Mac Musings

The 2011 MacBook Air Value Equation

Dan Knight - 2011.07.27 - Tip Jar

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The more things stay the same on the outside, the more they change under the hood. That seems to be Apple's motto this summer.

Last year Apple overhauled the MacBook Air design and introduced a smaller, netbook-sized model. This year's MBAs look the same, but there are a lot of changes within the aluminum unibody.

In terms of power, the biggie is leaving behind Intel Core 2 Duo technology, which Apple first used in mid-2006, in favor of Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs. Last year's 11.6" MBA with its 1.4 GHz CPU scored 2159 in Geekbench; this year's 1.6 GHz i5 hit 5040, way more than twice the score. The 2010 1.86 GHz 13.3" benchmarked at 2976, but the 2011 1.7 GHz G5 version blew past that at 5860, nearly double the score.

In terms of expansion, the addition of Thunderbolt, introduced with the Early 2011 MacBook Pro line and also included with the Early 2011 version of the iMac, is being positioned as the expansion bus of the future. Thunderbolt has over twice the bandwidth of USB 3.0, 60% more than SATA 3, and enough bandwidth to support high resolution monitors, SSD RAID arrays,external video cards, and adapters for FireWire, USB 3.0, and other protocols. Look at it as a virtual expansion slot.

Apple's new Thunderbolt Display is a perfect complement to the MBA or MacBook Pro, as it has its own USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and Gigabit Ethernet, along with a Thunderbolt pass-through port and a FaceTime HD webcam.

In terms of graphics, it depends. The Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics used in last year's MBA were nice but far from state of the art. The same can be said of the Intel HD Graphics 3000 built into the CPUs of this year's models. Early benchmarks using World of Warcraft at native resolution turn in higher frame rates for the new models (28 vs. 24 on the 13" and 31 vs. 22 on the 11"), but that will be game dependent.

In terms of storage, the 2011 MacBook Air uses the same SSD modules as last year's model, but this time on 6 Gbps SATA 3.0, not the older, slower 3 Gbps SATA 2.0. If you want more capacity or speed than Apple offers, OWC's Mercury Aura Pro Express SSDs range in price from $400 for 180 GB to $1,400 for a whopping 480 GB of SSD storage.

Last Year's News

With the addition of Thunderbolt and the move to Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs, there's a huge difference in expandability and performance in comparison to last year's models, so the question is, Why should anyone buy a 2010 MacBook Air?

One reason is the bottom line. You can buy a refurbished 2010 11-incher for $749 - $200 below the best price on the 2011 model. It's a perfectly adequate computer for most users most of the time, and its price dropped $100 when Apple introduced the new model. You can get a 13-incher refurb for $999, which saves you $250 over the new entry-level 13" MBA.

Probably the biggest reason to choose last year's MBA over the 2011 versions is that the older ones run OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, which contains Rosetta, which means they are compatible with PowerPC software - things like Quicken, AppleWorks, older versions of Photoshop, etc. These apps won't roar with Lion, but they will continue to run under Snow Leopard.

Gamers might find the Nvidia graphics give them a reason to choose the 2010 MBA, but they'll want to check benchmark results for their favorite games on both platforms to see which offers superior performance on the titles they play.

The Lion Conundrum

The biggest drawback to the Mid 2011 MacBook Air is that it comes with OS X 10.7 Lion. If you are still using PowerPC apps (AppleWorks, for instance) and want to keep doing so, you don't want to run Lion exclusively, as it no longer supports PowerPC apps. You may also have apps that are Intel-compatible but no yet compatible with Lion.

We've heard that VirtualBox will let you virtualize Snow Leopard and run it as a session on your Lion Mac, but that was done using hardware that supported Snow Leopard. Whether Macs that can't boot Snow Leopard will be able to virtualize it remains to be seen, but it could give users the best of both worlds - the totally up-to-date Lion environment plus Snow Leopard for all those old apps you can't run in Lion.

If you are going to do virtualization, whether for Windows or Snow Leopard, be sure you get your MBA with 4 GB of memory, because you can't upgrade after the fact. While the extra memory is a plus regardless, it becomes even more important when running multiple operating systems.

For some of us longtime Mac users, the ability to use our existing PowerPC software is a real issue. If you've come to the Mac in the past five years, it's probably not an issue at all.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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