MacBook Air 13" 4GB review... a la bilbaína

Discussion in 'MacBook Air' started by DeBilbao, Feb 4, 2011.

  1. DeBilbao, Feb 4, 2011
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2011

    DeBilbao macrumors member


    Jan 13, 2008
    MacBook Air 13" 4GB review... a la bilbaína

    A la bilbaína means The Bilbao way. As you can guess by my nickname, I'm from Bilbao, a great not-so-big-in-size-but-so-great-city in the Basque Country. You can check the Wikipedia entry for more info at

    I've been using Macs since the very first 128K model in 1984, but I moved from Mac OS to Windows after my last Mac, a Performa 5400 model. Since then I've been more in touch with the Apple world rather than de Mac world, using the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple TVs and so on... but not a real Mac.

    Two months ago I bought a second hand 13 inch MacBook Pro Unibody. It was a mid-2009 model with a 2.26 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2 GB of RAM and a 160 GB hard drive. A nice machine, but missing some components to be defined as a powerful machine. I decided to upgrade the hard drive to a 128 GB Kingston SSD Now V+ and the RAM to 8GB. A really worthy upgrade that made me wow.


    I use the laptop many times over my lap, and doing so showed up two major inconveniences: weight and temperature. The MacBook Pro wheighs around 2 Kg (4 pounds) and its temperature goes rather high no matter what you do with it, and I started to use it over a table or over a cushion.

    After looking at the new ultraportables presented by Apple, the 13" MacBook Air came as a candidate to replace the MacBook Pro, quite similar in term of performance and dimensions but much lighter, so I decided to sell my "vitaminized" MacBook Pro in the second hand market. Fortunately and though the crisis has really affected this kind of sells, the Macs are much appreciated and if you offer it with a good discount it's not hard to sell.

    A similar setup of an actual MacBook Pro is around 1800 €, and I also sold a 8th Gen 160GB iPod Classic that wasn't used. Selling both I made true my premise "to get a new one at home, you must sell an old one".

    The chosen model has been a 13" MacBook Air with a 1.86 GHz processor, 128 GB SSD drive and 4GB of RAM. This setup is not available in stores, where you can only find 2GB models and I wanted to continue using VMWare Fusion 3 virtualizing a PC to run Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bits so I decided to go for a custom order through the Apple Store.






    Side by Side: 13" MacBook vs 13" MacBook Pro Unibody

    I didn't want to change the key characteristics of the computer and this is my final analysis. As every analysis I make, it has a subjective component that reflects it's adapted to my own circumstances and that means that what is good for me, maybe it's not good for you.

    Anyway, I would like to share my thoughts BEFORE receiving the computer. Later on I will write about my thoughts AFTER the initial hands on and a one week use.

    • Weight: First things first. I'm going from 2.03 Kg (4.5 pounds) to 2.9 pounds (1.32 kg). My main motivation for the change was to reduce the total weight and 680 grams is really a lot lighter, in fact a 35% lighter.

    • Temperature: Using it in the sofa is not only the weight, but also how warm it gets the Pro over my lap. It's not only warm... it gets really hot even if you're just browsing the web. I expect the Air to be much cooler.

    • Processor: I'm loosing some raw power the Air clock speed of the Air is 1,86 GHz and 2,26 GHz in the MacBook Pro. Both are Intel Core 2 Duo manufactured with similar 45nm technology, both have 2 cores and 2 threads by core. The one in the Air is a SL9400 with 6 MB cache and the one in the Pro is a P7550 with 3 MB cache. Air's processor is cooler with a maximum TDP of 17W vs 25W in the Pro and both admit Intel VT-x virtualization technology and 64 bits instruction sets. Who will win?

    • Main Memory: A half. Going from 8GB to 4GB, although 4GB is a respectable figure that will let me virtualize a computer to run Windows or work comfortably with simultaneous RAW files without problems. The main memory is soldered to the mainboard so it's now or never. Some reports say that it will run faster but I'm quite sure I won't notice it. It's just SDRAM running at 1066 MHz.

    • Screen: The size is going to be the same 13,3" and resolution is going to be a bit higher from 1280x800 to 1440x900 resulting in smaller dot size. It's still a bright glossy screen with LED backlit with the same 16:10 aspect ratio.

    • Graphic card: From nVidia GeForce 9400M to a nVidia GeForce 320M. Both graphic cards take 256 MB from the main system memory, thus making your total RAM even lower. It's not a much better graphic card, but slightly more powerful, GT216 core based supporting PureVideo HD to decode high def video, CUDA, OpenCL, and DirectCompute to use the graphic chip directly with programs supporting it as Photoshop CS5. You can take a look at benchmarks of 320M here and 9400M here. 13845 points 3DMark2001 for the 9400M in a MacBook (not a Pro) and 18744 in the new 13" MacBook Air.

    • Storage: Moving from a 128 GB SSD hard drive to a 128 GB SSD hard drive so in terms of capacity there is no improvement, but the technology used by each drive is quite different and I expect some speed improvement and on-drive garbage collector will be taking care of the once-occupied-now-free space, not a decisive factor this one, but welcome.

    • Optical drive: I'm losing the Superdrive unit, but to be honest I wasn't using it. I manage ISO images stored in a USB drive, much faster and convenient and for anything related with CD or DVD burning I go to my main PC.

    • Backlit keyboard: I don't understand why Apple has removed this feature. It was really helpful sometimes and made the computer look even Pro. If they put it back on in the future I will be really disgusted. I can live without it and it's not a reason to forget about the change.

    • Remote control: The same story here. I'm going to loose the ability to remotely control the MacBook Air. I can use the iPhone but both devices need to be connected to the same Wi-Fi network.

    • Network Connectivity: Both units offer an Airport wireless device supporting 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, but the Air has lost the Ethernet port. Sometimes I use this kind of connection (mainly at the office) and I'll need to buy a separate USB dongle, and Apple should include this with the MacBook Air. It should also include a WWAN port to insert a MicroSIM "ala iPhone" to get 3G connectivity and will make the laptop much more useful on the road. Right now I have to deal with the jailbreak on my iPhone 4 to run MyWi to get a mobile hotspot.

    • Connections: 2 USB ports on both, loosing Firewire. It's not really a concern to me because I don0t have devices with this interface.

    • Mini DisplayPort: I hope that this MacBook Air could send the audio stream through the Mini DisplayPort to HDMI cable. The 2010 MacBook Pro can and this is really an advantage if you want to hook it to your A/V receiver, simplifying the setup with only one cable instead of two, and mor importantly letting me a direct connection to my plasma screen, passing the audio directly to the TV set.

    • SD card reader: Included in both. It's quite funny that this has to be remarked, because we all consider Apple able to remove it, right?

    • Battery: Both announce 7 hours of battery life (2010 Mac Pros go up to 10 but mine is mid-2009), 58 wat/hour in the MacBook Pro vs 50 wats/hour in the Air. If Apple announces the same battery life it's clear they have come with a lower consumption but I'll be reporting the real thing in everyday use. I bet for a slight reduction in battery life.

    Considering that when you buy a portable computer compromises are inevitable, even more inevitable when trying to build a lighter one with a really small footprint like this.

    So for me it's OK. They don't seem too different in performance but completely different in portability and that's what I was searching for.

    Order, manufacture and shipment of the 13" MacBook Air

    Being a considerable amount of money that was going to be invested, before placing the order I visited a local store to better evaluate my decision. I handled both the 11" and 13" units and although the smaller one is really ultralight and ultraportable, the bigger one better match my requeriments.

    It's also a problem for me the size of the 11" screen and it's resolution of 1366x768 pixels, makes everything excessively small, with symptoms eyestrain after just a few minutes. I need a larger screen, for sure.

    Add up that the added battery life of the 13" model and my decision was clear, so I ordered it through the Apple Store last Sunday, January 16th. Apple announced that the Mac would ship in 3 days and that I could expect it at home by the 27th. Let's see how it went.

    On Tuesday Apple put the MacBook Air at the UPS facilities in Shanghai and after crossing half of the planet, it finally arrived home by the 26th, one day before the scheduled date.

    This is the complete tracking of the shipment. UPS Customs are located in Koeln - Germany - and every line showing Koeln means an administrative step, not really a package move. It went from Shanghai to Incheon near Seoul in Sith Korea, to Almaty in Kazakhastan, one more bounce to Varsaw in Poland and finally arriving in Spain, Prat Airport at Barcelona, Zaragoza y and Valle de Trápaga... and home.


    The computer came perfectly protected in a cardboard hard case, with special attention at the corners.


    And this is the package as you open it: Apple style.


    This was the theory, but... do you think my expectations where met? Lets see

    13" MacBook Air first impressions

    The first sensation that you have when you hold this computer is that you have bought an authentic product of design. If you have the opportunity to go to store and hold it... you will know what I mean. When my wife first saw it said "They've done it again, aren't they?"


    The computer is remarkable for its design. The 11" share the same design concept but looking at those thin lines is even more impressive, up to the point of transmitting fragility, given not only the thinness but also the really light weight. But after a few minutes you can see that it also shares the construction of the MacBook Pro, aluminium Unibody. Rock Solid.

    As ususal the computer came with Mac OS X 10.6.5 preinstalled and to start using it you only need to plug the cord and follow the on-screen assistant. You can start with a new setup, but you're also given the opportunity to restore the system from your previous Time Machine backup, and that's what I did.

    With the absence of a Superdrive unit, Apple has decided to ship the computer with a USB key that can be used to reinstall the software. This USB Key can only be used for reading and includes both Snow Leopard 10.6.5 and iLife 11. If you want to reinstall the software you must maintain pressed the "C" key while rebooting and it will start from the USB key or the "Option" Key and you can choose the source volume or even a network boot.

    This method is very practical and useful and I prefer it over the typical hidden partitions that eats up a lot of our precious hard drive space. In the case of an SSD drive with it's high cost per GB it's even more interesting.



    I have installed the previous mechanical 160 GB 5400 rpm hard drive into an external case and I'm using it for my Time Machine backups. Before sending my old MacBook Pro to its new owner, I made a full Time Machine backup of its contents.

    So before turning the MacBook Air on, I plugged the external hard drive and when the assistant asked, I selected the Time Machine restore option. After 30 minutes, my new Air was almost a clone of the Pro. Almost.


    And I say almost because the process doesn't apply the operating system software updates and you have to apply them again. A few minutes more and we're ready with 10.6.6 and the Apple Store app.

    I consider this backup and restore system a reference in terms of ease of use. I will be very glad to have something similar in the Windows platform but i haven't found it. I'm using Acronis True Image Home to make periodically full backups if the system, and it works fine but it's not the same. It can't be run as you work and this is really a key difference. And the backups are hooked to a specific hardware configuration, another key difference.

    Now that the system is up and running, it's time for Onyx. I applied all the Automated tasks to repair permissions and the rest of the typical maintenance tasks. For me is an obliged visit every time I update the operating system.

    How it performs? My first hands-on reveals that it deals really well with everything, but let's go for a few benchmarks.

    First a hard drive performance test. I usually use Aja System Test, you can download it at and if you run it and want to compare precisely, you must configure the same way, with a 1920x1080 and 10 bit video frame for a file size of 4GB. If you configure it this way, you can compare the results with mine.


    I have had run the same test in my MacBook Pro with the 128 GB Kingston SSDNow V+. The results confirms my initial impression, this hard drive is devilishly fast going as high as 210 MB/s writing and up to an incredible 260 MB/s reading. This is a 25% increase in hard drive performance both reading and writing.


    But not everything is hard drive and not all are good news. The processor benchmarks of the old MacBook Pro (Intel Core 2 Duo P7550 @ 2,26 GHz) went up to 3545 in a 64 bits Geekbench.


    Same test with the MacBook Air de 13" and the Intel Core 2 Duo L9400 @ 1,86 GHz show the expected 20% less raw power, going as low as 3000 points.


    But you get the overall performance with the combination of the components, not everything is raw power and this fast hard drive contributes to a really fluid experience, no matter what you try to do.

    XBench confirms the same results with a total global score of 160.84 points for the MacBook Air. The old MacBook Pro were 189.12. This is an overall 15% speed reduction, that I assume with gladly as I hold the computer, feeling it so light on my lap.
  2. DeBilbao, Feb 4, 2011
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2011

    DeBilbao thread starter macrumors member


    Jan 13, 2008
    My opinion about the new 13" MacBook after a week

    After some days using my new 13" MacBook Air including a wekend trip that has let me evaluate its mobility, I have a much formed opinion about it, and I'll share it with you, trying to analyze the main areas covered in my previous analysis before commiting to buy.

    • Weight: Definately it weighs less and feels much lighter and the overall sensation is much better, mainly thanks to its screen, I'll talk about it in depth later. It's much comfortable to carry on this computer and though the 11" model is much lighter and smaller, I won't consider it ever because this 13" screen is more adapted to my needs. The heavyweight in my lap has been forgotten and now I can use it in the sofa for long periods of time without worry.

    • Ergonomy: Something I haven't talked before. Thew MacBook Air is really, really thin and this makes it immediately elegant, but at times its edges are sharp and less comfortable when not over a table and handled more freely. Something similar happened to me with the iPhone 4, instant beauty but so sharp I had to cover it with a speck case to be more comfortable.

      Sometimes it seems that Apple makes devices to be showcased in a modern art museum and forget that their products are going to be used by end users. I respect a lot the work of Johnathan Ive and his team, but for me the round edges are a much better option and it'll be nice to see them come to Apple devices in the future.

      Anyway, once you get used to those sharp edges and avoid the ultra-sharp-corners in the bottom of the trackpad, the 13" MacBook Air is a joy to use: a full sized keyboard with enough space between keys so my fingers can press them precisely, space enough to rest my wrist while typing, a really big screen for its size and almost everything we know about the Mac Pro, because in many ways is really similar.

    • Temperature: Here I've worked a bit in depth. The fan is always running and it must be of decent quality because in normal conditions it rotates at 2000 rpm and it's virtually inaudible. If you push it with harder tasks, it spins faster and can go up to 5000 rpm and is then when you can listen to it.

      I've run the following scenario: Wi-Fi turned on getting the Internet connection from my router, Bluetooth connected and transmiting stereo audio signal to my wireless headphones (love AD2P). Listening to music streamed directly from Spotify (more love to Spotify). This is my usual setup while surfing the web with Firefox and doing the common tasks, and with this common tasks the fan never goes further than 2000 rpm and it's completely quiet.

      Let's play an iPhone HD video file with an average bitrate of 12 Mbps. Started to play it in loop mode using VLC in fullscreen mode and bright at maximum. How far it goes? It depends.

      If I keep the MacBook Air over the cold kitchen marble table, letting the air flow freely from the exits behind the hinge, it will keep the fan rotation speed at those completely silent 2000 rpm and temperature doesn't goes up 30º (86 F), but...

      If I make the same test over my lap in the sofa, with the air exhausts partly covered with my own legs or a cushion, the fan goes up to 3000 rpm in a minute and a half and to 4000 rpm in 2 minutes, not going further beyond this point but if I completely cover the exhausts with the cushion is easy to get past the 5000 rpm.


      I have taken the measures with the iStat Nano widget and my conclusion is clear: don't worry about temperatures but if you're going to make more intensive tasks, let the exhausting system work as intended.

      After a long period of use over your lap you can feel the base warm, but it's far away from the heat I felt with the MacBook Pro. For mi it's ok.

    • Processor: Even though there's a theoretical 20% raw power decrease, the speed is OK. The combination with the blazing speed of the hard drive makes it run smoothly no matter the task you throw to it.

      In fact I consider the overall performance quite similar to my previous MacBook Pro (mid-2009) and at times even superior.

      Maybe I'm quite comprehensive with the engineering team. It's seems to to be difficult to keep a balance between performance, cooling and a space so small.

      Once again. OK for me.

    • Main memory: With 4GB of RAM I can assign 2GB of memory to my VMWare Fusion 3 virtual machine running Windows 7 Enterprise 64 bits.
      Due to the use of the SSD drive, the Windows 7 virtual machine resumes from suspend mode in just a few seconds, much faster than rebooting and starting from the bootcamp partition. Maybe I'm loosing a bit of raw power, but once again, it's more than enough for my requierements and much more convenient.

      I had tested a 2GB setup before and if you want to do some serious tasks as virtualizing machines or processing RAW or editing video... 2GB is not enough.

      The price difference is really negligible so anyone considering the 13" Air... please, go for 4GB of RAM. Even if you have to wait a bit to get it, it's worth every dollar.

    • Screen: This chapter deserves an essay, but I try to be concise. It was a bit disappointing at first sight, not because the added resolution but for the dull colours without punch. I consider myself as very demanding in terms of color accuracy and I've always tried to get my displays properly calibrated in order to get the most out of it.

      Fortunately, after calibration I'm much more satisfied. I can also tell that after a few days it's getting better, as if it should require some kind of burn-in and break-in.

      Anyone considering this screen as a professional display should know that it's far, far away of the gamut of PRO monitor, thus having problems representing the full range of colours of any given colour space. It doesn't cover even the sRGB space that is less demanding.

      I usually view high quality photographs and the difference between my Dell IPS monitor and this one is huge. I can assume this compromise too but I think that Apple has used a lower quality display than it should; in a portable computer of this kind picture quality should be a first priority and even though the TN display is not of the low range is far from being top-notch.

      As I learned here in MacRumors, Apple has manufactured the Air using different panels, and the one in my unit is considered on the good ones side. If you open System Preferences => Displays => Colour and you choose the Color LCD default profile you can check the last property "mmod" where you can find the maker and model of the display: 0610 maker and 9CDF model in my case.
      This default profile has a tendency to excessively warm the colours and if you don't have a device for calibrate the display, you can do it by hand-and-eye using the Mac OS X calibrator in expert mode or even better using SuperCal, a fantastic program that let you calibrate only with your eyes. You can download it at

      It's remarkable that the screen is not so glossy. It's not matte but it doesn't reflect so much and the mirror effect is really diminished. I'm sure this screen is going to be introduced in the next 13" MacBook Pro, though I expect to be a better quality one, ideally and IPS panel with better viewing angles, because to get the proper colours your eyes need to be parallel to the display. You just change the angle and you get different colours, instantly.

      Add that the brightness level you can reach is very high and the back lightning is uniform and you have a mixture of things you love and things you love-not-so-much.


      The 1440x900 makes everything smaller than the 1280x800 in the MacBook Pro but is easy to get used to, and once you get it... there's no way back. This resolution enhancement let you see more rows on a spreadsheet or accommodate more windows comfortably in the screen. Once again, I'm sure this resolution will be standard in the next 13" MacBook generation.

      The only thing I hate is that I can't turn off the Apple logo in the back of the screen. As it's illuminated by the back lightning of the display if you want to turn it off you must turn off the screen too and it becomes unusable. Apple doesn't pay me for it, and I don't like being an ad while using it.

    By the way, I'm really happy with my new laptop. It's what I expected in many ways, far more in others and as always it's not a perfect product and there's a path for making it better in the future.

    There's nothing better than knowing you have chosen right.

  3. leftywamumonkey macrumors 6502a


    Jun 23, 2010
    Nice! Thank you for this, I believe this will help many people decide including myself. I did notice a mistake though, the MBA has a 16:9 aspect ratio. :)
  4. wal9000 macrumors member

    Oct 8, 2006
    Only the 11" model, the 13" version is 1440x900
  5. DarwinOSX macrumors 65816

    Nov 3, 2009
  6. deadlystriker macrumors regular


    Jan 15, 2011
  7. DeBilbao thread starter macrumors member


    Jan 13, 2008
    Second post updated with the rest of the review after a week of use. Hope you like it.

    Greetings from Bilbao :cool:
  8. jdavtz macrumors 6502a

    Aug 22, 2005
    Wow, you sure put a load of effort into this review. Muchas gracias. Fue interesante leerlo... vas a ayudar a mucha gente que aún siga dudando entre comprarlo o no.
  9. cadillac1234 macrumors regular

    Aug 20, 2010

    Thank you for the very thorough review.

    I'm still trying to figure out if I will be happy with the 11" or go with the 13" for the extra battery life and screen size. Your review has pushed me back towards the 13" :D

    BTW we visited Bilbao and the Basque Country last May. Brilliant place and the Basque Region is now one of my favorite places on Earth. I cannot wait to go back. My beloved Glasgow Celtic just announce a friendly with Athletic Bilbao in March as well. Wish I lived a bit closer so i could attend
  10. xxRONNIExx macrumors regular


    Jun 7, 2008
    WOW thank you very much for that write up! it was very informative... Im sure it will help many people who may be considering buying a MBA.
  11. JonLa macrumors 6502

    Dec 22, 2009
  12. DudeMartin macrumors regular

    Dec 2, 2010
    Chicago, Illinois
    Wirelessly posted (Mozilla/5.0 (iPod; U; CPU iPhone OS 4_2_1 like Mac OS X; en-us) AppleWebKit/533.17.9 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/5.0.2 Mobile/8C148 Safari/6533.18.5)

  13. Joined:
    Jul 1, 2007
    Excellent review! Makes me want an Air even more. :p
  14. bobr1952 macrumors 68020


    Jan 21, 2008
    Melbourne, FL
    Nice write! Certainly moves me closer to hitting the "buy" button.
  15. Taldir macrumors newbie

    Jun 18, 2010
    Same here. I have been on the fence for weeks, but I think this just sold me!
  16. Kenndac macrumors 6502


    Jun 28, 2003
  17. sugarray3000 macrumors member

    Mar 7, 2009
    Nice review!!!

    But how could it be that mine 13" ultimate didn't do the AJA test as good as yours??

    Attached Files:

  18. KPOM macrumors G5

    Oct 23, 2010
    Yes, I'm a bit surprised at the OP's results, since mine (184.3/s and 208MB/s) were much closer to yours, and also closer to what I have seen the Toshiba SSDs rated (215MB/s).
  19. torbjoern macrumors 65816


    Jun 9, 2009
    The Black Lodge
    I had similar results too (183.6 and 204.3)
  20. DeBilbao, Feb 6, 2011
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2011

    DeBilbao thread starter macrumors member


    Jan 13, 2008
    I have repeated the AJA test and I consistently get the same results. This is the last shot.


    Trying to find out why I've taken a screenshot of the Serial-ATA section in the System Profile. The hard drive that comes with my MacBook Air is a SM128C model with revision code AXM09A1Q.

  21. DeViAnThans3 macrumors member

    Dec 13, 2010
    Belgium (Europe)
    Thanks a lot for this excellent review. It confirmed some of my expectations, but also warned me for some things I weren't aware of yet.

    Thanks a lot :)
  22. torbjoern macrumors 65816


    Jun 9, 2009
    The Black Lodge
    Ah, that's the reason then. I have a TS256C model revision CJAA0201. I wonder why Apple has provided me a disk which is only 80 % the speed than yours. I'm sure I have paid as much for my MBA as you have paid for yours.
  23. teerexx52 macrumors 68000


    May 1, 2005
    Florida West Coast
    I get 185/197 and I have the TS256C as well.
  24. marzxbarz macrumors member

    Apr 23, 2009
    Same, have the ultimate and get the slower speed results :(
  25. mikenight macrumors newbie

    Jan 17, 2011
    You mean Spain, right?

    Good review man ;) Any advice for screen calibration process?

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