Can the latest MacBook Air 2011 / 2012 handle a large external screen? Is the Air powerful enough? How is the response? Is there any flicker? To find out, we tested the new MacBook Air with the 27 inch Apple LED Cinema Display. See the video of the test for yourself.
Can the MacBook Air 2012 / 2011 Handle Big External Displays?
- The Short Answer
The short answer is yes. The new MacBook Air ran the big, high resolution Apple LED Cinema Display without any sense of strain. Windows, images and videos moved on the monitor with fluidity and crispness.
From reports on the web, the Apple LED Cinema display may flicker with both the MacBook Air and Pro, when at a brightness below level 7. There doesn’t seem to be a fix yet.
For this article, we just did a quick test. To be completely sure the MacBook Air can drive your screen, please test your screen with a MacBook Air to your satisfaction before buying. Tests with other monitors, different applications, alternative cables and extended use may reveal more.
If this enough information for you? If so, please help share this article by clicking the Tweet or Google +1 buttons above. If you’d like more details, or to see video of the test, please read on.
What If You Want a Cheaper External Display?
If you don’t want to spend $1,000 on an Apple Thunderbolt Display, I’ve written some tips for buying a cheap external display for MacBook Air. I’ve included the name of the brand & model I personally use – only $152 for a 23 inch full HD screen, as well as tips for using an external display, born from long experience.
The Graphics Processor in the New MacBook Air
Before covering testing the MacBook Air with a big external display, it’s worth mentioning the graphics processor in the MacBook Air (MBA). The graphics processor in the MacBook Air is the Intel HD Graphics 3000. This HD 3000 graphics processor is actually part of the MBA’s Intel Core processor - they are a single silicon chip.
What sort of graphics performance can you expect? As a low cost graphics solution, the HD 3000 uses the Mac’s main memory, rather than dedicated graphics memory. Mid to high-end video cards use dedicated graphics RAM like GDDR5, because graphics RAM is much faster than the computer’s main memory. Specialized graphics memory provides the extraordinary performance needed to handle modern three dimensional (3D) graphics on big screens. There is a cost for this performance: fast graphics cards with dedicated memory use more of a laptop’s battery, generate heat, causing fans to run creating noise, add to the laptop’s size and cost more. These disadvantages – battery life, laptop size, fan noise from heat and cost are why the Air uses an integrated graphics processor.
The HD 3000 is fine for two dimensional graphics (2D) graphics, typical in web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, Photoshop, music production and basic video editing.
The HD 3000 handles high definition video playback – hence the HD in the name. I’ve only tested the MacBook Air with HD 720p resolution video. (Sorry: it was a quick test, the Air didn’t have any 1080p samples on it, and I didn’t have admin rights to install Flash to play a full HD video.)
The HD 3000 also does 3D graphics. The 3D graphics on the Air are only good enough for playing basic games or older games. If you are a gamer, do not buy a MacBook Air – graphics will not update quickly or smoothly for modern games. For gaming, the MacBook Air is the wrong tool for the job.
If you’re needing a more powerful graphics processor for 3D modelling, professional video editing, special effects production or gaming, buy a MacBook Pro instead. That’s what a MacBook Pro is for!
The Setup for Testing the MacBook Air with a Large External Monitor
I tested connecting a high resolution external display to the new MacBook Air 11 inch mid-2011 model, with a Core i5 processor. I chose this model as it is smallest and least powerful of the new MacBook Air models, with a 1.6 GHz Core i5 processor. If this model can handle a big screen, the faster and larger variants of the MacBook Air (11″ i7, 13″ i5, 13″ i7) should have no problems.
We tested the MacBook Air with a 27 inch Apple LED Cinema Display. The Apple Thunderbolt display, which evolved from the LED Cinema Display wasn’t available yet. The maximum resolution for an external display for the 2011 MacBook Air is 2560 by 1600 pixels. I tested with the LED Cinema display as its resolution – 2560 by 1440 pixels - is very close to the MBA’s maximum.
Luckily, the Apple LED Cinema Display is the forerunner to the new Apple Thunderbolt display, so I could get an idea of what the Thunderbolt display will be like.
Connecting Displays to the MacBook Air 2011
The new MacBook Air connects to external displays through its Thunderbolt port.
The Thunderbolt port is the physically the same as the Mini DisplayPort in previous MacBook Air models and other Macs. The Thunderbolt port is backward compatible with the Mini DisplayPort. Thunderbolt expands on Mini DisplayPort’s ability to connect displays, adding the capacity to connect high speed peripherals through the port. High speed storage or a fast Gigabit Ethernet network connection can be added through Thunderbolt.
Thunderbolt’s backward compatibility with Mini DisplayPort means you can connect displays to the MacBookAir with VGA, DVI, Dual-Link DVI and HDMI cables, as long as you have the correct Mini DisplayPort adaptor.
Testing a Big Screen with the New MacBook Air
We connected up the great big LED Cinema Display. The mid-2011 MacBook Air can run even a big, super highres display like the Apple LED Cinema Display!
First we tried web browsing. Web pages came up on the screen, no sense of slowness or lag when using the external display.
Testing Full Screen HD 720p Video on an External Monitor
We then tried playing a fullscreen HD 720p video on the big screen:
As you can see, the 720p video played very cleanly on the big Apple display.
I would have liked to test full HD 1080p video playback, but there was no 1080p video loaded on the Air. Streaming 1080p from YouTube also wasn’t possible, as the MacBook Air didn’t have Flash installed, and I didn’t have admin access to install Flash. Sorry.
Testing Interface Responsiveness with Two 720p Videos on the External Screen
In the next test we run iMove, start two 720p videos and then show all windows using Mission Control. Notice how responsive the interface is.
MacBook Air and Flickering on Built-In and External Displays
There are cases of screen flicker with the previous model MacBook Air’s built-in display, show on YouTube, and described on the Apple Support Forum. Apple replaced the user on YouTube’s MacBook Air and he said he loves his MacBook Air.
I’ve had flickering on my MacBook Pro to my 24″ screen – colors flicked on and off. The issue was due to the Mini DisplayPort adaptor not being pushed all the way in, or the monitor’s cable being loosely connected to Mini DisplayPort adaptor. Ensure all the video connectors were flush fixed the problem.
There are also reports of flickering on the 27″ LED Cinema display at low brightness levels with the new mid-2011 MacBook Air. The flickering happens with the brightness set below 7. This has been confirmed by multiple people and appears to happen with MacBook Pros as well. It appears to an issue with the display’s power supply.
Given this affects both the MacBook Air and Pro, which have different graphics processors and chipsets, chances are this is a power-related Apple Cinema Display problem. This issue has not been resolved.
The 2011 MacBook Air did an excellent job of driving the 27″ Apple LED Cinema Display. The MacBook Air will probably have no problems driving most external screens with reasonable 2D graphics and video performance.
Reports on the web say a flicker occurs on the Apple Cinema Display at a brightness below level 7. This is probably a Apple Cinema Display problem.
This was just a quick test. Technology is never perfect. Different cables, monitors, or apps may yield different results. If you are want to be completely sure the MacBook Air can drive your screen, please test your screen with a MacBook Air before buying.
If you’re looking for a cheap MacBook Air display, remember I’ve written some external display buying tips, including the brand & model of screen I use.
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