PC to Mac: MacBook Air Buyer’s Guide

MacBookAir_11_and_13_next_to_eachotherHaving written about the Mac mini recently it’s time to look into a mobile entry into the world of Macs. Like in case of the Mac mini, we are looking at a cheap way into mobile Macs and with the Macbook long gone, that would be the MacBook Air a.k.a. MBA.

It is a magnificent little machine, light, durable and very fast to work with. As a matter of fact, I started my Mac adventure with a 11” MacBook Air (i5) and I’m writing this post on the very same machine. It has been for the past 10 months or so my main working computer that endured all sorts of office activities, presentations, email, web consumption and creation, image editing and even movie editing recently.

Make no mistake: despite the relatively low clocked i5 CPU this is among the fastest computers for “normal stuff” I have ever worked on. For working with Office, browsing the web, mails, editing some graphics and just having tons of open documents, spreadsheets and browser tabs it feels a lot faster and more responsive than my i7 gaming PC running Windows 7. Obviously the Air isn’t really faster, but it feels that way due to the combination of its prompt response, SDD and to a huge part thanks to Mac OS X GUI’s fluidity.

I recently compared the 11” Air for my normal work with a mid 2012 MacBook Pro 13” with 128GB SDD that has a significantly faster CPU and GPU. I wouldn’t even think twice before choosing the Air. I can’t notice any difference when working on it, but the lower display resolution of the MacBook Pro (1280×800) is quite annoying. Let’s face it, most people, including myself, just don’t do many things most of the day that would actually tax a modern CPU or GPU.

MacBookAir_2012_sizeMacBook Air comes in two sizes: 11” (11.6 inch 1366 x 768) and 13” (13.3 inch 1440 x 900). If you look at width, depth and height we are talking really small here. Perfect for the road warrior, but not a bad notebook to be used for home either.

The MacBook Air comes with Intel’s i5 CPU clocked at 1.7 GHz (or 1.8GHz for the 13” model) and both can be ordered with an i7 CPU clocked at 2.0 GHz. This is however a dual-core i7, not a quad-core i7. There are and never have been any MBAs with quad-core i7.

Both models come with 4GB of RAM and you have the option to order them with 8GB. You cannot upgrade RAM on your own as it’s soldered to the logic board.

Both model also come with Intel’s HD 4000 graphics. Casual and old games run quite nicely on it, but proper, modern games will struggle at best.

The 11” model is available with 64GB or 128GB flash storage (SSD) up to 512GB, same as 13” model, except the 13” doesn’t have an option to be ordered with a 64GB SSD.

Both also come with a FaceTime camera (720p), 2x USB 3.0 ports, 1x Thunderbolt port, a headphone jack, dual band (2.4 and 5 GHz) 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. Both use the new MagSafe 2 power connector and come with built in stereo speakers and a very good microphone. Considering the size the speakers are surprisingly good. The keyboard is the same Apple keyboard layout and size you get in all Apple notebooks and on the Wireless Keyboards and it is indeed one of the best keyboards for writing I have experienced in a notebook over the years. Of cause both come with the excellent glass multi-touch trackpad that, contrary to the vast majority of PC notebooks is just a joy to use when running Mac OS X with all the gestures. This is something that actually astounded me first time I used my MacBook Air: the touchpad’s quality and function and for the first time in so many years its ability to actually replace a mouse when travelling. I found myself to go for the touchpad rather than the mouse very quickly, something that was just possible on the many PC notebooks I had. Don’t get me wrong though, for certain tasks nothing beats a mouse, but this touchpad offers a real alternative to it.

Where they do differ is:

  • 13” comes with a SD card reader
  • 13” offers a larger battery thus increasing battery life by ca. 2h compared to the 11”.
  • And obviously display size, resolution and overall size and weight.

MacBook Air prices start with the magical $999 for the 11” model with 64GB SDD and $1199 for the 13” model with 128GB. Be very careful though, 64GB won’t be enough storage space for most users. It is meant to keep the price low and is nice for people who need their Air on the road while doing most of their work on another computer. Invest 100 bucks more and get 128 GB, you won’t regret it. Contrary to common belief, it is possible to replace the SDD on all MacBook Air models using OWC’s Aura Pro SDDs of various sizes from 120GB to 480GB. It is actually a very simple procedure, but paying Apple $100 to get from 64GB to 128GB is actually cheaper as the 120GB Aura costs around $180.

11” or 13”? This choice really depends on personal preferences and how you want to use your MacBook Air. If you plan on using it as your potential main computer, go for the 13” model. If you want to have a Mac for as little money as possible, get the 11” one. If you want something highly portable, go for the 11” model, too. While the size difference on paper doesn’t appear that significant with only an inch here and an inch there, in reality the 11” just feels significantly smaller. The weight difference isn’t really that noticeable, but the size is.

Should you plan on using your Air with an external display a lot, then the 11” might not be a bad choice either and it is a bit cheaper than the 13” model. The 2012 models are also able to use two external displays when daisy-chained via Thunderbolt. All earlier models can only use one external display.

MacBook Air (mid 2011)

Similar to the Mac mini buyer’s guide, let’s travel back in time from model to model for those interested in buying a second hand MacBook Air.

The previous MacBook Air models are still a very good choice today. They differ from the current mid 2012 models only in a few areas:

  • Sandy Bridge CPUs instead of Ivy Bridge CPU
  • CPUs are slightly lower clocked at 1.6 GHz vs 1.7 GHz or 1.7 GHz vs 1.8 GHz on the 13” model (i7 CPUs are clocked at 1.8 GHz vs 2.0 on the mid 2012 models)
  • Intel HD 3000 graphics instead of HD 4000.
  • USB 2.0 ports instead of USB 3.0
  • Can only drive one external display as opposed to two displays on the 2012 models.
  • Thunderbolt controller with 2 TB channels rather than 4 TB channels
  • FaceTime camera instead of FaceTime HD
  • No 8GB RAM option
  • No 512GB SDD option

On the surface 0.1 GHz doesn’t look like anything worth mentioning, but that is only part of the story. The bigger difference is Ivy Bridge in the mid 2012 models compared to Sandy Bridge in mid 2011 models. Being based on the older generation of Intel’s chips, the mid 2011 model have around 20% less CPU performance. With Ivy Bridge also came HD 4000 while mid 2011 models have the HD 3000. The performance difference in games between those is about 60%. What this means in the real world is that while the mid-2012 MBA can run some modern games on very low settings with playable frame rates, the mid-2011 model won’t be able to approach anything that could in some way be considered playable.

In normal, non-game and non-graphics intensive usage however the difference is negligible, except when running multiple displays.

Which in case of the mid-2011 model doesn’t matter much as its Thunderbolt chip only supports 2 Thunderbolt channels (all other Macs, including the mid-2012 MacBook Air support 4 Thunderbolt channels) and thus cannot drive more than 1 external display.

Despite those difference, as mentioned before, I still consider the 2011 models to be very good choices. Unless you need 2 external displays or want an Air that is a bit more capable in the gaming department, you might as well go with the mid-2011 models. I know I did. I got the mid-2012 11” for a weekend to play around with. I installed it on Friday and spent Saturday working most of the day using the mid-2012 model. I just couldn’t tell a difference, at least not until Sunday when I looked at some games. Games that were just unplayable on my 2011 become playable on the mid-2012 one. However, please keep in mind that we are talking lowest settings in those games, so don’t get your hopes up for anything even resembling serious gaming.

While I do find the HD 4000 and dual display support tempting, I decided to stick to my 2011 model and not buy the new one. I found the difference for most of the things I do not significant enough to warrant changing hardware. I am pretty sure I will buy the MacBook Air that will follow the mid-2012 model though as combined the difference should quite noticeable.

MacBook Air (late 2010)

Going another year back, we arrive at late-2010 models. Visually not much has changed. They still look exactly the same and the only thing you might spot right away is that the late-2010 models don’t have a backlit keyboard.

There aren’t many differences under the hood either, but those that are there might, depending on your needs and usage scenario, have a serious impact on your decision to buy a used 2010 model:

  • Intel’s Core2Duo CPUs instead of i5
  • CPU clocked lower at 1.4 GHz (1.6 GHz option) in the 11” model
  • Nvidia’s GeForce 320M instead of Intel’s HD 3000
  • No Thunderbolt port, just a mini DisplayPort
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR instead of Bluetooth 4.0
  • SATA II instead of SATA III (300 MB/s vs 600 MB/s)
  • No AirPlay Mirroring support

MacBookAir_Geekscore_2012 vs 2011 vs 2010 modelsThe first thing one does notice, apart from the CPU being Core2Duo rather then i5 are the differences in CPU speeds. Until now, the 11” and 13” models had a tiny, rather negligible 0.1 GHz difference in their CPU speeds, but in the late-2010 models the CPU clocks are far apart and so is their performance. While the 11” model has its CPU clocked at 1.4 GHz or optional 1.6 GHz, the 13” model had 1.86 GHz or optional 2.13 GHz. While the difference in CPU performance between the 11” and 13” models in 2012 and 2011 was in the area of 10% and thus not a really a deciding factor between those two, in the late-2010 models the difference is over 30%! So choosing 11” or 13” is not a matter of display size and resolution and the preference in overall size, but performance as well.

Unless you really, really want small size, I can only recommend going with the 13” display mid-2010 model.

If you are looking into light gaming, you might think that similar to the Mac mini from that year, the late-2010 MacBook Air models might be better than the newer mid-2011 models. It packs Nvidia’s GeForce 320M instead of Intel’s HD 3000 and when it comes to games, the 320M is on average around 35% faster than the HD 3000. While this is true, there is a problem with that when it comes the MacBook Air. Unlike the 2010 Mac mini or the 2010 MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air not only has a slower CPU type, but also runs its CPU quite low at just 1.4 GHz in the 11” MBA. While on the two other Macs the GPU is the bottleneck when it comes to most games, on the 2010 MBA the CPU can be a bottleneck as well, especially on the 11” MBA. I have tested a 11” MBA for a while and compared to the mid-2011 model it is hit and miss when it comes to games. Some run slightly faster, some pretty much the same, some games run noticeably slower. In my opinion, when it comes to games at least the 11” MBA looses on the CPU what it gains on the GPU and should for all intends and purposes be considered at best equal. There was a 1.6 GHz option for the 11”, but I doubt that would make a difference, I do however suspect the 13” with significantly faster CPU speed would perform better, but I had no opportunity to test it.

There is also another difference between the Core2Duo and i5 CPUs beyond pure, upfront performance. In a notebook, you might want to protect your data in case you loose it or it gets stolen. A good way is to encrypt your drive with Mac OS X’s FileVault 2. However, the Core2Duo lacks hardware support for AES encryption and while encrypting your drive won’t really be noticeable with an i5 on board, with a Core2Duo you do actually notice the strain on the CPU occasionally, especially when opening lots of files or big files. Not a deal breaker in most cases, but something to keep in mind if your decision between the models is stuck.

The only other topic worth consideration when comparing it to its successor is Thunderbolt – or rather lack of it. Instead of the Thunderbolt port the late-2010 models come with mini DisplayPort. While it looks the same, you cannot connect any Thunderbolt devices to it. It is purely a connection intended for connecting an external display and is capable of carrying sound as well. Unless you plan on getting a Thunderbolt Display, this difference between the late-2010 models and their successors is negligible and I suspect if you’d go for a Thunderbolt Display, you wouldn’t be looking at buying an old MacBook Air. For the purpose of this buying guide and the goal of getting a Mac notebook cheap there is currently not a single Thunderbolt device worth mentioning. Sure, there are plenty of external HDDs, RAIDS and SSDs, but considering their prices, this would be a case similar to the Thunderbolt Display.

AirPlay Mirroring is not supported on Late-2010 MacBook Air models. AirPlay Mirroring is a very nice feature that allows you to mirror anything on your Mac’s screen to an Apple TV. I personally value this functionality a lot and thankfully there is Beamer - a little, inexpensive app that allows you to just do that on any MacBook Air.

Now, how do the late-2010 models perform in daily usage in 2013? Quite good actually. You’ll notice tiny stutters on the 11” 1.4 GHz when working with lots of open documents and apps or many tabs in your browser, but no major biggie. I briefly tested the 1.86 GHz 13” one with office apps, web browsing and graphical applications and it performed very well. Considering the prices these usually go for it is still a good choice. However, as always, try to get one with 4GB instead of 2GB.

MacBook Air (mid 2009)

First off, there was 11” variant back then. 11” MacBook Air started with the late-2010 models, before that all MBAs were 13”. The mid-2009 model is also different in many other regards, even visually. Let’s run down the differences compared to its successor, the late-2010 13” MBA:

  • SSD was an option, base model came with 120GB 4200 RPM HDD
  • Lower screen resolution (1280 x 800 instead of 1440 x 900 of later models)
  • Limited to 2GB RAM
  • Nvidia GeForce 9400M instead of GeForce 320M
  • Only 1 USB 2.0 port (all newer MBAs have 2 USB ports)
  • Slightly higher
  • Smaller battery
  • No SD card reader
  • Processor cache not on chip
  • Infrared or Apple IR remote
  • Backlit keyboard
  • SATA instead of SATA II (150 MB/s vs 300 MB/s)
  • 1.8” drives with SATA connector
  • Older trackpad
  • No AirDrop support

Quite a list of changes. Let’s start with the “package” itself. It looks pretty much the same, except it is slightly thicker. Not something you’ll notice right away though. 0.16 at the front and 0.76 at the back compared to the late-2010’s 0.11 and 0.68. Or 0.4cm at the front and 1.94cm at the back compared to 0.3cm and 1.7cm if you like. All other dimensions remain unchanged, so you really have to look close to notice the increased height.

What you will however notice right away is the screen resolution. 1440 x 900 in the newer 13” models down to 1280 x 800 in this one is quite a difference. That is by the way the same resolution that all 13” MacBook Pros have (except the new retina one obviously).

There are other things you will notice right away as well. The first is the backlit keyboard on the mid-2009 model, something that has been missing on the late-2010 model. The mid-2009 model also has IR for the Apple Remote, something that has been absent from all newer MBAs. While that’s really nice, only 1 USB port isn’t. While all the newer 13” MBAs have a card reader, the 2009 one does not.

Yet another thing that looks slightly different is the touchpad. While all MacBook Airs from the late-2010 on use the sweet, button-less, glass multi-touch trackpad the mid-2009 model comes with the old one with a button (solid-state trackpad). The button is just an easy way to tell them apart, the real, quite significant difference is what they can do. The old one only supports two-finger scrolling, tap, double-tap, and dragging, while the new, glass multi-touch trackpad also supports inertial scrolling, pinch, rotate, swipe, three-finger swipe, four-finger swipe, tap, double-tap etc. all those gestures that make Mac OS X so nice to use.

On a side note, you might notice that the 2009 model has an iSight camera rather than a FaceTime camera. It’s the same camera, Apple just started to name them FaceTime in 2010 and until the mid-2012 model nothing really changes (mid-2012 has FaceTime HD with higher resolution).

Performance wise the 2009 MacBook Airs are slower than their 2010 counterparts. While it is the same CPU with the same speed (Core2Duo L9400 @ 1.86 GHz and L9600 @ 2.13 GHz as option) and same 6MB cache size, the cache is not on the chip resulting in slightly lower CPU performance. The difference in CPU performance is only 7% between CPUs at 1.86 GHz and 8% at 2.13 GHz, so definitely not a deal breaker, but something to keep in mind in addition to all the other differences.

On the graphics side of things the difference is significant though. The GeForce 9400M just doesn’t compare to the GeForce 320M in the late-2010 model so anything beyond casual gaming is a pipedream. On other fronts the 9400M still does a decent job.

The mid-2009 model also comes with a smaller battery resulting roughly 2h less life when unplugged. That still leaves around 3h WiFi surfing time, but 3h is not 5h+.

Where it gets worse is RAM and storage space. The mid-2009 could not be ordered with 4GB so 2GB is all it has. You can make due with 2GB, no question about it, but 4GB these days is just recommended. The other problem is, that the mid-2009 MBA in its base configuration came with slow 4200 RPM hard drive instead of SSDs an all its successors. The difference in overall performance and how fast it feels is huge! With the HDD the MBA feels like any old computer and those 2GB RAM do not help. RAM and SSD are two main “cures” for slow computers and this one lacks both. Dependent on your location, all you might see on eBay or your local sources are MBAs with HDD rather than SSD. Don’t buy them unless they are extremely cheap, because MBAs with HDD are really no fun.

This doesn’t however mean one with HDD is a no-go area. Unlike its successors the mid-2009 model comes with a 1.8” drive, be it HDD or SSD rather than a custom format SSD. This means you can actually replace the HDD with an SSD. Keep in mind thought you’ll need a 1.8” SSD while most SSDs sold are 2.5”. Still, it’s nice to be able to replace a drive in a MBA for once…

Just be aware that you going to replace the drive in a very small, tightly packed notebook with basically no room inside and that makes it quite a bit more difficult than swapping the drive in a unibody MacBook Pro.

Mid-2009 MBA also don’t support AirDrop. To put it simply, AirDrop is a quick and simple way to exchange files over WiFi without having a WiFi network. You open Finder on both Macs and select AirDrop. Mac OS X will then create an ad-hoc WiFi connection between those two Macs and transfer your files. Very nice feature.

To bring it to a point: if you can get a mid-2009 MacBook Air with SSD very cheap, consider going for it. Don’t buy one with a HDD unless you plan on putting a SSD inside. Other than that, you should consider spending a bit more and get a late-2010 model – they are overall a lot better.

MacBook Air (late 2008)

The late 2008 model is very similar to the mid-2009 one thus the list of differences is pretty short:

  • 1.6 GHz or 1.86 GHz vs 1.85 GHz or 2.13 GHz
  • Slightly less powerful battery

The slightly less powerful battery means 37 watt-hour vs 40 watt-hour. In Apple claimed battery life its 4.5h vs 5h. In real life it’s more like 2:45h vs 3:10h, but as always with battery life, it depends on what you and YMMV. Anyway, the difference isn’t anything that should influence your decision at this level.

The performance difference again isn’t that significant either. At 1.86 GHz this one performs the same as the mid-2009 and the slower 1.6 GHz performs on a similar level than the one in the late-2010 11” MBA (Geekbench score of 2261 there vs 2245 here).

All in all the MacBook Air has seen only minimal improvements with its 2009 model making the late 2008 model a similar choice: if you can get a late-2008 MacBook Air with SSD very cheap, consider going for it. Don’t buy one with a HDD unless you plan on putting a SSD inside. And again, you should consider spending a bit more and get a late-2010 model – they are overall a lot better. I love copy & paste.

MacBook Air (original aka early 2008)

The original MacBook Air, the one that got the heads spinning when pulled out of a normal office envelope.

  • Slower CPU and speeds
  • 800 MHz system bus rather than 1066 MHz
  • No Mountain Lion support
  • Intel GMA X3100 rather than Nvidia GeForce 9400M
  • Micro-DVI port rather than Mini DisplayPort
  • External displays resolution of 1920 x 1200 rather than 2560 x 1600
  • PATA rather SATA drive interface
  • Same battery, but slightly longer battery life due to lower performance components.

Right away I would not recommend the original MacBook Air. The simply terrible graphics combined with not being able to install the latest Mac OS X 10.8 aka Mountain Lion are reasons enough to look for a newer model as your first Mac. Additionally, unlike the late-2008 model, the HDD upgrade is far from easy as Apple used a 40-pin ZIF connector and PATA SSDs in 1.8” are on their own hard to come by.

The limited external display resolution is not something that weighted on this decision. Considering the purpose and goal of this buyer’s guide, I doubt anyone will want to hook it up to a 27” display.

In terms of performance, the graphics side is simple: terrible. Playing YouTube videos and movies is the high-end capability of the X3100 in this little machine.

CPU wise, the one at 1.6 GHz is 11% slower than the one in the late-2008 model while the 1.8 GHz is 22% slower than the late-2008 model’s 1.86 GHz. The original MacBook Air used older Merom Core2Duo CPUs while the late-2008 used Penryn Core2Duo ones.

MacBookAir_all_models_CPU_performanceOver the course of the past models and years we have been looking at 10% of performance here and there. Going from year to year it doesn’t feel like much, but it adds up quickly. If you look at the chart with Geekbench CPU performance scores you will see how far down the performance road we have traveled. We have basically arrived at a third of the CPU performance of the currently sold MacBook Air.

When you decide on a MacBook Air model, look up its performance and compare it to the current mid-2012 model. In case of the MacBook Air it is often better to put some more bills onto the table and get a newer, faster model or just spend some more time looking at eBay or your other sources for one that’s cheaper than the rest.

The SSD does a lot for the overall performance of a MacBook Air, like for any computer for that matter. The MBA isn’t that old yet with its first model released in 2008, but the differences that Intel’s new architecture brought along with pure CPU performance is far from negligible. Please keep that in mind when deciding which model you choose. While cost is likely to be a determining factor for many, the purpose should be considered as well. If you intend to switch to a Mac and the MacBook Air will be your only computer, than I would suggest to go for at least a late-2010 model with 4GB RAM. If you want a cheap mobile Mac to see what the Mac and Apple fuss is all about, you’ll be fine with any of them as long as there’s an SSD inside. The only exception here would be the original MacBook Air. I did include it in this guide just to cover all models and on the off-chance someone might want some info about it when considering it for a future vintage Mac. It was after all quite a revolutionary notebook when presented for the first time and it is THE notebook that started a whole new market segment: ultrabooks.

The last bit of advice might sound odd, but I do really mean it. The touchpad. The reason I personally would not go for anything older than mid-2010 MBA is the trackpad. Using OS X with gestures on the multi-touch trackpad is just a whole different experience and the purpose of this guide is to get a Mac to get to know the Mac experience.

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