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BARE FEATS LAB - real world Mac speed tests

2010 MacBook Air

Originally posted Thursday, October 21st, 2010, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist
Updated October 22nd with 128G flash storage speed results.
Updated October 23rd with the speed of RAM and USB port. (See ADDENDUM)

The MacBook Air 2010 has reached a new level of refinement as Apple's entry in the UltraPortable Wars. Though I am a speed addict, I'm going to try to keep in mind that it is not competing with the MacBook Pro. It is competing with other ultraportables. It's not easy so forgive me if I slip.

The previous model of MacBook Air came in one memory configuration: 2GB. That was a non-starter for me. Why? When I boot up my MacBook Pro, with no user apps running, real memory in use is at 1.3GB. Launch Safari, Mail, Preview, and Textedit. Now I'm at 1.9GB. Launch iMovie, iPhoto, and ITunes. Now I'm at 2.3GB. I'm now "under water" and starting to do virtual memory paging. (Thankfully, my MacBook Pro has 8GB of RAM.)

Things get worse with MacBook Air with 2GB since the integrated GPU wants to "borrow" another 256MB of main memory, Does the flash storage making paging a non-issue? No, because real memory is 20 times faster than flash storage. (See transfer speeds in ADDENDUM.)

But now the good news. With the 2010 MacBook Air, you have the option to select 4GB if you order online. It makes the MacBook Air more appealing to users that do more than casual computing -- users like me. Unlike the Macbook Pro, you can't upgrade the memory after the fact. It's soldered in at the factory. And if history repeats, only the 2GB version will be sold in the retail stores. So if you are in the market for a MacBook Air, I recommend you order online and pay the extra $100 for the 4GB configuration.

The SSD has always seemed like the perfect storage option for the MacBook Air. The new flash storage may be even more so -- assuming it matches the speed of the SSD. (
On October 22nd, we obtained an 11" MacBook Air with the 128G flash storage. See benchmark results in the ADDENDUM below.)

How much do you need? It depends. I have 237GB in use on my 500GB MacBook Pro HDD. Even if I ordered the MacBook Air with the 256GB flash storage, I'd have to eliminate some things in order to have room to grow.

So before you can decide if you need 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB of flash storage on your future MacBook Air, you need to do an inventory on your existing files and estimate your future needs.

The screen resolution of the 13" model is improved from 1280x800 to 1440x900. It's a good thing the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M is replaced with the GeForce 320M. It now has more pixels to push around.

On Apple's MacBook Air "Performance" page, they trumpet that it now has the "fastest integrated graphics in the market." I assume they mean the fastest integrated graphics compared to the ones used in competing ultraportables. Yet I have found at least one ultraportable that uses the faster GeForce 335M.

The Portal and CoD4 graphs on Apple's MBA Performance page show the GeForce 320M wailing on the GeForce 9400M. But keep in mind that the 2010 15" MacBook Pro 2.66 with the "standalone" GPU (GeForce GT 330M) is twice as fast as the 2010 13" MacBook Pro 2.66 with the integrated GeForce 320M when running World of Warcraft and ETQW.

Nothing new here. The top choice is the same 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo offered on the top 2009 MacBook Air. This is justified because it's a CPU with meager power requirements.

The 13" MBA weighs slightly less as the previous model (2.9 vs 3.0 lbs). The 11" MBA weighs a little over 2 lbs. For perspective, the iPad plus Bluetooth keyboard = 3 lbs. Impressive.

Did you know that the 11" MBA with 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, and 128GB Flash Storage is priced exactly the same as the 13" MBA with 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, and 128GB Flash Storage? Both are $1399. Do you think it makes sense to pay the same for a smaller screen and slower CPU?

One reader pointed out the cost of the two processors is virtually the same, but I think the cost of the larger screen, SD slot, and additional aluminum for the larger body would need to be factored in.

When I first heard rumors of a impending
MacBook Air update, I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if it was a hybrid? What if it had a touch screen and could run iPad (iOS) apps or as well as Mac (OS X) apps?" With the announcement of the 2010 MBA and Mac App Store, my fantasy is getting closer to coming true.

But fantasies aside, the MacBook Air 2010 is not an iPad with a keyboard. It's not a high powered pro laptop. It is a light, thin, beautifully designed ultraportable fully capable of light to medium tasks. It is elegant minimalism.

We have an 11" MacBook Air in the lab as of October 22nd. What happened to the backlit keyboard? Shocked and dismayed am I.

When I first boot up, it's only using 600MB of RAM out of 2GB -- half as much RAM in use as my 17" MacBook Pro. Headscratcher. However, after running a series of apps and quitting them all so only Finder was loaded, the real memory in use had ballooned to 1.4GB. And Activity Monitor reported that there had been memoryPageOuts and VM swap area had been used. On the other hand, only 700MB was active or wired.

The 128GB flash storage measured 209MB/s READ and 193MB/s WRITE for large sequential transfers. That's slower than the best SSDs we've tested like the OCZ Vertex 2 and OWC Mercury Extreme (272MB/s), but twice as fast as any notebook 7200rpm HDD (100MB/s). Ditto for small random transfers -- at 90MB/s, it was faster than HDDs but slower than SSDs. Overall, respectable performance and a good move by Apple to provide flash memory as standard equipment.

Does the flash storage making virtual memory (VM) paging a non-issue? No, because real memory is 20 times faster than flash storage. The MacBook Air's RAM transfers at 4000MB/s according to our memory stress tests. The flash storage transfers at 200MB/s. Things will slow down when the 2GB is used up. We recommend ordering it with the $100 CTO option for 4GB of real memory.

It's nice having two USB 2.0 ports instead of one. However, the large sequential transfer speed tops out at 37MB/s. It would be nice if one of those ports was FireWire 800 (80MB/s). Better yet, I wish it had USB 3.0 (150MB/s.)

Feel free to email your thoughts to me, .
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copyright 2010 Rob Art Morgan
"BARE facts on Macintosh speed FEATS"
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