REVIEW: Apple MacBook Air - excellent performance and portability

REVIEW: Apple MacBook Air - excellent performance and portability

It's under the hood of the 13-inch model that most of its improvements lie

Apple's latest MacBook Air may look virtually identical to the previous model, but it's under the hood that most of its improvements lie. Faster Intel Core i5 and optional Core i7 processors gives Apple's ultra portable notebook a huge performance boost. The Air is still an expensive proposition on the whole, but the extra grunt combined with a thin and light design, fast, flash-based storage, and excellent battery life make it a worthy option for road warriors.

Apple MacBook Air: Design and display

The Apple MacBook Air is once again a superb piece of industrial design. Like the MacBook Pro, the Air is made from a "precision aluminium unibody enclosure" crafted from a single block of aluminium. The result is a lightweight notebook that feels well constructed despite its tiny footprint. Particularly impressive is the screen, which exhibits minimal flex when twisted, and the sturdy feeling hinge. With the demise of Apple's plastic-clad MacBook, the MacBook Air is now Apple's entry level laptop.

The MacBook Air is just 0.3cm thin at the front edge when closed, and just 1.7cm at the rear. The downside to the ultra-thin design is the lack of ports; the MacBook Air has just two USB ports, a MagSafe power connector, a Thunderbolt jack (more on that later) and a stereo headphone jack. The 13in model we reviewed also has an SD card reader; however the 11in model doesn't get the same treatment due to the lack of space.

The MacBook Air lacks built-in 3G connectivity — a feature that's available on some competing ultra portable notebooks — and there's also no IR sensor for remote control capability, nor an Ethernet port for wired connectivity. The Air also lacks a sleep notification LED, as seen on the MacBook Pro range.

The Apple MacBook Air may lack some ports, but the full sized keyboard and trackpad are both excellent considering the small footprint of this machine. The Air's keyboard and trackpad are almost the same size of the entire MacBook Pro range, with the exception of the top row of F keys, which are slightly smaller. The keyboard is now backlit, which was a huge criticism of the previous model. Tellingly, users won't feel cramped or limited in the slightest while using the MacBook Air despite its small size.

The MacBook Air's screen has a resolution of 1440x900 and is LED backlit, which Apple claims makes it more power efficient than a standard notebook display. Under florescent office lighting the glossy screen can be distracting, and viewing it from off-centre does result in a slight yellow colour shift. We would love to see a matte screen option, which would suit users working outdoors in sunlight, or inside an office with bright fluorescent lighting. We also think that power users, such as those editing photos or videos, would appreciated a higher resolution display. Thankfully, unlike the MacBook Pro's glossy black bezel, the MacBook Air's silver bezel is not reflective at all.

Apple MacBook Air: Internals, performance and battery life

The new MacBook Air's biggest upgrade comes in the form of Intel's Core i5 and Core i7 processors. Apple claims the processor upgrade makes the Air up to 2.5 times faster than the previous model. Both the 11in and 13in models (four in total) all come standard with Core i5 processors, but the top 11-inch and 13-inch models can be built-to-order (BTO) with an optional 1.8GHz Core i7 processor for an extra $100.

Our review model was the top of the range 13in model, which comes with 4GB RAM, an Intel HD Graphics processor with 384MB of memory and a 256GB SSD hard drive. The SSD makes the Air a speedy machine, with Apple's "instant on" feature particularly impressive. While it is not exactly instant, the Air wakes up from sleep in less than three seconds, and boots up from power-off in just over 10, giving it immense appeal as a grab-and-go computing device.

The Apple MacBook Air delivered excellent performance in our tests. It took just 57sec to encode 53min worth of WAV files to 192Kbps MP3s. We also benchmarked the MacBook Air using Geekbench; it scored 5443 — by comparison, the previous 11in model scored just 2045. The MacBook Air has no trouble running multiple applications and felt fast and snappy throughout testing. The lack of serious graphics power means it will never be a gaming machine, but the MacBook Air has enough grunt for serious business or power users.

The biggest disadvantage of the MacBook Air is the fact that it isn't designed to be opened, so users wanting to upgrade RAM or hard drive modules will remain disappointed. The fact that the RAM isn't replaceable in particular is a concern, given that it is relatively cheap to upgrade this component. Technically, the MacBook Air case can be opened, but doing so will void the Apple warranty.

The new MacBook Air now has a Thunderbolt port, Apple's official name for Intel's Light Peak technology. Thunderbolt is an input/output port like USB, but much faster. It's twice the speed of USB 3.0, 20 times faster than USB 2.0, and about 12 times faster than FireWire 800. It employs the connector Apple has been using for its Mini DisplayPort since late 2008.

Thunderbolt is an excellent connection standard — it's fast at up to 10Gbps transmission, supports bus power at up to 10W and has plenty of future potential. However, at the current point in time, there is next to no accessories that make use of it. Though these will come in time, Thunderbolt remains a future proposition rather than a current one, so it is unlikely to add any value to a MacBook Air right now.

Apple claims that the MacBook Air's battery life is "up to seven" hours; it lasted almost six hours in our battery rundown test, where we looped an XviD file in full screen mode. Just like the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air has a non-removable lithium-polymer battery.

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