New 11″ MacBook Air Review: First Impressions

The latest MacBook Air models went on sale today at Apple retail stores. With the demise of the white MacBook, the 11″ MacBook Air is now the most affordable notebook available.

I skipped the first generation of MacBook Airs due to their lackluster performance and sky-high prices.But Apple made me a believer in the MacBook Air last fall when it introduced the second generation MacBook Air. I quickly snapped up a high-end 13″ MacBook Air and it became my daily driver, replacing my 15″ MacBook Pro for most tasks. It is simply the best laptop I’ve ever used…until today.

MacBook Air 11"

11" MacBook Air

I bought my first PowerBook 15 years ago and have owned several PowerBooks and MacBooks since. I’ve owned and used several PCs over the years, but Macs are the right tool for the job for my line of work and my digital hobbies.

Below are my first impressions of the device and a few photos. We’ll be publishing a more thorough review of both the 11″ and 13″ MacBook Air soon.

Update: You can read part 2 of our MacBook Air review, which focuses on the 11″ MacBook Air’s battery life.

Advertisement

$999, $1,199 or $1,649 MacBook Air?

You can of course customize a 11″ MacBook Air to your exact liking at Apple.com, but most shoppers will end up buying one of three retail models. The basic retail model costs $999 and comes with an Intel Core i5 processor, 2GB of memory and a 64GB flash storage drive. For $200 more you get double the memory and storage (4GB and 128GB). The $1,199 model is the sweet spot and what we recommend for most users, especially those who are at least somewhat price-conscious. For power users and Mac fans that just want to have the best, Apple offers a $1,649 version of the 11″ MacBook Air that packs 256GB of storage capacity and features a faster processor.

MacBook Air Back

I opted for the $1,199 11″ MacBook Air primarily because of the 4GB of memory. Today’s computer applications take up a lot of memory and I usually have several applications open at a time. The MacBook Air line is speedy primarily because of its fast solid-state drive (SSD) and other components, not because of its processor. That’s why the 2010 MacBook Air felt incredibly fast despite having an aging Intel Core 2 Duo processor.

Would I have liked the slightly faster processor and twice as much storage capacity? Sure, but not for $450. The other thing to remember is that faster processors drain batteries faster. If you don’t know why you should buy this model, you probably don’t need it. Keep in mind that you can buy a well-equipped 13″ MacBook Air for $1,599, a savings of $50 off the top-end 11-incher.

The $999 MacBook Air is a good option for people who have relatively basic computing needs are will be using it as a secondary computer. With only 64GB of drive capacity, there simply isn’t enough room to store a bunch of multimedia content or synchronize devices, such as iPods, iPhones and iPads.

MacBook Air Out-of-Box Experience

Apple’s somehow managed to make the out-of-box experience even better. The new MacBook Air models are the first to ship with OS X Lion, the latest version of Apple’s desktop operating system. It’s even easier and faster to get up and running than with last year’s MacBook Air.

MacBook Air Box

11" MacBook Air Packaging

 

Apple’s welcome animation is gone from account setup and only the most pertinent information needs to be entered before you can get to a functional desktop and start launching applications. You can skip registration and there’s no crapware offers or setup like we see too often on Windows PCs.  The desktop is void of any clutter and no software update reminders great first-time users.

Another change from last year is that Apple doesn’t include a copy of the operating system on external media. Instead, Apple’s hidden a recovery partition on the MacBook Air’s drive that can be used to recover from a data disaster. This is a welcome move as recovery media, such as restore DVDs and the recovery USB included with earlier MacBook Air models, seem to hide when you actually need them. My 2010 MacBook Air’s recovery USB drive has been missing in action since I unboxed the thing.

My Favorite Things

There’s a lot to like about the 11″ MacBook Air, but here are a few of my favorites:

MacBook Air Keybord Backlit

11" MacBook Air's Backlit Keyboard

  • Even touch-typists can appreciate a backlit keyboard, which makes life a little easier when reaching for rarely used keys in the dark.
  • The 11″ MacBook Air is incredibly thin and light . At just 2.38 pounds, it makes my 13″ MacBook Air feel hefty.
  • The display is ‘glossy’, but it doesn’t have edge-to-edge glass like the 13″ MacBook Pro. This means you can actually use the thing in well-lit rooms without being distracted by reflections or your own mug.
  • The keyboard is comfortable to use and the best I’ve ever used on a laptop this small.
  • There’s plenty of power for everyday computing. Importing a couple of hundred RAW images from my camera card was speedy and iPhoto performs just fine. Sifting through photos and editing them is a pleasant experience.
  • The trackpad is as good as the trackpad on the rest of Apple’s MacBook lineup. That is to say that it’s superior to what you’ll find on just about any PC.

My Least Favorite Things

Advertisement

As much as I like the MacBook Air so far, there are some things that bug me.

  • There’s no SD card slot, which means I’ll have to carry a card reader with me when I travel or go to conferences so I can import my photos and videos.
  • The relatively small SSD is already worrying me. Yes, I know I shouldn’t complain considering I knew what I was getting into when I bought the thing, but storage capacity anxiety is already striking me.
  • OSX Lion is also causing minor headaches for me. I shouldn’t have to figure out how to find my hard drive. I also don’t like how Apple’s switched the default scrolling direction.

Comments

  1. Mishkee68 says

    You can change the scrolling action. It’s in system/track pad options. That also drove me nuts, going down it goes up? Anyway just uncheck that first box.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      Yep, we already wrote about that preference yesterday. I’m still getting used to Lion and there are a bunch of gotchas that are fixable, but distract from the out-of-box/first use experience. 

    • guest10101011 says

      i can guess it wasn’t necessarily changing the direction it’s more if u r on this page and u were to drag the page down like it was a touch screen well you go up. lol they just forgot it’s a laptop and everyone is used to the opposite …. ><

  2. Anonymous says

    Nice review. One minor point. You can get the Core i7 as a build-to-order option in the 11″ with the 128GB SSD for $1349.  Unfortunately, it isn’t in most stores like the $1649 model, but it is the cheapest way to get a Core i7 in an Apple notebook right now (as the 13″ only has the Core i7 in the $1699 model).  Not many reviewers are pointing this out, but I think this CTO configuration could be the real sweet spot in Apple’s lineup.

    • Dale Strauss says

      What does the Core i7 really add to an ultralight notebook with integrated graphics? Is it truly worth the premium, or would I be better to max out storage on the SSD side?

      • Anonymous says

        The larger SSD is probably more practical if you need to choose between the two. That said, my main point was that the 11″ was the cheapest way to get a Core i7 in an Apple notebook. As for the integrated graphics, that’s par for the course on an ultralight. Hopefully someone addresses it with an external GPU using the Thunderbolt port.

  3. Rebecca says

    From what I understand, and I could certainly be completely wrong, you can change the reverse scrolling in in settings and Apple’s new iCloud will allow you to store all of your iTune purchases as well as 5G of your own files for free. Also, wouldn’t it be easier to pack a cable for your camera, rather than a card reader? Any of that help at all?

    • Xavier Lanier says

      Yes, I changed the reverse scrolling, but I’m willing to bet that most consumers will simply be frustrated and then get used to it rather than figuring out how to switch it. iCloud looks like it might be a nice solution for some users, but if you’re a media hog like me 5GB doesn’t even begin to make a dent. I prefer using a card reader  with my computers rather than cords because I don’t like draining my cameras’ batteries when transferring photos. Card readers are also smaller than cords.

      • Patrick says

        If you think about it, the natural scrolling order is more intuitive than what we have been used to. I don’t think anyone would prefer reverse scrolling on a tablet for instance, and if laptops would be invented today I think natural scrolling would be the way to go. 

        • Xavier Lanier says

          That math be the case for new MacBook users, but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I was programmed to move my fingers in reverse since childhood thanks to Nintendo games. Until recently all first-person shooters and games that involved flying had controls inverted by default. Now all first-person shooters have ‘natural’ directional controls, which I can never get used to. My nephews, on the other hand, grew up with ‘natural’ controls and wonder why I have to invert the controls before I can play their games. Try as I might, I simply cannot play XBOX or PS3 games with today’s standard controls. 

  4. Rebecca says

    From what I understand, and I could certainly be completely wrong, you can change the reverse scrolling in in settings and Apple’s new iCloud will allow you to store all of your iTune purchases as well as 5G of your own files for free. Also, wouldn’t it be easier to pack a cable for your camera, rather than a card reader? Any of that help at all?

  5. John Smith says

    Hi there,
     Can anyone please recommend which “level” of MacBook Air 11″
    I should go for, if I’m going to be using it mainly just for Garage Band.
    I guess NOT the base/entry level right? Any recommendations please?
    Thank you, Tanya.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      John – for most users I recommend the configuration that I bought and am reviewing- the $1199 model w/4GB of memory and 128GB SSD.  You’ll definitely want the 4GB of memory if you’re a multimedia guy. The Core i7 processor may help you export projects a bit faster. But then you’re getting into 13″ MacBook Air territory. 

  6. wok4 says

    Thanks for first impressions. Since I am also a photog and I am using lightroom: How about performance and maybe (hopefully not) noise from the fans?

    THX

    WOK

    • Xavier Lanier says

      The MacBook Air is very quiet. I don’t use Lightroom as I prefer Aperture. I haven’t loaded this application onto the 11″ MacBook Air yet. If your photo library looks anything like mine you’ll probably  run out of room if you rely on the 11″ MacBook Air as your primary photo editing device. Editing photos in iPhoto is an ok experience so far, but iPhoto doesn’t tax systems nearly as much as advanced options in Lightroom and/or Photoshop. Another thing to consider w/ the 11″ is the relatively low resolution. I really prefer the 13″ MacBook Air and 15″ MacBook Pro for editing my pics. 

      • wok4 says

        Thanks. I am working on pictures mainly with a large monitor attached, only while shooting I use it to ingest photos and make a first selection.

        My idea is to use the Thunderbolt Display as my hub, and have only one Lightroom catalog on the Air and load the others (and the RAWS) from a Thunderbolt RAID, make my edits and exports.

        So I mainly use the Air 11 as a portable CPU with an emergency monitor attached. I would go for 1,8/4/256. Like the 13″, only a little bit smaller…

        And I fear, that the small fans will make a lot of noise while editing…

        Thanks anyway for your valuable input..

        • Xavier Lanier says

          Noise has never been an issue with my old 13″ MacBook Air or this new 11″ MacBook Air. Laptops w/ full speed processors and traditional hard drives need bigger fans to cool things off. These things are much quieter than devices like the MacBook Pros, which can really heat up. 
          Which monitor are you thinking of? I haven’t tried plugging my 11″ MacBook Air into my Cinema Display yet. Will post my experience soon. 

        • wok4 says

          It will be the new Thunderbolt Display. The perfect hub vor the Air: I connect my Firewire 800 RAID to the Display, also the Gigabit Ethernet and USB, an when returning from shooting I just slip in one single Thunderbolt – cable (and power), and I am connected to everything. 
          11″ Air: Portable CPU with attached emergency monitor…

          Thanks again

          Wolfgang

  7. Christian Ross says

    I paid $32.69 for a XBOX 360 and my mom got a 17 inch Sony laptop for $94.87 being delivered to our house tomorrow by FedEX. I will never again pay expensive retail prices at stores. I even sold a 46 inch HDTV to my boss for $650 and it only cost me $51.77 to get. Here is the website we using to get all this stuff, WildCent.com

  8. Shubho Ghosh says

    Nice review. I am planning to purchase the Macbook Air 11. I primarily use FTP softwares, html/css/php editors and photoshop. Will the 11″ suffice? Or should i opt for the Macbook Pro 13″ instead?
    Please advice.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      I think the 11″ will be fine for most of what you’re mentioning. The one thing the MacBook Air may have issues with is Photoshop, but that completely depends on how crazy you plan on getting with file size and edits. I’ll try and post some demos this week of both machines w/ Photoshop. 

  9. John in brisbane says

    Nice review.  I’m not an apple hater – just a little put off by the usual stuff people complain about.  These new MBAs are just superb.  I nearly bought a basic one the other week but decided on the last order screen to hold off a few months and see what happens with the ultra book PCs.  $1000 is not unreasonable either – how often can you say that about an apple product?  Soon hamburgers will be eating people!

  10. Rstrathman says

    Great review. I think the 4gb 128 ssd I5 is good for most things. excel, browsing with a 27″ TB monitor. I love the quote above” portable cpu with emergency monitor attached” lol

  11. Melivegar says

    Hi, I am a graduate student and looking to buy an 11′ MBA…I really only ever use my computer for school work (note taking & Microsoft usage) as well as web browsing…I have even gotten away with using an iPad as a sole computer for one semester! Is it safe to say the base model would be fine for me?

  12. Lizawaz says

    I am using the MacBook Air 11″ and I love its portability. I am woman and a student. I hate heavy backpacks, so the weight of this machine makes a big difference. Also, when I am on the go it slips right into my purse.
    I love the power of the MacBook Pro but I do not need the weight and all around largeness of it. I do like to upload pictures from time to time and I use my camera cord to connect to my MacBook Air. I also have a handful of USB drives that I use to save all my writing assignments and most pictures.
    I liked your comment about upgrading to 4gb if you are a multimedia person. I am not. I purchased the Air with the basic 2 gb/ 64gb flash storage, do you think this will be enough memory and storage for someone like me who will only use it to browse the web (for entertainment and research), Twitter, FaceBook, email, and to write papers?

Leave a Reply