Overall performance of the MacBook Air 11in (mid 2011) is very impressive. This is again helped by the speed and efficiency of the MacOSX operating system. The normal tasks required of general productivity – opening programs, transferring files, flitting between programs – all happen near instantly.
What also helps is that Apple has finally upgraded the CPU in its Airs from the ancient Intel Core 2 Duo to a Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5. The 1.6GHz chip can ramp up to 2.3GHz when required and just generally packs in a host of new tech that means it's notably faster than its predecessors. This can be demonstrated by running the Cinebench benchmark where we observed over a two fold increase in CPU performance from 0.91 to 2.36.
To further investigate how the Air stacks up on raw performance we used boot camp to load Windows and run our usual selection of benchmarks; PCMark Vantage, MobileMark, Trackmania Nations and S.T.A.L.K.E.R Call of Pripryat. In PCMark we can see it certainly holds its own against other ultraportables such as the Sony S and much lauded Samsung Series 9. In truth PCMark is easily skewed by the lightning fast performance of SSDs so we can't draw too strong a conclusion, but nonetheless it's clear the Air is a barnstormer when it comes to general productivity.
Talking of SSDs, the entry level 11in Air configuration has 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD, while the top end model we're reviewing has 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. It's this large and fast SSD that really helps keep this model feeing incredibly snappy in general use.
As for gaming, the drop from dedicated Nvidia GeForce GT 320M graphics to Intel integrated has been a much derided one. However, in our tests and those by other sources, these complaints are largely unfounded. We recorded an impressive figure of 60fps in our Trackmania benchmark, though that's an undemanding title. Admittedly it could only limp through the S.T.A.L.K.E.R Call of Pripryat test with 19.75fps at 720p and Medium detail, but there's still wiggle room to drop the detail levels in this game and get a (just about) playable framerate.
We didn't run these tests on previous models of the Air so can't directly compare them ourselves but other sources actually suggest the Intel HD 3000 graphics is ever so slightly faster than the old Nvidia dedicated card. Comparing to other Windows laptops backs this up with the Air only being soundly beaten by machines using the Nvidia 330M, a more powerful card than the 320M.
We also backed this up with some subjective testing by playing both Portal and Counter-Strike: Source. Both are fairly undemanding by the standards of more modern games but they still look great and were very playable at the screen's native resolution. Of course on both gaming and general productivity fronts, it's worth remembering this is still an ultraportable so you can only expect so much.
Battery life is also decent with our MobileMark score coming in at 4hrs 24mins, just a few minutes short of Apple's claimed five hours. Subjectively we also observed the incredible longevity of the system when in standby. Apple claims it will last 30 days in this state and we found we were easily able to return to our system after several days to find it still with a couple of hours of battery. The overall mark is comparable with other ultraportable laptops but this standby time is class-leading. As ever, the battery (along with every other component) is inaccessible and irreplaceable without a visit to an Apple store.
Looking finally at how the Air stacks up against the competition, we'll largely put aside questions of whether to by a Mac or a PC. For a start, you can slap whatever OS you like on this hardware and it will still work, and for the most part all the major players – MacOSX, Windows, Linux – do what you need them to do and have their pluses and minuses. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that MacOSX does feel just that bit more approachable straight out of the box, it's prettier, and the latest updates to the gesture controls really are a big boon - particularly on a machine where you'll largely be using a trackpad rather than a mouse.
Otherwise, if you're looking purely at super thin laptops then the obvious comparison is the Samsung Series 9 and, actually, the Air comes out firmly on top. It's more attractive, better built, and actually quite competitively priced. Moreover, you can't actually get the 11in Series 9 in the UK (it's limited to the other side of the Atlantic), only the 13in model.
If you're willing to look at chunkier 11in machines then there are plenty of options for less money, with the Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ and Dell Inspiron M1201z being a couple of examples. However, they don't really compete on performance or style. You could also opt for the mind blowing new Sony VAIO Z, which is also available with an external graphics card for extra performance. It doesn't come cheap though.
The Apple MacBook Air 11in (mid 2011) is clearly a machine for the well heeled, with a starting price of £850 and desirable configurations coming in over £1,000. Nonetheless, it is far from a frivolous purchase. Its styling and build are unrivalled, it has plenty enough performance for everyday computing, it'll at least half a working day on battery, and the improvements to MacOSX make it a lovely system to use. It does lack connectivity right out of the box (even eshewing the SD card slot of its 13in sibling) but, thanks to its ThunderBolt port, it can actually connect to just about anything you desire with the right adapter (once they become available). Many competitors are getting close but right now the Air is still flying high.