Hardware, design & build
The design hasn't changed since last year. You still get the brushed aluminium unibody shell Apple have used for the last few generations and it's still as resistant to scratches as well as having a faultless finish.
The keyboard with separated backlit keys (15 x 15 mm) is very nice to use. Supple and relatively quiet, it offers comfortable keying. A pleasure for word processing!
The multitouch touchpad is still just as wide and comfortable to use. The glide is fluid and precise. For those who've never used a Mac touchpad, you put one finger on the touchpad and click with another for the right click. For more information on usage, you can consult the explanatory video on the Apple site. All the detail on the combinations of movements for Mac OS X Lion are there. They're a real advance in terms of ease-of-use.
The webcam (1280 x 720 pixels) was disappointing. The image flickers and lacks detail. The dark zones lack differentiation in tone and blacken rapidly. It's not hard to find better.
As usual on the MacBook Air, the connectivity is pared right back. We have two USB ports, a headphones socket and the Thunderbolt (Apple's new dada) socket and that's it.
Thunderbolt is the name of the high speed connection used by Apple on all its latest products. It mixes the DisplayPort connector with Light Peak technology. Along the lines of FireWire, this all-in-one can link up up to 6 peripherals of any type, including those dedicated to video. Backwards compatibility with DisplayPort is assured, as long as the screen is the last link in the chain.
This socket can, for example, link this 11.6-inch up to the Apple Thunderbolt Display, a screen specially designed for the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. It is, for the moment, one of the very few peripherals compatible with the Thunderbolt socket.
In terms of noise, the machine is inaudible if you don't glue your ear to the side of it. Unfortunately, when you push it to more demanding tasks, the heat increases to over 50°C in places.
The MacBook Air's temperature readings when you push the components hard
Readings taken using a Fluke Ti25 (Distrame) camera
Power socket, USB 2.0 port and headphones socket
USB 2.0 port and Thunderbolt out
A low consumption Core i5 !
Apple is highlighting the fact that the CPU comes from the Core i series but has omitted to mention that they're using a low energy consumption processor here. While the Core i5-2467M (processor index: 68), draws less power than the more common Core i5-2410M, it's also a lot slower in the execution of tasks.
Although between two and two and a half times faster than its 2010 antecedent, it's 30% slower than the Core i3-2310M that's found on numerous 13.3-inch ultraportable laptops. In terms of power, the closest machine to this MacBook Air is the Samsung Series 9 (processor index: 78).
Office documents, Internet browsing and other basic usage are therefore no problem for the MacBook Air 11.6-inch 2011 edition. Photo retouching, 3D modelling and other heavier tasks are not out of reach but require longer processing times than machines equipped with the Core i3-2310M (+27%) and i5-2410M (+58%).
The OS starts up in 17 seconds and it takes under 5 seconds to turn off.
High definition video playback, whether 1080p or 720p, poses no problem. In contrast to last year's model, there's no discreet graphics card for HD video decoding here. The Intel HD 3000 graphics chipset is perfectly able to handle this alone and Apple has therefore opted for no additional card and maximum battery life.
Like last year, the SSD makes for faster software installation and copying to an external hard drive and better overall machine responsiveness. It's also of course much more resistant to shocks than a standard hard drive.
Very limited gaming capacity
You can run recent games such as Starcraft 2 on the Intel GMA HD 3000, as long as you keep graphics options to a minimum. Not something for the enthusiasts then.
Audio: as good as you'll find on a compact machine
There's been no great change here on the previous generation and after all, what's there not to like? The speakers, placed under the keyboard, do better than on most netbooks and even than some notebooks. The sound isn't up there with the best laptops but when you think how little space there is here, you have to say Apple is doing well.
In terms of connectivity, the headphones socket works well but you only get the built-in mic and nothing else, so you can't use a headset here.