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.
Does anybody know if the USB FastEthernet adapter will still work on the new MacBook Air? Will it only work if it is connected directly or would also work if connected to a USB3 hub?
I know there's a Thunderbolt GigE adapter, but since I have a non-Thunderbolt display I'll need the Thunderbolt port for the display. I don't see any Thunderbolt port multipliers around yet. It might stay that way, and even if it doesn't, I don't expect to see one for the $30 a USB hub costs. ;)
As a non-techie, I'm in the dark as to how one would use USB 3.0 as compared to Thunderbolt.
Is there a TidBITS primer on that?
No articles yet, since USB 3.0 is making its debut on Macs with this release.
In short, though, USB 3.0 is just like USB 2.0, only faster. So you'll use it to connect peripherals that support it. Thunderbolt is faster yet, but has many fewer options for supported peripherals at the moment.
It all comes down to what you want to connect. If you think "I need a new external hard drive" you can now choose between USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt drives, based on cost and other factors. Until yesterday, you would have had to choose between USB 2.0 and Thunderbolt (and perhaps FireWire, depending on the Mac you're connecting to).
It should be noted that the Air processors are "Ivy Bridge" rather than the prior "Sandy Bridge". For a given GHz speed, an Ivy Bridge chip is faster by quite a bit. I think the machines will benchmark faster by a larger margin than the tiny GHz increment suggests. (The slightly convoluted sentence avoided "...more faster...")
Good to know, John, thanks!
Early benchmarks confirm:
"On the MacBook Air side, top-of-the-line systems are seeing boosts of over 20% in Geekbench scores over their corresponding predecessors. As with the MacBook Pro, even the low-end systems of the new generation outperform the high end of the previous generation."
"Geekbench testing focuses on processor and memory performance, providing comparisons of raw power between machines but only telling part of the story. But with these machines seeing significant boosts in graphics performance with the addition of Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics and/or the NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M, and systems with solid-state drives using faster drives than in the previous generation, real-world performance should see marked improvement."