Apple Fine Tunes Mac Air, Making Best Better: Rich Jaroslovsky

MacBook Air
A MacBook Air laptop computer on display at an Apple store in San Francisco. Like all the Airs, it uses chips rather than a hard drive to store data. Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

Is it possible for any Apple Inc. product to suffer a lack of attention? Probably not, but if it were, it might be the recently revamped MacBook Air.

Released at the same time as Lion, the new version of the OS X operating system, the Air at first glimpse is little changed from the model that was introduced last year. But Apple has made enough improvements, most of them under the hood, to cement its position as the most enjoyable laptop you can buy.

The Air comes in two models. The smaller, weighing in at just under 2.5 pounds, has an 11.6-inch screen and 2 gigabytes of memory. Starting at $999, it is the cheapest MacBook of any kind. The larger, weighing just under 3 pounds, has a 13.3-inch display and 4 gigabytes; it starts at $1,299.

I’ve been testing the 13.3-incher, which comes with a gorgeous 1,440-by-900 high-resolution screen. Like all the Airs, it uses chips rather than a hard drive to store data.

The chips take up little space, helping make possible the Air’s lightness and thinness. And they contain no moving parts, making them more power-efficient and reliable than physical hard drives, which can fail with sometimes disastrous consequences. (Though not for you, of course, because you always back up your stuff, right?)

No Waiting

Since there’s no waiting around for a mechanical head to locate your data on a spinning platter, the chips make the Air very, very fast. From a cold start, it took me 28 seconds to get to the log-in screen on a hard-drive based MacBook Pro; the Air took 15 seconds. Shutting down the Pro took six seconds, the Air three seconds.

When Apple unveiled a redesigned Air last year, its brain, Intel Corp.’s Core 2 Duo microprocessor, was already antiquated. It could bog down if you had too many tasks going at one time.

The new models remedy that by replacing the Core 2 Duo with Intel’s newest-generation Core i5 processors, known as “Sandy Bridge.” Programs open quickly and there’s little slowdown even if you’ve got a lot of windows open. The zippier performance is particularly evident if you’re doing processor-intensive tasks like editing videos.

As with all current MacBooks, you can’t replace the Air’s battery, yet it delivers almost iPad-like performance. Apple says the 13-inch model provides up to seven hours of use, but I was actually able to do even better. (The smaller model claims up to five hours of battery life.)

Let There Be Backlight

That’s especially good considering that the new Airs bring back the backlit keyboard that went missing with the 2010 models. And speaking of keyboards, typing on the Air is a largely comfortable experience, thanks to the generous expanses of brushed metal flanking a track pad more than big enough to accommodate all of Lion’s gesture-based operations.

One area where the Air is a little too light, at least for the moment, is in connectivity. While the new high-speed USB 3.0 connections are fast becoming commonplace, Apple sticks with the older, slower 2.0 standard, and only provides two of them. It’s betting that a new kind of connection, called Thunderbolt, will be the wave of the future.

Problem is, there aren’t a lot of accessories that support Thunderbolt, and it isn’t clear how widespread it will be beyond the Apple universe. So far, the most impressive Thunderbolt peripheral out there is Apple’s own $999, 27-inch external display, which does double-duty as monitor and docking station. It’s pretty awesome, but at least one more USB port on the computer, preferably of the 3.0 variety, would prove more useful, at least in the short run.

Costly Gigs

The Air’s other significant drawback is the cost per gigabyte of its solid-state storage. The base 11-inch model holds just 64 GB, as much as a high-end iPod Touch. The larger Air stores 128 GB. Doubling the capacity of each will set you back another $200 or $300, respectively.

Even so, the Air is a bargain compared to other ultra-thin-and-light laptops. For example, the Series 9 from Samsung Electronics Co., which runs Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, costs $350 more than the comparable Apple. That price advantage, coming on top of the MacBook Air’s latest enhancements, reaffirms its position as the best laptop on the market.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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