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11.6″ MacBook Air: Who needs a netbook?

As I’m really enjoying my new 11.6″ MacBook Air, I thought it might be interesting to compare it with some other portables I currently own. Specifically, I wanted to compare the Air to my previous fave ultra-portable Mac (the 12″ PowerBook G4), a Dell Mini 10 running Mac OS X, and my current fave Mac laptop, the high-res anti-glare 15″ MacBook Pro.

What follows isn’t a comprehensive set of benchmarks done under controlled conditions. It’s more of a quick look at performance (and measurements and specifications) across a series of machines, three of which can be considered “ultra portables.”

Read on for the table…

After browsing the table, keep reading for my thoughts on some of the more interesting results, and some comments about the MacBook Air.

Feature 11.6″ MBA 12″ PBG4 Dell Mini 10 15″ MBP
S  P  E  C  I  F  I  C  A  T  I  O  N  S
Processor 1.6GHz
Core 2 Duo
1.33GHz
PowerPC G4
1.60GHz
Atom Z530
2.66GHz
Core i7
Resolution
Pixel Count
1366×768
1,049,088
1024×768
786,432
1024×600
614,400
1680×1050
1,764,000
Config: RAM – hard drive 4GB
128GB SSD
768MB
120GB
2GB
160GB
4GB
500GB
Cost – Purchase Date $1,399
Jan 2011
$1,799
Jul 2004
$407
Aug 2009
$2,399
Sep 2010
M  E  A  S  U  R  E  M  E  N  T  S
Dimensions
(width x depth, height)
11.8″ x 7.6″
1.0″ – .68″
10.9″ x 8.6″
1.18″
10.3″ x 7.2″
1.12″ – 1.25″
14.4″ x 9.8″
0.95″
Weight 2.3lbs 4.6lbs 2.9lbs 5.6lbs
Keyboard width (keys) 10.75″ (78) 10.5″ (78) 10″ (81) 10.75″ (78)
Keyboard feel Solid Solid Mush Solid
Trackpad (width x depth, button) 4.0″ x 2.5″
Soft
1.8″ x 2.5″
Physical
3.0″ x 1.5″
Soft-ish
4.0″ x 3.0″
Soft
P  E  R  F  O  R  M  A  N  C  E
Xbench: Overall 57.66 29.14 45.12 51.02
Xbench: CPU 113.31 45.64 30.41 216.35
Xbench: Memory 147.98 24.90 80.32 325.94
Xbench: Quartz Graphics 113.08 46.16 56.97 242.90
Xbench: OpenGL Graphics 87.29 43.16 78.25 219.01
Xbench: Disk Test 220.90 22.81 41.86 49.40
openssl speed
4096 bits RSA sign/sec
9.4 2.7 1.6 22.2
openssl speed
2048 bits DSA sign/sec
230.5 67.8 39.6 541.8
Feature 11.6″ MBA 12″ PBG4 Dell Mini 10 15″ MBP

Footnotes: All machines are running 10.6.6, except for the PowerBook G4, which is running 10.5.8. All tests were run on the normal user account, and as such, do not represent ‘clean room’ results. Xbench 1.3 was used for all Xbench testing. The openssl speed tests show only the two most-CPU-intensive tests of many that are run by this benchmark. See this old Mac OS X Hints entry for more about openssl speed. Best results are clearly marked.

Some things I found interesting while putting this together:

  • The 12″ PowerBook G4 was expensive for its time. $1799 in 2004 is about $2077 in today’s dollars—only $300 or so less than the high-res 15″ MacBook Pro.
  • The 11.6″ MacBook Air’s resolution gives it over 70% more pixels than the Dell Mini 10, and 33% more than the 12″ PowerBook G4. Compared to the 15″ MacBook Pro, though, it falls about 70% short in pixel count.
  • The MacBook Air is deeper (by .4″) and wider (by 1.5″) than the Dell Mini 10, but weighs 0.6 pounds less, and is never as thick as the Dell, even at its thickest spot. Somehow, it manages that while providing more pixels, more battery life, a much faster CPU, and twice the RAM when compared to the Dell.
  • At 2.3 pounds, the MacBook Air is only 0.8 pounds heavier than an iPad. For those 0.8 pounds, you get a full-size keyboard (identical in size to that of the 15″ MacBook Pro), higher resolution display, a couple of USB ports, a solid state drive, video out, and a fully functional Mac OS X environment. You don’t get built-in 3G (bummer!), or the ability to run iOS apps. Despite being the lightest of the bunch, the MacBook Air is solid. The Dell, by comparison, feels plasticky and cheap.
  • The Dell crams three additional keys into 0.75″ less keyboard real estate. Combine that with the somewhat mushy feel of the keyboard, and typing on the Dell Mini is a chore. Typing on the MacBook Air, on the other hand, is the same as typing on any other Mac laptop—because the keyboard is the same.
  • The trackpad on the MacBook Air is huge—10 square inches, versus only 4.5 square inches on the PowerBook G4 and the Dell Mini. (The PowerBook’s trackpad is the more usable of those two, though, as the Dell’s is long and skinny.)
  • The MacBook Air wins the overall Xbench crown, but only on the strength of its solid state drive. In the other tests, the 15″ MacBook Pro is the clear winner. I was surprised to see the Dell Mini was handily faster than the PowerBook G4. Neither of those machines, though, come close to the MacBook Air’s performance.

So much for the stats…in the real world, the MacBook Air is an amazingly quick machine for anything other than gaming and CPU-intensive activities. The solid state drive launches apps and opens documents very quickly. For my normal needs—which include FileMaker Pro, Excel, web browsing, email, some image editing, and a number of other not-overly-intense applications—it’s amazingly fast. The speed of wake on lid open must be seen in person, too—it’s basically instant-on, just like an iPad.

So for me, the MacBook Air is nearly perfect. The size and weight are such that I can easily carry it anywhere (and I’m contemplating a 3G modem or iPhone tethering plan for connectivity). There’s no comparison with the iPad in terms of getting my actual work done (though the iPad is definitely capable of more fun stuff). Battery life is a real-world four to five hours (much better than the two-ish I’d get off the stock Dell battery), which is fine for this class of machine.

What would I change to turn this machine from nearly perfect into perfect? Ideally, it’d have an anti-glare screen like my 15″ MacBook Pro, but this one isn’t horrid. (There’s no extra layer of glass, as in the non-Air machines, so reflections aren’t nearly as bad.)

I wish it had a sleep light; it’s not that I ever shut it down entirely, but it’s always nice to see the glowing light to know all is fine.

Finally, I wish the keyboard was illuminated. It’s not a huge issue, as the glow of the screen is a reasonable replacement, but it definitely makes it a bit easier to use in a darkened room.

But those are quibbles. While the 15″ high-res anti-glare MacBook Pro is still my favorite portable Mac for its combination of power and portability, there’s no doubt the MacBook Air is the perfect traveling companion for those times when I won’t need all the horsepower.

The only question now is…can I justify keeping the 15″ MacBook Pro around, given most of my portable needs don’t require all that horsepower? And oh yea…anyone want to buy a slow, underpowered, thick, plasticky, tiny-trackpadded Dell Mini capable of running Mac OS X?

9 Comments

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  1. Oh wow … maybe when it’s a year or so old! That seems a bit too extreme for a brand-new machine. Impressive hack^H^H^H^Hmodification, though.

    -rob.

  2. I used it to install a few apps (from my Mac Pro), and it worked well enough — it’s best if you’re in the same room, though, as there’s a dialog on the “host” Mac that you have to respond to.

    -rob.

  3. Thanks. Is the process fast? Because if I get an Air, it’ll be my only computer. So I’d have to be around a friend’s computer, or at a library, for example.

  4. To some extent, it depends on what you’re installing — a full 4GB DVD is going to take much longer than a 20MB shareware app burned to a CD. It’ll basically be as fast as the connection between the two machines. I connected via Ethernet (I bought the USB/Ethernet adapter), and the speed was fine.

    If this is to be your only Mac, it’s probably worth springing for the external drive, just so you’re not stuck if you ever absolutely need to get something done, and another Mac isn’t around.

    -rob.

  5. “The MacBook Air is deeper (by .4?) and wider (by 1.5?) than the Dell Mini 10, but weighs 0.6 pounds less, and is never as thick as the Dell, even at its thickest spot. Somehow, it manages that while providing more pixels, more battery life, a much faster CPU, and twice the RAM when compared to the Dell”

    Given that the MBA is over twice the cost of your dell “somehow” for the RAM is clearly money. The CPU may be the same deal, or it may just be the march of time has faster CPUs with that thermal footprint in 2010 then in 2009. More pixels is likely the same (time and money).

    The battery life could be money either directly or indirectly (R&D costs, Dell does very little R&D).

    I’m less sure about the lower weight. It would be a total guess to say the Aluminum is likely stronger per pound, and the unibody puts it in a stronger “shape” so they can use less poundage of it then the Dell’s plastic and still get a stronger feel. I’ll say it, but it is more of a guess then the rest of my guesses. I would guess there here also money plays a part (both R&D and direct materials costs).

    (and I know you never said “the MBA costs too much”, I’m not attempting to imply that you did, just that if you really are mystified about how much better then MBA is then the Dell, think about how many times a $500 price tag causes the answer to any design question to be “do that is cheapest” while a $1300 price tag lets the answer be “yeah it costs more but it is worth it to be faster/stronger/lighter/smaller/whatever”)

  6. J Osborne:

    Points taken on the cost differential. Given the apparent success of the Air, though, it seems people are willing to pay more for higher quality, more features, and good design—a point that Dell seems to continually miss.

    -rob.

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