REVIEW: MacBook Air - there's a lot to like about this superb piece of industrial design
- 06 December, 2010 10:49
Apple's previous MacBook Air, an ultraportable laptop designed primarily for travelling, was widely criticised for its high price and lack of features. Apple has responded with an upgraded version of the MacBook Air; like most Apple products, it once again features a superb design that is marvellously thin and light, but it now comes with fast, flash-based storage, a full size keyboard and trackpad, and a claimed standby battery life of up to 30 hours.
The Apple MacBook Air is 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 superbly built despite its tiny footprint. Particularly impressive is the screen, which exhibits surprisingly little flex when pressed, and the hinge, which is sturdy and well constructed.
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 (an improvement over the original's single USB port), a MagSafe power connector, a mini Display Port jack and a stereo headphone jack. Among the ports missing are an Ethernet port, and an SD card reader — the latter is only included on the 13in model. The MacBook Air also lacks built-in 3G connectivity — a feature that's creeping into many competing ultraportable notebooks — and there's also no IR sensor for remote control capability, or a sleep notification LED.
Apple rightly deserves some flak for the lack of ports, but it also deserves plenty of credit for the MacBook Air's keyboard, trackpad and display. Unlike most compact netbooks, the Air has a full size keyboard and trackpad and a high-resolution display that aids usability. To put it into perspective, the 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), while the screen resolution of 1366x768 makes most netbooks look primitive in comparison. Tellingly, we didn't feel cramped or limited in the slightest while using the MacBook Air despite the small 11in screen, though the lack of keyboard backlight is a major disappointment.
The MacBook Air's screen is LED backlit, which 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 results in a harsh yellow colour shift, but the silver bezel is not troublingly reflective. The MacBook Air also has a built-in iSight webcam above the display.
The Apple MacBook Air has modest specifications; the base 11in model is powered by a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, just 2GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor. However, performance is aided by the Air's 64GB SSD (which can be upgraded to a maximum of 256GB). While this is a small amount of storage, it does fit the target market; the MacBook Air is likely to be used as a secondary computer for travelling. It also 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 reasonable but not outstanding performance in our tests. It took 1min 48sec to encode 53min worth of WAV files to 192Kbps MP3s. We also benchmarked the MacBook Air using Geekbench; it scored 2045, which is predictably well below the faster and more expensive MacBook Pro range. Despite the low benchmark results, using the MacBook Air didn't involve any frustrating delays. While it isn't as quick as the MacBook Pro for more intensive tasks (such as image editing), the Air has no trouble running multiple applications; in many cases, its flash-based storage makes it both snappy and efficient for basic computing tasks like word processing and Web browsing.
Various reports on the Web have detailed an issue with Wi-Fi connectivity after waking the MacBook Air from sleep mode, but we didn't experience this issue during testing. The MacBook Air connected to multiple wireless networks without any problems, and also worked effortlessly when connected via Bluetooth to an iPhone 4 for Internet tethering.
Because the MacBook Air lacks an optical drive and also has minimal hard drive storage, Apple has included a USB drive for reinstalling software. The 8GB USB drive contains Snow Leopard and iLife '11 software. The iLife software package inclusion is notable for an ultraportable (it includes iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand apps) but like the MacBook Pro range, Apple doesn't include its iWork productivity suite. The MacBook Air includes surprisingly adept speakers; they are completely hidden underneath the rear cover, which is held on by 10 Torx-style screws. The MacBook Air isn't designed to be opened, so users wanting to upgrade RAM or hard drive modules will be left disappointed. Technically, the MacBook Air case can be opened, but doing so will void the Apple warranty.
Apple claims that the MacBook Air's battery life is five hours; it lasted 4 hours and 27 minutes 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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