Apple's new laptop, the MacBook Air, may not be the true ultraportable that many had hoped for, but it still easily breaks new ground for small laptops. Mimicking the 13-inch silhouette of the current MacBook line, it's only 19mm thick at its thickest part, and Apple calls it the "world's thinnest notebook".
Some nitpickers say an obscure Mitsubishi laptop from 1997 was a hair thinner, but two of the smallest current ultraportable laptops, the 11-inch Sony Vaio TZ series and the 12-inch Toshiba Portege R500, are both slightly thicker, and neither tapers to 4mm as the Air does along its front edge.
As we've come to expect from Apple, the design and engineering that went into the MacBook Air is extraordinary, but it's certainly a much more specialised product than the standard 13-inch MacBook and won't be as universally useful as that popular system.
The biggest compromises, which have been well-documented, come in its connectivity: the MacBook Air finds room for only one USB port and doesn't include a built-in optical drive, FireWire, Ethernet or mobile broadband. And as with its other laptops, Apple refuses to outfit the Air with a media-card reader or an expansion card slot. Offsetting its sparse connectivity are genuinely useful new features including new touchpad gesture controls and the ability to wirelessly 'borrow' another system's optical drive.
Choosing the Air over the cheaper, faster standard 13-inch MacBook, or the comparably priced MacBook Pro, will depend on your needs. Travellers who want minimum weight but maximum screen real estate, and who live their lives via Wi-Fi hot spots, with little need for wired connectivity, will find the £1,199 starting price a reasonable investment for owning one of the world's premier bits of high-tech eye candy.
And while the MacBook Air's specs are inferior to those found on the cheaper MacBook, they compare more favourably when you look at other ultraportables, where a price premium is always exacted. For instance, the base model Sony Vaio TZ costs £100 more than the basic MacBook Air, while the basic Toshiba Portege R500 costs only slightly less at £1,173 -- and those models offer only 1GB RAM and slower processors.
Although it shares a desktop footprint with the standard black and white MacBooks, the first thing you notice about the Air is its aluminium chassis -- similar to the one found on the MacBook Pro, and much more fingerprint-resistant than the standard MacBooks. Picking it up, the MacBook Air feels a little heavier than you'd expect from looking at it, even though it's only 1.4kg.
At the same time, it feels very sturdy and solid, thanks in part to the aluminium construction, and we'd have no qualms about carting it around with us all day. By way of comparison, the Vaio TZ series features an 11.1-inch screen and weighs only 200g lighter than the Air, and the Portege R500 is 600g lighter than the Air with a 12.1-inch screen.
The MacBook Air includes an iSight camera and mic, and an LED backlit display that works with an ambient light sensor to adjust the screen brightness in response to the light in the room. The keyboard -- the same full-size version found in other MacBooks -- has backlit keys that are also controlled by the ambient light sensor, although we really had to adjust the room lighting a good deal to see any difference.