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Apple MacBook Air 13in (2011) review

Verdict

A sensational piece of laptop engineering, now boosted by a Sandy Bridge turn of speed to create the ultimate executive laptop

Review Date: 29 Jul 2011

Reviewed By: Barry Collins

Price when reviewed: £1,124 (£1,349 inc VAT)

Buy it now for: £1105
(see more store prices)

Overall Rating
5 stars out of 6

Features & Design
6 stars out of 6

Value for Money
5 stars out of 6

Performance
4 stars out of 6

PCPRO Recommended

If the 13in MacBook Air had a soul, you’d forgive it for a pang of jealously. Until its 11in sibling came along, the larger MacBook Air was the apogee of ultraportable laptop design. Now, if not quite an also-ran, it’s certainly been overshadowed. But has the 2011 refresh done anything to boost the original MacBook Air’s appeal?

It benefits enormously from the Sandy Bridge processor refresh. Like its sibling, it packs a low-voltage Core i5 processor, although the 13in is afforded the slightly sprightlier Core i5-2557M, which boasts a core clock speed of 1.7GHz that can be Turbo Boosted all the way to 2.7GHz when necessary. And unlike some previous models of the MacBook Pro, the Turbo Boost works in Windows as well as OS X Lion.

Yet, while the 13in model may have a nominal clock-speed advantage over its diminutive brethren, it made very little difference in our Real World Benchmarks. The 13in model recorded an overall score of 0.58 compared to the 11in Air’s 0.56. If that sounds disappointing, it shouldn’t: those scores put both MacBook Airs in the upper echelons of ultraportable performance.

MacBook Air 13in (2011)

An impressive Responsiveness score of 0.75 – no doubt aided by the 256GB SSD in our top-end review unit – reflected our experience of day-to-day use of the MacBook Air. You wait for nothing, especially in Lion, which (if you’ll excuse the pun) positively purrs along.

3D performance was roughly on a par with the 11in Air too, which was to be expected given the same Intel HD 3000 graphics chip. The Low quality Crysis test run at the native resolution of 1,440 x 900 achieved a playable 30fps, compared to 31fps on the lower-resolution 11in model. Don’t even think about turning the detail levels up though, with Crysis slumping to 16fps at Medium settings.

Less demanding 3D games, however, romp along. TrackMania Nations Forever with the settings cranked up to Very High Quality recorded a smooth 34fps. Certainly, there will be few games in the Mac App Store that the MacBook Air will struggle to play.

Mobile workhorse

Yet, very few people will purchase a MacBook Air for gaming. It’s mobile professionals who have the most to gain from the laptop’s uniquely slender profile and barely-there weight of only 1.35kg (without the charger).

MacBook Air 13in (2011)

The expertly spaced keyboard is as good as any we've typed on, with keys boasting ample travel and a wonderfully tactile response, despite having mere millimetres of laptop base to sink into. The keyboard is subtly backlit in low-light conditions, with the undersized Enter and cursor keys being the only mild irritation – although the scrolling gesture controls on the trackpad rendered the cursor keys virtually redundant anyway.

And what of that trackpad, a 5in buttonless slab of glass that sits almost flush beneath the keyboard? It is as expertly engineered as the keyboard, both smooth and sensitive, with clicks registered only when you depress the entire surface by default. And once you've mastered Apple's gesture controls – which we found a little disorientating at first – navigation is effortless. A swish of two fingers to go back and forward in the Safari web browser, for instance, or a swipe upwards with three fingers to flip between applications in the new Mission Control view.

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User comments

"Apple’s refusal to upgrade from USB 2 to USB 3 could soon become as inconsequential as failing to install a floppy drive."

Could I asked if this based on any kind of evidence? I can see lots of USB 3 products available on the market including most new PC motherboards.

By artiss on 29 Jul 2011

Yes, sure...

"Apple’s refusal to upgrade from USB 2 to USB 3 could soon become as inconsequential as failing to install a floppy drive."
And it's because ALL the world will use thunderbolt right? Not Usb... thunderbolt. Please, be serious...

By mrponti on 29 Jul 2011

Fair review

Very interesting and fair review here Barry. Thunderbolt is a game changer, and will be even more so when Intel takes it fibre-optic.

It just saddens me that there will be a spate of "Apple Pro" type comments... sigh

By hjlupton on 29 Jul 2011

Apple making life difficult for competitors

With Apple's immense resources and growing market share they are starting to make it harder for competitors. Certainly in the pricier end of the market they are starting to dominate. This undoubtably looks another very desirable product. For the sake of the market lets hope that the competitors can step up.

By AdamD6 on 29 Jul 2011

x60s

it's lovely and shiny and all, but - screen aside - is it actually any significant improvement on my lenovo/ibm x60s? no.

By gavmeister on 30 Jul 2011

Shouldn't....

...a so-called PC magazine's A-list laptop be a PC laptop?

Yes, I know, technically an Apple is a Personal Computer but in the real world, people say "PC" when the mean a Windows/Linux based computer and Apple occupies a distinct segment of the market in its own right. That's why Dennis Publishing has magazines like MacWorld and MacUser.

If I wanted a review of a MacBook Air I would go there. I come to this site in the increasingly unlikely hope of reading about new PC models, not Apple kit.

Do you see?

It's a good job I no longer buy your magazines as I have no intention of spending any of my money on a printed copy of "Apple Pro" (there hjlupton, I put that in just for you).

By Lacrobat on 30 Jul 2011

Lustworthy

Other than the beautiful screen, durable finish, excellent keyboard, easy to use OS and touchpad, fantastic support and great software what does this have over my PC PoS?

For anyone who wants a fast, well built fully capable laptop with easy navigation and full keyboard, that weighs next to nothing, The Macbook Air hits the sweet spot.

By rubaiyat on 30 Jul 2011

It's starting again

Until recently I found Apple products to be overpriced and couldn't seem to understand why anybody would even consider buying one. That was before I had owned an iPad and now a MacBook Air 11. Apple kit IS expensive but it is simply fantastic, compared to the flaky, cheap and nasty windows experience I have had for the last 15 years. I think before people pass comment as to what this laptop is or is not about the very least you need to do is try one out. And I don't mean 5 minutes in PC World.
Some of this negativity smacks of either jealousy or babywork.

By OneGoodKnock on 30 Jul 2011

Feedback

Artiss/Mrponti - You're right, there are precious few Thunderbolt peripherals on the market at the moment (as we mention in the review). But the speeds on offer will leave even USB 3 for dust when peripherals do inevitably arrive. Bear in mind other PC makers will start implementing the technology soon.

Lacrobat - I'm going to throw that challenge back at you - why shouldn't PC Pro put a MacBook Air at the top of its A-List? It runs Windows (or indeed Linux in a virtual machine) perfectly well, so what is the difference?

99% of the desktops/laptops we review are traditional Windows-based machines, by definition - because Apple only release a handful of new models a year. The accusation that we don't cover the PC market adequately is frankly bewildering.

Barry Collins
Editor

By Barry_Collins on 30 Jul 2011

Mobile broadband

Just wondering why nobody seems to care either way about Apple's lack of 3g in its "executive"ly priced laptops?

I refuse to use tethering because Vodafone charges so much for this!

By luke20 on 30 Jul 2011

Harsh comments

Everyone is so quick to accuse reviewers of being 'pro apple' for any kind of positive response they give a product. If you have an issue with apple, fine, just don't buy their products, it's your choice as a consumer. However don't then turn around and dampen, in my opinion an unbiased and fair review!

I myself would never buy anything apple due to the premium prices and their uncompetitive nature, I can though see why PC Pro would review Macs! I rarely see anyone complaining when they review mobiles or tablets?!

By eliot94 on 30 Jul 2011

WHy?

why tests like Crysis, what Graphics?? this is not the way to test this particular models, even with the power up of the i processor this is still more about business and i do not think anybody who games would spend 1300 pounds or so on this, (my Desktop has i7 and HD5850, when i was buying it, it was good and i can play Crysis on full graphics that is everything set to highest possible) Dells XPS laptops would be better and cheaper for more powerful models. therefore i think the Macbook air should be tested in a different way, yes the battery life, the ability to do business things and the ease of it, i think this is the way to test the air.
oh and just a question can you actually install windows on it, or is it just the virtual run.

By mobilegnet on 30 Jul 2011

"compared to the flaky, cheap and nasty windows experience I have had for the last 15 years"

..If you buy cheap and nasty then that is what you'll get. Maybe try an Elitebook or at least a Probook to start.

As for this laptop being an A-list product... I won't even comment on that.

By rhythm on 30 Jul 2011

mobilegnet,
Agree, it was a funny way to test a business laptop with games given the fact the HD3000 is clearly not up for the job. However I think it does show the laptop is good enough for heavy duty task.

Anyway, to answer your question about installing windows. Yes, it can run Windows natively. Just install via bootcamp then it will open up the option to dual-boot Mac or PC.

By felixluk on 30 Jul 2011

lenovo

If the thing is "not up to the job" of playing games (or therefore video editing) what's the point of spending this sort of money? Lenovo x60s £120, ebay. x61s, £199, ebay. x200s £300 ebay - with a year warranty left. That's an order of magnitude cheaper.

By gavmeister on 31 Jul 2011

Probook

*shudder* We had a couple of the 17" ones at my last place, they looked lovely, when you unpacked them. Give them to a manager for a week of travelling between sites and they looked dreadful, the glossy finished as scratched to buggery.

As to "Apple Pro", as has been pointed out, they are PCs, so why shouldn't PC Pro cover them? Years ago, I always moaned, that PC Pro only covered Windows and should rename itself Windows Pro, because they shunned Linux and UNIX and refused to consider looking at Apple kit.

I think the new balance is much better. If they were called "Windows Pro", I would agree, that they shouldn't be covering Apple kit (or Linux) in such great detail.

However, as a computer professional working in a heterogeneous environment, with Windows PC, Apple and Linux, I find the coverage about right.

I want to find out about the latest news and kit from all the major vendors, without bias. PC Pro seem to manage that.

Me? What do I use? I have a 15.6" Sony Core i7 laptop and a 24" iMac C2D (which is showing its age). The girls have MBPs and Mac minis, my Girlfriend a 15" Sony, because she needs Windows for her course.

The iMac was comparably priced with a desktop + 24" display, when I bought it. In the meantime, their prices have remained high, whilst the rest of the mark plummeted. The mini was expensive, for what it is, the MBP was a good deal, I could have gotten something cheaper, but for somebody who is studying and can't afford a new laptop every 18 months, the MBP 20% over an equivalent was worth it.

When I bought the Sony, I also looked at the MBP 17", but the Sony brought more power and twice as much memory for less than half the price. The case on the 17" MBP was excellent and the general build quality better, but not twice as good.

At the end of the day, using OS X or Windows (or Linux) is a matter of taste, all the major apps are available on OS X and Windows, so it doesn't bother me, which I use.

I'm rebuilding a 13" MacBook for somebody today, and sitting here, using it, I remember, why I wanted a 17" MBP. The quality of the machine and the "feel" is lovely, but at the end of the day, the Sony won purely on economic grounds.

By big_D on 31 Jul 2011

Feedback

@Barry_Collins. Absolutely. There is no objective, un-biased reason why PC Pro shouldn't review Mac products that can run Windows effectively (or are supported by it) *. Although, as an aside, do you factor the cost of a Windows licence into your review?

However, there are (perhaps) editorial reasons not have Apple products at the top of the A-list. Despite big_D’s comments to the contrary, you could be forgiven for expecting a certain Windows-facing slant in a magazine with “PC” in the title.

I believe that the sheer numbers of “traditional Windows-based machines” reviewed make little difference when (practically) every Apple product is so highly praised in reviews and take up prominent copy positions. That may be because Apple’s products are great. I accept that they may just all be.

However, I personally stopped buying PC Pro because I just don't want to pay to read about them. I fully accept that this is a biased, personal preference. However, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valid reason – the customer is always right. Of course, I may be in a minority. Perhaps PC Pro sells bucket loads more copies these days that it ever used to. If so, fair play to you – I respect that you can shape your magazine however you like. However, I’ve been an alienated reader for some time. I thought it was worth vocalising; perhaps I'm not alone (@Lacrobat).

Very sorry for the lengthy post, it’s hard to explain this coherently and succinctly!

*I would, however, take aim at the recent review of OS X 10.7 Lion since it, as far as I’m concerned, has absolutely no application to “PCs” whatsoever.

By paperwire on 1 Aug 2011

confused

Surely the more options in the market is better for the IT professional to make decisions that benefit the operation they work in. The number of options available now can only improve the end users experience.

And I don't understand reader's comments around PCs, I thought the term PC was for Personal Computer, a computer that can be used in solitude without the need for another system to be able to operate.
How does this term not fit any computer, whether it be laptop, tablet, smartphone and makes the OS irrelevant.

By Peza1 on 1 Aug 2011

Dogmatic

I'm very glad that PC PRO does not restrict the products it chooses to review. Breadth is very important in the diverse and complex world of technology.

But is it really so hard to avoid reading a review (or reading anything for that matter) for a product you already know you don't want or are not interested in?

By creechitup on 2 Aug 2011

@creechitup

Not only does it appear impossible for some sections of the community to read articles on products they're not interested in, they also feel compelled to take valuable time out of their doubtlessly busy days to snipe away in the comment sections about said products, every time there's mention of the dreaded fruit. Still, what's a little OCD between friends?

By Throbinevans on 4 Aug 2011

Shame about the price

I love this product, I honestly couldn't live without it. But if like me you were a bit shocked with the price here's a tip on how to get this item for basically a £5 and a little bit of work!

All you need to do is go to www.thefreescene.com and sign up for the gala bingo or any offer you like.

Its all been proven by BBC Newsnight, CNN and Channel 5's Gadget Show. This is how I got mine

I hope this helps someone!

By Clairerowland on 6 Nov 2011

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