Top 10 ultraportable laptops

Ideal for the mobile professional, these notebooks stand out for their low weight and small footprint

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Apple MacBook Air
MacBook Air Review, by Jason Snell, Macworld December 11, 2008


CPU: Core 2 Duo SL9400; CPU speed: 1860MHz; Display size: 13.3 inches; Hard drive size: 128GB; WorldBench 6 rating: Good

Pros :
Light and sleek
Greatly improved graphics over first Air

Unswappable battery
Single USB port

Bottom Line: Apple's second stab at the Air adds a better GPU but keeps the same shape--and the problems that come with it.

On the outside, the new MacBook Air 1.86 GHz is identical to the first generation of Apple's extremely lightweight laptops. Inside, it's quite different, offering a new and faster processor, upgraded video circuitry, a faster frontside bus, speedier RAM, and a new display connector. As a result, the second-generation MacBook Air is superior to the original. However, the substantial upgrades that Apple has made to the rest of the MacBook line threaten to narrow the MacBook Air's already limited appeal even further.

Apple appears to have improved almost every aspect of the Air's internals, despite the remarkably small space available for the laptop's components. The weight and size remain identical, as do the bright 13-inch display and single USB port. But the compact, low-power processor custom-built by Intel for the original MacBook Air has been replaced by a smaller, stock Intel Core 2 Duo processor that offers more L2 cache (6MB instead of 4MB) and uses less power. The frontside bus and memory architecture has been ramped up, as well, and the Air now uses faster DDR3 memory modules.

But perhaps the most significant upgrade is the one affecting the video subsystem. The previous generation of Airs was saddled with Intel's slow GMA X3100 graphics circuitry. The current Air's nVidia GeForce 9400M is much faster, which makes the Air a competent, if not fantastic, gaming machine. In tests, the Air managed a Quake 4 frame rate of nearly 25 frames per second, more than six times the rate of the previous Air.

What's more, the 9400M's integrated graphics processing unit (GPU) lends a hand to the CPU in decoding and playing back video. In the first-generation Air, playing videos via YouTube or iTunes would inevitably push the processor beyond its limit, leading to stuttering playback and severe usability problems as the Air struggled to keep its temperature down by reducing the processor speed. The new Air plays multiple YouTube videos and HD iTunes video without breaking a virtual sweat.

As I've written about on more than one occasion, my original MacBook Air suffered serious overheating problems on a regular basis. Whatever Apple has done to its new models, the problem appears to be solved, or at least greatly mitigated--though unfortunately Mother Nature didn't cooperate and allow me to test the Air on a brutally hot day just to see what would happen.

The top speed of the top-of-the-line MacBook Air has increased by only 60 MHz over its predecessor, from 1.8 GHz to 1.86 GHz, but with the improvements to all the other subsystems, the new Air feels noticeably faster in just about every respect. In Macworld's MacBook Air lab tests the new model not only earned a faster overall score in the Speedmark test suite but also ran notably faster in Photoshop, Cinema 4D, and Finder tests. Running through the PC WorldBench 6 gauntlet, the Air actually scored a respectable score of 78. A "little above average" might not sound that bad. But bear in mind that this is a slightly-above average score running Windows Vista in Bootcamp mode on a machine that costs $2500. At least the new take on the Air manages to last almost two and a half hours before running out of juice in battery life tests. The original model could barely crack the two-hour mark.

Moving to an original MacBook Air required an extreme exercise of data starvation, because the original Air offered only an 80GB hard drive or a 64GB solid-state drive. The new Air models eliminate that ridiculous limitation, offering either a 120GB hard drive or a 128GB solid-state drive. And Apple has narrowed the price gap between the two drive types, too. The upgrade to the 64GB SSD in the original Airs cost $999; the SSD option is now twice the capacity but costs only $500 extra.

Like the other MacBook models introduced in October, the revamped Air connects to external displays with the new Mini DisplayPort adapter. The original MacBook Air was the only Mac to use the Micro-DVI connection format, so in many ways the move to Mini DisplayPort is good; now the Air can use the same monitor adapters as all the other MacBook models do, rather than requiring its own oddball set. And the MacBook Air can now drive the 30-inch Apple Cinema Display, albeit only via an optional $99 dual-link DVI adapter.

In what can only be read as a cost-saving move, however, Apple has removed all display adapters from the MacBook Air box. (Previous models shipped with both DVI and VGA adapters.) If you want to connect the MacBook Air to an external display--and why wouldn't you?--it'll cost $29 extra per adapter. Travelers who give presentations will need to spend $58 to connect to either a DVI or VGA projector. Given the absolute necessity for many laptop users to connect to displays, it's unfortunate that Apple has decided to stop tossing a display adapter into the box.

Although the new Air models lack the buttonless, clickable glass trackpad offered in the revised MacBooks and MacBook Pros, related advances haven't been completely forsaken. The new four-finger gestures (slide up to reveal the desktop, slide down to show all windows, slide left or right to bring up the app switcher) that those models support are also available on the new Air.

In the past months I've found that some gestures--especially two-finger scrolling--have become second nature to me. And the four-finger slide to reveal the desktop will probably fall into that category, too. It's a shame Apple doesn't allow you to customize what the gestures do, however.

The Air is definitely not a laptop for people who want the fastest portable or the best bargain. Let's recall why the MacBook Air exists in the first place: It's designed to be the lightest Apple laptop in existence, sacrificing speed, functionality, and value in order to be razor-thin and a svelte 3 pounds. Even with its speed boost, it's still the slowest MacBook in Apple's product line. And the integrated nVidia graphics processor, while an impressive update, is actually a throttled-back version of the chip in the new MacBook models.

When the first MacBook Air was introduced, it was 2 pounds lighter than the MacBook and offered some pro styling (aluminum case, backlit keyboard) that the MacBook didn't. The new MacBook models are a different story, now also clad in aluminum and offering a backlit keyboard as an option. And most important, they weigh half a pound less than previous MacBook models, only a pound and a half more than the MacBook Air.

Is it worth spending between $1799 and $2499 for a MacBook Air, as opposed to between $1299 and $1599 for a MacBook? In addition to paying more for an Air, you'll give up an extra USB port, an optical drive, some graphics performance, a removable battery and easily accessible hard drive, and a whole lot of storage space and processor power. If you care about the size and weight of your laptop more than anything else, or if you don't really need top-notch performance, or if you don't mind what your laptop's price is, the MacBook Air is designed specifically for you.

Today, though, the MacBook is a better buy for all but the most extreme devotees of thinness and lightness. It's not that the MacBook Air is a bad laptop. It's just that Apple has made a faster, cheaper, and almost equally attractive model that costs hundreds less and weighs only 4.5 pounds.

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