MacBook Air: good looks, poor battery life

Ultraportable laptops have a history of requiring compromises when it comes to performance.

Ultraportable laptops have a history of requiring compromises when it comes to performance. Lately, the PC World Test Center has seen some improvements in this regard--especially with respect to battery life. Unfortunately, you'll still be making major compromises with the Apple MacBook Air. In our tests, the Air produced respectable system performance, but mediocre battery life.

The Performance Numbers

When the PC World Test Center ran its tests using Apple's Boot Camp utility--which enables a Mac system to run Windows, too--the Air's WorldBench 6 score was 57. That score is just below the average WorldBench score of 59 for the field of 17 ultraportable notebooks we've tested recently.

The MacBook Air's performance is more impressive, however, when you consider it against the nine ultraportable models we've tested with a minimum weight of four pounds or less (I selected this subset of data for comparison as these are the most likely competitive choices of someone considering a MacBook Air against its PC competition): There, the average WorldBench score is just 50.

The Sony VAIO VGN-TZ510N/B, the slimline PC notebook Steve Jobs compared MacBook Air to in his keynote, scored just 38 on our WorldBench 6 tests (the model we tested was running a 1.06GHz Core 3 Duo U7500 CPU).

Only two models, the Asus W5Fe-2P025E and the Lenovo ThinkPad X61 bested the MacBook Air's final, post-Boot Camp WorldBench 6 score of 57. And, both the Asus and the Lenovo were running a faster processor than the MacBook Air: a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200. f

The MacBook Air runs a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (a 1.8-GHz processor is an option), and includes 2GB of memory, an 80GB 4200rpm hard drive, and a 13.3in display.

The only other model in our database that we've tested with a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of memory is the 4.5-pound Lenovo ThinkPad X61t; this model received a 64 on our WorldBench 6 tests compared with the Air's 61.

The Lenovo X61t has other specs that may have helped its performance vis-a -vis the MacBook Air: the X61t's 100GB hard drive spins at 5400rpm and its comparatively smaller display measures 12.1inches on the diagonal.

Subpar Battery Life

In our tests, the Air's battery life averaged 2 hours, 31 minutes, which isn't even enough juice to cover the flight time from San Francisco to Dallas, let alone get a road warrior clear across the continent with a powered laptop.

The battery life performance of the Air also is quite dismal when we compared to the other nine laptops we tested in the four-pounds-and-under category. The MacBook Air's battery life was the third worst among those nine models (only the Everex StepNote SA2053T and Asus W5Fe-2P025E did worse). The average battery life score among these models was 4 hours, 37 minutes, and five models exceeded five hours in battery life.

Running Boot Camp

The PC World's Test Center evaluation of the MacBook Air actually included running WorldBench 6 and battery life tests on the unit both before we installed the additional Boot Camp utility drivers the installation disc included with the MacBook Air, and after.

Without the Boot Camp utility drivers, we had to manually install some hardware drivers in Vista. Those drivers did not include some aspects of support for Apple's hardware; for example, the Air's function keys were inactive, and the keyboard wasn't backlit. After we used the Boot Camp utility, the keys became active, and the keyboard became backlit.

The Air's performance before we installed all of the drivers and utilities from the Apple disc was actually slightly better: At that time, the MacBook Air received a WorldBench score of 61, and its battery lasted an average time of 2 hours, 53 minutes.

Vista Troubles, Too

The pre- and post-Boot Camp utility drivers' performance difference was significant enough for us to wonder what was going on. According to Apple, the Boot Camp utility installs drivers that are the necessary for enabling unique Mac hardware features, such as the MacBook Air's backlit keyboard, iSight webcam, trackpad (you get two-finger scrolling, but not the neat gesture maneuvers Air is capable of under Mac OS), and function keys (which enable hardware button controls for volume and display brightness, for example).

Meanwhile, we also noticed that Vista seemed to have some issues as well. We observed that, although you can bump down the display's brightness using the keyboard controls, our Vista installation on the MacBook Air showed incomplete power management options: The brightness control sliders and adaptive display functionality were missing in action.

According to Microsoft, the Windows Mobility Center controls in Vista checks to see if a system has a battery installed. If it does, then Vista assumes the system is a laptop, and enables the Mobility Center controls that provide power management options such as the brightness control sliders and adaptive display functions.

It's unclear why those controls were not enabled--especially considering that a battery is clearly represented in the Vista System Tray.

The MacBook Air's Limits

While the MacBook Air clearly showed a performance advantage over other uber-lightweight notebooks, it's important to note that it is only an average performer once you consider it against the greater field of ultraportables.

More critically, its mediocre battery life should give serious pause to anyone who plans to use the Air on-the-go, and away from an outlet. If you buy one, stick close to electricity.

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