MacBook Air takes on MacBook Pro

Apple's latest ultraportable brings spectacular responsiveness and superior mobility to heavier workloads

The original MacBook Air was a spectacular piece of engineering -- a laptop form factor that simply hadn't been seen before. Despite its anemic CPU and the slow PATA 1.8-inch hard drive, I quickly took to using the MacBook Air as my primary laptop. When the next iteration appeared, with a significantly lower price, a solid-state drive, and a faster CPU, I jumped at the upgrade. And so it's gone with every new Air since.

But even as the Air steadily improved, it had more in common with the MacBook than the MacBook Pro. It was a good fit for ultramobile users with general computing workloads (and my IT-oriented purposes), but not for users running heavy-duty, CPU-intensive apps. Now that Apple is offering the Air with a hyper-threaded, dual-core Intel Core i7 CPU, that's no longer the case. The new CPU puts Air into a realm it has not enjoyed to date -- that of a mobile workstation rather than an ultrathin terminal.

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The dual-core Intel Core i7 CPU is a big step up from the Core 2 Duo in the previous version, even at 1.8GHz per core rather than 2.13GHz. (If all that horsepower isn't necessary, there's a Core i5 version.) The 4GB RAM limit is the same, as is the 256GB solid-state flash drive. There's the Thunderbolt port instead of the DisplayPort, along with the welcome return of the backlit keyboard and the ambient light sensor. The extremely fast storage, solid display, and exemplary battery life have been retained as well.

The new Air presents a compelling package, even to longtime MacBook Pro users. I fully expect to see MacBook Airs in places I never would before -- in recording studios, video production houses, and other realms that have been the domain of the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro. Whereas I would never consider mixing a large recording in Digital Performer on my old Air, I can definitely picture doing that with the new one. And at $1,699 as tested (Core i7 1.8GHz, 4GB RAM, 256GB SSD), it's a price well worth paying. 

Unfortunately, there are tasks I do with the old MacBook Air that the new Air can't handle, such as working with a few applications that I rely on. The new Air ships with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion installed, which -- depending on your habits and the software you're running -- could impact usability for the worse.

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Test Center Scorecard
 
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MacBook Air 13-inch99109109

9.4

Excellent

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