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Originally published Friday, November 5, 2010 at 12:00 PM

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New MacBook Air thin, fast, delightful

I wasn't excited about the new MacBook Air when it was announced in October. Although Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs pitched it as a merging...

Special to The Seattle Times

I wasn't excited about the new MacBook Air when it was announced in October. Although Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs pitched it as a merging of a laptop and an iPad, it struck me as essentially a bump of the MacBook Air from the year before, with a slightly new case design, a solid-state drive (SSD) and near equivalent processor and memory configurations.

However — and you knew a "however" was coming — using the new laptop has been a surprising joy. Despite the specs, this machine is responsive, enabling me to set aside my MacBook Pro for the past week and notice very little difference.

Not just thin: The main appeal of the MacBook Air from the beginning has been its physical design — really thin and light. The latest model changes the case design somewhat.

The lid and base aren't as rounded around the edges as much and have flat sides, but it is thinner than the old design. It's 0.68-inch thick at the hinge, tapering down to 0.11-inch at the opening.

The flush sides allow for one more USB port and an SD card reader (and get rid of the clever-but-awkward hinged door to access them). The whole thing is just 2.9 pounds, and is extremely sturdy, thanks to its unibody aluminum frame. The 13.3-inch display, at 1440 x 900 pixels, has better resolution than its predecessor.

For people who travel frequently or hate the bulk of carrying even a thin and light laptop, the more exciting news is the MacBook Air now comes in an even smaller version.

The 11-inch model, the one I've been testing, has an 11.6-inch screen with 1366 x 768 resolution, and is more than an inch shorter from front edge to hinge than the 13-inch model (as a result, an SD card slot is not available on the 11-inch unit).

I can slide the Air into an outside pocket of my messenger bag, making the padded laptop compartment inside the bag seem like a waste of space.

I'm personally not as crazy about the compromise made for the size, but I know people who won't mind. The aspect ratio of the screen is shorter and wider than other Mac laptops, which to me feels slightly cramped. The screen resolution, though, makes up for the lack of vertical space.

Unlike most netbooks, both MacBook Air models include full-size keyboards, so typing feels the same as what I'm accustomed to.

Performance and storage: The biggest surprise of this MacBook Air is how well it performs, something I didn't expect at all.

The 13-inch model includes an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at either 1.86 or 2.13 GHz; the 11-inch model has the same chip at either 1.4 or 1.6 GHz. Graphics are handled by an Nvidia GeForce 320M processor with 256 MB of memory in both models.


Furthermore, the memory is capped at either 2 or 4 GB. Unlike other Mac laptops, you can't upgrade the memory later; the model you order is the model you get. Pricing starts at $999 for the 11-inch model and goes up to $1,599 for the top of the line 13-inch model.

But even with just 2 GB of memory and a 1.4 GHz processor, in the case of my test unit, this little slab of aluminum flies. With the MacBook Air connected to an external monitor and keyboard (my normal setup at my office), I never felt hampered by the processor or memory.

I didn't try to throw Adobe Photoshop or InDesign tasks at it, but I did process photos in Lightroom with minimal delay. Editing HD videos in iMovie '11 starts to get a little choppy when you add titles and effects, although it's still doable.

A lot of the credit goes to the flash storage that replaced the slower hard drive in older models, which is also the reason Jobs links the MacBook Air to the iPad.

Working in the Finder is speedy. It takes less time to restart and login to the MacBook Air than it takes to just shut down my MacBook Pro.

The storage, however, is the key reason I'm not likely to switch to an Air full time.

Flash storage isn't yet available in comparable capacities of hard drives, so the most you can get in an 11-inch model is 128 GB. (The base model is 64 GB, which to me is far too little space.)

The 13-inch model can be outfitted with 128 or 256 GB. Like memory, the storage is not upgradeable later; instead of using an SSD in a normal hard disk enclosure, the flash storage is bare and attached to the motherboard.

If you accumulate a lot of digital photos or videos, or have a large iTunes library, your storage will fill up rapidly, requiring that you store media on external drives or computers you can access over a network.

But my complaint about storage is a temporary one — and one likely not encountered by many people looking for a thin and light laptop.

The MacBook Air is the future of Mac laptops: I can't wait until every model is thin and fast in the coming years.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to More Practical Mac columns at columnists.

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