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Apple MacBook Air 11″ (mid-2011) review

Apple’s latest 11″ MacBook Air is a full-powered laptop in the body of a netbook, writes Shane Richmond.


Steve Jobs has made his opinion of netbooks very clear. Launching the iPad early last year, Apple’s chief executive, said that many people felt that netbooks – smaller, cheaper laptops – could fill the gap between the laptop and the smartphone. “The problem is,” he said, “that netbooks aren’t better than anything. They’re just cheap laptops.”

It was slightly surprising, then, when Apple updated its MacBook Air last year and added a new 11” model to the range. Was this an Apple netbook? Not really. For one thing, at a starting price of £849 it’s not cheap. But you get an impressive computer for your money.

Last week, Apple updated the MacBook Air again, adding more powerful processors, more storage and Thunderbolt ports. The new 11” MacBook Air is a netbook in form factor but a full-powered laptop in reality.

I switched from a 15” MacBook Pro to a 13” MacBook Air at the end of last year. Trading a couple of extra inches of screen for a much lighter computer was an easy choice but I wasn’t prepared to switch to the 11”. I thought it was too small and not powerful enough. Now, having used one for the last week, I’ve found that I like the size and I’m impressed by the power.

I should mention that at work I connect my laptop to a 27” monitor so screen size is not an issue much of the time. But even at home I’ve found the 11” Air’s screen to be ideal for the work I do, which is mostly writing and editing. And the screen is great: high quality, bright and sharp. It’s better than anything you’d find on a netbook and easily bears comparison with Apple’s larger laptops.

While the first generation MacBook Air was criticised for being under-powered, that certainly isn’t the case here. The computer I tested was the £999 model, with a 1.6ghz Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM. It zipped through whatever task I threw at it. It runs multiple applications on multiple desktops without slowing and flicks between them in an instant.

It doesn’t have a separate graphics card so it’s not a machine for the latest games but that isn’t really what you’d buy an 11” computer for.

The MacBook Air upgrade came on the day that Apple released Lion, the latest version of its OS X operating system for Macs. The new Air really highlights some of Lion’s features. Full-screen apps, for example, were surely designed with the 11” Air in mind. Even on my 13” Air, there’s a little too much white space when running Safari in full-screen mode. On the 11”, it’s ideal.

The gestures come into their own here, too. Navigating between all those full-screen apps and desktops requires just a simple swipe.

The value of the Mac App Store was highlighted when it came to setting up this new computer. I didn’t want to copy over everything from my old computer so I simply re-downloaded my apps from the Mac App Store. The licences for those apps cover all of my computers so I was able to reinstall them without paying again and in no time at all I had all of my programs available.

My files are mostly stored online so they were easy to access from the new computer, which is just as well because one of this computer’s few weaknesses is storage. The machine I tested had 128GB of storage on a Solid State Drive. The entry-level, £849 machine, comes with just 64GB storage. The SSD is one of the reasons for the computer’s blazing speed but many users will consider an external drive essential. At least the new Thunderbolt port means that transferring large amounts of data to an external drive is very quick.

Apple clearly believes that cloud storage is the future and the days of storing all of your files – documents, photos, music and film – on your main computer are over. With 128GB of storage to play with, they’re probably right.

The other slight disappointment with the 11” Air is the battery life. It’s good – Apple says it will give you up to five hours of wireless web use – but it’s not as good as the 13” Air that I’m used to. My 13” seems to run almost endlessly without being connected to a power source. With the 11”, I felt like I needed to take notice of battery life again. Still, that’s probably more of a reflection of the fact that I’ve been spoiled by the 13”.

You expect to make compromises if you’re getting an 11” computer. The remarkable thing about this machine is that the only compromise is the screen size. The new MacBook Air is compact, weighs only slightly more than a kilo, and yet it still has a full-sized, backlit keyboard and is packed with power. It could easily be your only computer and I would happily switch.

Filed in: Technology News

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