MacBook Air a regression in performance?
November 10, 2010 9:13 AM   Subscribe

How will the new 11-inch MacBook Air perform in comparison to a 2006 13-inch MacBook?

I've been using a late-2006 revision, white MacBook (2.0 GHz C2D, 2 GB RAM) and it's basically adequate for my needs in terms of performance. I want to upgrade because the plastic case is literally falling apart piece by piece and battery life is dwindling. Also, I'm in grad school and carry my laptop back and forth every day on public transit, so the size and weight of the 11-inch Air would be an enormous advantage for me.

My only real concern is whether the 11-inch Air will actually feel less capable than my four-year-old computer, because, psychologically, I couldn't handle that after dropping $1,000 on it. The processor (1.4 GHz) is clocked way slower than mine, but I know/hope the SSD and the better graphics will make up for this in a lot of circumstances. It seems like it'll be adequate for my needs (no gaming, no graphic design, no video editing – just typical web – including Hulu etc. – email, word processing, Powerpoint, etc.), but are there are any frustrations I'd be coming up against that I'm not foreseeing? Is there anything I can currently do that I can't on a new Air (except use the Superdrive, duh)?

I've read reviews of the Airs that compare its performance to current-generation MacBook Pros, and I understand I won't be getting that level of performance, but, again, I don't really need it and I think the size/weight trade-off is worth it for me. I'd just love to hear from anyone who's had a similar experience going from older generation Macs to the 11-inch Air and whether it'll feel like I'm giving up anything I've already got.
posted by dixiecupdrinking to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have a 2006 white MacBook (1.83 GHz, 2 GB RAM) and my MacBook Air is currently in the mail (though it's a 13"). When it arrives I'll let you know how it shapes up! But when I was playing with floor models in the store, they seemed lightyears faster than my old MacBook.
posted by pluckemin at 9:28 AM on November 10, 2010

FWIW, my 13" Air that I just picked up seems to really fly.

I don't have a Pro to compare it too. But, I'm very happy with the performance thus far.

I'm mostly doing typically web stuff.
posted by ChrisManley at 9:41 AM on November 10, 2010

For most things, it should feel quite similar.
posted by StUdIoGeEk at 9:44 AM on November 10, 2010

but way cooler..... ;-)
posted by StUdIoGeEk at 9:44 AM on November 10, 2010

I have a 13" Air. The newer Airs are nicer than the older ones, more solid, one more USB port, quieter, battery life lasts forever. I had a MacBook before I got the last gen air. The difference in size is really sort of amazing. The Airs are thin and very light. The big deal for me was moving to something with a smaller hard drive [when I went from the MacBook to the Air] and with fewer ports. The big deal with the Airs is that you have to get dongles for things and if you already have dongles, you may need new dongles. So for my Air, I had to get a video dongle [to connect to projectors] and it wasn't the same as my THREE other dongles. I also had to get a USB-Ethernet dongle because it doesn't have an ethernet port and it didn't come with the dongle.

My current (new) air has some sort of fatal flaw where it won't wake from hibernation and reboots instead. It's weird and I'm going back and forth with the tech people about it. I've seen a few other people mention this issue, but the "quick sleep" thing where the laptop writes all the things currently in RAM on to the hard drive before it sleeps is a feature of the newer laptops that I don't think yours had.

I find it super responsive and the form factor is more like the other laptops than the last generation of Airs - they have flat sides so cables connect more normally, not the flip-open port that the old Airs had.
posted by jessamyn at 10:06 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a 2006 black macbook (2.24ghz, 2GB RAM), and just ordered an 11 inch with the upgraded processer and ram. I'd be happy to send you my feedback once I've played around with it for a bit, but I had the same concerns as you. I then went to the store and played around with the base 11 inch for a bit, and really all my worries vanished. For the kind of work I do (which sounds similar to what you do) the bottlenecks were the hard disk and crappy intel graphics in my old laptop, rather than the processor. I'm not doing any intensive video editing or hard core photoshop work, so I don't midn the tradeoff in raw power for speed -- I'll have it hooked up to an external monitor and keyboard at home, so the smaller screen is also not that big of an issue for me either. I'd rather have an i5 in there, for sure, but the other benefits (size, weight) of the 11 inch more than balance that out for me, especially for the kind of work I'll use it for (writing, web surfing, itunes, the once every couple of months mucking about in adobe lightroom).
posted by modernnomad at 11:04 AM on November 10, 2010

(uh, tradeoff in raw power for portability).
posted by modernnomad at 11:05 AM on November 10, 2010

Consumers seem pleased with them.
posted by bunji at 12:11 PM on November 10, 2010

I have the 1.6GHz 11" Air with 4GB of RAM, and I'm very happy with it. It boots in about 10 seconds, and restores from sleep mode before I have finished opening the lid. It seems to load programs instantly. I've been using it to do work (having text-editors, terminal windows, mail, and dozens of tabs open in firefox/chrome/safari at the same time) and it handles it all without slowing down.

I have seen some rare instances in which scrolling on a website was slow/choppy when there is a lot of Flash content on the site. Also, it doesn't play 1080p videos on YouTube at full framerate, but you might as well watch them at 720p anyway since the screen's resolution is 1366x768. I could see how it might be an issue if you wanted to play 1080p Flash movies on an external monitor though - also, I have the 1.6GHz, so I'm not sure if the 1.4 model will play 720p Flash video with no problems; it's definitely CPU-limited.

I don't have a macbook to compare it to, but I do have an older 2.16GHz Core duo Mac Mini with 2GB of RAM and a 40GB SSD, and the Air definitely feels faster - due to the faster graphics chip, I believe.
posted by helios at 12:31 PM on November 10, 2010

Thanks guys -- everyone's input is really helpful and making me feel like it's time to upgrade. (Marked as best the answers from people who've got the new Airs already but am definitely interested in other input as well!)
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 1:16 PM on November 10, 2010

I'm in a similar position: considering trading in a 4 year-old Macbook Pro for an 11-inch Air and wondering if I'll be able to get by.

I've done the math on the hard disk, and I know I'll be able to get myself down to 128 GB for what I need on board.

In terms of speed, I downloaded and ran xbench on my current machine and compared that to the xbench scores reported by Ars Technica.

I have to admit that I was disappointed by the speed of the MBA. It's hard for me to think that I'll be trading a 4 year-old computer for a new one that is actually slower. On the other hand, it may be that the speed of the SSD combined with the increase in RAM (I currently 3 GB and would get the MBA with 4 GB) will lead to a machine that will feel snappier overall. But that's speculation. I'm currently unsure about how I'll proceed.
posted by alms at 1:31 PM on November 10, 2010

Here are the actual test results. The MBAir numbers are from the Ars Technica article. The MBPro results are what I got on my machine. One caveat about my machine is that I have an Express Card SSD as my boot drive, which gives it some improved performance over the core model.
Test      MBPro 2.16     MBAir      % Change
CPU       142             98       -30.99%
Thread    169             176        4.14%
Memory    127             141       11.02%
Quartz    151             101      -33.11%
OpenGL    193              90      -53.37%
UI        185             115      -37.84%
Disk       65             222      241.54%

posted by alms at 1:46 PM on November 10, 2010

Interestingly enough, you don't mention which version of OS X you're on. My 4.5 year old MacBook - 2Ghz, 2GB RAM, 320GB HD - has been through each new iteration of OS X, and Snow Leopard was a hugely noticeable improvement in speed (especially on boot). Compared to my friend's Tiger-powered machine (which, admittedly, has half the RAM) it feels like it flies.

In short: if you're not on Snow Leopard, stuff will feel faster.

Also, re: flash, you can opt in to YouTube's HTML 5 trial, or there's a Safari extension for it (and Vimeo also).
posted by djgh at 2:46 PM on November 10, 2010

For anyone who might be curious or looking for another data point in making a similar decision, I ran xbench as well following alms' post. They're almost identical to alms' results (within ~3%) on everything except

Thread: 140
OpenGL: 275
UI: 213
Disk: 23

It's worth noting that the overall xbench score is 123 on the MBA compared to 86 on mine... seemingly owing to the 865% disk score improvement....

It's interesting, although I have no idea how any of this would play out in real life. But I'm starting to be comforted it probably wouldn't be a perceptible performance drop-off, at least. And can anyone explain why the MBA's OpenGL scores are lower than my 2006 MB with an integrated graphics card?
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 3:12 PM on November 10, 2010

Also: I'm on Snow Leopard, FWIW.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 3:13 PM on November 10, 2010

Here are the XBench results for the 1.6GHz Air/4GB:

Overall: 138.64
CPU: 113.81
Thread: 207.29
Memory: 147.84
Quartz: 115.22
OpenGL: 96.39
UI: 139.94
Disk: 255
posted by helios at 5:46 PM on November 10, 2010

Wow, those 1.6GHz/4GB numbers are much better. That's somewhat reassuring.
posted by alms at 6:07 PM on November 10, 2010

Here are my XBench results for the 13" 1.86GHz Air/4GB:

Overall: 154.9
CPU: 110.94
Thread: 193.23
Memory: 170.92
Quartz: 142.76
OpenGL: 119.95
UI: 191.62
Disk: 217.88
posted by jessamyn at 6:18 PM on November 10, 2010

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