Laptops

MacBook Air (2011 11-inch) Teardown: Ultra-efficient internal design

Bill Detwiler cracked open the 11-inch 2011 MacBook Air and found a highly efficient hardware layout that makes the most of the ultra-thin case.

In July 2011, Apple released the 3nd generation MacBook Air. As with the 2nd generation Airs, the 2011 notebooks are available in 11-inch (A1370) and 13-inch (A1369) models. The 2011 MacBook Air is available in four basic configurations-11-inch with 64GB of storage, 11-inch with 128GB of storage, 13-inch with 128GB of storage, and 13-inch with 256GB of storage. Within each of these divisions, you can further customize the processor and RAM.

Our $1,199 MacBook Air (11-inch) came with a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel i5 CPU, 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 128GB flash storage, Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 384MB of shared DDR3 SDRAM, and an 11.6-inch LED-backlit display. Apple added a Thunderbolt port to the 2011 MacBook Air.

We cracked open the 1st generation MacBook Air (released in 2008), 2nd generation 13-inch MacBook Air (released in 2010), and the 3rd generation 13-inch MacBook Air. Given the near identical external appearance of the 2011 and 2010 models, I couldn't wait to see if they were equally similar on the inside. They are, but the 11-inch Air's smaller case requires an highly-efficient hardware layout.

Full teardown gallery: Cracking Open the Apple MacBook Air (2011 11-inch)

Cracking Open observations

  • Tamper-resistant external screws: As on the 2010 MacBook Air and some iPhone 4's, Apple used tamper-resistant pentalobe screws on the 2011 Air's bottom cover. You can remove them with a small flat-head screwdriver, but you risk damaging the screw heads.
  • Nearly identical internal design as the 2010 Air: The 2011 MacBook Air's hardware layout is nearly identical to that of the 2010 model. The motherboard has a slightly different chip configuration, but is the same general shape and size.
  • Integrated graphics processor: Our 11-inch 2010 Air had an NVIDIA GeForce 320M GPU. Apple switched to Intel's integrated HD Graphics 3000 processor for the 2011 models. This change gave Apple room on the motherboard to include the Intel E78296 Platform Controller Hub, which likely contains the Thunderbolt controller. It also meant Apple could shrink the internal cooling assembly.
  • Many components are identical to the 2010 Air: The 2011 MacBook Air uses many of the same chips as the previous model, such as the Broadcom BCM5976A0K, Cypress CY8C24x94-24L PSoC, and Cirrus 4206BCNZ audio controller.
  • Ultra-efficient internal design: In most respects, the 11-inch Air is just a smaller version of the 13-inch model. The internal hardware layout is nearly identical. The motherboard and left-side PCB are the same general shape. And, both have many of the same components. Packing all this hardware into a case that's smaller by one inch from side to side and almost one and a half inches front to back, requires an ultra-efficient internal hardware layout.

Internal hardware

Our 11-inch 2011 MacBook Air test machine had the following hardware:

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

6 comments
valentinmilev
valentinmilev

It might look like a stupid quiestion, but is there are serviceable (for the ordinary user) items inside? So it's a good idea (just like Nintendo trigram screws) to add some proprietary fixing details - at least that will keep your children hands away from it (I still remember how many things I have disassembled durig my childhood - some of them forever....)

mckinnej
mckinnej

I'm in the market for a 13" notebook and was actually considering one of these. I like to tinker and don't hesitate to pop the case on my toys. I don't appreciate being locked out of something I paid for. I think I'll mark these off the candidate list.

GreyGeek77
GreyGeek77

you have to expect proprietary lock-ins, including unusual screw head designs. Compaq, among other PC OEMs, was also noted for having specialized components which only they could supply. It increased their after-sale revenue stream considerably. However, when the quality of their hardware began to slide, those specialized components became a serious handicap. Unlike tech folks, most people would not even consider taking their hardware apart, especially if they don't have the specialized tools necessary to do the job correctly. While some folks claim that a credit card is all the tool you need to remove a keyboard from an Acer Aspire One, for example, keyboards I've seen that had this method used on them showed a gnarled, ugly looking periphery, IF they could get the keyboard off at all. As "efficiency" of design increases, which means that component density increases while size usually decreases, there may come a time in the near future where even the folks at TechRepublic may consider teardowns impractical, if even possible. We are, after all, approaching a commodity basement where the price of replacement is faster and more affordable than the price of repair.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

I love the Air, but Apple always do the same: why they need to use special and unique screwdrivers to open the laptop?. If I want to put myself a bigger SSD, is a nightmare, why they do that? I love Apple products but I hate the way they think: they want you to go to the apple's retail locations for support and fixes. I hate that.

Bill Detwiler
Bill Detwiler

I've disassembled dozens of devices for TechRepublic's Cracking Open series--ultra-thin laptops, tiny tablets, cutting-edge smartphones, even old-school desktops. And whether it's a tamper-resistant Torx or tri-wing screw, specialty screws are just par for the course. And all but one screw I've encountered, bits are readily available (either online or in the local hardware store). But Apple's pentalobe screws (used on MacBook Airs and some iPhone 4s) are a different story. The heads of these frustrating fasteners have an indentation that resembles a five-leaf clover. And unlike most other security screws, proper-fitting bits are hard to come by. Yes. There are online retailers (including our friends over at iFixit - http://www.ifixit.com/Tools/MacBook-Air-5-Point-Pentalobe-Screwdriver/IF145-090) who sell screwdrivers designed to remove pentalobe screws. But, even they aren't exact matches. And besides, why should I have to purchase a screwdriver that can only be used on one device? I understand Apple's desire to keep people from monkeying about inside the Air while it's under warranty, but once the warranty has expired all bets are off. It's my hardware. (The Library of Congress said so.) I should be able to open the case and replace the battery, SSD, speakers, etc., without having to visit an Apple store. Don't get me wrong, I really like the Air, the MacBook Pro that I work on every day, and the iMac that I'm using to write this discussion post. But, I abhor the company's use of security screws on the outside of their devices. It's an unnecessary and ineffective attempt to force Air and iPhone buyers into having their devices serviced at Apple's retail locations.

suncatTR
suncatTR

The SSD holds less than my 4 year old MacBook's hard drive. You'll want a new drive--immediately. Oops, can't open the notebook. Really? I own it. If I break it, it's MY fault, AND Apple's fault for making a simple thing like replacing a drive into a major repair job that could break my computer. BAD DESIGN. Shame on Apple. Shame on Apple for GLUING together my iPod Touch. I buy Apple products because they have good software that usually works OK with their hardware. But I'm not an idiot or child who can't take care of my own equipment . It's annoying that Apple keeps making products with the assumption that their customers are idiots. That's why I buy used, or refurbs to avoid the Apple tax. Now I need to find the right color of velcro so I can have an optical drive with a MacBook Air, attached to the lid. Nah, there are better choices than MBA.

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