Hands-On Review: 11" MacBook Air (mid-2011) -- How fast is it?

by Bill Fox, MacsOnly.com September 15, 2011

A little over a year ago I switched from using an original 13" 1.6GHz MacBook Air (early 2008) with a 128GB SSD upgrade to a 13" 2.4GHz MacBook Pro (mid-2010), also upgraded with a 240GB OWC Extreme Pro SSD, when it appeared to me that Apple had given up on the MacBook Air line (see Is the MacBook Air Dead?). Various "authoritative" technical articles proclaimed the death of the MacBook Air based largely on the then lack of availability of newer low power CPUs and newer graphics options. I needed more than just one USB port, more than 2GB of RAM, better graphics, more than a 4hr battery and, I thought, more storage but there was no new MacBook Air to move to with those features. Just a few months later, Apple surprised me by introducing the redesigned MacBook Airs that met most of my requirements, including the all-new 11" model, but they didn't have the newest Intel i-series CPUs, backlit keyboards or infrared port (see MacBook Air lives!).

In my MacBook Pro article, I over-exuberantly proclaimed that "more is better!" The 13" MacBook Pro is a fabulous notebook and a terrific value but more is not better--for me. Less is definitely better for me as I actually found myself using my older MacBook Air more frequently than the newer, more powerful and more versatile MacBook Pro with a whopping 10hr battery instead of a marginal 4hr one.

With the latest MacBook Airs (mid-2011) arriving once again with backlit keyboards and now sporting the option for an Intel Core i7 processor along with 2 USB ports, a Thunderbolt port, 4GB of RAM and SSDs, I decided to switch from my 13" MacBook Pro back to the Air. Never mind that the Airs lack both an infrared port for a remote and a pulsing sleep indicator light. There are alternatives for the former and the latter is cool but not necessary. What is necessary is their new powerful CPUs and sleek, lightweight design. [Photo below right courtesy of Apple, Inc.]

The 11" Model is for me.

Despite my earlier misgivings, I decided to go with the 11" (actually 11.6") model after many long visits to my local Apple Store to convince myself that my eyesight is still adequate for it. With enough practice usage and the 11" model's 1366x768 resolution, a slightly higher pixel count than the 13" model's 1280x800 and a wider aspect ratio, convinced me. Several years ago I had moved from a luxurious but very weighty 17" PowerBook G4 to a 15" MacBook Pro and then to a 13" original MacBook Air and a 13" MacBook Pro without any trouble. Besides, I have used a 9.7" iPad 2 every day since March.

I really wanted the lightness (2.38 lbs) and svelte compactness of the 11" model, especially after my iPad 2 proved unable to fully replace a notebook (see Going even lighter). I also wanted a Core i7 processor and at least a 128GB SSD which was available for $1,349 as an 11" BTO but for a greater $1,699 BTO in the 13" model. Of course, the 13" model gives one almost 2" more screen, an additional 128 GB in SSD storage and an SD-card port for the $350 and 0.6 lbs weight difference which some may find attractive. These days, I'm definitely a fan of going light.

My new 11" MacBook Air with an optional 1.8GHz Core i7 CPU and standard 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM arrived a couple of weeks ago. Apple's packaging has really shrunk as the Air came in a small box no larger in dimensions than our phone book. Inside was less too--just the Air, a 45W AC adapter and some pamphlets. No OS X DVD! The Air was loaded with a special build of Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) that I quickly updated to 10.7.1 along with a newer version of iTunes.

I used to carry the original Mac OS X DVD for an emergency and a clone of my internal hard drive on a USB external SSD. No more. Now, it will be just the external USB SSD, a little lighter. Fortunately, the USB Ethernet adapter and external USB optical drive I bought extra for the original MacBook Air and the DisplayPort VGA, DVI and HDMI adapters I bought extra for the MacBook Pro all work with the 11" MacBook Air, the latter ones via the Thunderbolt port.

The design of the last two MacBook Air models, i.e. a thin wedge, is more efficient than that of the original models, i.e. a pillow. I like the exposed ports as opposed to them being hidden under a hatch and the straight out power port is much handier than the one angled-down on the original Air.

How fast is it?

My original MacBook Air came with an adequate Intel low-voltage 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo CPU. My current 11" MacBook Air has an Intel low voltage 1.8GHz Core i7 CPU, one that is several generations newer despite its frequency being rated at only 2GHz higher. The original Air had a barely adequate Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics GPU while my current Air has the latest Intel HD Integrated Graphics 3000 GPU. The immediately previous Air models (late 2010) had a slightly better Nvidia 320M GPU according to tests elsewhere but generally only with OpenGL games which are not a strength of the MacBook Air line anyway.

To determine how much of a difference these changes make, I ran several of my standard speed tests on the original and new MacBook Air models. Results for the 13" 2.4GHz MacBook Pro (mid 2010) are also listed for comparison. The results are as follows:

MacBook Air Speed Tests with Mac OS X 10.7.1
Test MacBook Air MacBook Air MacBook Pro
11" (2011) 13" (2008)
13" (2010)
Geekbench 2.1.12
-- Integer
-- Floating Point
8061 3125 4890*
-- Memory
5184 1814
Cinebench 11.5
-- CPU Rendering (2x)
2.27 0.69
-- OpenGL Hardware Lighting
11.5 --
Xbench 1.3
-- Quartz Graphics
330 100
-- OpenGL Graphics
133 18
OpenGL Viewer 4.03-- 2.1 Cube
908 148
Start Up (sec)
16 45
Shut Down (sec)
2 4
Dup. 500 MB Folder (sec)
17 39
Quake III Arena (frames/sec)
421 94
Full conservation enabled (hr:min)
9:07 6:36 10:31
Red is fastest. Blue is slowest. *Primate Labs results.

As expected, the newest 11" MacBook Air beat the original 13" model by wide margins, 3:1 or more, in every test. What I did not expect was that the 2011 11" MacBook Air would also beat the 2010 13" MacBook Pro in virtually every test. In some cases, the scoring between the new Air and last year's Pro was very close both ways and in some cases, like Geekbench, Cinebench Rendering, Xbench Quartz Graphics and OpenGL Viewer, the scores were surprisingly disparate in favor of the Air.

To get an index of battery life, I charge the battery completely, turn off all the radios (Bluetooth and WiFi), close all applications, set the display to one notch above going black, wait for 10 minutes, pull the MagSafe plug and wait for the battery menu application to stabilize in its forecast of remaining time. This usually involves a decrease from the initial number, a slow rise back toward the maximum stable number, stabilization for several minutes, then a very slow decline. The number shown in the table is the stabilized forecast before the slow decline. This approximates Apple's original method for claiming battery life, giving approximately the same as Apple's claims. For example, Apple originally claimed the 13" MacBook Pro (mid 2010) had a 10hr battery, same as the results above. In practice, I usually get about 70% of this number as useful working time, very similar to Apple's current battery life claims. The results show the 11" MacBook Air coming within about 10% of the MacBook Pro's very long battery life. This is quite good and a little better than I had expected based on Apple's claim of a 5hr battery in the 11" MacBook Air versus a 7hr battery in the current 13" MacBook Pro. The 11" Air exceeds the original 13" Air by almost 50% which is also quite good given that the older Air's battery still charges to within 94% of its original capacity.

In conclusion, according to these tests the new 11" MacBook Air's 1.8GHz Core i7 CPU is pretty fast, much faster than even last year's 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo used in the 13" MacBook Pro. The Air's solid state drive (SSD) is also no slouch when compared with the very fast 240GB Extreme Pro SSD in the Pro. The Air's Intel HD Graphics 3000 GPU meets or exceeds the performance of the Nvidia 320M graphics in last year's Pro. Finally, battery life looks to be very good, even with the optional 1.8GHz Core i7 CPU.

Needless to say, I'm pretty happy with my new mid-2011 11" MacBook Air.

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