This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2011-07-20 at 10:24 a.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/12355
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MacBook Air Gains Faster CPUs, Thunderbolt, and Backlit Keyboard

by Adam C. Engst

Continuing with the pent-up releases, Apple has unveiled the next model of the MacBook Air [1], adding faster processors, a Thunderbolt port, and a backlit keyboard, along with a pre-installed copy of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. In terms of industrial design, the MacBook Air remains the same, coming in 11-inch and 13-inch models. The only negative is that the new MacBook Air knocks the white polycarbonate MacBook out of the product lineup, making the 11-inch MacBook Air Apple’s low-end laptop option.

The 11-inch MacBook Air comes in two configurations. First is the $999 configuration with a 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 2 GB of RAM (upgradable to 4 GB by Apple for $100, which you will want) and 64 GB of flash storage; there are no other build-to-order options. Its Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor shares a mere 256 MB of RAM with main memory. It’s worthwhile only if you’re trying for the cheapest possible MacBook Air.

I say that because the $1199 configuration has the same 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, but includes 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of flash storage. Plus, although the second configuration has the same graphics processor, it shares 384 MB of RAM with main memory. So for $200 more, you get twice as much RAM, twice the flash storage, and more RAM available for graphics processing, all of which will undoubtedly be welcome. The $1199 configuration also offers options of a 1.8 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (add $150) and 256 GB of flash storage (add $300). The screen size and resolution remain the same as the previous models, at 11.6 inches and 1366-by-768 pixels.

Similarly, there are two configurations of the 13-inch MacBook Air. The $1299 configuration offers a 1.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of flash storage; there are no build-to-order options at all. If you choose the $1599 configuration, you get not only 256 GB of flash storage, but also an option for a 1.8 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 (add $100). Both configurations rely on the Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 384 MB of RAM shared with main memory. Again, the screen size and resolution remain the same as previous models, at 13.3 inches and 1440-by-900 pixels.

Beyond the small changes in processor, RAM, and storage, the MacBook Air models are remarkably similar to one another. All sport a single Thunderbolt port and a pair of USB 2.0 ports; the 13-inch models also have room for an SD card slot. They all feature a backlit keyboard (returning to the MacBook Air line after disappearing in the 2010 models), a FaceTime camera, support for an external display at up to 2560-by-1600 resolution, stereo speakers, an omnidirectional microphone, and a headphone port that supports the Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic. 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 are both standard; there is no Ethernet port, although the Apple USB Ethernet Adapter remains available for $29. Also available is the USB-based MacBook Air SuperDrive for $79.

Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these new models, short of the fact that there aren’t really any Thunderbolt peripherals other than Apple’s new Thunderbolt Display [2] (which isn’t due out for 6 to 8 weeks) and the Promise Pegasus RAID systems, not that we can quite imagine hooking such a boat anchor to a svelte MacBook Air. Apple claims the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors are up to 2.5 times faster than the processors in the previous generation of the MacBook Air, and since processing performance was the main significant negative to the previous models, the change is extremely welcome. Despite the faster processors, Apple is claiming the same battery life as before — up to 5 hours for the 11-inch model and up to 7 hours for the 13-inch model.

[1]: http://www.apple.com/macbookair/
[2]: http://www.apple.com/displays/