Apple's iconic ultraportable goes under the knife and comes away looking better than ever
Back in 2008, Steve Jobs slid the millimetres-thin MacBook Air from a manila envelope, and in that instant the world of laptops looked dowdier than ever. For all its design flair, though, we found the Air riddled with compromises that upgrades since haven't quite ironed out. Now, as we approach 2011, the MacBook Air may just have come of age.
Slip it from its lush packaging (see our gallery for more shots) and it has the same impact as ever. A silver wedge of aluminium tapering to a delicate point, it looks like it would snap in two at the slightest provocation, but it's also unnervingly robust. The metal unibody chassis feels so taut and well-constructed it barely flinches under the kind of pressure that would crack most ultraportables down the middle.
It also performs the miraculous feat of feeling both hefty and expensive, while not actually weighing much at all. Hold it in one hand and Sony's VAIO Z Series in the other, and the MacBook feels like the heavier and more solid of the two. Put them on the scales, however, and the 1.33kg Apple is actually a handful of grams lighter.
The previous MacBook Airs never lacked visual flair; rather it was the disappointing combination of limited horsepower, poor battery life and almost non-existent connectivity that dampened the appeal. With this iteration those criticisms are hushed.
The basics are better: a single USB port now adorns each side, one accompanied by mini-DisplayPort and an SD card reader, the other by a single headphone output. It's still hardly generous by laptop standards, but at least it's now possible to plug in a USB 3G dongle - there's still no 3G as standard - and a thumb drive at the same time. And while some will moan at the lack of an Ethernet socket, the Air's wireless chipset is capable of simultaneous dual-band 802.11n operation.
The core internals still don't wow us. Even on the top-of-the-range model we have here, there's no sign of Intel's latest Core i5 or i7 processors. Instead, a rather elderly Core 2 Duo takes control, along with just 2GB of DDR3 memory. With its 256GB SSD, though, the MacBook Air really doesn't feel like it's built on last-generation technology. Power it on and OS X springs into life in less than 15 seconds, while the MacBook Air feels responsive and nippy throughout.
Of course, there's still no optical drive, but installing Windows 7 in Boot Camp from a USB flash drive was pleasingly swift. Once installation was complete, Microsoft's OS proved more laboured than Apple's - taking over a minute to get to the desktop - but performance in our benchmarks wasn't bad at all. An overall score of 0.95 is solid for an ultraportable, and a substantial improvement on the Air's previous incarnations.
Nvidia's GeForce 320M chipset provides some genuine 3D power. It defied our expectations by managing 41fps in our Low-detail Crysis test (at 1,366 x 768), which is more than eight times faster than the GeForce 9400M of the previous generation. HD video is no challenge whatsoever.
Above all else, however, it was battery life that really hobbled the last MacBook Air, and that's the biggest improvement. Sitting idle in OS X, the Air lasted close to an astonishing 12 hours. You take the usual hit when using Windows - that light-use time fell to a still-decent 7hrs 47mins - but Apple's claims of seven hours of general use seem bang on the money.
Crucially, the MacBook Air remains a joy to use. That 13.3in display isn't quite up the standards of the Sony VAIO Z Series, but the glossy panel delivers punchy, saturated colours and plenty of brightness. Horizontal viewing angles are good and wide, and the sensible 1,440 x 900 resolution means it never feels unduly cramped.
From the first moments in OS X, this is a notebook that oozes tactile charm. The short-travel keys and narrow Enter key are easy to get used to, and even they are outshone by the glass touchpad. There are no discrete buttons; instead, the whole trackpad clicks under the finger or responds to a delicate tap of its surface. And, quite unlike the mediocre attempts by other manufacturers to copy the button-less design, it never gets befuddled by multiple fingers or causes the cursor to hop erratically around: it just works.
That's most true in OS X. Multitouch gestures integrate seamlessly into the experience; multifinger swipes and swooshes maximise and hide applications with tactile, responsive ease. It's enough, maybe, to turn a Windows user into a discreetly converted Mac owner.
It's probably no surprise that 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 Sony, nor quite match its ergonomic charms, but it somehow manages to come across as reasonable value by comparison. Yes, it's expensive, but it really is an experience worth paying for.