The white plastic MacBook didn’t die. Turns out it was just an ugly duckling, then one day it lost its bum fluff and woke up with a beautiful plumage of unibody aluminium, a better processor, and a waif like profile. In other words, as the new MacBook Air.
As smooth as the very first MacBook Air “envelope opening” was, Apple’s answer to a netbook was for a very long time the butt of jokes. It was overpriced, it was underpowered, Apple has washed its hands of it. Then last year, it hit back with a beautiful new version, packing a respectable Core 2 Duo processor. This time round, it’s back with Sandy Bridge silicon, and it is glorious.
Design and build
The design hasn’t changed much since the 2010 revamp bar the odd port switch: in other words, it’s beautiful. It tapers down from 1.7cm to just 0.3cm, with beautiful curved edges. It’s hard to believe since the smaller model still weighs in at 1.08kg, but it actually feels more portable than the unbelievably thin iPad 2. That’s right: we’d be happier taking this OS X machine out of the house than a tablet.
Our review unit was the 11.6-inch model (which sadly lacks an SD card slot, unlike the larger 13-inch model), which perches delicately balanced on the cusp of portability. At this size, touch typing on the solid chiclet keyboard is no slower than on full size machines, where the boards on 10-inch netbooks are just a bit too cramped. This time though, the keyboard is backlit too. Hooray!
Turning to the sides, things are kept to a bare minimum: on the left is the charging port, a USB slot and a 3.5mm audio jack, while the right hand side houses another USB port (Giving you as many as a MacBook Pro, we might add) and a Thunderbolt socket. The latter, which deals out high speed data transfer, sounds a bit like overkill at first for something so small – as fast as this is this obviously isn’t a replacement for a Mac Pro – but it has its uses. It’s a useful means of connecting your MacBook Air to an external monitor, and it also provides a workaround to the machine’s biggest failing: no Ethernet.
You see, it’s not just the speed difference between Gigabit Ethernet and ropey Wi-Fi (Although this is often huge), it’s the lack of an option on occasion that can leave the MacBook Air looking like a sexy paperweight, and a useless one at that since it’s so damn light.
We took our MacBook Air on a road trip abroad recently and ended up slightly burned as we struggled to find a way to connect in a sparsely equipped press room with no Wi-Fi.
The good news though is that this time around, Thunderbolt will solve this problem. With an adaptor, you can simply plug that Cat5 cable straight into it. Of course, the only slight hitch is that such adaptors aren’t actually on sale yet, but they should be in the next few months, so fingers crossed this problem fixes itself sharpish. It’s the only thing holding back the MacBook Air from greatness – and in the meantime you can always buy a USB to Ethernet adaptor straight from Apple.
The 1366×768 LED backlit screen on the 11.6-inch new MacBook Air is a marvel, and we doubt the higher-rez 1440×900 number on the larger model is any different. It’s bright, crisp and rich in colour. It isn’t an edge-to-edge job as on the MacBook Pro, with a glass overlay, but then that hasn’t always been the best aspect of Apple’s workhorse laptops, bringing as it does plenty of glare. We’ll take that for slightly better visibility in sunlight – this is a work outdoors laptop after all.
The first MacBook Air wasn’t quite up to the intensive tasks you might require only five percent of the time – which for many was a deal breaker. For everyone but professional video editors, last year’s MacBook Air was. This model does everything without breaking a sweat.
Our test unit packs a second generation 1.8GHz Core i7 processor with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, though the baseline models use a slightly slower Core i5 chip clocked at 1.6GHz. Based on what we found though, it’ll almost certainly deliver blistering performance. We opened as many full screen apps as we could and whizzed through them at speed. We played games with respectable settings and no slowdown. Hell, we even plugged in a DVD drive and encoded a video with Handbrake quicker than we can on our 2009 MacBook Pro. Not bad, considering there’s only Intel’s dedicated graphics inside.
The solid state drive only serves to speed everything up compared to slower (though admittedly higher capacity) mechanical hard drives on other Macs. This machine is absolutely perfect for Photoshop and iMovie use, and dare we say it, even light Final Cut in a pinch.
Our only trip up was with Flash video. Never especially smooth on Macs, it outright doesn’t work on the new MacBook Air – that’s only because OS X is a brand new OS however, and Adobe says it’s already on the case so expect a patch soon.
As for battery life? It’s on a par with your typical MacBook Pro, lasting a solid four hours of use with Wi-Fi on and screen brightness at around eighty percent. Granted, it’s not up there with some of Asus’ Eee PC netbooks for longevity, but that’s to be expected when the processor inside is vastly superior.
And could grumble about the battery not being replaceable, but Apple made its views on this clear a long time ago. If you’re going to make a bed out of a MacBook laptop, you’d best lie in it. It does at least look pretty.
OS X Lion
We wouldn’t normally spend much time on the software in a MacBook review – OS X is OS X right? Except in the case of the new version, Lion, and on a MacBook Air, it really isn’t.
On an 11.6-inch MacBook Air, almost every new feature (Bar the LaunchPad, that’s still pointless) feels perfectly crafted for the form factor. On a chassis with so few ports, Airdrop is a supremely convenient means of file transfer. On a 27-inch iMac, fullscreen apps might seem absurd, but here, they’re utterly essential – and rolling through them all with a four finger swipe is a thing of beauty. Try this, and you won’t settle for Windows or even Snow Leopard navigation ever again.
Viewed in this light, Lion actually feels like a little but of a snub to all the Thunderbolt port-less Mac Pro users with their multiple Photoshop windows and legacy applications. Get portable or die, Cupertino seems to be saying.
Over the years we’ve tirelessly sought after the ultimate marriage of portability and power. Apple’s first MacBook Air was just too weedy and too expensive. Asus never quite managed to deliver with its low price, tiny Eee PCs, in truth because Intel’s Atom processors were just a false economy. MSI’s X-Slim range were as flimsy as they were thin. The closest thing we’ve seen so far is Toshiba excellent Portege R700 and R830 series of 13-inch laptops.
But while the silicon is the same, they’re no match for this: the new MacBook Air’s mix of hardware oomph, design aesthetic and wonderful operating system just can’t be beaten. Where the MacBook Air was a niche product before, it’s now suitable for all but niche audiences (video editors, gamers who still haven’t realised that gaming laptops are the most pointless things in the universe).
But not only that, this is the new MacBook, the new lowest price Apple laptop, the Mac for casual use. It just happens to be even faster, look even better, and for possibly the first time with an Apple product, it’s almost value for money as well. That’s enough for us. Best laptop. Evah.