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Review of the 2011 Apple Macbook Air i7 13″

tumblr_lucvihPA1W1r4vjq9o4_1280This week I got the new Apple Macbook Air 13″ with the 1.8ghz Intel Core i7 ULV Processor, and 256gb SSD. Here are some of my initial thoughts.

Compared to my old Core i7 15″ Macbook pro, it rocks. The processor is still an i7, but the clock speed is slower, and it’s a new “ULV” model, so – the architecture is actually more advanced than the i7 in my MBP, however I believe it’s actually probably a bit slower, because of the slower clock speed and overal more toned down performance of the chip for power savings. However, the SSD is FAST! The main slowdown on my MBP was the slow hard drive – whenever I was waiting on stuff on my old computer, it was always waiting to load up raw files off the disk, etc. With lightroom (and aperture), as soon as you import photos, it renders previews in the background – so you’re actually not doing that much live processing when you’re sorting through photos and editing. Really, you’re just looking at native resolution rendered previews, and then applying adjustments as metadata, which is temporairly overlaid on the previews you’re looking at. It’s only when you export the images that the actual adjustments are computed onto the master file and rendered at full resolution. So the really processor intensive tasks are all ones that happen in the background. The loading of the preview images and adjustment parameters are the operations that take place “live” as I’m working, and those are the tasks where the drive speed, not the processor speed, really comes into play. So.. given all of that.. this thing rocks! I just edited this set on it, and it was great!

The entire OS loads amazingly quickly. Going from complete shutdown power off to login screen is a good 3 seconds, and then hitting enter on the login screen to having safari up and loaded a webpage is another 3 seconds. Also.. I’m in the process of moving some files around, and am consistently getting Disk Activity data speeds around 140MB/S in both directions. Awesome.

The backlit keyboard is great, but this is definitely a different keyboard from my old MBP. The keystrokes are more shallow, and the whole keyboard has a lighter feeling. However, it’s still completely and easily usable, requiring almost no adjustment period to be back up at full typing speed. Also, there are not vents or perforations on the top of the computer for air or sound. Air intake and sound output is all through the cracks in the keyboard – pretty nifty. The audio quality, for a laptop, it’s great. There’s actually a good amount of bass, and last night when I was in my bedroom setting it up, sounded good enough for me to listen to pandora for a good 3 hours without getting annoyed or resorting to headphones. Also, it’s loud enough for me to watch/listen to Hulu from across the room.

I was initally concerned about the Glossy screen. My past laptops have all been “antiglare/matte” screens – but the MBA does not have this option. Only glossy. But I gotta say, after using this for a bit in variably lit coffee shops, it’s performing just fine. Looking closely at the screen surface, it’s not just a glossy sheet of plastic. All reflections off the screen are purple – it looks like there’s an antiglare coating on the glossy screen – keeping it still glossy, but unreflective of all but purple light. Very similar to the AR coating on my eyeglasses. Good move. The screen is plenty bright, and good resolution. I say only good resolution, not the best. After coming from a 15″ high res display, I’m still getting used to a smaller, lower res display. This unit with a retina-style display would be really killer. However, for now, I rest easy knowing that the snazzy thunderbolt connector on the side can connect to huge, daisy chained displays, such as the 27″ HD display I use at home – so no worries in being able to use this machine in a studio setting.

The machine is small. I purchased an Acme-Made neoprene sleeve for it, and when it’s in my Patagonia Lightweight Travel Pack, it feels like it’s not even there. The laptop sleeve is very very thin, but has hard plastic sheets sewn into it, to protect from dents. I’m a little concerned that the flat stitching on the edge of the case won’t protect from edge bumps, but we’ll have to see. I was also considering a very classy and bulkier Knomo leather envelope, but decided to try this ultra thin option initially. (Apple sells this Knomo envelope for the 13″ too) The Knomo envelope is bulkier, but has a sandwich-sewn edge seam that definitely provides significantly more edge impact protection. Additionally, Knomo offers worldwide case tracking, with a unique serial number registered to every case. The Knomo sleeve looks very classy in brown leather, and is something I would be proud to carry into a meeting. However, it’s significantly bulkier than the Acme Made sleeve.

Regarding the ports – unlike the Macbook Pro, the ports on this MBA are located on both sides of the machine. Most notably, the power and thunderbolt ports are located on different sides. Apple is offering its Thunderbolt Display which includes a single thunderbolt connection that gets expanded out to Firewire, USB, Audio, Video and Ethernet once it reaches the display unit. The display also includes a MagSafe power cable. So, if you have the thunderbolt display, you can effectively “dock” your MBA by plugging in only the power and the thunderbolt. Sounds good! However, the one inefficiency here is that those plugs are on opposite sides of the machine, so the cable layout when docked is not quite as clean as I’d like. Anyway, I understand that decisions must be made when laying out the circuit board, and even in this modern age of multi multi layer PCBs, traces can’t be run back and forth a million times.

Since the SSD included is only 256GB, I purchased an external Western Digital 1TB USB3 portable hard drive. The drive is very small and lightweight, and has a single USB3 connector – which is backwards compatible with USB 2 and USB 1.1.. Right now it’s connected via the right USB port on the MBA, and is humming along just fine. However, for the future.. since the MBA has a Thunderbolt port, I believe we’ll likely see a Thunderbolt to USB3 cable – so the drive will be connectable via USB3. Additionally, it will be able to be integrated into a Thunderbolt controlled docking hub (as seen on the Thunderbolt display with USB2).

Finally, the only software note I’ll make is that it’s cool that this MBA has Apple’s “Internet Recovery” built into its firmware. So in the case that the SSD becomes completely corrupted or replaced, this machine is still able to boot itself up, connect to the internet, download it’s operating system, and install it onto its own hard drive. Pretty nifty. Holding down the standard option key on startup reveals the standard startup disk chooser screen, but with the interesting addition of a dropdown menu of available wireless networks to connect to – all from the firmware startup.

Firmware password still works, and combined with full disk encryption with File Vault 2, as well as hardware based encryption of the external WD drive, I feel like the whole system is fairly secure when logged out. Actual security remains to be seen, though.

Finally, I’m fairly sure I have a “good” unit, that has been assembled OK and is working OK. I did a bit of a burn in last night, and loaded up four instances of “yes > /dev/null” and let that rip for a few hours. The fan revved up to max, but the unit didn’t get too hot, and there were no operational issues.

Overall having a great experience so far – and it’s so much lighter and more portable!

Any questions?

11 comments

  1. Dan says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for writing up your experience with the new Air! I’m planning on buying one tomorrow, but I do much of my work in a park with the laptop on my lap and I’ve heard that the i7 version can get pretty hot. What did the bottom of the laptop feel like after exporting lightroom photos (or even something crazy like watching a flash video)?

    Thanks!
    Dan

    • Jeffrey says:

      No hotter than any other laptop I’ve had. I believe all of the ULV Core i processors have the same thermal spec, so the i7 shouldn’t get any hotter than the other processors. So far it’s been feeling pretty good.

  2. Scott says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for the review. How about battery life? I was wondering if the i7 chip appeared to reduce battery life relative to the i5 chip.

    Scott

    • Jeffrey says:

      So far battery life has been great. I don’t believe the battery life of the i5 should be any better than the i7 – both chips have the same power specs. What do you think?

  3. Jeb says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for the review! I was wondering about the display. It didn’t get a great review on anandtech so I’m curious how you find it for lightroom, etc…? I’m considering getting one of these and that’s my main worry right now (and the limitation to only 4 gigs of ram).

    • Jeffrey says:

      Yep, I addressed that in my review. Here’s the passage:

      I was initally concerned about the Glossy screen. My past laptops have all been “antiglare/matte” screens – but the MBA does not have this option. Only glossy. But I gotta say, after using this for a bit in variably lit coffee shops, it’s performing just fine. Looking closely at the screen surface, it’s not just a glossy sheet of plastic. All reflections off the screen are purple – it looks like there’s an antiglare coating on the glossy screen – keeping it still glossy, but unreflective of all but purple light. Very similar to the AR coating on my eyeglasses. Good move. The screen is plenty bright, and good resolution. I say only good resolution, not the best. After coming from a 15? high res display, I’m still getting used to a smaller, lower res display. This unit with a retina-style display would be really killer. However, for now, I rest easy knowing that the snazzy thunderbolt connector on the side can connect to huge, daisy chained displays, such as the 27? HD display I use at home – so no worries in being able to use this machine in a studio setting.

  4. Scott says:

    Because the power rating on the chips are the same, any differences will probably be negligible. Other things – like screen brightness setting, browsing flash versus non-flash websites – will effect battery life more.

  5. Richard says:

    What is your temperature when you loaded up four instances of “yes > /dev/null” ? My Temperature for one stance of “yes > /dev/null” is 90 degree C. I can’t imagine if I load 4 instances.

  6. Vance says:

    going back to the display… you mentioned about plugging it on an external monitor so does that mean the screen is not good enough and unless you have a good external monitor, this is not recommended for photographers?

    • Jeffrey says:

      The screen is definitely good enough for mobile use, but it’s nice to have a bigger, higher resolution screen when I’m at home.

      • Vance says:

        Thanks. How about the color gamut being low, does it affect the pictures that you edit on this computer, like you have to reedit them once you connect a better screen on it?

        I read from another review that when it was compared to mbp, it was not that good, especially with editing pictures. Did you see any difference?

        thanks again for any reply

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