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Sandy Bridge MacBook Air Models with Thunderbolt and Backlit Keyboards Released at Last

Along with the release of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Apple has released updated MacBook Air models. The new models sport Sandy Bridge processors, a Thunderbolt port, Intel HD Graphics 3000, and backlit keyboards among other changes.

Apple’s MacBook Air models have been very popular but needed an update since they were running on the older Intel Core 2 Duo processors in order to allow NVIDIA’s GeForce 320M integrated graphics chip to be used since Intel’s integrated graphics on the first generation Core CPUs was much slower.

The landscape has changed now that Intel has released much faster Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics on its second generation Core CPU’s which are known as the Sandy Bridge line. The new MacBook Air models feature the same 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch designs but feature much better performance across the board.

All models now use Intel’s HD Graphics 3000 which features 384MB of memory shared with main memory along with Sandy Bridge processors. The 11.6-inch models come standard with a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB of shared L3 cache. The 13.3-inch models come standard with a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB of shared L3 cache. The higher-end models in each case have the option of being upgraded form the factory with a 1.8GHz dual-core Core i7 processor with 4MB of shared L3 cache for $150 on the 11.6-inch model and $100 on the 13.3-inch model. I would highly recommend this upgrade for performance reasons.

The differences in the 11.6-inch models are 2GB of memory and a 64GB SSD on the $999 model vs 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD on the $1199 model. The $999 model does offer a factory built-to-order option for 4GB of memory with a $100 premium which makes little sense when for $100 more than the upgrade you can have twice the space as well. The $1199 model also has the $300 option to upgrade to a 256GB SSD. This is a new option that was previously not available on the 11.6-inch models. As already mentioned, the $1199 model offers the option for the Core i7 upgrade for $150.

The 13.3-inch models come standard with 4GB of memory. The only difference in the two models is the $1299 model features a 128GB SSD and the higher-end $1599.00 model has a 256GB SSD. As previously mentioned, the higher-end 13.3-inch model also offers the Core i7 upgrade for a $100 premium.

The only disappointment in the upgrade is the lack of an 8GB memory option. Although highly unlikely given Apple’s lineup and typical modus operandi, power users like myself were hoping for the option. I am glad to see 4GB of memory standard on all but the $999 MacBook Air and even so, it is still a built-to-order option.

All models now feature a Thunderbolt port rather than the previous Mini DisplayPort. This one change now makes the MacBook Air a powerhouse since you can connect all manner of external storage and all sorts of other peripherals through the PCI Express bus.

The previous generation’s two USB 2.0 ports and SD card slot on the 13.3-inch models remain unchanged. All models also still have 802.11n Wi-Fi but add upgraded Bluetooth 4.0. The displays also remain the same with the 11.6-inch models featuring 1366x768 resolution and the 13.3-inch models featuring 1440x900 resoltuion.

The final much anticipated change is the addition of a backlit keyboard on all models. The old 13-inch design had a backlit keyboard and when the previous generation 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch models were released without a backlit keyboard, many users were very disappointed.

With these changes, there is no better time to get a MacBook Air. In light of these changes, Apple has also discontinued the old White MacBook model in favor of the MacBook Air. Many saw this coming and it does make good sense for Apple. If you really need a built-in optical drive, you might as well go with a 13.3-inch MacBook Pro although it is rumored that future models will eliminate the optical drive altogether. If this does happen, it will be a ways off into the future.

The new MacBook Air models take a great design and improve on it in just about every way it was lacking. I am very much looking forward to upgrading and will be providing comparison insights between my current 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo 11.6-inch MacBook Air and a new 11.6-inch model.

All standard MacBook Air models are available for purchase from Amazon.com.

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