Hands on review of the 4th generation MacBook Air (Mid 2011)
MacBook Airs and I have had a tenuous relationship for many years. I have had an original first generation Air (Early 2008) unit loaned to me for the last several years. Sometimes I’d use the machine a lot and sometimes not at all. My main issue (besides my lack of love for Apple) was that beyond the size/weight, it just wasn’t that amazing. Everything about the Air underwhelmed me. Sure it was light, but the screen was just okay, the battery was lackluster, the speaker sucked and it wasn’t powerful at all. Last week, I got my hands on the new 4th Generation MacBook Air (Mid 2011 model) and I’ll honestly say, my opinion (including my lack of love for Apple) has been changed.
The first thing to keep in mind is that I’ve used a Gen 1 heavily, a Gen 2 reasonably, and only barely touched the Gen 3s, but now I am switching to the Gen 4. My reaction and/or noted changes are from Gen 1 to Gen 4. While any multi-generation leap is bound to impress, most of what makes me suitably impressed is how squared away into a real machine the Air has become.
Weight & Form factor
In 4 generations, the weight of the machine has not changed substantially. This doesn’t surprise me since trying to make the Air any lighter would do no good, but making it faster/better equipped would certainly be a welcome change. The form factor in terms of the size has not changed, but the shape has. I realize the Gen 3s had a similar “squared” off look, but I’m soooo very glad they dropped the rounded edges. Plugging in the power on an upside down 45 degree angle was nothing short of obnoxious.
The screen on the new Air is a very reasonably 1440×900 and looks quite nice, like every other MacBook. The increase in resolution is a godsend in terms of using the Air as an everyday machine.
Normally laptop speakers aren’t much to write home about. The Original Air (Gen 1) had a single speaker that warranted writing home about because they sucked so terribly. The new Gen 4 unit is a welcome change; I actually think the speakers are quite reasonable. If you play any track with a fair amount of bass you can actually feel it thump the Air, ever so slightly.
As anyone who used the Gen 1 Air knows, it had a lackluster battery, at best. If it managed two hours, I was impressed. The new Gen 4 is rated at 7 hours. I haven’t managed to get quite that much (more like 5-6), but that’s because I’m not a “light” user. If you want a computer to only surf the web and listen to music, you can buy a much cheaper Chromebook like the Acer AC700 (or a Gen 1 Air). The Gen 4, being as powerful as it is, is put to work by me.
Yay! Thunderbolt! Uh… It’s very… exciting because… uh… you can plug your screen into it… and… stuff? Okay, let’s be honest. Thunderbolt is cool in concept (in a USB-on-steroids sort of way), but there is Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah for compatible accessories. The only two devices I’ve seen for sale that use Thunderbolt are a $1-2,000 Promise Pegasus RAID system and the $999 27″ Display. Sure, I want both, but that’s a little outside of my personal budget right this second.
OS X Lion (10.7) really is a beast (snicker snicker) of its own. I will say that while I don’t think it is a massive change from 10.6, there are several nice features like AirDrop (when it works), built in recovery partition (boot and nuke!) and the much improved FileVault disk encryption. Sure, they changed some minor things like the direction of touchpad scroll just to screw with users and IT guys, but what the hey, where’s the fun in simplicity?
I consider myself a power user and while I don’t develop on the Gen 4 MacBook Air (nor would I want to), it is a beefy unit for its size. After 3 years, the Air is is finally at a point where I am willing to use it on a regular basis. Sure, I used my Gen 1 a bit, but that’s only because it was light and good for typing in bed. The Gen 4 is good enough to use nearly 100% of the time. Not revolutionary like Apple claims most of their devices are, but a good evolution (and it only took 4 tries to get right!).