In July 2011, Apple released the 3nd generation MacBook Air (Model A1369). As with the 2nd generation Airs, the 2011 notebooks are available in 11-inch and 13-inch 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 $1,299 MacBook Air (13-inch) came with a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 128GB flash storage, Intel HD Graphics 3000 processors with 384MB of shared DDR3 SDRAM, and a 13.3-inch LED-backlit display (1440 x 900 pixels native). Apple added a Thunderbolt port to the 2011 MacBook Air.

We cracked open the 1st generation MacBook Air (released in 2008) and 2nd generation 13-inch MacBook Air (released in 2010). And 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 Apple did make several key, evolutionary updates to the 2011 Air.

Full teardown gallery: Cracking Open the Apple MacBook Air (2011 13-inch)

Cracking Open observations

  1. 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.
  2. 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 shape and size.
  3. Integrated graphics processor: Our 13-inch 2010 Air had an NVIDIA GeForce 320M GPU. Apple switched to Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 3000 processor for the 2011 model. 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.
  4. 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 and Cypress PSoC.

Internal hardware

Our 13-inch MacBook Air had the following hardware components:

Evolutionary, not revolutionary

The 2011 MacBook Air is an excellent next step in the product line’s evolution. The Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, additional base RAM, and Thunderbolt port are welcome updates. Still, I was a little disappointed by the lack of change inside the case.

Apple was clearly following the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra. There’s nothing wrong with this philosophy. In fact, sticking with the 2010 Air design makes it easier to build and support the 2011 models. It’s just not as much fun from a cracking open perspective.

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