New MacBook Airs speed past predecessors

James Galbraith
29 July, 2011
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Macworld Australia Lab has received and benchmarked every standard configuration of the new Core i5 MacBook Airs released last week. We’ve found that the new processors push the Airs to new performance heights.

While we continue to work on Speedmark, our overall system performance benchmarking suite, to take advantage of Lion, we’ve been running a preliminary set of tests on all of the new Macs and a set of older Macs to use as baseline results.

The results for the new entry-level $1099 11in MacBook Air with a 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, 2GB of RAM, 64GB flash storage and the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 (which is found across the new MacBook Air lineup), show the system to be more than twice as fast at many processing tasks than the previous entry-level 11in MacBook Air with a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor.

The new $1099 entry-level Air was 2.4 times faster in Cinebench CPU, 2.3 times faster in HandBrake, and took exactly half as long to convert files from AAC to MP3 in iTunes. Duplicating a 2GB folder was 18 percent faster, zipping a 4GB folder was 46 percent faster, and unzipping the same file was 29 percent faster. While iMovie export on the new entry-level Air was 32 percent faster, importing the footage from a camera archive was seven percent faster on the older model. Also faster on the older model was Call of Duty and Cinebench OpenGL frame rates, due to the 2010 model’s faster Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics.

Comparing the new entry-level Air to the next step up the product line, an 11in MacBook Air with the same 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, but with twice the RAM and twice the flash storage capacity, we see very subtle performance differences–most tests were just a few seconds faster on the $1349  system. HandBrake was four percent faster on the $1349 Air, while Cinebench CPU and Call of Duty scores were identical between the two.

Moving a step further up the MacBook Air line, we find a $1449 13in MacBook Air with a 1.7GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of flash storage. Our tests showed this Air was actually a few seconds slower in the folder duplication and file unzipping tests than the $1349 11in Air. Every other result, though, was faster with the 13in. Our Parallels tests showed the $1449 13in Air to be 16 percent faster than $1349 11in Air. Zipping a 4GB folder was 15 percent faster; the Pages, iTunes and Cinebench CPU results were each 14 percent faster; HandBrake was 13 percent faster; and iMovie import from camera archive was 11 percent faster.

Comparing the new $1449 13in to last year’s 13in 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air, we see a familiar pattern. Graphics scores are higher on the older system, with 21 percent higher frames per second in the Cinebench OpenGL test and 53 percent faster in Call of Duty. Duplicating and Unzipping files and folders was 16 and 17 percent faster, respectively, on the new Air, while zipping the 4GB folder was 40 percent faster, importing the Word document into Pages was 36 percent faster, and iTunes MP3 encode was 45 percent faster. HandBrake and Cinebench CPU tests took about half the time on the new $1449 13in Air than its 2010 Core 2 Duo-based predecessor.

The two new stock 13in models, being identical in every way except for flash storage capacity, performed similarly.

The test results on the new 13in Airs also show the systems to be stiff competition for the entry-level, $1399 13in 2.3GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro. The flash storage in the Airs is much faster than the hard drives found in the MacBook Pros, and the graphics tests were just a frame or so faster per second on the Pro than on the 13in Airs. Zipping the 4GB folder and importing video from a camera archive into iMovie was faster on the Airs, while iTunes MP3 conversion, as well as HandBrake and iMovie encoding tests, were faster on the MacBook Pro.

And finally, for those of you lamenting the dearly departed MacBook, our test results show the new $1099 MacBook Air to be much faster in our file duplication and unzipping tests and faster in our processor tests–but as we’ve seen before, slower in the graphics tests.

Check back soon for Macworld’s full reviews of the new MacBook Airs, and test results for the build-to-order options of the new MacBook Airs.

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