MacBook Air review MacBook Air review

We love
Killer battery life, surprisingly nippy, even with underwhelming specs, truly beautiful.
We hate
Absurd migration procedure for existing Mac owners, high price for last year’s CPU
This really shouldn’t be the only computer you own, but it’s the only one worth considering for life on the road.
Launch Price
£From 1,099 (13-inch)

MacBook Air review

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.

Battery life was tremendous for something so skinny

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.

Check out our Best Mac Top 5 now

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 display on the new MacBook Air is pin sharp

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.

We even managed to open it on an economy class plane table. Go technology!

Multitouchy subject

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.

A larger trackpad for swiping gestures is very welcome

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 Wi-Fi only for the MacBook Air - Ethernet is out

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.

Wi-Fi means Mac migration takes a while. A long, long while.

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.

Pricey ‘pooter

All that tech squeezed inside something so slim will cost you

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.

  • BeebusMaximus

    “Had Apple included a simple USB cable[...] ”

    Right….and you expect readers to take this review seriously?

    • James Holland

      Hey Beebus, not sure what you mean. The problem is that the Air (by its definition as a travelling computer rather than an all-day-at-your-desk computer) will likely need to gobble most of your files before you begin using it.

      At present, Migration Assistant doesn't let you connect to another Mac using USB (although you can using Firewire, but there's no Firewire connection on the MacBook Air). You could do it over a network quite easily, but there's no ethernet socket either.

      You could copy files from a Time Machine disk, but unless you've already got one set up that means waiting for your old Mac to back up completely, and then waiting for the MacBook Air to copy them all off again.

      The only other solution is a Wi-Fi transfer: either from an existing networked Mac direct, or from a Time Machine backup hosted somewhere on the network (in our case, on a Time Capsule). Even using 802.11 N on all-Apple hardware, it took a little over 24 hours to copy our Mac's contents to the new MacBook Air.

      150GB is not an unreasonable amount of data to expect to transfer to a new computer (50GB alone was our music and podcasts). But over Wi-Fi it is deathly slow.

      My point is Apple knows the Air is a secondary computer, but ships it woefully ill equipped to hoover up the data you want from the outset. A simple tweak to allow USB data transfer, and yes, a cable in the box, and we'd be happy as could be. Don't you agree it's a bit daft not to have the option?

      • Jadw59

        All this makes it sound as if there is no way of making an internet connection but you can buy a USB to Internet adapter for £20 and if you are paying over £1000 for the machine it's hardly a relevant consideration – or cause for a whinge.

        • Jadw59

          .. and by the way if you live near an Apple store and you have a few days of patience, they'll transfer the data for you

          • James Holland

            If you have a day's patience, you can do it yourself. But my issue is it needn't actually take more than a few hours… and the out of box experience (which we know Apple cares deeply about) is ruined for upgraders. A real, and really easily fixed, shame.

          • bensillis

            It shouldn't even take an hour with Firewire for most people. I tried both WiFi and Firewire switching between two MacBook Pros and the wireless route was painful indeed by comparison.

        • James Holland

          To be honest, if I'm paying £1300 for a laptop, I expect that sort of adapter to be in the box. Apple's already stripped away the “free” remote control, which costs the same amount. It'd be nice to see some love for loyal, upgrading Mac owners.

          • Adrian Short

            The remote control wouldn't do you much good on the new MacBook Air as it doesn't have an infrared receiver. If you're planning to use your MBA for Keynote presentations you'll need something like the Kensington Wireless Presenter (much cheaper on Amazon than on the Apple Store).

            Your general point is a good one, though: This is a premium computer and it feels wrong to be nickel-and-dimed for a few grossly overpriced cables and adapters.

      • Greg Dixon

        Problem is as you've said it's not a main computer, it's for traveling. I have a laptop, why would I buy some thing for £1100 only to use it when I travel? I've got an Pad which does everything I need when I travel and it cost less than half. Have Apple shot themselves in the foot by trying to cram too many products into and already over populated market?

        • James Holland

          Oh, completely Greg. This isn't a main computer, but that's not to say it won't get a lot of use. I'm at my desk two or three days a week – the rest of the week I'm in town dashing between meetings, or at events and ducking into a coffee shop to catch between them. Or traveling somewhere. It's those times I'd kill for a MacBook Air, but at the moment I'm willing to stick with my MacBook Pro, and the little extra flexibility it has for life on the go, and the raw ooomph it has at home too (where I use an external monitor, keyboard and mouse).

          I have an iPad too, but really, it barely leaves the arm of the sofa.

      • Chris

        why not copy the data from an external drive which will also work as a backup?
        why would you do 150gb transfer wirelessly? it just doesn't make any sense….

        • James Holland

          Think I said above, Chris: that assumes you have an external drive already filled with backups. Otherwise you'll have to wait for everything to copy to it, and then copy back off it again – a lengthy process.

          As for “why would you do 150GB transfer wirelessly?” – that's what you're prompted to do if you've invested in an Apple Time Capsule, and fire up the MacBook Air's initial set-up procedure. Either that or wirelessly from another Mac – at no point are you told to use an external drive at all.

          Again, the Time Capsule has ethernet and USB sockets, so a simple cable / adapter thrown into the box (at substantially less than £20 cost to Apple) would've made it a joy to set up, whether from time capsule, old Mac on a network, or old Mac off a network – it seems a huge oversight, and pretty much ruins that first interaction with the new MacBook Air.

        • bensillis

          It's migrating settings and the like for OS X, so everything is completely as you had it on your previous Mac.

  • Alan Edwards

    First of all, you can use any old USB DVD drive or hard drive with the Air. Burn your files to a DVD or copy them to the external hard disc, plug the drive into the new Air, copy the files off. Job done.

    A £30 external DVD drive would also fix your 'colleague gave me a CD' problem, as would giving them a spare flash drive and asking them to put the files on there for you.

    I wouldn't rely on the hotel's wifi wherever I'm staying, I always take my Three MiFi with me. If you're really desperate, Bluetooth into your phone – you need a data plan and might only get GPRS, but it's better than nothing.

    The iPad can't do everything I use a computer for when travelling. It can't play DVDs and it can't connect to work's Citrix-based remote access system. I've decided a need a real computer.

    Are you planning on testing the 11-inch Air too? I'm wondering what the real-life battery life is on that one.

    • Greg Dixon

      What Citrix product are they using?

      I've got Receiver on my iPad and as a result I have access to all my work apps. I also have XenDesktop so I can get a complete Windows desktop on my iPad.

      Seriously though, the Air is good when you have to work on your lap or holding something one handed, any other time just get your laptop or MacBook. With the exception of flash what can it do that the iPad can't and that you wouldn't sit down at a desk and use a MBP or PC for? You'll need a bag for any external devices like DVD drives, then once you plug it in the foot plrint is going to be bigger than a conventional laptop, kind of pointless.

      It's not just the Air I'm aiming this at, now there are tablets out there running pretty much every flavour of OS, I don't see a place for netbooks at all, and lets face it that is pretty much what the Air is, albeit an expensive one.

    • James Holland

      Good shout on the spare USB stick… although I don't enjoy having to ask people favours like that really.

      On the 3 Mifi – The hotel in question was in Lisbon, and I'm not enough of a sucker to fall for those roaming charges!

      If we can get hold of an 11 inch, we will although from my brief play with it I concur wholly with Gizmodo's 11 inch-specific review here:

    • bensillis

      Three Mifi abroad? That'll run you…

  • Helen RW

    Another silly MBA review. Same old thing—'it's the wrong computer for me, therefore it has problems.' OMG, it has no floppy drive!!!

    Dozens of applications and 15 browser tabs? Really?

    You really need to cart 50 GB of media around? Really?

    You really need to load an ultralight portable with 150 GB of data? Really?

    Your world is in crisis because you can't talk into your lappie? Really?

    I've used a MBP for 4 years with an 80 GB hard drive. Rarely use more than 60 GB. I read the financial news, make my living trading stocks, keep accounts with Google spreadsheets, write articles, prepare presentations, process thousands of images, blog, geocache, message friends, find travel information, use hotel wireless printers, shop, and upload media. With my simple mind, 24 hours of music keeps me content.

    However, I don't ever hoard data on a portable computer that is vulnerable to theft and breakage. That would be stupid, right?

    When will you knuckleheads realize that you can't use a hypermodern travel-optimized computer like a caveman? The new 13″ MBA with 4 GB ram and 128 GB seems spacious and just right for me. It will make money for me, save my time and back, and make me look good. Therefore it's perfect.

    Migration Assistant? Really?

    • bensillis

      I don't think we disagreed with any of those sentiments Helen – quite the opposite. However if you have a Mac already, you need Migration Assistant to avoid repaying licenses on expensive software you might have to use. Like Photoshop.

  • Cursed

    Is the microphone missing from the 13″ it is there for certain on the 11″ model, I used it with Skype without any issues?

    • Alex

      yes there is a little built-in mic. But they were talking about an external mic.

      • Adrian Short

        You can use the Apple headphones with remote and mic on the MBA. Buy a pair or use the ones from your iPhone or iPod Touch.

  • Anonymous

    You mention the highest price model as a -ve but review a lower spec'd model. And harp on about the lack of ethernet, but it's what £20-£25 quid for the tiny USB-Ethernet dongle (which they used to give out for free with the original Air). Syncing 150GB of data over wifi isn't an Air issue it's just plain silly. By the adaptor and problem solved. Who actually plugs a portable pc into an ethernet cable whilst sitting on the couch these days?

Hot chat, right here!

Our most commented stories right now...