Macbook Air Apparent

Posted: November 4, 2008 in 9400M, Apple, first impressions, laptop gaming, Macbook Air
Tags: , , ,

What a difference a year makes!  Or, I guess in this case, it’s been only 9 months since the original release of Apple’s ultraportable Macbook Air (MBA).  Still marketed as the one of the thinnest notebooks around, Apple has upped the ante with its second generation version through some subtle (and also not so subtle) improvements. 

As noted in some of my previous entries, I’ve been perfectly happy with my MBA rev 1, and have often been impressed with its capabilities.  In particular I’d been excited to see just how well it worked as a low to mid-level gaming machine, able to handle a number of older games like Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 handily, but also being playable for relatively newer games like Sins of A Solar Empire and Hellgate London (running Windows XP in Bootcamp).  There were just a couple of things I would have really liked to make my overall experience better.  First off was a larger hard drive.  Of the 80GB I started with, I partitioned about 20GB for Windows, which itself took a huge chunk of space.  The result being I could only maintain a couple of larger games installed on the XP side, which was a bit disappointing.  As I experimented more with games, I couldn’t help but wish for just a slight boost to the graphics power.  I had installed Warhammer Online and was impressed to be able to get it running, but it was very choppy even at the lowest settings.  When I heard the rumors about new Macbooks coming with possible improvements to the Air, I couldn’t help but hope for a boost in the graphics department and maybe the processor. 

In all honesty, I had told myself that if they jumped from the X3100 to the X4500 graphics, I would likely make an upgrade.  The thought was that the boost would be just enough to make WAR playable (the X4500 is listed as being supported on WAR’s official site and claims were it was 200% faster than the X3100).  I was fretting over whether I’d want to spend the money for a new version so soon, but it felt like the MBA was so close to satisfying my gaming needs that I wouldn’t be able to resist. 

When the announcement was finally made about the move to the nVidia 9400m chipset, I was completely blown away.  Roughly FOUR times the performance of the original unit (or double the X4500), plus 50% more hard drive space, faster memory and a slightly improved (45nm) processor; it essentially became a no-brainer for me.  Forum-goers were asking, is this new version “way” better – as a gamer I had to reply hell yeah!

I had my pre-order in for the standard unit by the afternoon they were announced.  The first couple of weeks, I wasn’t feeling particularly antsy, the anticipation clearly wasn’t quite the same as the original release.  But as the days started getting closer to November and the projected ship date of Nov. 5th, I started getting more and more restless.  When websites started posting first shipments and in store sightings, I kind of just lost it.  My pre-order had not moved and it was driving me crazy.  How much longer was I going to have to wait?  On Friday (Oct 31), the early reviews were in and the performance improvements sounded amazing, particularly with the SSD/1.86GHz version.  The overall Xbench result of around 48-50 for the original model had jumped to 137 for the new high-end model, a resounding >250% performance improvement!!!

I called my local store and when they said they had the new model in stock, I was out the door before I could think twice.  I just couldn’t wait for my standard model to ship (I know, I am horrible about things like that), and coughed up the extra cash (ahem, credit) to get the SSD model.  I’m not convinced the SSD and faster processor are worth the incredible $700 premium, but after playing around with the unit over the weekend, I must say I am very impressed yet again with what feels like a marvel of modern engineering.

Now, of course, price and size standards have changed dramatically over the past 6 months in particular with the introduction of the Asus EEE and subsequent netbook releases.  Intel’s Atom processor looks to be leading the way to a new generation of low cost, ultraportable computers with surprisingly robust features.  Price points on these are incredible, in the $500 range or less, and it’s hard to argue with the bang for the buck.  Weights and sizes are comparable or even smaller than the MBA, with larger hard drives in some cases, so the competition has really changed in a very short amount of time.  While Apple is seemingly ignoring the impending competition, it’s hard for consumers and gadget freaks alike to not take notice.  The baseline MBA remains over 4 times the cost of a well-specced netbook like the Acer Aspire One (1.6GHz, 160GB hard drive, 1GB RAM, XP Home).  Whether an MBA is truly worth 4 times the amount is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

But I digress – so what exactly are we crazed fans paying for?  For the moment, the MBA still stands alone in its own category in terms of blending high end performance with ultra-portable packaging.  The thinness and light weight (yet still sturdy and solid construction) still stand above its redesigned Macbook cousins, something hard to convey without having picked up both.  An additional 1.5 pounds doesn’t sound like much, but pick one up and I guarantee you’ll feel the difference.  The gorgeous LED screen also remains a strong selling point.  Performance-wise, not much has been compromised compared to the standard MB, aside from a slightly slower processor.  Compared to the non-Apple crowd, it’s a difficult discussion because most everything in its weight class doesn’t have the graphics processing power.  The reality is, aside from a couple of wannabe designs, nothing quite matches up.  The MBA is hard to classify and thus difficult to assess from a price standpoint.  Clearly, feature for feature it feels like you are paying far too much in comparison to various other models.  But once you try to find something exactly comparable, you realize there is nothing that quite matches up, and that’s ultimately why you are paying the premium.

Moving on, how about a few benchmarks?  I ran Xbench on the new model and had a composite score almost identical to what was posted in early reviews: just under 137.  I checked my boot-up times and, just as had been posted in video form, it took 25 seconds to boot into MAC OS X.  Very nice!  After installing Windows XP through Bootcamp, I clocked boot time at a respectable 45 seconds.  I re-ran 3DMark06 after an intial score of 500 scared me silly.  After turning off the power mizer settings, I got a more respectable score around 1460.  I was expecting better (closer to the 2000 score the standard MB has been advertising), so there may still be some driver or other issue to look at.  I re-ran the benchmark at a lower resolution (1024×768) and achieved about 10% better results (1600).

Benchmarks aside, the big personal goal for the upgrade was to have a portable, playable version of Warhammer Online.  From two initial play sessions, things are looking very good.  At full resolution (1280×800), I’ve played in both “Fastest Framerate” and “Balanced” mode and the game seems to hold up fine.  Framerates look to average out in th 20-30fps range.  There’s some occasional sputtering and stuttering, but this is true even on my desktop system, so it’s not that big a concern.  There are often network and other factors that make judging an MMORPG performance more difficult than a standard game.  The biggest test which I am very happy to report on was that playability was maintained even in a full “scenario” mode.  For those not familiar, this is basically a fast-paced, 12 on 12 competitive match with all live players, played in a dedicated zone.  While graphics are not necessarily the issue here, network concerns with many other players, special effects and control responsiveness are all a huge part of the game experience.  One keypress not responding can often cause you and/or your whole team to lose.  Results were very good, particularly in terms of responsiveness.  I had no issues playing the match about as “normal” as I might imagine on any laptop.  There was some additional choking each time I reloaded after dying, but it would quickly correct itself.  All in all, I cannot complain.  I have yet to do anything special to optimize the game performance, and it’s already playing fine in my mind. 

On top of WAR, I have a lot more gaming I’d like to test and not enough time to do it.  I’ve already installed 3 virtually brand new games: King’s Bounty, Sacred 2 and Fallout 3.  KB I played through a tutorial session and it looked great (settings I believe in medium detail).  The turn-based combat gameplay (similar to Heroes of Might and Magic) was excellent and perfect for this kind of system.  Sacred 2, a Diablo-like action RPG, had some stuttering issues at first with the mouse, but became completely playable after some adjustments to the graphics settings.  I still need to play around with that one.  Similarly, Fallout 3, a full 3D single player RPG based on the Oblivion engine, seemed a bit stuttery on low settings, but I haven’t had a chance to delve deeper.

So, first impressions are clearly good to great.  An already solid design that was close to meeting all my expectations in its original form, just took another extremely solid leap for the better.  It maintains all of the benefits I already loved about the MBA in terms of portability and flexibility, and now it’s a proven, capable, legitimate portable gaming machine (for the newest of games) on top of that.  Yes, it’s pricey, but in terms of engineering goodness, Apple has done it again.

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