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Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (mid 2011) - Keyboard, Screen and TrackPad

By Edward Chester



Our Score:


User Score:

One thing that shocked many people about the previous generation Air is that Apple dropped the backlit keyboard. Thankfully Apple has reversed this and the backlighting is back, which, for a portable machine potentially meant for use in all sorts of places, is a very welcome thing.

The layout of the keyboard is also decent, though not perfect. For a start it has some US centric elements like the "@" symbol being swapped with the" " " symbol. Also, the Return key is a bit small and "\" key is on the right. And obviously Windows users will have to get used to using the cmd key for many keyboard shortcuts. Incidentally, how did it end up that, despite both Macs and Windows machines having Ctrl keys, they use different keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste? But we digress.

Otherwise the typing experience is excellent. The key action is quite light and shallow so fans of big chunky keyboards that give lots of feedback may not be happy, but to our nimble fingers they seemed just right for speedy typing.

The screen is also among the best available in its class. Its 1,366 x 768 resolution is high for an 11in device meaning you can fit plenty of sharp detail on screen. It also produces vibrant colours and has a very powerful backlight when needed. Backlighting also seems reasonably consistent with no obvious bleed from round the edges. Finally viewing angles are excellent for a TN panel, if not quite on par with the Samsung Series 9 or laptops with IPS panels like the Lenovo X1. All told however, it excels at all things work and play.

MacBooks have long had surprisingly good speakers and so it is even on this tiny machine. Bass certainly isn't thumping but there's a fullness to audio that means it far surpasses the tinny wastes of space that pass for speakers on many small laptops. You'd probably want to invest in external speakers for bopping about your bedroom but for general video watching and gaming, they're great.

Then of course there's the famous Apple TouchPad. Formed from frosted glass atop yet another piece of aluminium, the large pad has a wonderfully smooth yet solid surface that is also one big button. It is effortless for general navigation, feeling absolutely spot on in terms of tracking and clicking. It's so good that the same style is rapidly being adopted by other manufacturers, including on the Samsung Series 9.

And then there are all the multi-touch gestures.

For a while now, Apple MacBooks have had class-leading use of gesturing but with the latest Lion update to Mac OSX things have taken another big leap forward. Obviously there's the pinching to zoom and scrolling around web pages with two fingered swishes and swipes but it's the next level stuff that really makes a difference.

Swipe upwards with three fingers and Mission Control is launched. This interface lets you see all your open apps and your different desktops (you can create multiple desktops to, for instance, easily separate your work programs from those for play) in one easy view, making it super quick and easy to jump from one thing to the next.

Alternatively, swipe left and right with three fingers and you'll move between your existing desktops or fullscreen apps. By setting an app to fullscreen it's automatically given its own 'desktop', allowing you to quickly swipe from it to your 'normal' desktop where all your other programs are open in windows.

Even four fingered gestures are supported, with a inward pinch bringing up the new iOS-style app launcher that presents all your installed apps in a simple grid pattern. Spread your fingers outwards again and LaunchPad, as it's called, closes again.

Combined, these gestures and interface elements make for a truly game-changing way of using your computer – going back to using a normal trackpad after using a Mac with Lion installed just feels like stepping back in time. That said, we do concede that it's a somewhat different matter when it comes to using a 'real' mouse, but then the interface is just as compatible with a conventional rodent.

Sullivan McIntyre

July 22, 2011, 2:53 am

Ah, comment box, here it is.

What's so hard about plugging in a cheap mDP to HDMI adapter to use it on telly? Are you saying that this ability has been removed with Thunderbolt? If they got rid of the TB port and put HDMI on there, you'd still have to buy an adapter to get a VGA signal for business use, and you wouldn't have the expandability you now do Thunderbolt.

That point reads a bit like trying to find something to fault, to be honest.


July 22, 2011, 3:41 am

Do agree there, however at this price the least Apple could do is to include a Thunderbolt to HDMI adapter, not that I expected them to however.

Found it hugely interesting how the Macbook has been discontinued, would have hoped for the Pro to drop a few hundred quid to differentiate itself from the Air, but alas I didn't really believe that it would.


July 22, 2011, 11:37 am

The HD3000 graphics on the new Sandybridge chips is supposed to be much faster than previous Intel efforts (though not a patch on the new AMD llano chips). Starcraft is quite a CPU intensive game and seems to run well (looking at benchmarks) on low powered graphics as long as the CPU has some grunt. TF2 runs on pretty much anything doesn't it!

Still not for me, I like my Thinkpads.


July 22, 2011, 12:51 pm

I do specifically say that you can still get a lot done but it requires a bunch of dongles and cables, which some of us would rather not carry around. Besides, HDMI is such a standard both for AV and computer monitors that it would be the most useful connection. As to replacing the TB port, that wasn't what I was saying. They should have both. Nice though the slimness of the Air is, adding a couple of mm for the sake of markedly more connectivity would be far preferable. Has always been the case.


July 22, 2011, 12:55 pm

Gave it a quick test last night and it ran Portal fine, though trying to play some Counter-Strike: Source did highlight another issue with the Air - no Ethernet port - latency was so bad it wouldn't find any servers.


July 22, 2011, 2:29 pm

@Ed: dongles and cables

Well I suppose if you had a HDMI port you still need to carry a cable. I don't think I've bothered connecting a laptop to a TV for a very long time, but if it's something I did a lot I would just get a dongle and keep it with the HDMI cable. To me the thunderbolt idea makes it more flexible in the IO department, need HDMI get a dongle, need VGA get a Dongle, need more USB's get a dongle, need Floppy/DVD/CD/BlueRay get external devices. etc. etc., and it's possible without adding lots of pointless legacy IO ports.

And to top it all off, keeping the IO ports down to a minimum will most likely help with Power usage / Weight, and Driver's. So instead of having all these extra ports, the laptop could maybe use the space saved for a little bit more battery juice too.

One area I think is very lacking is the memory, 2 Gig is a bit of a joke. The entry should have at least 4 Gig and the next one up 8 Gig.


July 22, 2011, 3:10 pm

Sadly, as wonderful as it looks, I am unable to use it as I am one of the percentage of people who cannot bare LED backlighting. Painful eyeballs and blurred vision isn't something I found that I could live with so I had to return my previous MBP.

Soon absolutely everything will be LED backlit and I will be using a stone tablet and abacus.


July 22, 2011, 3:50 pm

Do you not see the irony in the line "need HDMI get a dongle, need VGA get a Dongle, need more USB's get a dongle, need Floppy/DVD/CD/BlueRay get external devices. etc. etc."?

And I'd agree on the battery point if they didn't make the device so thin and added in another layer of batteries, but they don't. The device lacks what it lacks because they've gone for form over function. I'm not saying it's horrible, horrible, horrible, but I suggest there is a very strong market for a device with this small footprint but with the thickness of a MB Pro and all the ports and battery life that system offers. It doesn't even have to be that extreme an example, just making the USBs USB3.0 would be a start...


July 22, 2011, 3:51 pm

I must admit I've never encountered this issue before. What aspect of it do you find problematic?


July 22, 2011, 6:47 pm

@Ed: Do you not see the irony in the line


It's called a MacBook Air, do you see the irony in your response. :)

But maybe my point was no put across very well, if I get a laptop, I might need X,Y & Z, but I could leave out A,B & C. Using dongles just means I'll get X,Y & Z. You on the other hand might need A,B & C, so not having them saves weight/battery etc. And yes, maybe it's form other function, if you want something with lots of IO ports sticking out then it's not for you.

The thing is legacy ports need to be pushed out, or we'd all be still using serial / parallel & Floppy disks etc.

I get your point about USB3.0 though.


July 22, 2011, 7:16 pm

If you genuinely don't see the irony then there's perhaps little point in continuing this discussion. Nevertheless...

To talk about 'it's called the Air' is such an over simplified way of looking at it. You can't assess a product purely within the context of what a manufacturer defines it as.

It's of no practical value to asses a product like the Air on how it performs as simply a really slim notebook - slimness is of little real world consequence beyond a certain point. That's like assessing a road legal Formula 1 car purely based on how fast it is.

What the Air actually is is simply an ultraportable notebook and in that context it is open to much wider criticism. For instance it could come up against devices like the old Sony TT, which in the same footprint and weight offered a CD drive and vastly more connectivity. It's not to say that the Air doesn't suit some people's needs but to gloss over the fact that it lacks fundamental connectivity simply with the excuse that it's thin is entirely missing the point.

And, seriously, HDMI and SD are legacy?! Come on now.


July 22, 2011, 8:38 pm

@Ed: And, seriously, HDMI and SD are legacy?! Come on now.

Yes, I'm not saying HDMI is not common. Please don't confuse the two, HDMI isn't exactly new it it?. Eg. Serial / Parallel were still very popular when USB appeared. And considering Thunderbolt can carry HDMI then, again yes again it's legacy.


July 22, 2011, 9:15 pm

Ed - google apple led eye strain/pain. There are quite a lot of users on the apple forum complaining of it. Some people notice the flickering of the LEDs and this causes painful eyes, dizziness, nausea and headaches. If I used my MBP for 15 minutes it felt like my eyeballs were burning. I have a similar experience with LED tvs too

As much as I loved my MBP, I had to return it. There is no finite solution for this problem sadly, now my only option is a mac mini. Absolutely loved my old MBP when at uni, its just so disappointing when I see the snappy new models and I can't have one. My bank account is better off though.


July 22, 2011, 9:28 pm

Legacy does not simply mean 'not the newest', it implies a level of redundancy and this simply isn't the case with HDMI. It is, and will remain for the forseeable future, the AV connection standard. As such it would be useful to have it on a laptop. And I once again point out that I'm not saying it should replace TB but merely that it should/would be preferable to be there.

Also, just on the point about carrying cables etc. Yes, to guarantee a connection you would need an HDMI cable with you always but there are many more occasions where friends/family/colleagues/associates/hotels are likely to have an HDMI cable than a TB port.

Just to clarify where I'm coming from. For my everyday use I'd require an SD card reader and an Ethernet adapter when on the move (and of course this is already assuming I've invested in some sort of TB hub for at home). Just about any other ultra portable laptop offers these. Admittedly I'm more of a power user but I once again cite that the MacBook Pro still has both of these so if it was such a principled decision based on deprecating old tech then why not remove them from that machine as well? Because it's about the thickness, which brings me back to my assertion that thinness is of limited benefit.

simon jackson

July 22, 2011, 11:58 pm

Quite surprised by the portal performance! I'm a samsung series 9 owner, which is also HD3000 graphics. I haven't tried anything as intensive as portal, mainly because it was TERRIBLE running minecraft, so i assumed anything 3d was really out of the question. I wonder if this is because minecraft is very poorly optimised because even badly optimised its trivial for most desktop hardware to run it. Have you tried mine craft on the air? Would you mind doing so as a point of comparison?



July 23, 2011, 5:06 am

from wiki legacy-> A legacy system is an old method, technology, computer system, or application program that continues to be used, typically because it still functions for the users' needs, even though newer technology or more efficient methods of performing a task are now available.

Anyway, enough said, I'm not sure your getting were I'm coming from anyway. I'd just like a future were we have one frigging connection that does the LOT, were Dongles wound't even be required, as a standard IO port is all we would need. I thought when USB came out that would have been it, but unfortunately it's not keeping up pace, so Intel had jump in with the TB port. Things won't change though, as a prime example, people such as yourself moan about HDMI not be directly accessible, even though if it was important you could use a Dongle, but it appears there are a lot of people who have DonglePhobia.


July 23, 2011, 3:23 pm

Precisely! You're very definition emphasises my point. In the current climate, TB isn't practically a more efficient method of connecting your laptop to most of the rest of the technology in your life. It's new and largely unsupported.

And, please, don't cop out by suggesting I don't understand your point. And certainly don't go pointing fingers at me with regards holding back progress with my dongle phobia.

I totally agree that one single standard connection would be preferable but right now choosing to use only that connection when it is largely unsupported is an impractical move for most people.

I also cite the numerous counter arguments I've made against the Air's overall design, which you seem to have ignored. I reiterate; the Air is a product available to buy right now that is one option among many in the ultraportable laptop market and as such that's how we asses it. It's not a ticket to a bright new future, it's a computing tool.


July 24, 2011, 4:23 am

> I totally agree that one single standard connection would be preferable

Well that's my whole point. Come on, what would be the most practical way of getting a one standard, by supporting legacy systems using a dongles seems logical to me. It's a bit like how large companies can move onto newer OS's with very little pain. Supporting legacy OS's nowadays it's done via Virtualization. So if you think about the Dongle basically been a way to virtualize the legacy connection.

The unfortunate truth about Human nature is, we don't like change. I see it every time we install a new computer system into our customers site. The users complain like crazy, even though the new system is going to make there life's easer in the long run, they hate the pain involved in the learning transition, it sometimes feels like we have to pull them away from there old system kicking and screaming, of course go back a few months later and they wonder how they ever managed using the old system. Here your hating the apparent pain that not having a dedicated HDMI socket brings you even though there is an alternative. So again, the unfortunate truth about human nature is that in a way, as users we need a push, or we don't progress (or progress slowly). Anyway, nothing is going to change, this is how we are, people are going to say they want a dedicated USB 3 & HDMI port even though with 1 single port they could have both + more. So manufactures are kind of forced into supplying these, rather then spending there R&D/money on future enhancements. So the unfortunate truth is, as users we actually hold back progress.

In a nutshell: Wouldn't it be nice, if we had 6 TB port's, well that's going to happen while manufactures have to make sure you get this IO port & that IO port as well. eg. Early M/B only had a few USB ports until Serial & Parallel was removed.

>I also cite the numerous counter arguments I've made against the Air's overall design, which you seem to have ignored.

If I've not commented on it, then doesn't it make sense I might not disagree?. My whole comment has been on the TB port, and on how using a Dongle really isn't the end of the world. If you want me to comment on everything you've said, them this thread might get very long. :)


July 25, 2011, 2:36 pm

The reason I mention the other counter arguments is that they're key to my point. You're complaining that I pick out some shortfalls in the Air yet you only cite the pure technological argument whereas I'm viewing the product as a whole. Can you not see that having to carry around three different dongles for Ethernet, SD card and HDMI (for instance) would be a real bind and until every Hotel you visit has TB networking in its rooms, until every TV has a TB port, until cameras start using TB cards, this is going to remain this way. Nothing wrong with bringing in innovations but not at the expense of current usability.


July 25, 2011, 3:27 pm

I'm not missing your point at all. I understand that having the dedicated ports makes your life a little easer. And yes, using dongles even I say isn't perfect/neat solution. But I also believe for progress to move faster, we as users need to accept a little pain. But like I pointed out in the other thread, I also understand this is something human nature is not very good at. btw. HDMI/SD/Ethernet ports do not just add a couple of mm.

And what's to stop them creating a single Dongle, that takes into account all of your needs. HDMI/SD/Ethernet/USB3 etc/etc all in one single Dongle. Maybe even a CD/DVD/BlueRay combo with HDMI/SD/Ethernet all included too.

btw. I'm not saying you shouldn't point out shortfalls of any device, as a reviewer that's your job. And yes to some people not having dedicated I/O ports would not be ideal, and in such cases this device is not for them. I just believe the importance of such I/O ports is sometimes overstated, eg. my current laptop I can't remember the last time I used the HDMI port on in, and for most users I bet this is the same.


July 25, 2011, 5:17 pm

I think the perspective of the review is slightly misleading. The Air is a device that is far more capable and powerful than your average netbook, but it's lacking when compared to a fully fledged machine - as Intel say, it's a new class of device finally vindicating their CULV platform, or nowadays as they claim an 'Ultrabook'.

Personally, I distinctly favour the Air over a netbook, and personally I really despise the tablet efforts to date. For power, there is a desktop, for portability therefore the choice is between a netbook and an ultrabook - the Air wins this, because it's cheap enough (pinch of salt given it's Apple) to use as a runabout device, and powerful enough that it won't infuriate when you need at least a small degree of power.

As far as the tirade on HDMI goes, it's a pointless argument. First, ThunderBolt is DisplayPort compatible and DisplayPort in turn is HDMI compatible. It's not such a big deal as you're making it out to be, and all Apple mobile devices need a dongle of some sort to connect to an external display, unless you're using their Cinema Displays. While those are appealing, money is better spent on buying another proper power rig for the desktop.

Compared to netbooks and tablets, the Air is a class leader. Compared to proper production rigs (be it a high-spec luggable or a desktop), then obviously it's anaemic. As a useful device in the line up, however, it's far more appealing and justifiable to the average user.


July 25, 2011, 10:28 pm

You seem to be forgetting about all the other ultraportable laptops out there. Admittedly few offer quite the level of thinness of the Air but there are a number of proper 11in laptops weighing under 1.5Kg that offer many of the things I'm citing.

I also take umbrage with the assertion that my mentionings of the connectivity shortfalls are a tirade or pointless. For one, I never actually make that big a deal out of it - I merely point out what it can and can't do. Moreover, it's not pointless. No argument for the viability of a dongle changes the fact that you still need one and that this is undesirable.

Chris Hamer

July 29, 2011, 3:31 am

I must say this is not for me, I don't mind ultraportables as long as they put form and function at the same level!
There is one problem with this design, the USB's are on opposite sides of the machine, some HDD's and optical drives have a two headed USB cable and this makes it impossible to plug in.
Also it's fine to put a thunderbolt port on it but no one will jump on it straight away and stop using every other port, transitions take time! They need to add a thunderbolt and other ports like HDMI, VGA, Ethernet etc. Then eventually ultraportables will phase out the VGA etc in favor of more thunderbolt ports.


July 29, 2011, 5:07 am

As far as I'm concerned Apple nailed it with these new Airs. I'd love to get an 11" model as I'm in need of a laptop to make notes on at uni that has enough welly but fit go un-noticed in my bag.

Sadly for Apple, the Lenovo x121e will do pretty much all I want at about half the price; it's not as sleek or fast and doesn't have a backlit keyboard, but the SD card reader, inbuilt VGA and half the price-tag will mean I'll have to wait on getting an Air until I'm in the right financial position to get away with it.


July 29, 2011, 2:44 pm

I was wondering why when listing the alternative 11 inch laptops you do not have the Lenovo X121e?

It's not as powerful as the Air and it is slightly heavier but it is a lot less than half the price. Is there a review coming of that machine?

As an aside - I bought the previous generation Air, despite not being an Apple fan, and even with the outdated internals it is still a joy to use in a way a PC just isn't.

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