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MacBook Air Adds USB 3.0, Faster Processors

Those waiting for a refresh of the MacBook Air line received good news today, as Apple unveiled an update to the consumer laptop line, available immediately. As is almost always the case, Apple increased performance by bumping the clock speeds slightly, starting with a 1.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 in the low-end 11-inch MacBook Air and working up to a 2.0 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 in the priciest 13-inch configuration. Those aren’t significant differences — only .1 to .2 GHz increases in each configuration, but improvement is always welcome.

Performance should also be boosted somewhat by the move from Intel HD Graphics 3000 to Intel HD Graphics 4000, although by how much is a question for the benchmarkers.

More interesting is the appearance of USB 3.0 for the first time (along with the other MacBook Pro releases today). The USB 3.0 ports — there are two of them — replace the USB 2.0 ports from the previous generation MacBook Air, and since USB 3.0 is backward compatible with USB 2.0, the only thing you should notice is faster performance when connecting a USB 3.0-based device. USB 3.0 has a theoretical maximum throughput of 5 Gbps, compared to USB 2.0’s 480 Mbps, making it far more useful for modern storage devices in particular.

Also new is the option to add 512 GB of flash storage to the MacBook Air, which previously maxed out at 256 GB. That option doesn’t come cheap though, adding $500 to the price. Equally welcome, and less expensive, is the new option to order a MacBook Air with 8 GB of RAM for an extra $100; previous models maxed out at 4 GB. For many of us, that 4 GB limitation was a deal-breaker, since many tasks in Mac OS X perform better with more RAM. Both the flash storage and RAM upgrades are available only on build-to-order models purchased from the online Apple Store.

Speaking of prices, all the configurations other than the entry-level 11-inch configuration drop by $100, giving the 11-inch configuration prices of $999 and $1099, and the 13-inch prices of $1199 and $1499.

Lastly, Apple added a FaceTime HD camera, capable of 720p video, which should nicely improve the video quality over the previous FaceTime camera. Everything else, including the form factor, weight, battery life, display resolution, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and SD card slot in the 13-inch model, remains the same.

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