In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

Apple MacBook Air - full technical review

Updated: 31 January 2008

There was no mention of Steve Jobs' favourite "one more thing" keynote sign-off at Macworld Expo in January, but the biggest product launch at the annual Mac event could still have a major impact on the Windows-based laptop market - the Apple MacBook Air.

Macworld Expo in San Francisco has become the most highly anticipated event in the IT calendar in recent years, with techies desperate to learn what Steve Jobs has lined up as Apple's biggest product launch of the year.

In 2007, the Apple iPhone (reviewed here) captured the imagination of those in the audience and millions of people around the world who monitored Jobs keynote via the web, while the event has previously been used to launch iTunes, the Mac mini and various versions of the iPod.

This year, rather than introducing a completely new product category, Apple chose to launch a variation on a theme, but what a variation it was. The MacBook Air has arrived, a third MacBook model that brings incredibly small size to Apple's laptop line at a premium price, and a model Apple claims to be the world's thinnest laptop.

However, in many ways, the story of this laptop is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

MacBook Air front

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In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

It's clear that Apple's engineers followed a specific set of design constraints for the MacBook Air. By retaining the dimensions of the regular MacBook, the MacBook Air can offer a full-size keyboard as well as a generous widescreen display.

The MacBook Air's keyboard, backlighting apart, is the same square-keycapped design featured on the MacBook. And its 13.3in, 1,280-by-800 pixel display is identical in size to the one found on the MacBook.

However, the Apple MacBook Air's screen is notably different because of what's lighting it from behind: a light-emitting diode (LED). The LED backlighting is extremely bright, but what's more impressive is that it immediately snaps on to its full brightness. The MacBook, in contrast, starts out somewhat dim and gradually increases in brightness.

MacBook Air keyboard

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In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

With the keyboard and display set, then, there are only two other ways for the MacBook Air to distinguish itself from its cousins: thickness and weight.

Despite its diminutive size, the MacBook Air doesn't feel fragile; the keyboard feels solid, as does the Air's entire bottom half. We noticed a bit of flexion on the top of the laptop - the portion behind its screen - but even there the MacBook Air felt sturdy.

There's no way to tell how this laptop will fare in high-stress situations, but it certainly feels durable. That brings us to the MacBook Air's thinness. This product was undoubtedly designed specifically to be as thin as possible, with an eye toward making the marketing claim that the MacBook is "the world's thinnest notebook".

There is no denying that the MacBook Air's thinness makes it visually striking. But we're not convinced of the utility of that thinness. Other than allowing Apple to declare the Air the current winner of the race to design the thinnest laptop, it's not clear what the loss of a few millimetres really gives you.

It's not going to gain you much working room when you're wedged in an economy airline seat behind someone whose seat is fully reclined.

MacBook Air slim

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In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

Making do with less

In order to make the MacBook Air small and light, Apple has had to remove features once considered standard on all Apple laptops. This model is the first in recent memory to have no built-in CD/DVD drive and no FireWire ports. Its internal storage is limited, and its connection to peripherals has been reduced, too.

In order to take advantage of the MacBook Air's light weight and small size, users must be willing to sacrifice some of the features that they previously took for granted.

Let's start with the MacBook Air's lack of an optical drive. If you're someone who lives or dies by the ability to burn or play back CDs or DVDs, you'll find this to be a major drawback.

Apple has, to its credit, exerted quite a bit of muscle in an attempt to make the Air's lack of an optical drive a non-issue. In addition to selling the external SuperDrive add-on for £65, Apple has added a feature called Remote Disc that allows the MacBook Air to take over the optical drive of another computer (Mac or PC) on your local network.

Although Remote Disc is a nice addition, it has limitations. It's meant for installing programs and copying files, and doesn't work as a remote DVD player or CD ripper.

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In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

One door, three ports

To see more of the MacBook Air's feature compromises, look no further than the flip-down door on the laptop's right side. Upon lowering the door, you can see the MacBook Air offers only three ports: a headphone jack, a USB port and a micro-DVI port.

However, Apple hasn't compromised when it comes to the MacBook Air's video-out capabilities – you can attach an external monitor as large as Apple's 23in Cinema Display (1,920-by-1,200 pixels).

More of a compromise is the pathway by which users can attach peripherals to the MacBook Air: a single USB 2.0 port, so if you want to attach more than a single USB device to the MacBook Air, you'll need to invest in a USB 2.0 hub.

However, using USB devices on the road could be more problematic with the MacBook Air. If you usually count on having two open USB ports, you'll need to carefully consider if your working style will still function with only a single port available, or if you'll need to invest in (and carry around) a portable hub.

Keep in mind, too, that the MacBook Air's USB port is also the place where you must connect its SuperDrive (if you need to read or write from optical discs). And if you don't have a USB hub, you'll also need this port for connecting any other peripheral including the ethernet USB adaptor – there's no built-in ethernet port.

In other words, the MacBook Air's one USB port is going to be awfully popular.

Beyond its sheer… singularity, the MacBook Air's USB port has other ramifications. It's also a sign that the MacBook Air is the first Mac in years to eschew FireWire, the once-ubiquitous Apple-created connection technology that now seems to be slowly fading into irrelevance.

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In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

Limited options

During the MacBook Air's introduction at Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs showed a photograph of the MacBook Air's interior and compared the length of its motherboard to the length of a pencil. All that miniaturisation comes at a price, however - in terms of a lack of options and a limited set of features for many of the MacBook Air's basic technologies.

Take the hard drive. Its storage capacity is 80GB. Space is at such a premium in the MacBook Air that even the 120GB drive once used by the iPod is too thick to fit. As a result, 80GB is currently the only size of hard drive available for the Air.

There is a similar lack of options when it comes to the MacBook Air's RAM. It ships with 2GB, an excellent allotment, but the MacBook Air's RAM is built in to the computer, inaccessible and non-upgradeable.

Fortunately, 2GB is a good amount. Any less, and Apple would have risked crippling the MacBook Air into irrelevance.

In terms of the onboard Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Apple gives MacBook Air buyers two speed options: the standard 1.6GHz version for £1,199 and an 1.8GHz option for £1,389. Both speeds fall short of what's available on the MacBook (2.0GHz, 2.2GHz) and MacBook Pro (2.2GHz, 2.4GHz, 2.6Ghz) lines.

What it all boils down to is that one of the less obvious compromises built into the MacBook Air, at least for now, is a lack of customisability and serviceability.

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In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

Speed facts

We tested the MacBook Air's £1,199 configuration—a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor with an 80GB hard drive (and a little help from our friends at Macworld.com).

As you might expect from the slow clock speeds of its processor and the slow speed of its hard drive, the MacBook Air is quite a bit slower than the other MacBooks (reviewed here).

Its Speedmark score of 124 is the lowest score we've recorded for any Intel-based Mac laptop, but it does handily beat our PowerPC laptop reference system, the 1.67GHz PowerBook G4. The MacBook Air is also clearly the slowest currently shipping Mac model.

Users who must rely on their portable systems to do processor-intensive tasks as fast as possible should be warned: the MacBook Air is not remotely as fast as the MacBook, let alone the MacBook Pro.

But for general uses, we rarely noticed that the system was slower than a MacBook.

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In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

Battery included

One of the more controversial features of the MacBook Air is its battery. Not its 5-hours battery life, but the fact that the it's not replaceable.

There's no battery door and so no way to swap a dead battery out and replace it with a fresh one. Like an iPod or iPhone, the MacBook Air has a battery embedded inside and there's no official way to get it out other than giving your laptop back to Apple and asking the company to replace it for a fee.

For some users, swapping batteries is a necessity. If you take long plane flights or otherwise travel for long periods of time without access to a power outlet, bringing along a second battery has been a time-tested tradition.

With the MacBook Air, that safety net is gone.

More troubling, however, was the time it took to recharge the battery. It took us nearly five hours to recharge the battery with the MacBook Air's wimpy 45W power adaptor.

See also:

Replacing the MacBook Air battery is a cinch

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See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

In many ways the story of the MacBook Air is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.3kg package that's 4mm thick at its thinnest point.

Gesture of support

As is often the case when Apple introduces new MacBook models, the MacBook Air's trackpad offers some functionality that we haven't seen before.

It supports new gestures that go way beyond the two-finger scroll and secondary click.

In a move that will be familiar to iPhone users, the MacBook Air's trackpad understands the same pinch-and-spread finger movement that you use to zoom images and web pages on the iPhone. For example, it allows you to zoom in or out on an image in Preview or iPhoto or indeed, switch between images by swiping your finger to the right.

MacBook Air front

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The MacBook Air has arrived, a third MacBook model that brings incredibly small size to Apple's laptop line at a premium price.

After getting some hands-on time with the MacBook Air at Macworld Expo, we've got some first impressions. At the risk of sounding obvious, the MacBook Air is incredibly light and tiny. We'll be updating this article with the full MacBook Air review once we have access to a model for benchmarking purposes.

Its looks owe a lot to the MacBook Pro and previous silver Mac laptop models, but the MacBook Air's curved edges and tapered shape are unlike anything we've seen on a Mac laptop in a long time, if ever. (Someone likened it to a really big iPod nano, and that's not far off.)

Because of the MacBook Air's curves, there aren't flat spots on the side for ports, as there are on existing Mac laptops. On the left side, near the back, is a slightly recessed space on the MacBook Air's underside with a MagSafe power connector. As a result, the MacBook Air comes with a different power brick, a smaller 45W brick than the one the MacBook uses.

And the adaptor's tip is different, a right-angled silver shape that's designed to nestle snug against the MacBook Air's side. If Apple had used the current MagSafe adaptor, it simply wouldn't fit - that adaptor sticks straight out, an orientation that would prevent you from setting the MacBook Air down on a desk.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

On the MacBook Air's right side is a drop-down door with three ports. (It's not a door that you flip open to expose the ports - you actually pull the door down, and the three ports come down from within the computer.)

There's a standard speaker/headphone minijack, a USB 2.0 port, and a micro-DVI port. Yes, IT people, this means you will need to carry around yet another spare set of Mac laptop display adaptors - mini DVI for MacBooks, DVI for MacBook Pros, and micro DVI for MacBook airs.

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The MacBook Air has arrived, a third MacBook model that brings incredibly small size to the MacBook line at a premium price.

The best news we have about the MacBook Air was its video-out prowess. It seems to have the same skills as the MacBook, namely that it will drive a 23in Apple display as a secondary display. For someone like me, that's a key feature - speaking as a guy who uses his MacBook at work hooked up to a 23in display, robust video-out features are important.

The good news is, MacBook Air ships with two video adaptors in the box, one for VGA, one for DVI. An optional S-Video adaptor is also available. And for those who simply must have Ethernet connectivity, Apple will sell a USB ethernet adaptor.

There's no optical drive in the MacBook air, and David Moody, Apple vice president of worldwide Mac product marketing expressed to us the ambivalence that Apple seems to have about the current state of the computer optical drive: "Some people will need [an optical drive] Others... maybe."

If you want a MacBook Air but are afraid that you're going to run into a situation where you simply must have an optical drive, Apple will sell you an external USB SuperDrive, nicely colour-matched, specifically for the MacBook Air.

For basic optical drive needs, though, Apple's new Remote Disc software will let the MacBook Air take control of the optical drive on a Mac or PC.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

The MacBook Air comes with software you can install on Macs or PCs, enabling the feature. Then when you click on Remote Disc in the Finder's sidebar, you'll see a list of all the computers on your local Bonjour network that have Remote Disc installed. Click on a computer and one of two things will happen - either you'll just take control of the drive, or (optionally) the user of the other computer will be prompted to allow you to take control.

When we tried the feature out, it worked seamlessly. We double-clicked on a remote PC across the room, and after about five seconds we could hear its optical drive quietly begin to whir. Within another few seconds, the Microsoft Office 2008 install disc appeared in the Finder on the MacBook Air, just as if we had inserted that disc in the MacBook Air's nonexistent optical drive.

Open the magnetic latch of the MacBook Air and peer inside, and you'll get a sight that looks a lot like a miniature combination of the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. There's aluminum everywhere, with the exception of the black backlit keyboard and the 13.3in display. That display, at 1,280-by-800 pixels, is slightly smaller than the one on the MacBook, but its higher resolution means it's got the same number of pixels as its larger cousin.

Just above the display is an iSight camera, flanked by two small micro-perforated circles. The one on the left is an ambient light sensor, which lets the MacBook Air automatically adjust the brightness of the display and of the keyboard backlighting. the one on the right is a microphone.

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The MacBook Air has arrived, a third MacBook model that brings incredibly small size to the MacBook line at a premium price.

As far as we can tell, the MacBook Air's keyboard is identical to the one on the MacBook, complete with square keycaps and the same solid feeling when typing.

Aside from Remote Disc, the other big new software addition with the MacBook Air is the modifications to the Keyboard and Mouse preference pane to support the new multitouch enabled trackpad. In our demo, we saw the gestures at work in both iPhoto and Safari, although presumably these are features that third-party developers will be able to add to their applications as well.

In Safari, we saw the iPhone's pinch gesture adapted to allow you to size the text in your browser window up and down. You can also swipe with three fingers to use the browser's forward and back buttons.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

It's quite a mind-bender to see full QuickTime movies in the System Preferences pane, but that's the interface Apple has chosen to get across the various gestures the trackpad supports. The more prosaic side of the preference pane collects the gestures by finger: one-finger actions (tap, drag, drag lock), two-finger actions (click, scroll, pinch, rotate, zoom), and one three-finger action (swipe).

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the MacBook Air's tiny .16in thin front side still has room for two pieces of actual hardware: an infrared receiver and the ubiquitous pulsating sleep light.

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Apple MacBook Air: Specs

  • 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip at 800MHz
  • 2GB of 667MH DDR2 SDRAM
  • 1.8in, 80GB hard drive (64GB SSD available)
  • 13.3in widescreen display
  • Mac OS X 10.5
  • 802.11n
  • USB 2.0
  • Micro-DVI
  • headphone jack
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 1.3kg
  • 4x325x227mm
  • 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip at 800MHz
  • 2GB of 667MH DDR2 SDRAM
  • 1.8in, 80GB hard drive (64GB SSD available)
  • 13.3in widescreen display
  • Mac OS X 10.5
  • 802.11n
  • USB 2.0
  • Micro-DVI
  • headphone jack
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 1.3kg
  • 4x325x227mm

OUR VERDICT

The story of the MacBook Air is a story about compromise, the decision about whether the MacBook Air is a product worth having can be answered by one question: How much are you willing to compromise? Judged merely on the cold technological specifications, the MacBook Air can't measure up to Apple's other laptops. For those to whom the tech specs matter above all else, the MacBook Air can't be seen as much more than an overpriced, underpowered toy. But there will be those who, small drive and slow processor be damned, will adopt the MacBook Air as their primary laptop - simply because they want that laptop to be as small as possible. For those who factor size, weight, and — yes, we'll admit it — style into the equation, the MacBook Air begins to make more sense.

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