Sunday, June 17, 2012

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2012)

The MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2012) ($1,199 direct) is thin, light, and has a decent battery capacity. A whole new category of laptops, the ultrabooks, have become popular based on Apple's pioneering efforts. For Mid 2012, Apple has updated its system with a new Ivy Bridge processor from Intel. There are other new features, like USB 3.0 ports and the potential upgrade to OS X Mountain Lion. If your MacBook Air is less than a year old, you can skip this generation because the Ivy Bridge processor is only a slight speed bump over the last generation. However, if you're running an older MacBook (of any kind) with a Core 2 Duo or Quad processor, now is the time to upgrade. An Ivy Bridge processor in the new MacBook Air 13-inch, with a $100 price drop? That's a pretty good deal.

Design and Features
The new MacBook Air looks very much like the previous model, the MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) ($1,299 direct, 4 stars). It has the same wedge-shaped chassis that tapers almost to a sharp point. It even weighs the same as the previous iteration, at 2.85 pounds, like the previous mode. The screen is a 13.3-inch widescreen display with a 1,440 by 900 resolution. This is the same resolution as the previous two generations of 13-inch MacBook Air systems. For the time being, Retina Display is limited to the new MacBook Pro. The screen is still bright and clear, though, and should keep most users happy.

The system has the same unibody aluminum body, silver bezel around the screen, and a similar set of physical ports on the sides (with a couple exceptions). The new MacBook Air uses a MagSafe2 power connector that is shorter and wider than original MagSafe connector. The MacBook Air's 45W MagSafe 2 AC adapter has a T-shaped connector; hopefully, Apple has corrected the problems that led to frayed MagSafe cords in the late 2000s. MagSafe and MagSafe 2 are physically different connectors, so current Apple display users or users with spare MagSafe adapters lying around will need a MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter from Apple (a $9.99 option). The two USB ports are now USB 3.0, which are much faster than the previous USB 2.0 connectors. Of course, USB 2.0 (and USB 1.1/1.0) devices will still work with the USB 3.0 ports, though the transfer speeds will not be as fast as USB 3.0. The Thunderbolt connector, headphone, SDXC slot, and microphone carry over from the previous MacBook Air.

One thing missing is an HDMI port. Most of the MacBook Air's competition in the ultrabook space comes with one, and using a standard HDMI port is more convenient than trying to find a Thunderbolt display or a mini-DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter. Apple would have to relocate the SDXC slot or remove it entirely, but adding HDMI would be worth it.

Typing on the MacBook Air's keyboard was the same as the older model, with the same somewhat shallow key travel. You'll need to get used to it if you're switching from a desktop keyboard, but it's otherwise as comfortable to use as the previous MacBook Air. The large multi-touch trackpad also carries over the same gestures and reacts just as smoothly.

The base configuration of the new 13-inch MacBook Air comes with 4GB of system memory (as much as before, though now it's 1,600MHz DDR3), and the processor is upgraded from a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M (Sandy Bridge) processor to a 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U (Ivy Bridge) processor. In addition to the slight speed bump, the processor includes Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics with DX11 support. Weight remains just under 3 pounds, and the same 50WHr battery powers the whole shebang. The system's 128GB flash storage helps it start up, launch apps, and go to sleep mode quickly, taking only a couple of seconds to do either operation. Upgrades to 256GB and the pricey new option for 512GB flash storage can be configured on Apple's Website for quite a bit of money ($300 more than base price for 256GB and $800 more for 512GB). Upgrades to a 2GHz Core i7 processor and up to 8GB are some of the system's few other options. The system ships with Mac OS X Lion (10.7.4), but under OS X Mountain Lion (10.8) the MacBook Air will be able to use Power Sleep. Power Sleep will continue to update compatible info (like Facebook, email, and messages) while the system is sleeping. The OS X Mountain Lion will be a free upgrade when the updated operating system is released in July 2012.

The MacBook Air 13-inch comes with the usual set of iLife apps, like GarageBand, iTunes, iMovie, and iPhoto. FaceTime is currently a Mac-to-Mac program, but the Mountain Lion update will allow Mac to iOS (iPad, iPhone, iPad) video conferencing. Aside from iLife and the apps built into Mac OS X, the system's flash memory is free, which means there's no bloatware and therefore more room for your stuff.

The MacBook Air uses Intel's new Core i5-3427U processor, which is one of the new Ivy Bridge processors made to work in compact, speedy laptops like the MacBook Air and Ultrabooks. The new MacBook Air is able to complete the Cinebench R11.5 test with a 2.61 CPU score, which is better than the 2.17 score on the previous Air. This is also better than a recently tested Ultrabook with a slightly slower Ivy Bridge processor, the Sony VAIO T13 (SVT13112FXS) ($799.99 direct, 4 stars) which came in at 2.32 CPU score on Cinebench. The MacBook Air also garnered a good 2:42 time on our Handbrake video test and 4:53 on our Photoshop CS5 test. Media scores are similar to the previous MacBook Air, at least in Photoshop (2:09 Handbrake, 4:55 CS5).

The new Intel Core i5-3427U is an ultra-low voltage CPU, with an extremely low 17W TDP. There's a smidge of increased performance over the last MacBook Air, but remember that it has only an extra 100MHz of base clock speed with the same amount of L3 cache (3MB). The system that's close in spirit and attitude to the MacBook Air is the HP Envy 14 Spectre ($1,399.99 direct, 4 stars), and it performs in the same ballpark (2:31 Handbrake, 5:25 CS5). All of these systems have similar screen sizes/resolutions, processor speeds, and all use flash storage either as primary or cache storage. As far as battery life and 3D is concerned, we couldn't run our usual MobileMark test and 3D tests on the new MacBook Air because at the time of this review Apple had not yet released Boot Camp Windows drivers for the system. Stay tuned for updated benchmark tests after that happens. Using our ten-hour video rundown test, run in Mac OS X,with the backlight set to 50 percent and Wi-Fi and keyboard backlight both activated, we were able to manage about 7 hours (6 hours 56 minutes) matching Apple's claims for battery life on its wireless Web test using the system's 50Wh internal battery.

Compared to the competition, the MacBook Air remains a good choice after its Ivy Bridge update. While it's not a "must upgrade" if you have the previous MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) with a Sandy Bridge processor, folks that continuously trade up will find a few improvements like the USB 3.0 ports, and updated CPU and faster memory, at $100 less than the previous model. If you're still rocking a Core 2 Duo-equipped MacBook Air without Thunderbolt, you'll welcome the higher resolution screen and Core i5 processor. The MacBook Air continues to hold its own against competitors like the HP Envy 14 Spectre, since that system is loaded with bloatware, which takes up a lot of space on its 128GB SSD. The Editor's Choice HP Folio 13-1020us ($899.99 list, 4 stars) also comes loaded with bloatware, but gets to hold on to its ultrabook crown, mainly due to its more reasonable price tag, HDMI and Ethernet ports, and class leading battery life that's just shy of 9 hours.

More Laptop Reviews:
??? Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2012)
??? Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Retina Display)
??? Sony VAIO E15 (SVE15116FXS)
??? Sony VAIO T13 (SVT13112FXS)
??? Lenovo IdeaPad Y480
?? more

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