This new MacBook Air review was not easy for us. Don’t get us wrong, Apple’s waif-like laptop is unquestionably gorgeous. It’s thinner than anything else in our manbag, and Apple’s new battery technology gives it a lifetime between charges to shame anything that’s been there before. But there’s a snag. Read on, see our new MacBook Air review in full, and we’ll explain the hang-ups still hampering Apple’s new generation.
More than a pretty face
In many ways, the MacBook Air is the perfect laptop. We don’t say that lightly, and we know there are some of you moaning already, but bear with us. We know Apple products often get an easy ride based on their looks, but in this case the new MacBook Air really is astounding. See, the 13-inch MacBook Air we tested knocked our socks off, not with its outward appearance (although it does draw oohs and aahs wherever it’s whipped out). The battery just refused to be dented.
We edited videos, ran an old version of Photoshop through Rosetta for an extra intensive CPU workout, and cranked up the brightness whenever possible. Still, we got a solid six hours of mixed use performance. While simply tapping text into the free (and extremely efficient) Bean word processor, we clocked up almost nine hours of use, although granted that was with screen brightness below 50% to save our peepers excessive strain. It’s rare we get excited about a battery, but remember this isn’t a netbook. It’s not even a particularly under-powered laptop: What’s under the hood of our new MacBook Air is a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of memory. Sure, it’s not a particularly powerful laptop either. We’re not looking at the latest Intel Core processors, but it’s by no means a total wimp.
Flashy so and so
In its marketing blurb for the new MacBook Air Apple touts a few unique features as setting its thinnest computer apart from the competition. The most hyped are its instant-on abilities and flash storage, high resolution screen and multi-touch trackpad. That first feature sounds promising, but having used Macs for a while, and hardly ever having to shut them down, we found Apple’s new instant-on hard to notice in practice. Yes, it’s certainly quicker to wake from sleep than our current generation MacBook Pro, but it’s not a deal breaker. We were still occasionally left waiting for the screen to wake up for a second or two, and since we password protect our Mac laptops (and advise you to do the same), you’ll still need to tap in credentials before getting into OS X proper.
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That’s not to say the flash storage behind those instant skills doesn’t make a difference. Loading files or firing up apps with the new MacBook Air is a revelation. We’re talking iTunes (with over 50GB of music, podcasts and movies on board) up and running in less than two seconds. iMovie in a little less than 5 seconds (again, with a sizable chunk of HD footage already imported), and GarageBand in similarly swift operation. The MacBook Air might not have tons of CPU horsepower to spare, but with those flash memory chips inside speeding things up, everything feels much quicker than you’d expect. From Final Cut Pro to Adobe Photoshop, we threw a range of beefy apps at the new MacBook Air, and very few took longer than ten seconds to launch in full, and of course, it’s completely silent too.
Display of execution
The new MacBook Air screen is every bit as good as the LED-backlit displays of Apple’s larger laptops. In fact, at 1440×900 the 13 inch MacBook Air has the same resolution as the 15 inch MacBook Pro. For such a thin machine, that’s a treat. There’s none of the low resolution murkiness typically found on netbooks here. OS X is crisp, bursting with colour, and testing the new MacBook Air during a flight from London to Lisbon, we indulged in HD 720p movies, opening the screen in full, even while cramped in economy. Paired with the lengthy battery life boasted by the new MacBook Air, it’s a killer feature.
Like all new MacBooks, the MacBook Air has a gigantic finger-friendly trackpad below the keyboard. It’s capable of recognising four digits at once, and as we’ve noted in a previous MacBook review or two, is an absolute delight.
The difference with this MacBook Air is the size of that multitouch trackpad. Apple has increased it by removing the physical button. The new MacBook Air has the same glass surface as its larger brethren, which clicks perfectly when pressed. The new MacBook Air has no new gestures, but does feature the same three-finger dragging gestures as the Magic Trackpad. It’s far from our favourite gesture (chalk one up for the four-finger desktop reveal), but still works admirably. We’ll put it down to personal preference.
So what’s missing?
Unlike the last MacBook Air, which was under-powered in the extreme, the new MacBook Air really feels like a shrunken MacBook Pro. Its CPU might be lacking in the specs department, but the flash storage and graphics chips help make it zippy, responsive and able to cope with our daily tasks without issue. We used it as our only Mac for a week, and it kept pace with around 15 browser tabs, instant messaging tabs, Photoshop and iMovie admirably. We didn’t notice slowdown, and for once think we’ve found an ultra-portable laptop worthy of use away from home. But don’t be mislead: there’s still plenty missing.
It’s still lacking a wired ethernet socket, microphone input (unless you count the microphone built into iPhone headphones, which we don’t), firewire and of course, a DVD drive. The IR receiver has been lost to Apple’s shrink ray too, so you can’t control the Air using a standard infrared remote.
There’s also no handy hardware battery meter, a much overlooked feature, but one we use almost daily on our MacBook Pro, and it lacks a backlit keyboard, one of the nicer touches on the MacBook Pro.
One thing is clear: If you’re looking to get any heavyweight work done, you’re still going to need a heavyweight laptop. Checking into a hotel with the MacBook Air in our luggage, we were struck with “Wi-Fi anxiety”, worrying that there might not be a wireless connection, and with no ethernet to help us out, the Air did nothing to allay our fears. Likewise, passed a CD full of images by a colleague, we had to turn it down and ask them to e-mail copies to us instead. Apple has been embracing the wireless lifestyle for years, but be warned, the rest of the world still hasn’t caught up.
The miserable MacBook upgrade experience
Nowhere is Apple’s reliance on wireless connections more frustrating than when first setting up the MacBook Air. Unless you’re new to Macs, that is. Then you’ll have the same slick experience as any other new owner. The pain for existing Mac owners, however, is excruciating.
With no hardware network connections, transferring data to the new MacBook Air can only be done using Wi-Fi. We copied our content (all 150GB of it) to our new MacBook Air up using a Time Machine backup stored on a Time Capsule. Even using an end-to-end Apple solution, the process took more than 24 hours. That’s right, an entire day before we could take our shiny new toy for a spin, and although Apple’s Migration Assistant software is sturdy and reliable, it’s short on detail too, often lacking an estimate of the remaining time, leaving us twiddling our thumbs (and heading to the pub sans MacBook). Had Apple included a simple USB cable, maybe with some tweaked migration software, we could’ve been up and running in just a few short hours. It’s a huge oversight, and one that only causes pain to those already invested in Apple’s ecosystem. Considering the new MacBook Air is intended as a secondary computer, migrating files across is something you’ll encounter regularly, even after that initial file-dump. Not cool, Mr Jobs. Had you sorted this, you’d be looking at an extra star in our review rating.
But before the pain of a system migration comes the agony of slapping down a credit card. At a pound short of £1,350 the highest spec MacBook Air isn’t cheap, especially for a second computer. You’ll want the highest spec possible of course, to future-proof your new purchase as much as possible. But considering the guts of the MacBook Air include a last-generation processor, it’s a tough price to swallow. That said, Apple’s all-flash storage, fine-tuned software and yes, that jaw-flooringly gorgeous design, soften the blow substantially. The performance Apple has squeezed from the new MacBook air is truly astonishing. Yes, compromises have been made, but all things considered very few corners have been cut, and once you’re past that awkward set-up procedure it’s a pleasure to pack the MacBook Air in a daybag. The last hurdle for MacBook Air owners is the price: but since when has Apple made anything other than expensive kit? This time though, it really is worth it.