Review: The new MacBook Air, now with extra SSD goodness

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

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The new model also sports faster DDR3 RAM (still just 2GB), a faster 1,066-MHz front-side bus, and a notably faster Nvidia 9400M graphics processor.

Apple execs were quick to tout the quadrupling of graphics performance with the new Nvidia chip -- both when the Air and its newest siblings were released and, more recently, in interviews with Computerworld. The 9400M, which offers up to 256MB of shared video RAM, is standard in the new MacBook Air and Mac Book, and it is coupled with the 9600M GT in the MacBook Pro. (In the Pro model, you can switch between the 9400M's shared graphics while on battery and the more powerful 9600M GT when the laptop is plugged in.)

The result is a solid improvement to Apple's popular and stylish Air. Did I say solid? That's because the Air was the first laptop from Apple to premiere what the company is calling its "unibody" design. That means the main chassis for this laptop -- and for both MacBook and the 15-in. MacBook Pro models -- is carved from a single chunk of aluminum. The result is as solid a laptop as you're likely to find.

Comparison with the MacBook

Last month, when reviewing the new MacBook, I wondered whether it might cannibalize sales of the Air, given that the MacBook has a faster processor, a built-in optical drive, more storage and better expansion prospects. (You can double the RAM to 4GB and easily access the hard drive for a quick swap.) And you get all that in a laptop that sells for $1,599, a cool $200 less than the cheapest Air.

Apple doesn't think so. Todd Benjamin, director of Apple's notebook marketing, reiterated in an interview that the Air is designed with a specific market in mind: buyers who want a lightweight yet comparatively powerful laptop. These are not up-and-coming Spielbergs crunching high-def video or high-end designers plowing through hundreds of photos a week as they apply filters in Adobe Photoshop (though Photoshop runs fine on the Air). MacBook Air owners are more likely do Web surfing, e-mail, word processing, some light digital photo work and maybe even light gaming on red-eye flights between coasts.

That is one reason Apple made no changes to the maximum RAM installed in the Air. Personally, I'd hoped for 4GB as an option, as have various would-be buyers in numerous online forums, some of whom are ready to open up the Air themselves if need be.

According to Apple, the Nvidia integrated graphics processor gives the new Air four times the 3-D gaming performance of the last model.

I'm not a gamer, but I did find that the Nvidia chip improved video playback. In my time with it, I noticed no stuttering when viewing YouTube videos or clips on news sites like CNN or MSNBC. Nor did video playback push the temperature up so high that it caused any problems. Users had complained that some of the early models would freeze up when playing videos -- until Apple released a software update that apparently changed how quickly the built-in fans kicked in for first-generation machines.

Those fans helped keep things pretty cool. Although the review unit usually chugged along with an operating temperature of around 122 to 130 degrees, it did jump to 180 degrees at times when I was watching a video. (Processor usage never topped out either, generally hovering around 70% to 75% during playback.) I could hear the fans kick in to keep things from overheating -- turning at about 6,200 rpm, according to the iStat menu monitoring app I use.

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