The new 11.6-inch Apple MacBook Air is the smallest and lightest Apple laptop of all time, and its base price of £849 ties it with the plastic MacBook as the cheapest Mac laptop available - REVISED 17 DEC 2010

While netbooks were on the up last year and Windows laptop makers were duking it out to sell more than their rivals, Apple conspicuously stayed out of the mêlée.

Apple’s Steve Jobs commented that his company was not going to make a netbook, as it didn’t know how to do so for $500.

Now with the release of a scaled-down 11in MacBook Air, Apple really does have a netbook – in all respect bar one. The £849 UK price puts it firmly above most people’s notional netbook pricing.

The netbook’s former popularity was at least as much about getting a cheap PC for less than 300 quid as it was about lightweight cloud computing.

Yet besides price, this is a netbook. Not just an over-priced netbook, but perhaps the best on the market. Unimpeached standards of build quality and performance for the size also qualify the MacBook Air 11in as a high-end ultraportable.

There’s no other mini laptop offering this genuine instant-on usability, rugged solid-state storage, decent resolution screen, full-size keyboard and virus-free OS.

Connectivity is the usual current Apple fare on dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. We were hoping for 3G HSDPA connectivity too, yet that prized feature for a compact notebook is sadly still MIA.

Art meets Craft

Like the 13in MacBook Air, the 11in is beautifully crafted from milled aluminium, making a flex-free case that feels as expensive to the touch as it looks. Compared to the 13in, it loses an SD card slot, but still has two USB 2.0 ports and Mini DisplayPort.

The screen is 1366x768, making a 16:9 aspect ratio. In fact, this is the very first Apple notebook to use this layout – previous models since the titanium PowerBook G4 have used 16:10-ratio screens.

If anything, we found the screen resolution too high again. As with the 2010 13in MacBook Air, we had to expand text to comfortably read web pages; every page in fact. For an 11.6in widescreen display, up to 1280x720 would be a better fit.

With slightly less front-to-back depth to the body, the glass multi-touch trackpad is marginally shallower too – still 105mm wide but now 64mm deep. Small by Mac standards, but a sweeping vista when set against most other notebooks.

Apple MacBook Air 11in (Late 2010): Performance

Smaller cases also mean less space for integrated batteries. So despite a slower processor, roaming runtime is reduced. For the 13in with 1.86GHz processor, we measured 7 hrs 4 mins in MobileMark 2007 Productivity.

The 11in with its lowly 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo ran for 313 mins (5 hrs 13 mins) in the same Windows test.

Overall performance was very good, considering the number ‘1.4’  enscribed on the chip falls well short of the better-looking ‘1.6’ Atom.

In Xbench 1.3, the 11in MBA scored 122 points, about the same as our reference two-year old Apple MacBook Pro 2.4GHz.

The slower processor impacted gaming speed slightly, averaging 25fps in FEAR against the 13in’s 30fps.

The WorldBench 6 real-world test recorded 74 points, against the 13in’s 91. Sat alongside a netbook, that makes the MBA a road-runner; netbooks with Intel Atom processors struggle to reach 35 points in WorldBench.

NEXT PAGE: The review from Macworld US >>

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