Notebooks Guide

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch) (2011) review

Apple 13.3-inch MacBook Air (2011) - Fruits of Perseverance

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Overall rating 9/10
Design:
9
Features:
8
Performance:
9
Value:
9
Mobility:
9.5
THE GOOD
Very slim
Very light
Design is good
Premium aluminum body
Affordable
THE BAD
Slight flex on the keyboard
Gets hot when doing wireless transfers
OS X Lion takes some getting used to


Performance Benchmarking

Performance and Benchmarking

When it comes to performance, we would like to declare that the benchmarks were done using Boot Camp because most popular benchmark programs can’t be run in an OS X environment. Scores indicated here are no indication towards the MacBook Air’s performance while running its native operating system. However, these scores do help people who are interested to know how it fares against the thousands of other Windows based machines out there. Besides, Boot Camping has become a very common practice as several non-native Mac users are hopping in to the Apple bandwagon.

Hardware-wise, it was relatively on par with the two other machines which we picked to go head to head with the MBA: the very sleek Samsung Series 9, as well as one of our recent favorites, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1. They were all using solid-state-drives, and they all sport Intel Core i5 processors. The major differentiating factor here was the processor variant used among all three notebooks as the X1 had a faster 2.5GHz processor and a higher GPU clock speed, while the other two were sporting low voltage, low TDP processors with slower overall clock speeds. The Samsung was the slowest of the lot in terms of processing prowess. However, their choice of processors pretty much dictated their design choices too. The Samsung's folio-like profile needed something that consumed as little power as possible but still harbored a decent processing power house. Apple's Air mustered in a slightly better processor with a higher clock speed, but it was still an equivalently low powered part. Lenovo had headroom in its design to go with a standard powered mobile processor and thus was endowed with a pretty speedy Core i5 processor.

Specifications/Notebook Apple MacBook Air (2011) Samsung Series 9 Lenovo ThinkPad X1
Processor Intel Core i5-2557M (1.7GHz) Intel Core i5-2537M (1.4GHz) Intel Core i5-2520M (2.5GHz)
Chipset Intel QS67 Intel HM65 Intel HM65
Memory 4GB DDR3 4GB DDR3 4GB DDR3
HDD 256GB SSD 128GB SSD 160GB SSD
Video Intel HD 3000 Intel HD 3000 Intel HD 3000

Now that we’ve gotten the basics out of the way, the MacBook Air’s gaming performance gave us a pleasant little surprise when tabulated. After some fact finding and digging around, we found out just what was giving the little speedster that extra performance boost - drivers.

The graphic drivers on the MBA were downloaded from Apple servers and were pretty new when looking at the driver revision and launch date. Not only were they newer than the competition, it's likely that the drivers are better optimized for the hardware since Apple has very limited configurations. This is an advantage that other notebooks can't share with the use of either generic drivers and even sometimes against the notebook vendor's own optimized drivers (as we found out first hand by applying the newest drivers available across all three machines). To be doubly sure, we even tried applying the MBA's set of drivers on the competing Windows machines, but that didn't work as just like we thought.

 

PCMark Vantage

In most of the test suites, the newer MacBook Air managed to hold it’s own against the Lenovo X1. The Series 9 is performed slightly behind the two, but it was expected due to the slower clock speed of its processor. What was intriguing though was how the MacBook Air managed to keep up with the Lenovo machine despite the CPU discrepancy between both notebooks.

There are several factors involved here. First, the SSD used on the MBA machine is both better and larger. Better because the Toshiba controller based drives use Apple's custom firmware for better I/O throughput. Also not to forget are SSD basics where the larger the SSD drive, the more likely it's using more flash memory chips that can be lined up to form a wider I/O path. This results in better read/write performance too and the two factors combined boosted the storage performance numbers as seen in the HDD test suite of PCMark Vantage. Secondly, the newer graphics drivers on the Mac machine boosted graphics performance and managed to match up against the Lenovo machine despite the latter having the technical advantage.

Last but certainly not least is down to the CPU's own performance potential. If you look closely, the Core i5-2557M mobile processor, it has a turbo boost potential of nearly 1GHz (base clock - 1.7GHz, turbo - 2.7GHz). Compare this with a lower 700MHz turbo boost potential of the Core i5-2520M mobile processor (base clock - 2.5GHz, turbo - 3.2GHz).  There's a possibility that the MBA had more opportunity to run on its turbo frequencies more often than the X1. We've done enough processor testing in the past as well as talk to Intel performance lab personnel on how their processors operate to know of this outcome. It's true that lower-end processors can turbo boost much easier because of Intel's excellent yield. Yet the higher-tier processors don't have quite as much headroom. Couple this with the above reasons and Apple's more customized treatment to make their platform more efficient, we see why the new MBA can match up with a technically superior machine like the Lenovo X1.

 

3DMark 06

And like in the PCMark Vantage results, the the MacBook Air’s performance also shines in our 3DMark tests. Its scores were double that of what the Series 9 could muster and edged ahead of the Lenovo X1. The MBA really shined with its updated drivers as it was noted to have several performance enhancements in its revision. Despite these results, scores like these usually only allow you to indulge in casual games. Serious gamers should looks elsewhere. For casual video and photo editing needs, the CPU's built in graphics engine is adequate for these needs. And of course most importantly, watching HD videos is a breeze on the MBA as well with the latest iteration of Intel's graphics engine - the HD 3000 - is more than capable and doesn't need assistance from a discrete GPU.

 

Far Cry 2

There is no truer test than having the machine run a gaming benchmark, which for us is Far Cry 2. In this test, the MacBook Air did much better than expected. At medium settings, its scores were more than double of what the Series 9 could achieve, and were also on par with the ThinkPad X1. Again we could attribute this to the newer drivers. When we visited Intel’s website to see what improvements the updated drivers have, Far Cry 2 was reported to have a whopping 40% improvement.

Even at very high settings, the MacBook Air and its new drivers were in good standing. If you don't believe the difference that drivers can make, we had the scores of the Lenovo X1 with its initial set of drivers to compare with against a more recent run with the latest drivers from Lenovo that the X1 would accept for installation on the machine. And yes, the scores recorded surged almost 40% more than the original scores. Still, with frame-rates like these, we’d still advise you not to play anything more than casual games on your new MacBook Air.