Few companies generate anything like the buzz that Apple does for its new products, with rumours flying around months before an official announcement is made. Apple's keynote event at the World-Wide Developer Conference put the wagging tongues around the new MacBook Airs to rest as it unveiled the latest revisions to its range of sleek and stylish laptops.
The 13-inch model I had in for review might not look that different on the outside, but it's packing a tasty bunch of new specs within. The base 13-inch configuration featured here comes with a third-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid state drive. That's going to set you back £999 or £1,079 if you want 8GB of RAM.
The top model comes with 256GB of storage and will cost you £1,249. It can be configured with a faster Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD for £1,849. They're all available now from the Apple Store.
Spicy prices indeed, so is the new MacBook Air worth the money? Read on to find out.
Apple might have given the new 15-inch MacBook Pro a thinner design, but it hasn't tweaked the outward aesthetics of the Air. If you particularly crave updated looks year on year, you'll be a little disappointed. The Air was already a stunning machine so most people -- myself included -- will be relieved that its sleek look hasn't been 'broken'.
It keeps the same svelte dimensions -- 325mm wide by 227mm deep -- so it will slide perfectly into your existing neoprene sleeve or fancy leather carrying bag. It's still 3mm at its front edge, which expands to 17mm at its fattest point at the back.
Many companies have tried to mimic the Air's super-skinny design in the form of ultrabooks but few have been able to offer the same dimensions. One of the only models to come close to rivalling the design is the all-metal Asus Zenbook UX31, which shares very similar dimensions.
If you want to save some room in your bag then you can always opt for the 11-inch model. It's only 299mm wide and 192mm deep so it's particularly well-suited for those economy class flights when you're trapped between two portly gentlemen for five hours.
The aluminium unibody construction is still in use too, meaning the entire chassis is carved out of a single piece of metal. This makes the whole thing much more sturdy and resistant to knocks and bumps than machines bolted together out of various segments. There's no flex offered at all in the body or screen. It's definitely up to a life on the road but try not to scuff the metal.
Around the edges you'll find a 3.5mm headphone port, a slimmer MagSafe 2 power port (your existing MagSafe plug won't work with the new design), a Thunderbolt DisplayPort and most interestingly of all, two USB 3.0 ports. Apple has resisted USB 3.0 for a while now as they previously required an extra chip to work, but the latest Intel Ivy Bridge processors in the new Air support it as standard.
USB 3.0 offers considerably quicker transfer speeds than USB 2.0 -- up to ten times faster in fact -- so grab yourself a USB 3.0-enabled external hard drive and start enjoying lightning fast transfers.
Keyboard and trackpad
As is the case with the chassis, both the keyboard and trackpad have remained untouched. Again, this is certainly not a problem as the keyboard is extremely comfortable and the large glass trackpad is the best in the business, offering a superbly responsive experience, particularly with those all-important multi-touch gestures.
Apple ditched the backlight on the keyboard on previous generations of the Air but brought it back with typical fanfare on last year's model. It's still in place this time around, meaning you can happily keep typing away long into the night without having to get up and put a light on.
The 13.3-inch screen is yet another area that remains untouched on the new revision. It's just as bold as the previous models, which made my various test videos including my favourite YouTube clip of all time look particularly luscious. The glossy coating means you'll find yourself staring back at your mirror image from time to time, but there are certainly more reflective screens to be found elsewhere so it's not too bad.
It offers a resolution of 1,440x900 pixels, which is pretty standard for a display of this size. We sadly haven't been treated to a retina display version like its bigger brother, the 15-inch MacBook Pro. Like the retina displays on the new iPad and the iPhone 4S, the new Pro packs in a stonkingly high pixel density, making small text so sharp you could cut yourself on it.
Put side by side, you can really see the difference between the two displays. The retina model is perfect for checking out super-high resolution photos and reading long pages of text. Any of CNET UK's brilliant reviews will look amazingly crisp on it. That's not to say the Air's display isn't great though. I found it well suited for web browsing, office work and watching YouTube clips.
Whether we eventually see the same retina display shoved inside the skinny frame of the Air in due course remains to be seen.
It's inside where Apple has done the most work in refreshing the Air for 2012. The dowdy old Intel Sandy Bridge processors have been replaced with the latest Ivy Bridge models. If you're unfamiliar with Ivy Bridge chips, you can read all about them here. In short, they offer greatly improved built-in graphics processing, while keeping power usage to a minimum.
The processor on my review model was an Intel Core i5-3427U clocked at 1.8GHz, backed by 4GB of RAM. With its 128GB solid state drive, it sits at the lower end of the 13-inch models.
To see how it stacks up against its predecessors, I launched the Cinebench benchmarking tool and took it for a spin. On the CPU test it achieved 2.56 points, which is a modest improvement over last year's model's 2.24 on the same test, powered by an older-generation Core i5.
The 2010 model was only able to return a score of 1.1, so we haven't seen the same dramatic jump in processing power this time around. The real advantage of Ivy Bridge though with the Intel HD 4000 built-in graphics.
To test that, I demanded it encode my 11-minute 1080p video file into 24 frames per second H.264. It managed to do it in a blindingly quick 8 minutes 30 seconds. By comparison, last year's 11-inch Air with a 1.8GHz Core i7 processor did the same task in 17 minutes. The fact that the new model was able to complete the encoding in exactly half the time backs up Intel's boasts of a doubling in graphics performance with these new chips.
I found it to be enjoyably nippy, with programs opening without much lag and multi-tasking with numerous web browser tabs handled very well. If you need some extra juice, you can opt for 8GB of RAM, but that will cost you £80 more. The boost in graphics will lend a welcome helping hand when it comes to editing your snaps or video clips in programs like iPhoto and iMovie (both of which are included). It will also come in useful for light gaming.
I fired up Half Life 2: Episode 2 and sent Gordon Freeman on a rampage with his Gravity Gun. The Air was able to maintain an average frame rate of around 70 frames per second, leaping to around 130fps in enclosed areas. Even during the more intense scenes, it only dropped to around 30fps, which was still enjoyably smooth. Again, that's a significant boost from the previous generation.
Of course, Half Life 2 isn't the most demanding of games, but it's one of a very small selection available on Steam that will actually run on a Mac. It's certainly not a collection vast enough to satisfy hardcore gamers. More intense titles like Metro 2033, Dirt 3 and Crysis 2 sadly will not run on a Mac through Steam.
It's worth noting too that when things got more intense in the game, the fans made a noise resembling that of a jet engine. This might be fine when you're at home, but if you work in a quiet office environment, it could be an issue.
My review model came with a 128GB solid state drive inside. Unlike traditional hard disk drives, SSDs are based on flash memory, meaning they have no moving parts. This not only makes them faster and more power efficient, but also much more resilient to knocks and bumps that can sometimes prove fatal for standard HDDs.
The Toshiba-made SSD in my Air achieved a write speed of 250MBps and a read speed of 442MBps. By comparison, the slightly slower SSD in the Asus Zenbook UX31 managed 137MBps and 443MBps respectively. It's not a huge difference, but it all adds up. Interestingly, if you opt for the higher-capacity storage, the drive used is a slightly faster Samsung variant. Whether you'd ever notice the difference in everyday use is debatable, but it's worth bearing in mind if storage speed is important to you.
The fast speeds of the SSD mean the Air was able to boot up in a super-speedy time of 13 seconds. It could resume from sleep in only 2 seconds -- perfect for quickly banging out emails on the go.
The power increase probably isn't going to be enough to warrant an upgrade if you currently use one of last year's models. If you have a genuine need for a graphics boost, you'd be better off with the new MacBook Pro. But it's a satisfying update from 2011 for anyone looking to buy their first model, or for those with a much earlier generation MacBook.
The 2012 MacBook Air might not look any different to the previous generation and it keeps the same screen, but it's received key upgrades in the form of better graphics power and multiple high-speed USB 3.0 ports.
It probably won't tempt you to upgrade if you own its predecessor but it's an excellent, if rather pricey, option if you want to step into the world of super-light laptops.