Lab report: MacBook Air benchmark results

There's a lot to like in Apple's latest version of the MacBook Air, such as the smaller size, longer battery life and faster flash storage. Still, I was disappointed that the new MacBook Air uses the aging Core 2 Duo processor. The new Air even takes what looks like a step backwards in processor speeds, going from the standard 1.83GHz and 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processors in the previous models to a wince-inducing 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo in the standard 11-inch models ($999 with 64GB of flash storage, $1199 with 128GB of flash storage) and 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo processors in the standard 13-inch model ($1299 with 128GB of flash storage and $1599 with 256GB of flash storage).

Macworld Lab has all four standard configuration MacBook Air models, and our Speedmark 6.5 overall performance benchmark test suite shows impressive results for drive-intensive tests and much-improved 3D game performance. And surprisingly, despite slower clock speeds, processor performance also improved over previous versions of the MacBook Air.

Looking at the Speedmark 6.5 results, three things stand out:

  • Flash storage is fast;
  • The flash-storage capacity did not affect performance;
  • The new MacBook Airs are faster than their predecessors.

New versus old

Looking at the performance differences between the new 13-inch 1.86GHz MacBook Air and the 2009 13-inch 1.86GHz MacBook Air, we see that the Speedmark 6.5 score actually doubled from 54 to 108. A lot of the gains were in drive tests, where the flash storage in the new MacBook Air took just 13 seconds to duplicate a 1GB file compared to the older Air's sluggish 4200-rpm hard drive that took more than five times longer, a painful 69 seconds. Compressing a 2GB folder was 21 percent faster on the new 1.86GHz MacBook Air. Unzipping the compressed file was more than three times faster on the new 1.86GHz MacBook Air than the older model.

Though the MacBook Air still uses an integrated graphics subsystem, graphics performance also improved, with the new nVidia GeForce 320M displaying more than three times as many frames per second in our Call of Duty 4 and CineBench GPU tests than the 2009 MacBook Air with its nVidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics.

Interestingly, the new 1.86GHz MacBook Air outperforms its predecessor in processor intensive tasks as well, even though they both use a Core 2 Duo processor with the same speed rating. iTunes encoding, Photoshop, HandBrake, MathematicaMark, and CineBench CPU tests were markedly faster on the new system. The new 1.86GHz MacBook Air was even faster than the previous 2.13GHz MacBook Air in all of those same tasks, despite the older system's supposedly faster Core 2 Duo processor.

Processor speeds have been a hot topic for the MacBook Air. When first released in 2008, the MacBook Air suffered from issues with heat, and Apple's approach to fixing the problem was to slow down the processor when things started to heat up, usually during processor intensive tasks. So even though you might have a 1.86GHz processor in your MacBook Air, it might be running much slower at times when you could really use the faster speed.

Looking at our benchmark results, it appears that these latest MacBook Air models (even with processor speeds that are slower than their predecessors) are running closer to their specified speeds, and therefore outperforming the "faster" processors that they replace.

The 11-inch MacBook Air, with its 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo showed similar processing prowess, with Photoshop, HandBrake, Cinebench CPU, and MathematicaMark scores that were faster than the 2009 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air. And with the faster graphics and speedy flash storage, the 11-inch model was 35 percent faster overall than that 2009 2.13GHz MacBook Air.

Small versus "large"

Comparing the 11-inch 1.4GHz MacBook Air to the new 13-inch 1.86GHz MacBook Air, we see the 13-inch system was about 27 percent faster in overall Speedmark 6.5 performance. The new 13-inch MacBook Air was able to display a few frames per second more than the 11-inch MacBook Air in our Call of Duty and CineBench graphics tests, and was faster in Photoshop, HandBrake, CineBench CPU, and MathematicaMark. Duplicating a 1GB file took the same time on all four of the new flash-storage-equipped Airs: 13 seconds.

MacBook Air versus MacBook Pro

The flash storage helped the new MacBook Air models hold their own against the 13-inch 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. The 13-inch 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air earned a Speedmark score that's just two points higher than the 13-inch 2.4GHz MacBook Pro. The 13-inch 2.4GHz MacBook Pro was 25 percent faster overall than the 11-inch 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air.

In our file duplication test, the new MacBook Air models were 59 percent faster than the 13-inch 2.4GHz MacBook Pro, with its 320GB, 5400-rpm hard drive. In our file unzip test, both MacBook Air models were faster than the 13-inch 2.4GHz MacBook Pro; the 11-inch 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air was 28 percent faster, and the 13-inch 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air was 43 percent faster.

The 11-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch 2.4GHz MacBook Pro had identical CineBench graphics scores, while the 11-inch MacBook Air was 12 percent faster at Call of Duty. Compared to the 13-inch 2.4GHz MacBook Pro, the 13-inch 1.86GHz MacBook Air was 2 frames per second faster in CineBench Graphics and 21 percent faster in our Call of Duty tests. In our HandBrake test, the 13-inch 2.4GHz MacBook Pro was 43 percent faster than the 11-inch MacBook Air and 20 percent faster than the 13-inch MacBook Air .

The 15-inch 2.4GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro's Speedmark 6.5 score is 55 percent higher than the 11-inch MacBook Air, and 22 percent higher than the 13-inch MacBook Air. However, the flash storage in the new MacBook Air still beat the standard hard drive in the Core i5 MacBook Pro, but in tests that could take advantage of the Core i5's HyperThreading technology (like CineBench and Handbrake) the Core i5 MacBook Pro was twice as fast as the 13-inch MacBook Air and not quite three times as fast as the 11-inch MacBook Air.

Battery life

Compared to their predecessors, the new MacBook Air models show improvement. Looping a movie at full-screen, full brightness and volume set at 1, the 11-inch MacBook Air's battery ran out of power after 3 hours and 40 minutes. The new 13-inch MacBook Air lasted 4 hours and 25 minutes. The older 2009 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air lasted 3 hours and 5 minutes.

Check back soon for our full review of the new MacBook Air, as well as tests of built-to-order MacBook Air configurations that we have on order.

James Galbraith is Macworld's lab director.

This story, "Lab report: MacBook Air benchmark results" was originally published by MacCentral.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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