Thinner is better. At least, that's what Apple seems to think, judging by the new MacBook Air. It's so thin you could use it to shave. In fact, the 11-inch version is the most portable laptop we've ever encountered, even taking netbooks into account. But can it possibly be worth its £870 price tag?
The 11-inch version of the MacBook Air comes in two basic configurations. The cheapest model offers 64GB of flash storage, a dual-core 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 2GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics card. If you're willing to stump up £1,020, you can get a version with 128GB of flash storage. The RAM and processor options on both versions can be upgraded slightly, but it'll cost you.
Design is one of Apple's main strengths, and the 11-inch Air is another exemplary effort. It measures 300mm wide by 192mm deep. When closed, it tapers from 17mm tall at the back to a mere 3mm at the front. It can be hard to get your head around figures like that when you're not actually holding the machine, but take our word for it -- the Air is mind-warpingly thin.
This computer will slide snugly into a bag -- and maybe even a large handbag -- with less fuss than any other laptop we've seen. But you might be surprised by its weight. The Air might look like a sheet of A4, but, at 1.06kg, it definitely feels like a computer. This machine is still lighter than just about every other laptop and netbook, though, so it's not going to shatter your bones or crush your children.
Another thing to bear in mind when it comes to portability is that the Air's power cable is very long and the transformer is bulky. If you're planning to charge the Air up while you're out and about, you'll need to make extra space in your bag.
The computer's weight is largely down to its aluminium construction. While the Air would be a darn sight lighter if its chassis were plastic, its aluminium carcass makes it a sturdy chap, which is important when you're dealing with something thinner than an After Eight.
The aluminium chassis also lends this computer a classy feel. Slim, glossy and elegant, there's very little to criticise about the Air's design. Our only real gripe is that the aluminium bezel around the screen doesn't look as classy as the black glossy version on the MacBook Pro.
Track and feel
The Air is a pleasure to use. The keyboard is massive, running nearly to the edges of the chassis. Each key is large, and there's enough space between them to reduce the potential for typos. Rattling off emails at speed is definitely on the cards. Sadly, the keyboard has no backlight, unlike the MacBook Pro.
The trackpad is fantastic. Large, responsive and silky smooth, it's extremely satisfying to use, and you'll quickly get the hang of swooping through the Mac OS X interface using multi-touch gestures.
It's the Air's ease of use that really blows the 11-inch competition out of the water. There are other machines of this size that look good and offer reasonably speedy performance, but none that come close in terms of usability. Creating a miniature computer that's a genuine pleasure to use is no mean feat.
A snifter of port
Previous versions of the Air received a merciless drubbing for having barely any connectivity options, sporting only one USB port, and lacking a FireWire socket, Ethernet jack and optical drive. The situation hasn't improved much on the new Air, although the notably absent ports are arguably less important than they used to be.
Down the left of the 11-inch Air, you'll find a USB port and a 3.5mm socket for plugging in your headphones. On the right-hand side, there's another USB port and a DisplayPort connection. That's your lot.
So what will you miss out on? Playing DVDs is out of the question, but arguably they're becoming less important to many computer users. The lack of an Ethernet port is a bitter pill to swallow, though -- if you want to get online, you'll have to rely on Wi-Fi. That's bound to prove massively inconvenient at some point. There's no SD card slot either, unlike on the 13-inch model. That could drive camera owners crazy.
We don't think the lack of connectivity options hamstrings the Air, but we suggest you think about when and where you'd use this laptop before making a purchase, as well as what other pieces of tech you'd use it with.
Despite Apple touting the Air as an 11-inch machine, its display actually measures 11.6 inches diagonally. The screen boasts a resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is higher than that of most netbook displays. It's a high resolution for a fairly small screen, so you might occasionally find text in Web pages appears uncomfortably small. Still, in general, the Air has a great display. It's bright and extremely colourful, with a wide viewing angle.
The Air's processor options are rather long in the tooth. As standard, you get a dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo CPU clocked at 1.4GHz with 3MB of L2 cache. You can upgrade the 128GB model's processor to one clocked at 1.6GHz if you fancy a minor speed boost, but it'll set you back £82, and we'd be surprised if it delivers very much extra grunt. Each model comes with an Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics card too.
The Air offers 2GB of DDR3 RAM as standard, but you can upgrade to 4GB of RAM for £80. If you're going to splash out any extra cash on the Air, we reckon upgrading the RAM should be a priority, as 2GB is pretty measly.
Our review model was the most basic version, with a 1.4GHz CPU and 2GB of RAM. When we ran the Xbench benchmark test, the Air scored 123.50, which is pretty average. The 13-inch Air with a 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo chip scored 162.45, which is better, but still pretty mediocre.
Despite having a dedicated GPU, the Air's graphics performance isn't up to much. The Air ran our Cinebench graphics test at 10.92 frames per second, which isn't very good at all. Don't expect this machine to handle games well.
On paper, then, the Air's performance isn't great. Anecdotally, however, we never found the Air to be sluggish. Swooping around OS X and opening software all proved reasonably swift and, most importantly, high-definition video played really smoothly, with only very occasional stutter.
But, any way you slice it, paying a premium for somewhat dated hardware never feels good. We've few complaints about the user experience the Air offers, but, if you're not comfortable with its processor options, you might want to wait until the next version of the computer is released. Hopefully, we'll then see more up-to-date chips snaking their way into the Air.
The Air uses flash storage. It's expensive, but flash is more reliable than a traditional hard drive because it doesn't have any fragile moving parts, so it's more likely to survive a nasty knock. It's also faster. But it's worth bearing in mind that, even if you could get inside the chassis, the Air doesn't use a standard solid-state drive, so replacing or upgrading the drive will be nigh on impossible.
We tested the Air's battery by running high-definition video on a loop and timing how long it took for the laptop to run out of juice. It lasted for around 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is quite impressive, and makes us think Apple's claim of 5 hours of wireless usage isn't too far off the mark. It's worth noting that the 13-inch Air managed 3 hours and 10 minutes in the same test.
The 11-inch Apple MacBook Air is a delightful little machine, but, before buying it, make sure you know exactly how you'll use it. Otherwise, your new aluminium buddy could turn into an expensive nemesis. For casual Web browsing, multimedia playback and travel purposes, it's a great option.
If you need a machine that can handle intensive computing tasks, though, you'll need to keep looking. We'd advise checking out the new 13-inch MacBook Pro. It's powerful and not too much bigger.
Edited by Charles Kloet