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New MacBook Air, now with extra SSD goodness

New MacBook Air, now with extra SSD goodness

Thin as ever, the latest Air offers up to twice the storage and snappy performance

One of these MacBook Airs is not like the other. The first-generation model is on the left; new one is on the right.

One of these MacBook Airs is not like the other. The first-generation model is on the left; new one is on the right.

To reiterate: Benchmark scores are not real performance. While SSDs are very fast at reading data compared with platter-based hard drives, they can be a little slower when writing data. Thus, while Photoshop may launch lightning quick, applying a filter to a photo and saving it will even out much of that speed boost.

As with all drives, the amount of advertised space differs from the amount you can actually use. In fact, the 128GB SSD gives you the same room as the 120GB hard disk drive -- about 112GB. That's because a small portion of the SSD is set aside in case some of the cells wear out prematurely.

All in all, I'm very happy with the SSD. From now on, if I'm buying a computer and an SSD is a viable -- and not too pricey -- option, I'm buying.

Battery life down slightly

The speed gains that I noted aren't solely due to the SSD. Faster DDR3 RAM, a faster front-side bus and the faster Nvidia chip all contribute. On the other hand, battery life is down a bit, with Apple estimating that the Air will last roughly 4.5 hours with the screen brightness turned down by half and Wi-Fi on.

The first-generation Air had an estimated battery life of five hours; according to Apple's Benjamin, all of Apple's laptops now range between 4.5 and 5 hours of battery life. If you're playing videos or watching a movie, Apple says you can expect between 2 and 2.5 hours of use. And since the battery is integrated, there's no swapping.

I had the brightness at maximum for about an hour, turning it down gradually as the light in the room changed. I managed 3 hours and 49 minutes, and could easily have squeezed out more time by dimming the screen more aggressively.

One of the big changes to arrive with the new MacBook and MacBook Pro was a new all-in-one trackpad and clicker button covered by a thin layer of glass for smooth tracking and gestures. The laptops also offer a restyled screen bezel in shiny black.

Neither of these features made it to the updated Air, though I'll be surprised if they don't show up sometime in 2009 -- unless the thinness of the aluminum under the trackpad makes it physically impossible. The Air does get the new four-finger gestures offered with the glass trackpads on the other models.

The Air also continues to rely on a single speaker, with the sound largely emanating from the right side of the keyboard. (It still lights up.) Other than the move to the Mini DisplayPort -- located behind the small door that swings down on the right side of the Air -- the new model is externally identical to the old.

And for those hoping for an added USB port -- your wait is not over. With the Air, you still get just one, and if you need an optical drive, it's sold separately for $99.

Final thoughts

If the first MacBook Air was a revolutionary take on the Apple laptop line, this is an evolutionary step -- which is exactly what you'd expect from a second-generation release. Aesthetically, the two generations are virtually the same; technologically, the new one offers a speed boost and better storage options at a better price than when the Air debuted.

Having said that, if you don't think you need the ultimate in thinness and style -- and to my eye, this really is the ultimate in the looks department -- do yourself a favor and check out the new MacBook while you're comparison-shopping. Sure, it's chunkier -- compared with the Air, just about everything is -- and heavier at 4.5 lb. But it's faster, offers more storage and is more expandable. Oh, and it's cheaper.

But if only the thinnest will do (you know who you are, road warriors) and you held off last winter when the first MacBook Air appeared, now may be the time to buy. Now you get a faster laptop with more storage that's every bit as attractive and lightweight as the first one. And the top-end model is substantially cheaper than it was in January.

This MacBook Air will no doubt show up on a lot of holiday wish lists.


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