Apple MacBook Air (MC969X/A)

Apple's MacBook Air is without a doubt the most iconic ultraportable laptop. We checked out the 11-inch version in our 2011 ultraportable laptop roundup.

NameUltraportable laptop: Apple MacBook Air (MC969X/A)
At a glance:Thinnest and lightest model in our 2011 roundup,Powerful Intel Core i5 CPU,Battery life is unspectacular
Summary:Portability and performance, at a fair market price: an all-around winner.

Apple’s MacBook Air is without a doubt the most iconic ultraportable laptop. Despite that, prior to our 2011 ultra-portable laptop roundup I’d never laid hands on one. I’d always assumed that something so thin and light must sacrifice function for form, and perform like a thin slice of brick. Long story short, I really need to stop making assumptions.

The 11.6-inch MacBook Air was both the thinnest and lightest laptop in our roundup – just 17mm at its thickest point, and 1.1kg despite its solid aluminium construction. At its front edge, the Air tapers down to a stunningly thin 3mm. Altogether, we are talking about a true marvel of PC engineering.

Inside that slim body, Apple have packed an Intel Core i5 2646M dual-core CPU, with a base clock frequency of 1.6GHz and Intel Turbo Boost up to 2.3GHz. That’s the highest spec processor in aforementioned roundup, in the smallest and lightest laptop. The CPU gives us the Intel HD Graphics 3000 on-CPU graphics engine, which shares the system’s 4GB of RAM. Storage is a 128GB SSD, meaning the Air features no internal moving parts. Combined with the aluminium case, that gives it a fair degree of ruggedness, and makes it an ideal travel companion.

Given the powerful Core i5 CPU, the Air came either first or second in all of our processor-intensive benchmarks. In the all-round PCMark 7 test suite, it won with a score of 3468, 41% better than its closest competitor (the Acer TravelMate 8481g) with a score of 2454. The two models both feature the same CPU, 4GB RAM and SSD storage. However, the Air uses on-chip Intel HD Graphics, while the TravelMate features a dedicated Nvidia GeForce solution.

Graphical performance on the TravelMate is up to 100% greater in some tests. However, the external GPU blocks the TravelMate's Core i5’s video transcoding features. In transcoding tests (e.g. downscaling a full-screen movie to play well on a smartphone), the Air performed up to 850% better than the TravelMate. This skews the overall result in favour of the Air. In reality, the GPU performance difference is really limited to video processing. Anywhere else, Acer’s TravelMate will quite happily equal or outperform the Air – admittedly at a greater weight, volume and cost.

One thing you’ll see on the Air that you won’t currently see outside the Mac world is Thunderbolt – the highest-speed port in consumer IT, with two 10Gbit/sec communication channels. Currently Thunderbolt-connected peripherals such as external storage devices, monitors and video hardware are thin on the ground, but expect these to take off over the next couple of years.

The only thing that disappointed me was battery life. Under the exact same test conditions as the other laptops in the roundup, the Air came in with the shortest run time: just 2 hours 17 minutes. Compare that to the next-shortest at 2 hours 57 minutes, or the longest-lived at 5 hours 19 minutes. Note, however, that the formal test was run under Windows 7 for compatibility reasons. Running its native Mac OS X, the Air may well achieve battery life closer to its advertised maximum of 5 hours.

Overall, the MacBook Air really does deserve its reputation as the quintessential ultraportable laptop. It’s not the right choice if you have any kind of graphically-intensive gaming in mind, but it packs more than enough punch to handle your photos, videos and web-browsing needs while travelling.

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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