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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And I never noticed the aluminum casing getting hot. Even the bottom was only slightly warm to the touch, a far cry from the early days of Apple's move to Intel chips in 2005. Some of those early MacBook Pros could get darn toasty.

What a difference an SSD makes

For me, the biggest eye-opener with the new Air is how much the hard drive shapes perception. I worked with one of the first-generation Airs, the one with an 80GB hard drive, and while I found it fast enough in day-to-day use for most tasks, moving up to the SSD makes a real difference. I'm beginning to think that SSD, which is also available as a build-to-order option on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, really stands for Speedy Sweet Delight.

That's because it makes the Air feel a lot faster than it really is. And perception goes a long way toward dictating how a person feels about his or her computer.

When I reviewed the first MacBook Air, I recommended that buyers eschew the SSD. At the time, it offered less storage space than the standard drive and cost $999 more, pushing the price for the Air beyond $3,000. That's no longer the case, which is one reason I've warmed up to the SSD.

Another reason: With an SSD, there aren't any moving parts, so if you drop the laptop, there are no delicate spinning platters and heads to worry about.

Finally, the SSD makes the Air feel exceptionally snappy. For instance, that first Air took 70 seconds to boot up from Mac chime to desktop; my 2007 vintage MacBook Pro takes 48 seconds; this new Air needs only 28 seconds.

Now, boot time does not an ownership experience make. But when you combine that with how fast applications launch -- Adobe Photoshop Elements took 8 seconds on the new Air, 16 seconds on my MacBook Pro -- you feel like you're driving a BMW M3 when in fact you're tooling around in the Apple equivalent of the diminutive BMW 1 Series.

New owners have been delighted to find that Xbench benchmarking scores are coming in higher than those for Apple's more powerful MacBook Pro lineup. (With Xbench, higher is better.) I can attest to this. My MacBook Pro, which has a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a 160GB hard drive spinning at 7,200 rpm, checks in with a score of about 118; the new MacBook and MacBook Pro models return scores of around 123; this particular Air hit 141. In comparison, the first-generation Air with a standard hard drive returned an Xbench score of 43.

To reiterate: Benchmark scores are not real performance. While SSDs are very fast at reading data compared with platter-based hard drives, they can be a little slower when writing data. Thus, while Photoshop may launch lightning quick, applying a filter to a photo and saving it will even out much of that speed boost.

As with all drives, the amount of advertised space differs from the amount you can actually use. In fact, the 128GB SSD gives you the same room as the 120GB hard disk drive -- about 112GB. That's because a small portion of the SSD is set aside in case some of the cells wear out prematurely.

All in all, I'm very happy with the SSD. From now on, if I'm buying a computer and an SSD is a viable -- and not too pricey -- option, I'm buying.

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