Design and Features
If you weren't convinced by the last generation MacBook Air, the late 2008 model will do nothing to change your mind. There's still no optical drive, no Ethernet port, only one USB port, the fixed battery is still present and there's no 3G support.
It still has its positives — the extremely thin profile, the powder-silver finish, the low weight and excellent build quality — but there's now a little more to add to the mix. The Air, like the rest of Apple's MacBook line is now based on an Nvidia chipset and inherits superior graphics as well, giving it significantly more grunt over the older Intel-based Air. Higher power graphics though comes at the price of battery time, something the previous Air was not brilliantly endowed with, not to mention additional heat output. While never reaching an annoying pitch, the Air can put out a decent noise when the GPU is put to task.
Along with Nvidia graphics comes Apple's next graphics port that everybody else will ignore, and will cost you an exceptional amount of money to buy the adapters for — mini-DisplayPort. This is for all intents and purposes the standard DisplayPort, just smaller, much like Apple's micro-DVI before it. At the time of writing, Apple charges AU$45 for a mini-DisplayPort to DVI or VGA adapter; however, if you want to output to a 2,560x1,600 screen you'll need the Dual Link DVI adapter, which will set you back AU$149 and use your only USB port.
Given that the USB port, mini-DisplayPort and headphone jack are all on the right-hand side, and hidden away until you flip down a compartment, we can't see why Apple wouldn't include a second USB port when there appears to be plenty of room. Or an Ethernet port perhaps, given that the USB to Ethernet adapter costs AU$39. The flip down compartment is also limited in height, meaning anything other than a standard USB-sized connector may have issues fitting in, like a number of USB flash drives.
The keyboard features the split keys featured on all MacBooks, and is quite quick to touch type on. The keyboard is backlit, although you'll only be able to set this brightness in the dark — a censor on the laptop itself prevents the backlight being turned on in decent light situations.
The 1,280x800 screen is decent enough, obviously TN based, and features a glossy screen, which will immediately turn some off. Sadly the range of motion of the screen is limited to around 135 degrees, which depending on your seating situation can force annoying off-axis viewing, and hence discolouration. Situated above the screen is an Apple iSight camera and dual microphones.
Apple's super-wide multitouch trackpad is featured here as well, and is brilliant to use, from using a double finger swipe to scroll, tapping two fingers for a right-click, a four-finger swipe for Expose, and the various image resizing and rotating actions available in iPhoto. While brilliant in OS X, we found the trackpad to be overly sensitive in Windows, resulting in many accidental clicks, with no software tool made available to alter this. Thankfully, Apple does include drivers that allow right-clicking in Windows (among other hardware drivers), although the execution is slightly different — with two fingers on the trackpad, you then need to click the physical mouse button.
The mono speaker, trapped under the right-hand side of Apple's keyboard is another letdown for the Air. There are clearly concessions to be made when things are this thin — double the height and you get Lenovo's still quite trim X301, which features stereo speakers, optical drive, three USB ports, Ethernet port, DisplayPort and VGA port. When you take in mind that the screen takes up a lot of the extra height in the Lenovo for extra rigidity, it proves just what can be done with today's engineering. We know which laptop businesses would prefer.
Loading under Windows, we put our 1.86GHz, 128GB SSD equipped MacBook Air through 3DMark06, netting 1,450. This means older games should be reasonably comfortable to play, while newer games may struggle a bit. To confirm this, we played through Half-Life 2: Episode 2, which ran fine with a few settings dialled down (HDR off, water detail set to simple reflections, filtering set to trilinear). Crysis Warhead still struggled with all settings turned to lowest — but nonetheless, a valiant showing by a laptop considering the hardware involved.
Despite our best efforts, PCMark05 would not successfully complete; however, with the Air's specs it's safe to say it will be fine for general use and office productivity apps.
Battery was what we were most concerned with, and in this regard the Air did quite well, lasting three hours, 29 minutes and 16 seconds while playing back an XviD video, with screen brightness and volume set to full.
Despite its short-comings, we really like the MacBook Air, in no small part due to OS X and the laptop's incredible portability. There's something about the experience that just clicks. The most concerning thing is the non-removable battery, and considering a battery's tendency to lose charge over time, we're a bit leery of having to return the entire laptop to Apple just to get a battery swap.
The base model comes in at AU$2,899, and features a 120GB 4,200rpm magnetic hard drive and a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor, while the AU$3,999 edition contains a 128GB SSD and 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo processor. Including the AppleCare Protection Plan for three year's warranty and access to Apple support will cost an additional AU$419.