Mac Musings

The 2010 MacBook Air Value Equation

Dan Knight - 2010.10.26 - Tip Jar

It's been a week since Apple announced its best fiscal quarter ever - $20 billion income (up 66% over last year); $4.3 billion profit (up 70%); sales of 3.89 million Macs (up 27%), 14.1 million iPhones (up a whopping 91%), 9 million iPods (down 11%), and 4.2 million iPads - previewed Mac OS X Lion, and unveiled two new MacBook Air models.

It's an Intel World

At this point, Apple estimates that 50 million Macs are in use. According to my records, Apple has sold 45 million Macs since it began the transition to Intel processors in 2006, of which perhaps 2-3 million were end-of-life PowerPC models. Assuming that 95% of Intel-based Macs remain in use, that puts the installed base at roughly 20% legacy (PowerPC) Macs and 80% Intel-based. It should be no surprise that Apple is no longer including PowerPC support with new versions of its software, as that is a declining segment of models introduced at least five years ago.

This comports well with our site statistics. Over the past month, 82% of Mac users visiting Low End Mac have been on Intel systems, with just 18% using PowerPC models. In terms of Mac OS version, over 61% are using Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard (which is Intel-only), 23.3% are running OS X 10.5 Leopard, 11.3% operate with OS X 10.4 Tiger, and 4% are older or unidentified Mac OS versions.

Interestingly, a higher percentage of PowerPC Mac users are running Tiger (45%), which supports all G4 and G5 Macs as well as the majority of G3 models, than Leopard (36%), which has no G3 support and cannot be installed on sub-867 MHz G4 systems without a bit of hacking (see Unsupported Leopard Installation for details). On the Intel side, 75% are using Snow Leopard.

Lighter, Slimmer, More Affordable

11 inch and 13 inch MacBook AirFor the first time in Apple notebook history, Apple has two models at the same price point - and it's lowest laptop price ever. For $999, you can buy the white polycarbonate MacBook with a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 2 GB of memory, a 250 GB hard drive, Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics, two USB 2.0 ports, and a SuperDrive, or you can choose the new 11.6" MacBook Air (MBA) with its 1.4 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 2 GB of memory, 64 GB solid-stated drive (SSD), two USB 2.0 ports, and Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics.

The consumer MacBook supports up to 8 GB of memory using industry standard modules, and you can swap out the hard drive for one as large as 750 GB. The 11.6" MacBook Air can be ordered from Apple with a maximum of 4 GB of memory and a 128 GB SSD, and the top-end version will set you back $1,399. At this point, it doesn't look like the 2010 MBAs can be upgraded except when ordered from Apple.

Looking at hardware specifications, why would you choose the much slower, less expandable MacBook Air over the faster, more expandable MacBook? Size, for one. The smaller MBA measures just 7.56" x 11.8" x 0.66" and weighs just 2.3 lb. The MacBook comes in at 9.12" x 13.0" x 1.08" and weighs over twice as much at 4.7 lb.

The MacBook Air's body is carved from a block of solid aluminum, which should make it very rugged, and the SSD is supposed to make it much faster and quieter than using a hard drive, not to mention eliminating the dangers of physical damage a hard drive faces, especially in the field.

Apple's Answer to Netbooks?

Apple has given one reason for not making a netbook: It doesn't do cheap. Apple will not compromise design, quality, and construction to meet a price point. It will not use an underpowered CPU. It will not offer a shrunken keyboard. It will not compromise battery life. It will not use a low resolution display.

11.6 inch 2010 MacBook AirMost netbooks are made of plastic, use a single-core Atom CPU, have a reduced size keyboard that drives many typists bonkers, and show a lot less than the 1366 x 768 the smaller MacBook Air displays on its screen. Of course, you expect a lot less from a $400 computer than from a $1,000 one - and you expect more from Apple than you'd get from HP, Dell, Acer, or myriad other PC companies selling netbooks.

In terms of size and weight, the 11.6" MBA competes head-to-head with the best notebooks out there. Battery life is rated at 5 hours of productivity, far more than is typical of netbooks.

Real World Performance

In terms of power, its 1.4 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU runs circles around the typical low-end single-core 1.6 GHz Atom CPU - and the newest dual-core version as well. Tom's Hardware recently pitted the new 1.6 GHz single-core and dual-core Atoms against the top-end 3.16 GHz Core 2 Duo under Windows XP SP2. With its larger L2 cache (6 MB), the Core 2 Duo had twice the PCMark05 memory score as the Atom with its minuscule 512 KB cache. As far as CPU score goes, the 3.16 GHz Core 2 Duo was 3.8x as powerful than the single-core Atom and 2.9x as powerful as the dual-core Atom with HyperThreading enabled.

Normalizing for the MBA's 1.4 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, expect it to turn in raw CPU benchmark scores about 30% higher than the top-end 1.6 GHz dual-core Atom. GHz for GHz, the Core 2 is approximately 45% more powerful. Put another way, you'd need a 2.2 GHz dual-core Atom to match the power of the slowest (1.4 GHz) 2010 MBA.

While 1.4 GHz may sound underpowered in comparison to the 2.4 GHz MacBook, it's a powerhouse relative to Atom-powered netbooks.

And thanks to the fast SSDs Apple uses, the 1.4 GHz 2010 MBA outperforms (based on overall Speedmark 6.5 scores) last year's 2.16 GHz model by 30%. That's still 15% behind the 2.4 GHz MacBook with its conventional hard drive, but its quite unexpected in light of the 42% slower CPU speed.

The 13" MacBook Air

13.3 inch 2010 MacBook AirThe full-size MacBook Air has a new 13.3" display with an impressive 1440 x 900 resolution - the same resolution as the 15" MacBook Pro. For productivity, that's a big plus, as is the faster 1.86 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU. and thanks to Apple's speedy SSDs, it achieves a slightly higher Speedmark 6.5 score than the 2.4 GHz 13" MacBook Pro.

Battery life is rated at 7 hours of productivity, a big improvement over 5 hours for earlier models.

The 13" MBA comes standard with a larger SSD than the 11" model, and 256 MB is available as a build-to-order option.

The Value Equation

11.6" MacBook Air

The 11.6" MacBook Air is aimed at people for whom small size and light weight are of paramount importance. Because of this, it could attract a fair number of current MBA users, as well as those who have hacked a netbook to run Mac OS X. And at $999, it's going to be a very attractive alternative to the bigger, twice-as-heavy MacBook.

With 2 GB of RAM and a 64 GB SSD, the $999 version is going to be perfectly adequate field machine for a lot of Mac users, and power users can upgrade to 4 GB of memory, a 128 GB hard drive, and a 1.6 GHz (14% more speed) when ordering from Apple, giving the 11.6" MBA a price range of $999 to $1,399.

For my own use, I think the biggest drawback is the 1366 x 768 display. I'm used to working with much taller displays - 1024 pixels on one display, 1050 on the other - and this would be a lot like going back to my first generation 15" titanium PowerBook with its 1152 x 768 screen. I always found the screen height was less than I really wanted.

But for most users, especially those comparing it to a 13" MacBook or earlier 13" MBAs with their 1280 x 800 displays, this is probably going to be just fine.

13.3" MacBook Air

With its more powerful 1.86 GHz CPU, higher capacity stock SSD, 40% longer battery life, and 1440 x 900 display, the new 13" MacBook Air is a real winner at $1,299. It's not the ultimate in low weight and tiny size, but in the Mac world, only the 11" MBA beats it. With a 30% faster CPU, twice the SSD capacity, and more on its larger screen, it's a better value than the 11" model. (Some have already pointed out that it's the same price as a 1.6 GHz 11" MBA with the same 256 GB SSD. It's a matter of priorities - more power or smaller and lighter?)

Upgrade options include 4 GB of RAM, a 256 GB SSD, and a 2.13 GHz CPU, which gives the 13" model a price range of $1,299 to $1,799.

I suspect the 13" MBA will be far more attractive to power users with its higher resolution display and faster CPU, and since power users tend to run more apps - or at least more demanding ones - the $100 upgrade to 4 GB of memory is probably justified.

In comparison to the $1,799 entry-level 15" 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro, which has the same 1440 x 900 screen resolution, it's very attractive.

For my use, 1440 x 900 is a practical minimum, and the few times I've used a 15" MacBook Pro, I have found that 900 pixel screen height constricting. For my purposes, the high-res (1680 x 1050) version of the 15" MacBook Pro would be ideal - the same as the 22" Cinema Display I recently scored through Craigslist.

Then again, I'm not your typical Mac user - or even your typical Mac power user. I'm a writer, researcher, and editor, and I like to be able to see a lot of text when I'm writing or editing, and when I'm reading an article on the Web. I would probably find the speed of the 13" MBA more than adequate (I'm using 1.0 GHz and 1.6 GHz dual-processor G4 Power Macs, so any Intel-based Mac will be a huge upgrade in power), and the screen would be my only issue.

One feature the 13" MacBook Air has that the 11" models lacks is an SD Card slot, which makes it easy to add more storage - and removable storage. SDHC cards go as big as 32 GB, and SDXC will allow cards up to 2 TB, although the biggest cards currently available are 64 GB.

2009 MacBook Air Value

Apple has a limited number of refurbished 2009 MBAs available at $849. These come with a 1.86 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 120 GB hard drive, GeForce 9400M graphics, and the traditional single USB 2.0 port and 1280 x 800 display. If your bottom line is the bottom line, it's a good value, and because it uses a real hard 1.8" hard drive, it is possible to upgrade that down the road.

That said, expect refurbished 11.6" MBAs to sell for the same price when they come to the Apple refurb shelf in a few months. Unless you have some reason to prefer the larger pixels of the 13.3" 1280 x 800 screen (113 pixels per inch) to the 128 or 135 ppi of the new MBA displays, I don't see a compelling reason to go with the close-out model.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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