An ultra-slim, attractive laptop, the Apple MacBook Air 13in is oozing with style. Its build quality, both in terms of the materials used and its construction, sets it apart from the competition. And for once, Apple doesn’t offer the most expensive laptop in our recent ultraportable laptops round-up. Updated 11 May 2011

This is the joint-lightest laptop on test, with both the MacBook Air and the Samsung NP900X3A tipping the scales at 1.32kg. It’s also the thinnest overall, and ideal for a life on the road at 325x227x17mm.

Our WorldBench 6 speed test works only in Windows, so we used Boot Camp to dual-boot Windows 7 with the native Mac OS X operating system. The ease with which this is possible is notable, affording you the ability to keep running your favourite programs if you’re upgrading from a Windows PC. Running Windows, its 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L9400 CPU and 2GB of DDR3 RAM won it a respectable 94 points.

The process of installing Windows using Boot Camp is remarkably straightforward, and installing the correct drivers is a one-click process. The lack of dedicated Home and End keys may frustrate those who plan to use the MacBook Air with Windows (use Fn and cursor Left/Right keys). Right-click is available in the usual way on the pivoted trackpad, or you can tap with two fingers together.

But Mac OS X is an intuitive platform with some decent bundled software, including iLife, which covers most of your creative needs.

MacBook Air 13in

The 13.3in (1440x900-pixel) screen offers brilliant depth of colour and sharp, distinct visuals. It’s a glossy screen, although an anti-glare coating makes it more usable than most in bright light. 

A near-silent SSD is used in place of a traditional hard drive. Flash-based memory offers many advantages, including speedy data access, but it’s pricey. The trade-off here is that you have just 128GB of storage, whereas the hard-drive-based competition offer upwards of 250GB, with the Asus U36J supplying 500GB.

For graphics, the MacBook runs a close second to the Asus. Its nVidia GeForce 320M graphics chip with 256MB of video memory powered it to a 73fps average in Fear; four of the other laptops we looked at use integrated Intel graphics and scored between 19 and 34fps.

We recorded the MacBook Air’s battery life at 394 minutes, but you can expect it to last longer in its native Mac OS X environment.

Ben Camm-Jones

The new 13-inch Apple MacBook Air isn't a radical departure from the previous-generation Apple MacBook Air, which was itself a surprisingly thin and light laptop compared to even Apple's other MacBook and MacBook Pro models.

Apple certainly didn’t invent the ultraportable notebook category, but its MacBook Air came to define it. Weighing just 1.4kg, it was only 17mm thick – and felt even thinner thanks to an elegant sculpted aluminium shell that tapered to 4mm around its edge.

The Apple MacBook Air had the take-anywhere credentials of a netbook. Only this lightweight notebook was packing performance to spare, along with a full-size keyboard and spacious screen that meant you could comfortably work on an Air all day long.

Scroll on almost three years, and the MacBook Air has branched into two models. One has a very similar look to the 13in original, while a smaller and more oblong 11in version now joins the line-up. We’ll be reviewing the baby of the range separately.

Both are available at starting prices that are appreciably less than previous generations of the MacBook Air. The cheapest 11in is £849, while the 13in comes in at £1099.

There are actually two 13in models of Apple MacBook Air (Late 2010) available off-the-shelf, the pricier one - reviewed here, and costing £1349 - only differing by the inclusion of 256GB of solid-state storage instead of 128GB.

With the newfound price reductions come new specifications and features. But it’s worth noting that in terms of features and spec, Apple has taketh away as well as giveth with the 2010 Air revisions.

To lower price and improve battery longevity, the sophisticated-looking backlit keyboard has been stripped from all new Airs. And main processors are running with slower clock speeds, a move that’s probably as much to do with stretching run times and helping keep the cooling fan inaudible, as trimming the parts budget.

Apple MacBook Air 13in (Late 2010)

Apple MacBook Air 13in (Late 2010) has one USB 2.0 on each side, plus a Mini Display Port and SD card slot on the right side

The new MacBook Air 2010 (Late 2010) keeps the unibody design principle of milled aluminium, but channels the shape into a more distinctly wedge-shaped profile when viewed from the side. With more of the innards packed toward the rear, its balance in the hand is now a touch uneven, making it feel fractionally heavier.

It’s an illusion though: our 2009 2.13GHz MacBook Air, at 1340g actually weighs a modest 7g more than this model’s 1333g.

Also removed from the 2010 Air are the infrared remote control sensor, and the pulsing white LED sleep light.

For spec chasers, perhaps the more surprising move is to refresh the range using slower processors than before - entirely counter to the usual industry trend.

Apple polished up last year’s Air by offering two models: a 1.86GHz version with 120GB hard disk, and 2.13GHz version with 128GB SSD.

Focusing on 2010’s 13in model, there’s just a 1.86GHz MacBook Air, using the same Intel Core 2 Duo SL9400 processor as last year entry-level model.

(You can still choose the faster 2.13GHz processor as a configure-to-order option, for an extra £80, but only if you’re already buying the top-of-the-range model, with its 256GB SSD.)

NEXT PAGE: More changes to the Apple MacBook Air (Late 2010), and benchmark performance >>

See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?

RAM quota remains the same across all Apple MacBook Air (Late 2010) models at 2GB. That may sound a little parsimonious but it’s perfectly fine for most everyday users. Mac OS X inherits excellent memory management from its UNIX core, and along with the faster drive access performance of SSD, memory swapping won't treacle the system as much as with

The graphics processor has been upgraded to a new nVidia GeForce 320M, providing a measurable step-up from the previous nVidia 9400M. This eats into 256MB of the system’s DDR3 1067MHz RAM.

Power users who like to run memory-hungry apps such as Parallels or VMware OS virtualisation will appreciate that you can now opt for 4GB RAM, also priced at an additional £80. Unfortunately, memory is not user-installable so you must specify this option when you buy the notebook.

Other changes

Numerous other running changes can be found around the chassis, including the doubling of USB 2.0 ports to a marginally more practical total of two; a new SD card slot; and a boost in screen resolution, from 1280x800 to 1440x900.

While the increase in resolution may keep the more-is-better audience cheerful, we found this added resolution could be problematic. This is undeniably a matter of individiual taste, but to our eyes, a 13in panel of 16:10 aspect ratio balances useful screen real estate and comfort very well when left at 1280x800 resolution.

Adding 12.5% more pixels along the width and height in the same 13in space means a tighter pixel pitch, which can reduce apparent fuzziness to text, for example, and creates more desktop space to scatter your windows.

The trade-off is that all text and screen elements become conspicuously smaller. Mac OS X currently offers no resolution-independent scaling, or even a simple way to magnify the screen interface as found in Windows 7, to compensate for the shrinkage of screen icons and text.

Overall screen quality has also gone south slightly. Maximum brightness has increased, it’s true, but with a commensurate reduced level of contrast. This encourages you to raise the brightness to compensate for reduced clarity, which  makes for a glarier display, somewhat bleached and washed-out in comparison, that’s a little more tiring to live with. Screen backlighting is a little more even now though.

Unlike most glossy screens fitted to laptops, the screen specified for Apple for the MacBook Air does at least feature a hint of anti-reflective coating.

As with the coating offered by opticians on spectacles, you can see this as a subtle purple-brown hue when viewing the panel from one side. And it does help a little to reduce annoying light reflections, if never reaching the practical comfort of a matt-finish screen.

Careful comparison of old and new models’ screens, however, suggested there may be a slightly reduced coating on the 2010’s Air.

Multi-Touch

We also have some reservations about the one-piece multi-touch trackpad now fitted to the 2010 MacBook Air. The original Air was Apple’s first notebook to sport the super-sized big trackpad, a device that appears huge compared to the miserly touchpads on Windows laptops. The new trackpad is even larger - the same 105mm width but now 76mm deep against the former’s 63mm.

With our workhorse MacBook Pro was in the repair shop, we pressed this MacBook Air into daily duties for a week, and really learnt the foibles of the newer interface.

It somehow felt slower to respond to our touch. We wondered if there was more latency for tap-to-click actions, for instance, so we tried to compare reaction to taps on each model. They seemed indistinguishably close. Then we realised it was simply that we were more reliant on tap-to-click. Why? Becuase the mechanical button click action is harder to use, with the front edge of the trackpad actually fitted flush to the body, rather than usefully raised.

Before we look at benchmark figures for processor and graphics, there are two more features that have been improved. First, and more obvious, there are now two onboard speakers to give stereo sound, against the originals’ single mono speaker. As well as sounding richer because of the wider spread of sound, the essential music-replay quality benefits from the upgrade.

We also discovered that the built-in webcam in the screen lid seems to have been upgraded. In low-light conditions, the 2010 MacBook Air’s image is clearer and with less video noise.

Performance

With a larger batter fitted and slower processor, it should come as no surprise that battery life has improved. Our 2009 model lasted for 238 minutes in the Windows benchmark test, MobileMark 2007 Productivity.

That near-four hour figure was raised to 424 mins - over seven hours - in the same test on the Apple MacBook Air (Late 2010). And note that battery life in the Mac’s native OS X environment could be even higher.

On the testbench, we also noted that the slower processor has done nothing to diminish the MacBook Air 2010’s performance, when measured with the WorldBench 6 real-world speed test. Last year’s 2.13GHz MacBook Air scored 83 points (admittedly in the slower Vista OS), while this new model hit 91 points in Windows 7 - a sterling result for a dual-core 1.86GHz processor.

The new graphics processor may have helped that impressive WorldBench score too. The newer nVidia GeForce 320M here is the same as that fitted to the 13in MacBook Pro and latest Mac mini, which we’ve already seen give a noticeable lift to the speed of the older nVidia GeForce 9400M.

In our gaming tests, the FEAR game score rose from 10fps to 30fps at Maximum quality settings. Lower the detail to High and you get a super-smooth 74fps.

Andrew Harrison

NEXT PAGE: The original Macworld US review >>

See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?

The 13.3in model is basically an improved version of the previous MacBook Air, albeit at a better price.

(The new 11.6-inch MacBook Air, on the other hand, 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.)

The 11in and 13in MacBook Air models have a lot in common. They keep their displays in a rigid aluminum shell with an aluminium bezel around a LED-backlit glossy screen.

Unlike the MacBook Pro models, which feature a single slab of glass across the entire front of the display, the MacBook Air continues to feature an ultra-thin glass layer located behind the bezel. In my experience, displays with this approach are less prone to cause glare than screens such as those on the MacBook Pro models.

Like every other Mac laptop, there's a tiny Webcam located immediately above the display. (In some press materials Apple refers to this camera, once called iSight, as a “FaceTime camera", though in System Preferences it's still called an iSight.)

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch laptop

The display piece of the laptop is extremely thin, but the aluminium shell means it's fairly rigid.

Certainly it doesn't feel fragile or flimsy. And a new hinge design means you can now open the display at a wider angle than previous Airs.

The bottom half makes up the bulk of the laptop, and this is where Apple definitely made some changes compared to earlier MacBook Airs.

The older Airs had curved edges all around, a choice that forced the design of a drop-down door to expose the laptop's headphone, display, and USB ports.

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch laptop side

These new Airs have flat sides and a slightly curved bottom. The result is that when you pick one up, it feels a bit chunkier than the older models, even though it's really not.

By trading off that illusion of extra thinness, Apple gets to ditch the drop-down door and station ports right on the sides of the laptops. On the left side, there's a MagSafe connector, USB 2.0 port, headphone jack, and a built-in microphone. On the right, there's a Mini DisplayPort, another USB 2.0 port, and (on the 13-inch model only) an SD card slot.

The second USB port addresses one of the previous Air models' major shortcomings: its single USB port could get crowded in a hurry, especially if you needed to perform a task with two separate USB devices at once and forgot to bring a hub along.

(In addition to the continued lack of FireWire support on these models, they also continue to lack an Ethernet port. Apple does offer a £25 USB Ethernet Adapter if you need to get on a wired network. And of course, the Air doesn't come with any optical drive.)

These small laptops can drive large displays via that Mini DisplayPort, at resolutions up to 2,560 by 1,600 - meaning they'll even drive Apple's 27in LED Cinema Display.

(The Apple display's included MagSafe and Mini DisplayPort cables will stretch to reach those ports, which are situated on opposite sides of the MacBook Air - but just barely.)

Both models are driven by a nVidia GeForce 320M graphics processor (the same one used in the 13-inch MacBook Pro), and it's a nice step up from the nVidia GeForce 9400 used in previous Airs; the new models showed off much improved graphics performance compared to their predecessors.

One nice touch for users upgrading from a past MacBook Air model: if you've got a set of iPhone-compatible headphones with an inline microphone and remote, this generation of Airs will let you use that mic for audio input, and you can even use the button(s) for controlling music playback.

Though many small laptops in the PC world feature shrunken-down keyboards that deviate from the standard keyboard layout in unpleasant ways, Apple has refused to compromise on this point - even on the 11-inch MacBook Air. Both models sport the same full-sized keyboard that Apple uses in all its other laptops, not to mention its USB and wireless external keyboards. The only real difference is on the top row of keys: they're shorter than on the other keyboards, and the power button now appears as the rightmost key in that row.

Typing on the keyboard feels exactly as it does on all those other keyboards, too; the thinness of the Air doesn't mean there's any less key travel. If you like typing on a MacBook keyboard (or Apple's external keyboards), you'll like typing on the MacBook Air.

One place where this new set of MacBooks regresses from the previous generation: keyboard backlighting is gone. I never considered keyboard backlighting an essential feature - I do know where all the keys are. Like heated seats in a car, it's a feature that was occasionally useful and felt vaguely luxurious, and I'll miss it. Also gone are the sleep light and the infrared port.

On the positive side, though, the Airs have finally inherited the same glass-trackpad technology that was added to the MacBook Pro two years ago. It looks, feels, and works just like you'd expect. Though the Air is only .11 inches thick at the same edge that contains the trackpad, the trackpad still depresses with a satisfying click. (The trackpad on the 11in model is slightly less tall, but otherwise the two trackpads are identical.)

Finally, one of the lamest features of the MacBook Air was its single mono speaker stuck under the right side of the keyboard. Good news, everyone: The new Air has stereo speakers nestled under the left and right sides of the keyboard. They're never going to win any awards, but they sound vastly better than the old model.

NEXT: MacBook Air Flash storage >>

See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?

The new 13-inch Apple MacBook Air isn't a radical departure from the previous-generation Apple MacBook Air, which was itself a surprisingly thin and light laptop compared to Apple's other MacBook and MacBook Pro models.

MacBook Air: Flash storage

The original MacBook Air was the first Mac system to be sold with a flash-storage drive as an optional component, and in these new models all storage takes place on flash storage.

In case you're not familiar with the concept, flash storage is a hard-drive replacement that stores data on fixed memory chips (just like the iPhone, iPad and all iPods except the classic) instead of on spinning platters (like most of the computers out there today).

Flash storage has several advantages over hard drives. They tend to be faster than hard drives, especially at reading data.

Though performance can vary widely, the flash storage on these new MacBook Air models was way faster than the poky 4,200rpm hard drives on the prior generation of MacBook Air.

Because they've got no moving parts, there's little risk that dropping your laptop will cause physical damage to flash storage - a real concern when it comes to a spinning hard drive.

Flash-storage drives can use less power, extending battery life. They are silent. And despite the amazing miniaturization that's gone on in the hard-drive market, flash storage takes up a whole lot less space than a hard drive. (At least, it does if it hasn't been inserted into a traditional hard-drive enclosure - a backward-compatibility trick Apple had to do with the previous version of the Air, but has avoided with this revision.)

There are also some disadvantages to flash storage. It's more expensive than traditional hard drives, though prices are falling rapidly. There are also questions about ongoing performance of flash storage - depending on the type of flash storage you use, you could find that after several months of heavy use it's dramatically slower than it was when you bought it.

In any event, if you get a new MacBook Air you'll be getting it with flash storage. Because of the expense of solid-state technology, the disk capacities for these systems are much lower than they'd be in a bigger system with a spinning hard drive. The £1,099 base-model 13-inch MacBook Air comes with 128GB of flash storage. (It's a £250 upgrade to move up to 256GB.) The 11in models come in 64GB and 128GB flash-storage configurations.

At 128GB and certainly at 256GB, you'll find the MacBook Air's storage space perfectly acceptable, especially if you're only using these systems as a secondary computer.

If you're planning on editing HD video on them, I suspect the lack of storage space will be no more of a problem than the slow clock speed of the Core 2 Duo processor.

NEXT: MacBook Air 11-inch beauty >>

See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?

The new 13-inch Apple MacBook Air isn't a radical departure from the previous-generation Apple MacBook Air, which was itself a surprisingly thin and light laptop compared to Apple's other MacBook and MacBook Pro models.

Apple MacBook Air: Big is beautiful

The new 13-inch MacBook Air isn't a radical departure from the previous-generation Air, which was itself a surprisingly thin and light laptop compared to Apple's other MacBook and MacBook Pro models.

The new Air is almost imperceptibly thinner (0.05 inches thinner at its thinnest point, 0.08 inches thinner at its thickest), has exactly the same width and depth, and weighs just 40 grams (1.4 ounces) less. The keyboard's the same, and while the glass trackpad is new, it takes up the same space as the old Air's trackpad-and-button combo.

Beyond the physical changes to the case, the extra USB port, and the upgraded video processor, perhaps the biggest hardware change to the 13-inch Air from the previous model is the screen itself: the old model was 1,280 by 800 pixels, while the new one is 1,440 by 900 pixels - all in the same physical space.

The result is that everything looks a little bit smaller, but you've got more room for stuff on the screen. I found that after a few minutes using the new display, I was used to the change in resolution, though I did increase the default font size in a few of my apps just to take it easy on my eyes.

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch laptop front

£1,349 is not all you can spend on the 13-inch MacBook Air. Apple has provided several options for those who want to trick this system out: for £80 you can add a 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor (to the high-end configuration only), and either configuration can be upgraded from 2GB to 4GB of RAM for £80.

And you can only make these upgrades when you order the product; none of these features is upgradable after the fact, either by you or your local Apple Genius.

Even with those two additions, at £1,509 you'd be getting a majorly upgraded system from the MacBook Air offered by Apple previously.

NEXT: Apple MacBook Air speed tests

See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?

The new 13-inch Apple MacBook Air isn't a radical departure from the previous-generation Apple MacBook Air, which was itself a surprisingly thin and light laptop compared to Apple's other MacBook and MacBook Pro models.

Apple MacBook Air speed tests

In our Macworld Lab tests we found that the 1.86GHz 13-inch MacBook Air was slightly faster overall than a current-model 13-inch 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro.

However, our Speedmark 6.5 score is based on a suite of tests, and the individual tests were all over the map.

The Air, powered by its flash storage, excelled on our storage-based tests. Powered by the nVidia GeForce 320M graphics processor, it held its own on graphics-related tests, but our calculation-intensive tests showed the effects of its processor's slower clock speed.

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch laptop speed tests chart

The 13-inch Air also easily outdistanced previous models of MacBook Air, aided by its fast storage and upgraded graphics. Not only is this new MacBook Air the fastest Air ever made, it's roughly comparable in speed to the other two current 13-inch Mac laptop models. That's a first for the MacBook Air product line.

Apple MacBook Air: Batteries and sleep

Apple is making a big deal about saying that these new MacBook Airs have “instant on” technology.

What the company is talking about is a new power-saving mode: After a laptop's asleep for a while, it switches into a super power-saving standby mode that lets the battery survive for up to 30 days. But when you open the laptop back up, it doesn't show you a progress bar while it loads stuff - it just snaps back to life. Unfortunately, I couldn't test Apple's claim of 30 days of standby survival, since as of this writing these laptops have only been in our hands for five days.

Apple says that by reducing the space of other components (such as the solid-state drive enclosure) in these models, it's been able to increase the amount of room left for batteries, with the result being improved battery life.

Apple claims that the 11-inch Air can last up to five hours when running the company's own “wireless productivity” test suite; its claims for the 13-inch Air are up to seven hours.

Our own tests are more aggressive than Apple's, and are designed to drain the laptop's battery much faster than Apple's.

But they do give us a good sense of how much battery power these systems have when compared to the previous-generation MacBook Air. And there's good news on that front: The 11-inch Air lasted for 220 minutes while looping an H.264 movie in full-screen mode at full brightness. The new 13-inch Air lasted 265 minutes.

And the 2009-era MacBook Air? It only lasted about 185 minutes.

In real-world use, I found that the 11-inch MacBook's battery definitely felt more long-lasting than the previous-generation Air's. It's probably not powerful enough to last the entire day, but it's going to give you a good, solid run. The 13-inch model, on the other hand, can probably get you through an entire workday if you're judicious with your power usage and put it to sleep when appropriate.

NEXT: 13-inch Apple MacBook Air buying advice

See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?

The new 13-inch Apple MacBook Air isn't a radical departure from the previous-generation Apple MacBook Air, which was itself a surprisingly thin and light laptop compared to Apple's other MacBook and MacBook Pro models.

Apple MacBook Air: buying advice

While it's still true that a small, light laptop will require some degree of compromise on both speed and price, over time Apple has made those compromises much less painful.

It feels like, with these new 11- and 13in laptops, the MacBook Air product line has finally come of age. The 13in model addresses many of the old Air's weaknesses (graphics performance, battery life) and offers speeds that aren't far off the standard of the MacBook Pro line.

And yet the 13in MacBook Air weighs 1.6 pounds less than what the 13in MacBook Pro weighs.

Yes, the MacBook Air still costs more and does less than other 13in Apple laptops; if weight and size are not important considerations for you, you shouldn't buy a MacBook Air.

But if, all other things being (roughly) equal, you'd prefer a lighter laptop, the MacBook Air deserves your serious consideration.

While the 11in model will be most attractive if you're looking for the smallest and lightest Mac laptop, those who want to upgrade its drive, processor, and RAM will want to consider its small size versus the slightly larger 13in model, which comes equipped with a better set of specs.

Jason Snell, Macworld US

NEXT: our expert verdict >>

See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?


13-inch MacBook Air (Late 2010): Specs

  • 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL9400
  • 13in (1440 x 900) LED-backlit glossy LCD display
  • Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard
  • 2GB DDR3 RAM
  • 256GB SSD
  • nVidia GeForce 320M with 256MB system RAM
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • 2 x USB 2.0
  • SD/SDXC card slot
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR
  • glass multi-touch trackpad
  • webcam
  • mic
  • lithium polymer battery
  • iLife ’11
  • 325 227 x 17mm
  • 1333g
  • 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL9400
  • 13in (1440 x 900) LED-backlit glossy LCD display
  • Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard
  • 2GB DDR3 RAM
  • 256GB SSD
  • nVidia GeForce 320M with 256MB system RAM
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • 2 x USB 2.0
  • SD/SDXC card slot
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR
  • glass multi-touch trackpad
  • webcam
  • mic
  • lithium polymer battery
  • iLife ’11
  • 325 227 x 17mm
  • 1333g

OUR VERDICT

What really sets the MacBook Air apart from the competition is the all-round quality, both in terms of materials used and the construction of the device. Clever features such as the MagSafe power connector that disconnects should you trip over it - rather than pull the whole thing off the desk - are appreciated, as is the eye-catching design. If you can afford one, it'll be an investment you won't regret.

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