New MacBook Airs: Irregular, but Expected Refresh

The first thing to be unveiled at WWDC 2012 yesterday, yet the final thing for me to talk about, was some new MacBook Airs. It’s not often that Apple pushes away it’s normal updating conventions, but thankfully, the original Ultrabook won’t even have to wait a year to get some attention from Apple.

Unfortunately, the updates are minor, but I didn’t really expect otherwise for this lineup. There’s not much that Apple can, or really needs to do to improve these guys. Intel has been trying to rally PC OEMs to fight back against them, but nobody has been able to fight against the unstoppable juggernaut that is the MacBook Air. Like all Apple laptops, it’s a thing of perfected aesthetics combined with practical prowess. It’s as light and portable as comfortably possible, it has great battery life, it has a fantastic screen, a perfect keyboard, backlighting, the best trackpad in the business, and quick, reliable, solid state drives. Apple couldn’t have picked a better way to replace the aging and ugly white MacBook.

But now, it just got a little bit better, and here’s how:

CPU

As expected, the 2012 MacBook Airs are now coming with Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge processors. That means a tiny bit more processing power (as if you needed it), and a whole lot more graphics punch. Yes, I would imagine you can even enjoy some Diablo III with the help of the speed of the Solid State Drive on board. Just beware of those multi-element baddies in Hell and Inferno.

Should you feel the need for speed, you can now upgrade those 1.7 and 1.8 GHz i5’s up to 2.0 GHz i7’s, should you choose the upgraded model of either 11-inch or 13-inch and pay up to $150 more. Honestly, though, that’s not a bad upgrade price.

Memory

Unlike the MacBook Pro’s, unfortunately there is no model coming with any more than 4GB of RAM, but at least Apple upgraded the RAM to 1600 MHz.. Arguably, though, MacOS doesn’t need more than 4GB unless you’re doing something more akin to the use of a MacBook Pro. However, it is kind of nice to have should you need to run a Parallels setup or otherwise put Windows on it for some good ol’ legacy action.

Should you feel the need, Apple has dropped the ridiculous 8GB upgrade price, that exited in 2011, down to a much more manageable Franklin (that’s $100 for those of you not keeping track). So it might not be a bad way to go anyway.

Storage

Apple is quoting that the SSDs in their new machines are quicker than the last generation. It’s not exactly like the old MacBook Airs were slouches, but it’s nice to know they care. The new drives are apparently based on a “SandForce SATA-III controller chip, but stamped with Toshiba markings.” That probably means that the new machines are running SandForce’s new and relatively stable 2281 module. That means the drives will certainly run a lot faster, but hopefully Apple will keep an eye on the new machines in case any problems arise.

Apple also modified the SATA controller that the SSDs use. It’s now a modified version of Intel’s mSATA design. Unfortunately this means that 3rd party SSD upgrades will probably be impossible for the near future. However, Apple is now offering a 512GB upgrade option on the upgraded 11 and 13-inch models, for $500. Ouch. And that’s on the 13-inch model, which bring it to about two Cleveland’s (I mean the president, not a Family Guy character, sheesh). Should you want 1/2 a Gig in your 11-inch wispy, expect to shell out $800 for the privilege.

Ironically enough, there are some reports of people finding Samsung controller based SSDs in their brand new 2012 MacBook Airs. If this is true, we might see a repeat of last years debacle, when people found that the Toshiba SSDs that came in some Airs were vastly outperformed by the Samsung SSDs that came in other Airs. In my opinion, an SSD is still an SSD, and it’s faster than you, anyway.

Ports

With the Ivy Bridge unveiling comes native USB 3.0 support, and the 2012 MacBook Air is no different. Gone is the ancient 2.0 rectangle, and here to stay is the quicker and much more useful USB 3.0. You’re still getting only 2 USB ports, but at least you still have Thunderbolt.

Interestingly enough, iFixit’s teardown has shown that with the new MacBook Air’s upgrade to Ivy Bridge also brings the four-channel Cactus Ridge Thunderbolt controller. This, theoretically, should mean that the MacBook Air’s Thunderbolt port should support two simultaneous Display Port connectors (therefore, two additional monitors), or generally two different Thunderbolt devices via a splitter cable. However, Apple has curiously stated that it will only support one channel, and therefore only one monitor or one device. It’ll be interesting to see if Apple forcibly limited the port for some reason or is under promising and over delivering.

And That’s About It

Everything else is literally the same. The design, the shell, the materials, the screens (yes, no option for a retina display unfortunately), etc. However, as I said, there wasn’t much to improve. Certainly they don’t need to make it thinner, the thing is bear minimum as it is. It’s physically impossible to add more ports (and fairly unnecessary as well). And please, Apple, never change the keyboard or trackpad. Ever. It would have been cool to see a retina display on a MacBook Air, but I think it’s a good idea to limit such high resolutions to 15 inch screens and screens that are in your face. 2880 x 1800 resolution on a 13 inch screen would probably be damn near impossible to work with.

So overall, the updates to the MacBook Airs are actually a bit more minor than the updates to the standard (read: non-retina) MacBook Pros. New processors, USB 3.0, and that’s about it. Sure your upgrade options have changed and there’s some very minor under the hood adjustments. It’s just another day in the breezy Ultrabook homeland.

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