The 13-inch Apple MacBook Air is expensive and in many ways restrictive, but a stunning design, great battery life and brilliant ease of use mean this laptop is more than style over substance.
The first MacBook Air will go down in history as one of the most divisive pieces of tech ever created. Either a triumph of design and simplicity or an overpriced, feature-bereft lump depending on your point of view, it split the tech world straight down the middle. Well, Apple's back with another iteration of the envelope-thin laptop -- available for around £1,100 -- but can this one finally convince us of the Air's worth?
Let's start with the design, which hasn't changed all that much since the last time. We might as well get this out of the way early -- the MacBook Air is astonishingly thin. Even though we've held previous versions, we still passed the Air around, each member of the team turning it over in their hands as if trying to find where the rest of it was kept. It's hard to stress quite how slim the Air is with specs alone, but know that this 13-inch model is 325mm wide, 227mm high and 3mm thick at its thinnest point, 17mm at the thickest.
As you might have guessed, that makes the Air slightly wedge-shaped. It's an astonishingly slim wedge, but there's a definite taper down to the 3mm front lip. This laptop is thin enough to shave with, snowboard on and, if you possess the requisite arm strength, skim across a lake.
It's thin to the extreme, but the MacBook Air is actually surprisingly weighty. It's a million miles from heavy, weighing in at just 1.32kg, but we were struck by the substantial feel of this laptop. We're not complaining, though. For want of a better word, the Air feels expensive, and that balanced weight reflects the high build quality that's evident in its construction.
The Air sports an aluminium unibody and, for the most part, we've no complaints about the design of this machine. It feels very well put together and, despite the thin chassis, doesn't feel like it would snap in a stiff breeze.
There's no backlit keyboard on offer, which is something we really like on the larger MacBook Pro. Secondly, the bezel is aluminium, and we'd hazard that the black glass surrounding the MacBook Pro's gorgeous display looks a little classier.
Those are minor design quibbles, though -- overall, this is an exceptionally good-looking piece of kit.
The MacBook Air does two things really, really well: style and usability. Indeed, using this laptop is a genuine pleasure at every stage.
The keyboard is incredibly comfortable, with a generous space between each individual key to cut down on accidental mistypings. The traditional Mac 'up' and 'down' arrows persist, and they still seem a little odd to us. If you're used to using a standard PC keyboard, the lack of a delete key might prove a stumbling block.
The trackpad is sensationally sensitive, impressively large (127mm on the diagonal) and all your favourite multi-touch functions are of course possible. We think this trackpad is actually the Air's greatest asset -- we've never seen a laptop with a better trackpad, and it makes Web browsing and cruising around the Air's OS a real pleasure.
The display is pretty impeccable, though at this kind of price you'd expect near-perfection. This 13.3-inch panel has a maximum resolution of 1,440x900 pixels, and it's extremely bright, clear and colourful. Rest assured, from family photos to HD movies, everything rendered on this display is liable to come out looking rather splendid.
So what we have is a beautifully designed, highly usable and attractive machine. But let's be honest, those things were never the contentious issues. Let's get under the hood of the Air and see if we like what we find.
Taking centre stage, we have a dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo processor clocked at 1.86GHz, with 2GB of DDR3 RAM and an Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics card waiting in the wings. That isn't particularly flashy hardware, so how does it actually perform?
In short, pretty well. The Air certainly doesn't feel sluggish at all, and the OS felt satisfyingly nippy at all times. HD video content played extremely smoothly, too. We wouldn't expect the Air to handle much gaming (unless you're a fan of older titles), but this laptop doesn't feel slow.
In our Xbench benchmark test, the Air achieved a score of 162.45. Compare that with the 202.71 our Core i3 iMac managed when we reviewed it in October. With the Air, you're paying lots of cash for relatively mid-spec hardware, but if you can handle that, the actual experience of using this laptop is extremely pleasant, and far from sluggish.
Start-up time is very impressive -- our review sample went from zero to desktop in a fraction over 14 seconds. By the sixteenth second we'd fired up Safari. That's an attractive proposition for the kind of on-the-move Apple fans this laptop is aimed at.
The Air comes with two storage options. Ours sports 256GB of space, but there's a smaller 128GB version that retails at a start price of £1,099. Rather than a traditional hard drive, all the new Airs use flash storage.
Flash storage is faster and more reliable than traditional HDD drives because it doesn't have any moving parts. That means if you accidentally drop it, it's less likely to lose all your precious data. Something to bear in mind, however, is that this laptop doesn't use standard SSD drives, and because the body is completely sealed, accessing or upgrading those delicious flashy chunks will be next to impossible.
With a laptop this thin, connectivity is always going to be compromised. We think previous Airs were a little too pared down -- only one USB port is a bitter pill to swallow. Things are slightly rosier here, with two (count 'em!) USB ports, a headphone jack, multi-format card reader and a Mini DisplayPort for outputting your display. You'll need to buy some adaptors to get that port to play nice with most monitors and TVs.
That's hardly a generous selection -- VGA and ethernet ports are notably absent, and it's a way smaller selection than what you'd typically find on little netbooks. Still, it's a modicum of improvement. We have no doubt that, at some point, you'll find yourself immensely frustrated with the stingy port selection, but it mightn't happen too often to spoil your enjoyment of the laptop.
As for battery, again, there are good things and bad things about the Air's set-up. On the one hand, the battery is still completely inaccessible, so if you need to replace it, you'll have to send the whole machine away.
On the other hand, battery life is impressive -- we left the Air running 1080p video on a loop, and it took three hours and ten minutes for the battery to completely exhaust itself. That's impressive, and you'll get several more hours of usage if you're more responsible with your power consumption. We reckon Apple's rather vague claim of seven hours of 'wireless productivity' (whatever that is) are about accurate.
Furthermore, there's a really impressive standby time on offer here. Apple reckons the Air will last a month on standby, waking up from its slumber almost instantly when you lift the lid. While we haven't had a whole month with this machine yet, based on what we've seen, we don't think that's too outlandish a claim.
The Apple MacBook Air is expensive, relatively low-spec and in many ways very restrictive. But it's also beautifully designed, offers impressive battery life and, most importantly, is a genuine pleasure to use, offering the seamless integration between hardware and software Apple is famous for. If you expect serious computing grunt and customisability from a laptop, steer well clear. If you're looking for something simple, portable and easy to use, the MacBook Air justifies its high price tag.
Edited by Emma Bayly