The third iteration of Apple’s MacBook Air is finally ready to be the average student’s only computer, and not a moment too soon.

The first version of the Air was expensive and slow. The 2010 edition was a vast improvement, offering improved performance across the board along with a cheaper price tag, but it still boasted obsolete Core 2 Duo processors. The latest model, sporting the newest i5 and i7 Sandy Bridge processors, is finally sufficient for almost all students. I know this because I got one last week, and have been using it exclusively for everything from note taking to HD video editing.

The Build Quality

First, the obvious. This thing is tiny. It’s the thinnest, lightest laptop I’ve ever seen, but seemingly not at the expense of durability. The build is typical Apple: polished, strong, and minimal. If you have to carry your laptop between buildings around campus, your back will thank you for choosing this computer.

Obviously, with the form factor comes a few compromises. The 11″ model features only two USB 2.0 ports, a headphone jack, and a Thunderbolt port (more on that later). The 13″ also affords room for a SD card slot; perfect for importing your party photos.

Luckily, Apple brought its much-beloved backlit keyboard back to the Air, so you won’t have trouble typing while your roommate is sleeping. The keyboard itself is full-sized and very comfortable, though the keys feel ever so slightly shallower than my old MacBook Pro.  You could type out a term paper on it, but it may behoove you to buy an external keyboard for extra-long typing sessions. As for the trackpad, it’s excellent as ever. If you’ve ever used an Apple trackpad, you know exactly what you’re getting, though the 11″ model’s loses a little bit of real estate.

The screen isn’t the sharpest I’ve seen on a small laptop–that honor belongs to the Vaio-S Series–but the 11″ and 13″ screens are both sharper than the 13″ MacBook Pro, so there’s plenty of screen real estate available. There’s no matte option available, but the glossy screen is great for watching videos or viewing photos, and is easily viewable from the sides, making it perfect for sharing YouTube vidoes. 

Obviously the big omission here is an optical drive. If you’re anything like me, this is something you use probably once or twice per year. If this is the case, then it’s a huge waste of space on any computer. Apple would be happy to sell you a USB optical drive for under $100, but the Air also comes bundled with a remote disc utility that allows you to use the optical drive of any other computer on your network, so it should be a non-issue for most students. 

Internals

This computer runs circles around my only two year old MacBook Pro. Applications open nearly instantly, OS X Lion’s animations run at a great clip, and Handbrake has consistently encoded video nearly twice as fast as my old machine. While the new processors are state of the art (though clocked to only 1.6-1.8 GHz), the real star of the show is the solid state drive.

For the unitiated, a solid state drive is basically flash stoage like you would find in an phone or tablet, but in a computer. It’s roughly 5x as fast as a traditional hard drive, which allows for much faster boot time, and nearly instantaneous opening of programs and files. Though the processors are underclocked, the SSD makes up the difference. The last MacBook Air sported a processor that by any modern standard would be considered slow. It was basically the same silicon you could find in a laptop manufactured 4 years ago, and yet, the consensus was that it was a fast computer. A solid state drive is the ultimate form of future proofing, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of MacBook Airs last through four years of undergrad and come out on the other side still feeling speedy. The improvement is tangible and palpable, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back. 

The downside, of course, is space and cost. The MacBook Air only offers 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB hard drives; far smaller than you’d find in most laptops. For me this meant making a few adjustments. For one, I did not move over my large iTunes library, and instead am using Spotify Premium for all my music needs. Likewise, I’m keeping my 10,000 photo iPhoto library on external drives, because I really don’t need photos from middle school with me at all times. These two ommissions alone saved me enough space to comfortably break in the machine.

The one step back for the newest model is its lack of dedicated graphics card, swapping the old Nvidia 320m for the integrated Intel HD 3000. While it’s not state of the art, benchmarks peg it as comparable to Nvidia’s offering, and you can actually get a playable 30fps on Portal 2 at fairly high settings. Obviously, this isn’t the computer for you if you really love computer games, but it’s more than sufficient for most newer games if you’re willing to compromise on your graphics settings.

The big wildcard of this computer is the Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt is an extremely fast data transfer technology (think 20x faster than USB 2.0) that on paper is amazing, but in reality has yet to see many functional accessories. You can pick up $1,000 Thunderbolt RAID arrays, or an equally expensive Apple Thunderbolt display, but for the average student, the port will go mostly unused. A few accessories, including an impressive Belkin port hub, should be coming out soon, but it’s slim pickings for now. Luckily, it does double as a mini DisplayPort, so you should be able to drive almost any external monitor with the proper adapter. 

Battery life in my experience has been superb considering the size of the computer. You definitely won’t see any extended battery humps protruding from the computer’s backside, so the fact that you can easily squeeze 7 hours of light usage (closer to 5 on the 11″) is pretty astounding. You’ll have no issue getting through a full slate of classes without scrambling for an outlet. 

Summing it Up

If you’re getting a Mac for college, this is the one to get. Unless you for some reason frequently need an optical drive, or make a living cutting video or playing computer games, there’s not much of a reason to get a MacBook Pro anymore. The portability and battery life make it perfect for class. The screen is ideal for entertainment and videos. The performance and speed is up to nearly any task you’ll face as a student. It’s everything students need, and nothing that they don’t.