Apple MacBook Air 2011 Review

As soon as Apple announced the MacBook Air 11.6” laptop I knew it was a laptop I would have to buy and try.  One, because I prefer to use portable laptops in my day-to-day work and studies and two because I knew the readers of this blog are very interested in Apple computers and the MacBook Air would be very appealing as a student laptop.  So if you’re a student and thinking about buying the 11.6” screen MacBook Air for school work read on to find out the verdict!

MacBook Air 11

First of all here’s a run down of the specs on the MacBook Air that I purchased, it was bought direct from Apple.com and configured with higher specs than the base level $999 offering, specs marked in green indicate an upgrade from the base level configuration:

  • Screen: 11.6-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen display with a 1366 x 768-pixel resolution
  • Battery: Up to 5 hours of wireless productivity plus up to 30 days of standby time
  • Processor: 1.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3 MB on-chip shared L2 cache and 800 MHz frontside bus.
  • Storage: 128 GB flash memory storage
  • Memory (RAM): 4 GB installed RAM (1066 MHz DDR3)
  • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor (with 256 MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory)
  • Camera: Built-in FaceTime camera for video chatting
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi wireless networking (based on 802.11n specification; 802.11a/b/g compatible)
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) for connecting with peripherals such as keyboards, mice and cell phones
  • Ports: Two USB 2.0 ports, Mini DisplayPort output port
  • Speakers / Microphone: Built-in stereo speakers along with omnidirectional microphone, headphone minijack
  • Full-size keyboard
  • Multi-Touch trackpad for precise cursor control; supports inertial scrolling, pinch, rotate, swipe, three-finger swipe, four-finger swipe, tap, double-tap, and drag capabilities
  • Dimensions: 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.68 inches (WxDxH)
  • Weight: 2.3 pounds

Note that the configuration I got has 4GB of RAM and a 128GB flash memory storage drive, the standard $999 model has 2GB or memory and a 64GB flash memory storage drive.  Sadly, if you don’t configure these upgrades at purchase you can’t do it later without voiding the warranty since the laptop is sealed shut.  I was concerned that 64GB of storage simply wouldn’t be enough so thought it was a prudent upgrade.

Looks and Build Quality

Let me just start by saying this is a gorgeous computer, the thin body uses a simple industrial design and yet carries elegant lines.  The feel of the aluminum case is wonderful, it’s smooth and yet solid.   And of course the iconic Apple logo on the lid is a nice design accent and one that garners instant recognition.  The simple fact that the MacBook Air 11 weighs only 2.3lbs and is a razor thin 0.68-inches also contributes to the overall style points.

MacBook Air 11.6 lid MBA 11 half open

While the MacBook Air 2010 is stunning to look at when closed due to its thinness, when opened and with the bright and gorgeous screen on it’s equally as stunning.

MBA 2011 profile MacBook Air 2011 profile

Despite the fact the MacBook Air is so thin and light, there is no sacrifice made in making sure the durability and rigidity are well above your average laptop.  Many other laptops that are light achieve such a thing by using thin plastics for the case and skeleton, but with the MacBook Air it’s an all aluminum construction and uses the unique unibody solid metal cast design to keep weight down but durability still strong.

I of course took the opportunity to weigh the MacBook Air 11, Apple quotes the weight as being 2.3lbs.  According to my kitchen scale the weight was 2lbs 5.7 ounces, which is actually closer to 2.4lbs but since my configuration has an extra stick of RAM and larger flash drive the extra couple of ounces of weight is to be expected.  Needless to say, at just over 2lbs the laptop is a cinch to carry in your backpack and simple to hold in just one hand if needed.

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MacBook Air 11 weighing in at 2lbs 5.7 ounces (about 2.4lbs)
MacBook Air 11 compared to ThinkPad T410s
MacBook Air 11 next to Lenovo ThinkPad T410s
MacBook Air compared to MacBook Pro
MacBook Air 11 stacked on top of MacBook Pro
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MacBook Air 11 next to notepad
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MacBook Air 11 on top of MacBook Pro 13
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MacBook Air 11.6-inch on left, MacBook Pro 13-inch on right

Above you will see some comparison pictures of the MacBook Air 11 next to my ThinkPad T410s, Apple MacBook Pro 13 and a simple 70 page notepad.  Each picture demonstrates how truly thin the MBA 11 is.

Speed and Performance

I admit to being initially concerned that the 1.40Ghz Core 2 Duo processor might be disappointing relative to the Intel Core i5 processor I’m used to using in my larger 14” ThinkPad T410 laptop.  I even thought about spending an extra $100 to upgrade to the 1.60GHz processor.  However, in reality my needs are fairly modest and most of my time is spent writing and surfing the web and the MacBook Air is perfectly capable of doing these basic tasks without any slowdown.  If you’re a film editor, audio engineer or gamer you might find yourself constrained by the performance of the MacBook Air if you’re doing any of these things, but for most people using a laptop for productivity or play the power provided by the MacBook Air will be sufficient.  The fact that the MBA has flash storage instead of a traditional hard drive means you’ll be able to boot very fast, under 30 seconds.  And when you wake the MBA up from sleep it comes on instantly.  Furthermore, the MacBook Air 11-inch has Nvidia 320m graphics which allows you to do some light gaming and also drive video output to the 27-inch sized Apple Cinema Display for those times you’re at a desk – impressive for such a small laptop.

MacBook Air 11-inch Battery Life

Apple quotes battery life of the MacBook Air 11 as being 5-hours.  Usually when I see a manufacturer claim on battery life I subtract 10 – 20% as an estimate of what the actual real world battery life will be.  But in this case the quote is not only accurate, but in my experience less than what I could actually achieve.  With medium usage and just doing some writing, browsing the web and watching a couple of YouTube videos I got 5 hours and 27 minutes of battery life on the MacBook Air 11-inch.  Even under more demanding use with the screen at full brightness and playing a movie I got 4 hours and 30 minutes, which is excellent in my book.

I will admit that it is a little discomforting to know the battery is sealed and there’s no way to tote an extra battery along if you want, but it’s a small knock in the scheme of things.  The greater concern really is that when the day comes that the internal battery gets worn down and needs to be replaced you’re stuck having to mail it off to Apple and pay them to put in a new battery.  With any other laptop you can simply buy a new battery from the manufacturer site or a battery retailer and replace and dispose of (properly) the old battery.

MacBook Air 11-inch Screen

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The resolution on the MacBook Air 11-inch is 1366 x 768, which is very good for such a small laptop.  Most 15-inch laptops on the market these days have a 1366 x 768 resolution.  Some icons might appear quite small to some people given this resolution on a small screen, but I think it’s really quite perfect and allows you to see enough real estate on the screen to prevent endless scrolling on web pages and such.

The screen quality is very good, it’s bright and viewing angles are above average relative to other laptops, but not as good as say the iPad which has a high quality expensive IPS screen.  The screen has a glossy finish to make colors appear more bold and bright, but it’s not as terribly reflective as some other glossy screen laptops.  Since the glossiness helps make things like movies more brilliant to watch and colors pop I think most people will like this feature.

MacBook Air 11-inch Keyboard and Trackpad

First let me state the disappointing fact about the MacBook Air 11 keyboard, it does not have a backlight and there is no option to upgrade.  The keyboard backlight found on other MacBooks is by far one of my favorite features. I am a touch typist, but now and again I do need to look at the keyboard to find a special function key and that’s so much easier to do when there’s a backlight.  My guess is the thin design and huge internal battery just didn’t leave room for the extra components it takes to fit a keyboard backlight.  Sigh.

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On the plus side, the keyboard is full size and very comfortable to use.  Indeed it feels just like you’re typing on a larger sized 13-inch MacBook Pro, the only compromise is that the top row of function keys are shrunken to half size to be able to support a full size trackpad.

Speaking of which, the large and comfortable trackpad is made of glass and also feels and works the same as that of the larger MacBook Pro laptops.  There is no mouse button clicker, you just push right down on the trackpad to register a click.  And using finger gestures on the glass trackpad you can pinch, swipe, rotate and scroll to your hearts delight making it easy to perform various tasks quickly using your fingers.

MacBook Air 11-inch Ports

Mercifully Apple decided to provide two USB 2.0 ports instead of just one like you got on the previous MacBook Air, you get one on the left and one on the right.  There is also a mini DisplayPort output on the right which allows you to output display to a larger monitor.

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MacBook Air left side: power jack, USB port, headphone jack

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MacBook Air 11 right side: USB port and mini DisplayPort

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Back view of MacBook Air 11 – no ports

That’s all there is to it for the port selection, it’s very basic and not up to par with what other laptops of this size offer, but you have to sacrifice something in order to get a laptop this thin.

MacBook Air 11-inch Audio / Speakers

Most people don’t expect much when it comes to quality speakers from a small 11-inch laptop.  The speakers (there are two) on the MacBook Air 11 are located in the keyboard, that’s right, sound emanates up from the keys.  This doesn’t work out as bad as you’d expect, I was quite surprised by the volume and clarity of the sound.  According to Apple it is improved by 50% over the previous MacBook Air.

Conclusion

The MacBook Air 11.6-inch laptop is a beautiful laptop and a treat to carry around and use.  It’s of course not perfect, and the one thing that prevents it from being a sure fire recommendation is all of the great competition out there for 11.6-inch laptops that are much cheaper.  For instance, you can get the Acer Aspire 1830t with a Core i3 processor and more ports for $699.  The Dell Inspiron M101z and HP Pavilion dm1z and Toshiba Satellite T215 are all also attractively priced at around $500 – $650.  If you need more power than the MacBook Air in an 11.6” form factor there’s also the Alienware m11x.  All that competition though and the MacBook Air still reigns as the most drool worthy and well constructed of all these in the 11-inch laptop category.  The aluminum unicast body is extremely solid feeling and the feather light weight just amazing.  The screen on the MacBook Air 11 also stands out against any of the competition.  In conclusion, I do recommend the MacBook Air 11.6-inch to students that happen to have a little extra money and can warrant paying a premium for the Apple brand, quality and support.  I think most students are going to have to step up to the 128GB storage version to fit all the programs and files you’ll need when in school, so that means you’re looking at a price of around $1,199.  The 4GB memory upgrade is probably worth the extra $100 but the processor upgrade to 1.60Ghz is not worth it.  If you’re on a budget and can’t justify the cost of the MacBook Air 11, at least you’re in luck with all the other options out there, and if you can afford the MacBook Air 11 then consider yourself lucky and in for a treat!

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Filed Under: Apple Student Discount, Feature Articles

About AJ

I'm a big believer in the importance of technology usage in education, but not just having blind faith in technology gadgets and using them in a school setting for the sake of it. I review and write about technology devices such as laptops and tablets that have a clear purpose and provide a learning advantage for students.
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