Back in 2008, Steve Jobs slid the millimetres-thin MacBook Air from a manilla envelope, and in that instant the world of PC laptops looked dowdier than ever. For all its design flair, though, we found the Air riddled with compromises that upgrades since hadn’t quite ironed out.
Now, as we approach 2011, the MacBook Air may just have come of age.
It has the same immediate impact it’s always had. A silver wedge of aluminium tapering to a delicate point, it looks like it would snap in two, but it’s unnervingly robust. The metal unibody chassis feels taut and well-constructed.
It also performs the miraculous feat of feeling hefty and expensive, while not actually weighing very much. Hold it in one hand and Sony’s VAIO Z13 in the other, and the MacBook feels like the more solid of the two. Weigh them, however, and the 1.33kg Apple is actually slightly lighter.
Previous generations of the MacBook Air were held back by low horsepower, poor battery life and almost non-existent connectivity. With this new model, however, those criticisms can mostly be laid to rest.
A USB port now adorns each side, along with a mini-DisplayPort and an SD card reader. It’s still hardly generous, but at least it’s now possible to plug in a USB 3G dongle – there’s still no integrated 3G – and a thumb drive at the same time. And while some will bemoan the lack of an Ethernet socket, the Air’s wireless chipset is capable of simultaneous dual-band 802.11n operation.
The core internals have also been improved. There’s still no sign of Intel’s latest Core i5 or i7 processors; instead, a Core 2 Duo takes control, along with 2GB of DDR3 memory. That sounds weak, but with its 256GB SSD, the MacBook Air feels faster than it should. Indeed, power it on and OS X springs to life in less than 15 seconds.
There’s no optical drive, but installing Windows 7 in Boot Camp from a USB flash drive was swift. Once complete, Microsoft’s OS proved more laboured than that of Apple, but performance in our benchmarks wasn’t bad at all. An overall score of 0.93 is solid for an ultraportable.
Nvidia’s GeForce 320M chipset provides some genuine 3D power. It managed 41fps in our Low quality Crysis test, more than eight times faster than the GeForce 9400M of the previous generation. HD video plays effortlessly.
Battery life has seen the biggest improvement of all: sitting idle in OS X, the Air lasted close to 12 hours. Even taking the usual Windows hit, its light-use battery life was a decent 7hrs 47mins.
Gorgeous and fast
Crucially, the MacBook Air is a joy to use. That 13.3in display isn’t quite up to the standards of the Sony, but the bright, glossy panel delivers punchy and saturated colours. Horizontal viewing angles are good, and the 1440 x 900 resolution fits at this screen size.
The short-travel keys and narrow Enter key are easy to get used to, and even they are outshone by the glass touchpad. Instead of discrete buttons, the whole trackpad clicks under the finger. And, quite unlike the mediocre attempts by other manufacturers to copy the buttonless design, it’s never befuddled by multiple fingers: it just works. That’s most true in OS X, where multitouch gestures are a seamless part of the experience; swipes and swooshes maximise and hide apps with ease. It’s enough, perhaps, to turn a Windows user into a discreetly converted Mac fan.
It’s probably no surprise to learn we’re smitten by this MacBook Air. For those who crave the sensibly-sized screen and proper keyboard of a full-sized laptop, but wish it could weigh next to nothing, perform well and last a full day, there’s nothing quite like it. It doesn’t roar through tasks like the VAIO Z13, nor quite match its wonderful screen, but the MacBook Air comes across as reasonable value by comparison. Yes, it’s dear, but it really is an experience worth paying for.