mid-2011 MacBook Air is one of the best computers on the market as it finally combines brawn with beauty and brains. The Air is the best Mac in Apple’s line-up, and can really entice Windows users to switch. The $1299 price tag isn’t part of the usual “Apple tax” when you compare it with the price points of other ultra-thin flash storage based computers. If you’re looking to upgrade your computer, the MacBook Air is an absolute must as your sole computer that is just amazing to use day in and day out.


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