Apple MacBook Air (11.6-inch) Review

Apple is known for pushing boundaries. Sometimes it's a cutting-edge industrial design, sometimes it's new technology and sometimes a new standard. When the MacBook Air was originally introduced, it was all three. Growing less unique with the netbook craze, Apple was forced to rethink thin. Did they succeed?


Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 @ 1.4GHz (3MB cache)

Display: 11.6-inch TN panel

Resolution: 1366x768

Memory: 2GB not accessible

Hard drive: 64GB solid state drive

Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 320M with 256MB of shared system memory

Optical drive: none

Networking: none

Wireless networking: 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR

Built-in iSight webcam, integrated microphone

Dimensions: 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.68-0.11 inches (WxDxH)

Weight: 2.3 lbs

Warranty: One year limited parts and labor, 90 days free phone support

The manufacturer's suggested retail price of our review unit is $999; a fully-specced 11.6-inch MacBook Air will cost $1,399.

Build and design

The original MacBook Air remains one of the thinnest notebooks ever created; like the current iteration, it was designed along a tapered-wedge form factor. Although it wasn't necessarily the thinnest laptop ever created (hey there, Mitsubishi Pedion!), the first-generation MacBook Air brought a number of new features to the table.

It was the first of Apple's notebooks to be designed using the now-famous unibody engineering technique, which essentially carves the computer's case from a single block of cast aluminum. The CPU was a Core 2 Duo designed to take up only 40% of the room of its more traditional counterparts.

The last couple of years, however, have driven the notebook market into a frenzy. Netbooks, buoyed by consumers' desires to be smaller, lighter and cheaper invaded the industry. The MacBook Air that once stood alone started to get overshadowed. Few of these notebooks were as thin, but they weren't precisely fat. They were also light and affordable.

Apple finally realized that with the latest refresh of the MacBook Air lineup, something had to change. The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is Apple's smallest laptop ever, harking back to the days of their original 12-inch ultraportable offerings. Both the 11.6- and 13-inch Airs share the same design trend and some of the same dimensions. Both are 0.68 inches in the back, tapering down to a scant eleven-hundredths of an inch at the front.

As mentioned in the first look on the device, the thinness of the MacBook Air is a carefully crafted illusion - the reality is that the Air is thicker than it seems. It's definitely light, though - the smaller model tips the scales at just 2.3 pounds - and frankly, who cares if there is trickery involved? The design is smart, and it works.

Much of the notebook's exterior is notable only for its emptiness. The front of the Air has a notch cut out of the bottom lip to provide a spot for opening the screen. Like most modern MacBooks, the screen easily lifts up with a single finger.

The rear and bottom of the machine are largely featureless as well, with the latter hosting four plastic bumpers to lift the machine off of its worksurface. There are also a number of five-lobed Torx screws on the bottom for those so bold as to risk voiding their warranties for a peek at the insides.

Keyboard and trackpad

Opening up shows off a typical MacBook sight - individual black keys poking up through perfectly cut holes in the aluminum case. Noticeably, the keyboard on the new MacBook Air models is not backlit, a downgrade from prior models. Likely a cost-cutting measure, it's also unfortunate, as Apple seemed to standardize around the backlit keyboard - it certainly makes low-light computing much easier.

The trackpad on the MacBook Air might be called large when comparing it to any notebook on the market - considering that it's on an 11.6-inch laptop, it becomes much more impressive. Apple is one of the few companies who have managed to integrate buttons into the trackpad and get it right - when companies get it wrong, it quickly becomes the bane of a user's existence.

In order to save space but still provide a large trackpad and full-sized keyboard, the function keys on the 11.6-inch MacBook Air are half the size of those on the 13-inch MacBook Air and the rest of Apple's mobile lineup.

As the Airs lack built-in optical drives, the eject button traditionally found on Apple laptops is replaced by the power button, which now looks like just another key on the keyboard. All the other keys appear to be identical to other MacBooks. While the keyboard will exhibit substantial flex if pressed firmly, it isn't something even heavy typists need to worry about.

Additionally, while the power button might look like just another button now - and just as easily pressed - casually powering off the machine shouldn't be a concern as it goes to and returns from sleep rather quickly.

Screen and speakers

Much has been made in the past of the screen quality found in Apple laptops, but the notebook market has come a long way. The display on the MacBook Air is really good, though not exceptional; like any modern TN panel, it boasts great horizontal viewing angles and mediocre vertical ones.

The resolution offered on the MacBook Air, at least, is a definite improvement over prior generations of MacBooks. Previously, the 13-inch MacBook or MacBook Pro was only offered in a 1280x800 resolution; to go any higher required the purchase of a 15-inch MacBook Pro, which delivered 1440x900 or 1680x1050 options.

Contrast testing faired well, with an average contrast ratio of 755:1 when the backlight was at minimum (but not disabled); it dropped to 696:1 with the backlight at full. At its brightest, the panel reached 354 nits, which bodes well for bright office or even mild outdoor environments.

The Air delivers 1366x768 pixels of resolution, with the 13-inch model jumping up to 1440x900. While it's nice to see Apple (finally) supporting higher resolution panels, it is nicer still to consider what it means for the next revision of the MacBook Pro lineup. The display is glossy, but not too glossy. It's a nice compromise between matte screens that can muddy colors and glossy screens that can double as really annoying mirrors.

The other noticeable change in terms of the notebook's display is a distinct lack of glass. No doubt a means of shaving off some of the weight that a glass cover would invariably add, the edge-to-edge black-bordered display is replaced with more aluminum. It's still attractive, and appears to be the same treatment customers receive who order the 15-inch MacBook Pro with an antiglare screen.

The speakers don't fare quite as well as the screen. They're definitely functional, and in fact they're pretty good for such a small laptop. Bass is unsurprisingly scarce, however, and while music is listenable, it would be better served by a pair of headphones or external speakers. On the plus side, they do seem to get pretty loud.