Not only is the Apple MacBook Air (Mid 2009) one of the fastest true ultraportables money can buy - it's also 30% cheaper than the previous model - UPDATED 27 AUGUST 2009.

Judged from the outside, little would appear to have changed to Apple's much-imitated MacBook Air since it launched a little over 18 months ago. But two revisions later, the Apple MacBook Air (Mid 2009) is a far more potent proposition than the original 1.6/1.8GHz models.

There's always been two versions offered, and the current line asks you to choose between a 1.86GHz or 2.13GHz processor. The entry-level model is now £1149, and takes a 120GB 1.8in hard disk, while the faster Air we reviewed has 128GB SSD. Otherwise specs are identical.

And with that newfound power comes a more attractive price, tumbling from £2028 for the first top-spec 1.8GHz model, to a new low of £1349 for this new 2.13GHz iteration. Compared to the top 1.86GHz model we reviewed earlier this year, priced at £1761, the price has fallen around 30%.

So what else has changed? The Apple MacBook Air (Mid 2009) keeps its eerily low-reflective gloss screen, sporting a comfortable 1280x800 resolution. And the port count is as scant as ever, just one USB, a headphone jack and Mini DisplayPort video output.

But thanks to the new graphics processor, an nVidia GeForce 9400M introduced in the last revision, higher resolution screens can be connected to that port (up to 2560x1600), while the Air itself is quite happy playing modern 3D games, providing detail settings are kept down. Apple also recoded parts of Mac OS X operating system recently, so that the graphics processor takes care of more video decoding, leaving the CPU free for other tasks.

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We measured 10fps (frames per second) in FEAR in all-out Maximum quality, rising to a playable 25+ fps by reducing those detail settings. And unlike most ultraportables that include processors little more capable than a netbook's dawdling Intel Atom, the Air keeps its highly aspirated Intel Core 2 Duo, here a 2.13GHz L9600 with 1066MHz front-side bus and 6MB of shared L2 cache. System RAM quota remains the same, 2GB of fast DDR3 memory soldered to the motherboard.

In our WorldBench 6 test, the Air romped home with 83 points, making it 8% faster than the already-quick previous flagship model with its 1.86GHz prcoessor, which scored 77 points in the same test. Both machines were tested in Windows Vista Ultimate running from a 60GB Boot Camp partition.

Just as well then that this performance doesn't come at the cost of excessive heat, noise or pitiful battery life. With a shock-proof SSD inside, the Apple MacBook Air (Mid 2009) is utterly silent in use, excepting a near-inaudible fan only when it's worked hard.

We couldn't test battery with MobileMark 2007, but in an idle run-out test in OS X with screen at half brightness and wireless off, the Apple MacBook Air (Mid 2009) lasted a stunning one minute shy of nine hours unplugged from the mains. In more realistic day-to-day use, we were still getting around five hours use before recharge time.

We did note the same long charge time, though, around four hours to completely recharge from the compact 45W power adapter, even with the Air shutdown.

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Click here for our expert verdict on the most recent MacBook Air

It omits many features that are standard on other Mac laptops, including multiple USB ports, FireWire ports, an ethernet port and an optical drive.

The MacBook Air is also Apple's thinnest, lightest laptop. And we still love it.

We love the MacBook Air because it's 680g lighter than the next-lightest Apple laptop (the 13in MacBook Pro). In a world of netbooks that compromise on screen and keyboard size in order to get small, the MacBook Air has an excellent 13.3in widescreen display and a full-sized, backlit keyboard.

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The MacBook Air is designed for people who appreciate the fact that this Mac laptop weighs 1.36kg and measures 19mm at its thickest point, and are willing to sacrifice all sorts of other features for that lightness. Which leads to the real question: do the new MacBook Air models sacrifice too many features to make them worth the trade-off in both price and size?

Price considerations

The new MacBook Airs introduced at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference are a £1,149 model with a 1.86GHz processor and 120GB 4,200rpm hard drive, and a £1,349 model with a 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a 128GB solid-state drive.

Let's ponder, for a moment, how far the MacBook Air line has come in terms of price. When the MacBook Air premiered, the top-of-the-line model-featuring a 1.86GHz processor and a 64GB solid-state drive cost £2,028. The low end of the line was a £1,199 model with a 1.6GHz processor and an 80GB hard drive.

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So in 18 months, the top-of-the-line Air has dropped £679 while adding 330MHz of processor power and doubling the storage space. The base configuration, meanwhile, has dropped in price by £50 while also gaining a modest processor boost and double the hard-drive space. In other words, the MacBook Air is far more affordable than it was when it was introduced.

This is not to say that it's a great deal in terms of price/performance. You're still paying for that super-light chassis. For the same money as today's entry-level 1.86GHz MacBook Air you can buy a 13in MacBook Pro with a 2.53GHz processor, double the RAM of the MacBook Air, more than twice the hard-drive space, more USB and FireWire ports, an optical drive and an SD card reader. But it's also thicker and weighs 680g more.

>> NEXT PAGE: Small, light and limited, and Speedmark performance

Not only is the Apple MacBook Air (Mid 2009) one of the fastest true ultraportables money can buy - it's also 30% cheaper than the previous model - UPDATED 27 AUGUST 2009.

Small, light and limited

On the outside, these new MacBook Airs look just like the original MacBook Air models introduced in January 2008. And as always, the Air's physical connectivity options remain quite limited: there's just a single USB 2.0 port, a headphone jack and a Mini DisplayPort. There's no FireWire connectivity, and everything else you connect to the system has to go wireless (via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi) or filter through that single USB port.

Apple includes a 10/100 USB-to-ethernet adapter in the box now, which is generous, but the fact remains that if you're trying to download a file over ethernet while backing up to a USB hard drive, you will tax that single USB port to the limit. (You'll also need to invest in a serious USB hub.) What's worse, the £64 MacBook Air SuperDrive must be attached to the MacBook Air directly and doesn't offer any passthrough ports of its own, making it impossible to boot from a DVD and then restore from a Time Machine backup stored on an external hard drive. Well, impossible is too strong a word: we were able to pull the trick off by using Apple's £635 LED Cinema Display, which will also power the SuperDrive, as the world's most expensive USB hub.

But with the update to the MacBook Air line in late 2008, Apple seriously upgraded the Air's internals. The first-generation Airs used Intel's slow onboard video circuitry and couldn't cope with warm temperatures at all, but the new models added nVidia GeForce 9400M graphics circuitry, improved bus and memory speeds, and generally coped with heat much better. These new models also incorporate those improvements, which dramatically improve the MacBook Air experience.

New MacBook Airs: Speedmark performance

The 2.13GHz MacBook managed a Speedmark score of 198 in our tests, compared to a score of 175 for the top-of-the-line 2.13GHz Air. The 13in 2.53GHz MacBook Pro (£1,149) scored 239, while the same-priced 1.86GHz MacBook Air scored 156.

What's weird about the new high-end MacBook Air model is that although it costs dramatically less than its immediate predecessor, it was also slower than that model in our tests. The previous 1.86GHz MacBook Air was faster than the new top-of-the-line model in 11 of our 18 tests and, as a result, the old system's final Speedmark score was slightly higher. The low-end 1.86GHz model did a better job versus its predecessor, besting it on most tests and improving on its Speedmark score.

We also saw several cases in which the lower-end systems, with slower processors but with hard drives rather than solid-state drives, bested their high-end equivalents. Some of these results simply come down to the fact that solid-state drives are faster than physical hard drives at some tasks and slower at others. But on tasks we tend to consider particularly processor intensive, such as compressing video or rendering 3D objects, the low-end systems also outperformed the higher-end systems. We're not quite sure why this is happening, although it's possible that the MacBook Air's thermal-protection systems are aggressively ratcheting down the speed of the faster, hotter processors when they're asked to perform those tasks, slowing their performance.

If what strikes you about the MacBook Air is that it's overpriced and underpowered, it isn't the laptop for you. It's hobbled by having only a single USB port, and it's locked into 2GB of RAM. There's no FireWire, no optical drive and the only way to connect to an ethernet network is via an included USB adapter. But if the specs that matter most to you are light weight and small size, the MacBook Air is ideal. These new models aren't much faster than their predecessors - the high-end system is actually slower than the previous model - but they're cheaper.

Jason Snell Macworld US

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Apple MacBook Air (Mid 2009): Specs

  • 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L9600
  • 1066MHz FSB
  • 13.3in (1280x800) 16:10 gloss LCD display
  • Mac OS X 10.5.7
  • 128GB SSD
  • 2GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM
  • nVidia GeForce 9400M with 256MB system RAM
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • 1 x USB 2.0
  • 802.11a/b/g/draft-n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • headphone out
  • mono speaker
  • mic
  • webcam
  • backlit keyboard
  • multi-touch trackpad
  • 325x227x4–19mm
  • 1.36kg
  • 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L9600
  • 1066MHz FSB
  • 13.3in (1280x800) 16:10 gloss LCD display
  • Mac OS X 10.5.7
  • 128GB SSD
  • 2GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM
  • nVidia GeForce 9400M with 256MB system RAM
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • 1 x USB 2.0
  • 802.11a/b/g/draft-n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • headphone out
  • mono speaker
  • mic
  • webcam
  • backlit keyboard
  • multi-touch trackpad
  • 325x227x4–19mm
  • 1.36kg

OUR VERDICT

The previous generation MacBook Air was already well clear of the competition in its sleek design and uncompromised speed. With this latest 2009 update, not only has Apple made the Apple MacBook Air (Mid 2009) faster, but it’s over 30% cheaper. It comes with Mac OS X already installed, offering a virus-free and reliable platform for business or home. But for the buyer who can't forsake Microsoft Windows, a licensed copy of Windows 7 could be added to the cost, installed on the Air through Boot Camp, and you’d still have a cost-effective winner relative to other ultraportables notebooks.

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