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:

Update 12/19/2011: This post originally appeared in our TR Dojo blog.