Apple’s MacBook Air 13″: The perfect ultrabook (review)

Image Credit: James Pikover

In the constant cycle of tablet and smartphone news, the seemingly minor upgrade to Apple’s MacBook Air barely made headlines. That’s not really surprising, especially after the announcement of the Retina ready MacBook Pro. A next generation Intel CPU and graphics processor, USB 3.0 ports, and more flash storage don’t sound all that impressive.

In reality, this iterative update makes the MacBook Air the perfect laptop.

Same on the outside, shiny on the inside

Generally considered the premier Ultrabook (though it’s not officially labeled one), the MacBook Air is an excellent laptop that offers a near-perfect balance of size and power. It remains the thinnest and lightest 13” and 11” Ultrabook on the market.

I liked last year’s 13” model so much that I bought one, and still find the design and power superb for most personal and work applications. But what’s remarkable about the 2012 model — and this has nothing to do with Apple — is the performance boost gained solely from Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge chipset.

Last year’s MacBook Air ran on the then-new Sandy Bridge i5 processor, and my model was the top-of-the-line i7 with 4GB of RAM, priced at $1,800. The latest unit drops the price by $100 and offers the updated i5 or i7 at faster clock speeds while also doubling the RAM to 8GB. For less money, this year’s stock MacBook Air outperforms last year’s high-end model by 150% for nearly every application. (The 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $1,199 for a 1.8Ghz i5 processor and 4GB of RAM.)

Aside from the internal components, little has actually changed with the MBA. It uses the same heat dissipation techniques, the same basic architecture, the same display, and the same keyboard. There are a few differences, like improved viewing angles and increased brightness on the glossy 1440 by 900 display, as well as better color accuracy, something the 2011 model has serious trouble with. The keys are also slightly elevated for a deeper feeling keyboard, which is more comfortable to type with. Put the two models together however and anyone would have trouble knowing which was newer.

Improved enough to all but eliminate the problems

Stress the laptops, however, and there’s a world of difference. Pull up 20-30 YouTube clips; try streaming several bandwidth- and processor-intensive videos; run intensive applications like Adobe Photoshop with dozens of photos; boot capable games like Half-Life 2 or Flash-hungry titles like The Binding of Isaac…and the 2011 model’s fan will scream bloody Mary, the left side of the keyboard will heat up to around 100°F, and you’ll need headphones and a hard surface to keep going. The fan gets extremely loud and the keyboard gets way too hot. On the 2012 MBA the same thing can happen, but it rarely does.

That is to say, the overheating and loud fan hasn’t been fixed. This newer model is susceptible to both. With enough stress the left side of the unibody shell will overheat and become uncomfortable to type on, especially if you’re out in the sun. The fan can still stir up a hailstorm of noise. But thanks to the improved performance of Ivy Bridge, it’s nearly impossible to run enough everyday applications to stress the Air to that point. Except for intensive games like Half-Life 2, the 2012 MBA remained calm, cool, and pleasant to use. No matter how many browser tabs, office applications, or how much media you have running, the MacBook Air performs flawlessly.

Using the new Ivy Bridge chipset has another exceptional benefit from the higher performance: battery life is greatly improved. On the 2011 MBA battery life ranged from 4-7 hours, and usually closer to the lower side of that if running streaming video or stressful applications. That is boosted to 5.5-8 hours on the newer MBA, which is a remarkable upgrade for an identical 50-watt-hour battery. And because heat is rarely a problem, I averaged closer to seven hours of battery life per charge. (Protip: Use an extension like FlashBlock to disable Flash on any MacBook Air model for a big bump in battery life.)

The perfect ultrabook

In so many ways, the latest MacBook Air is a dream come true for anyone interested in upgrading to a thin, light, and still powerful laptop. Better performance, an improved display and keyboard, greatly improved battery life and thermals because of the performance boost…all for $100 less than last year’s model. Throw in USB 3.0 and the laptop is officially future-proof.

Products like the MacBook Air 13” (2012) make iterative updates like internal components so much more pertinent than evolutionary upgrades. The only downside? People who purchased last year’s model will want to upgrade because the performance boost makes all the difference in the world. If you barely stress the 2011 model now, then hold fast. But if you find that your MacBook Air screams like a banshee and has the average lifespan of a fruit fly, upgrading will be costly, but worthwhile.

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Photos: James Pikover/VentureBeat

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