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Apple MacBook Air (Mid-2011) Expectations

Last year’s release of the “late 2010 MacBook Air” hit the laptop market like a bolt of lightning. While the improved 13-incher missed the mark with us, gaining an SD card slot, nicer trackpad, and blessedly fixed hinge—but standing still in the CPU department—the tiny 11-inch version won our hearts by offering nearly as much power in a dramatically smaller shell. Two of our editors ditched MacBook Pros for 11-inch Airs and haven’t looked back; two others are ready to make the jump, too. That’s going to happen soon: less than a year later, Apple’s preparing a supposedly major refresh for a May or June 2011 launch, and it might just be worthy of an upgrade. Here’s what we’re expecting.

According to plausible reports, Apple’s going to add Intel’s Thunderbolt high-speed I/O port to the Air, replacing the Mini DisplayPort connector found on each model’s right side, a change that won’t matter much until Thunderbolt peripherals—super-fast hard drives, single-connector monitors, and so on—begin to show up in large numbers. Based on iFixit’s teardown of the 2011 MacBook Pro, we’re hoping the Thunderbolt chip inside the Air will stay cool over the long run; thermal paste always gets us nervous. (We’d gladly take a SD card slot for the 11” Air instead. Just sayin’.)

The changes we care about are the other ones: Apple’s supposedly shifting from Intel’s old (but surprisingly competent) Core 2 Duo CPU and Nvidia’s 320M graphics chips to brand-new Intel Sandy Bridge Core i5/i7 CPUs with integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics. Lower total power consumption may offer modest improvements in battery life (~15%), even if Apple doesn’t change the Air’s battery. Better yet, stats suggest big (think 2X) CPU performance boosts in even 11” Airs at the same clock speeds, which will gain Hyper-Threading, Turbo Boost 2.0, a faster bus, and larger cache than before. Benchmarks demonstrate smaller but non-trivial (~30%-50%) jumps in graphics power solely due to the Intel GPU. Taken together, the new Airs could deliver around twice the performance of last year’s models, and under some circumstances, possibly even more. They still won’t rival MacBook Pros in raw horsepower, but with their SSDs and the ability to Turbo Boost by 1GHz above their rated clock speeds, they’ll be awesome—and a lot easier to carry than other Apple laptops. We can’t wait to see them in the aluminum flesh later this year.

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