The smaller MacBook Air is one of the most affordable Macs you can buy. Upon its original launch, there was a small murmur that the 11-inch MacBook Air was the netbook that Steve Jobs said Apple would never make, but in reality, this diminutive Mac has always offered more.
But with the 13-inch model falling in price, offering an additional 2-inches of display for only £100 more, does the 11-inch still hold its own for those looking for small and light notebook for using on the move?
There's little to say about the design of the MacBook Air 11-incher that's new. It is still a great-looking little notebook, reflecting the design of the larger model, with a slender chassis tapering down to that fine leading edge. The design hasn't changed from previous iterations, except that on the exterior you now have dual mics, rather than the omnidirectional mic of the past.
It exhibits all the precision in design with its unibody chassis, showing all the attention to detail, that you expect from Apple. Things like being able to open it, lifting the lid and it not toppling backwards, or that the keyboard, despite being in a smaller chassis, is still as usable as it is on larger Macs. It's only really the top row of function keys that shrink to the point of awkwardness. We'd like them to be a little larger, but we wouldn't want to sacrifice any more of the available space to do so.
That's where the real problem with the 11-inch MacBook Air lies. Although the backlit keyboard is fantastic, with excellent key action and adequate spacing, it's questionable whether there's enough palm rest space apart from the central trackpad if you've got larger hands.
The 11-inch model measures 30 x 19.2cm. It's that 19.2cm that we feel is just too small for us, whereas as the additional 3.5cm on the depth of the 13-inch make it perfectly comfortable. This comes down to hand size and typing style, but if you're eyeing-up a machine that you're going to use daily, it's certainly worth considering, and a visit to the Apple Store to try for yourself.
The advantage you get from that small footprint is that this notebook weighs just 1.08kg and you really can slip it into a bag with ease.
Elsewhere, the smaller frame means you lose the SD card slot, so you'll have to connect things like cameras using cables, which is a minor consideration.
Overall, however, there's no denying how compact the 11-inch MacBook Air is. It's the sort of notebook that doesn't fret when you put it on the tray table on aircraft or trains. It's ultra portable, very high quality and it's all been achieved without sacrificing performance.
Hardware and performance
The 2013 MacBook Air line has had a refresh internally, which is where most of the differences lie over previous years. It now has the latest fourth-generation Intel Core chipset (Haswell), which is a real step change over previous hardware in terms of efficiency. Intel's aim was to give you more computing power with greater efficiency, and that's reflected in the endurance of the 11-inch MacBook Air.
While the 13-inch model gives an impressive 12 hours of battery, the smaller capacity of the 11-inch means you're looking at 9 hours. Those are Apple's figures, and in the time that we've been using the MacBook Air 11, we've found that getting over 7 hours has been the norm. That means you can step out of the door and know that in most cases, your MacBook Air will see you through the day.
But this compact notebook hasn't forsaken power. The MacBook Air 11-inch comes with the same base specifications as the 13, offering you the latest 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, with the option to upgrade to 1.7GHz. It also comes with 4GB of RAM, so there's plenty of power for things, which happen with real snap.
Graphics are now handled by the latest on-board Intel solution, Intel Graphics HD 5000, which again is more powerful than the last generation. Whether you're editing video, batch processing photos in Photoshop, or just switching though all those tabs in Chrome or Safari, the MacBook Air 11-inch skips through daily tasks, delivering the same experience as its bigger brother.
The 11-inch display has a native resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, and is nice and bright, offering great colours and reasonable viewing angles. It has a glossy finish on it, so can suffer from reflections when out in bright conditions or working by a window. Naturally, you don't get the working space you do on other devices and although this notebook has all the power to run things like Photoshop, the editing experience isn't as good because of the limited space.
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The same applies to working across multiple documents. You'll spend a lot more time switching around windows, so the 11-inch Air is probably better suited to those who predominantly work one document at a time.
Connections and sound
One of the surprising things about the MacBook Air is how good the speakers sound. There's no additional branding to shout that one company or another has worked on the audio, but there's a surprising richness and volume that comes from them.
We found the new dual mic arrangement also worked well in Skype calls, with everyone reporting that we could be heard loud and clear. There's a headphone socket too on the left, alongside the MagSafe 2 power connection. There's a USB port on either side and the Thunderbolt on the right.
In addition, the latest MacBook Air is compatible with 802.11ac, the latest Wi-Fi protocol to be sanctioned, giving you faster speeds over greater distances. The latest version of the AirPort Extreme has also been updated to be ac compatible, making for a perfect partnership, although ac routers are becoming more common: BT has announced that the HomeHub 5 will be ac compliant, for example.
Overall, there's a lot to love about the 11-inch MacBook Air. Although this 2013 update doesn't bring a change in design or display, it does bring a substantial performance boost. This may be a small form notebook, but there's plenty of power to tackle your daily computing needs.
But there are some compromises you have to accept in taking the smaller model. We feel it is a touch too small to be our daily notebook, much preferring the space afforded by the 13-inch Air instead, but that's personal preference. However, the 13-inch model brings with it greater endurance, so we feel it is the better choice of the two, especially as it's only £100 more.
But overall, if you're after something light, portable and powerful, the the MacBook Air 11-inch still makes a great choice.
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