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Laptops Reviews
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Apple MacBook Air, 1.8GHz & 64GB SSD review

£2,028 inc VAT

Manufacturer: Apple

Our Rating: We rate this 4 out of 5

We assess the effects of the MacBook Air's two main build-to-order configuration options, the £190 processor-speed upgrade and the £639 SSD upgrade.

Our initial review of the MacBook Air was based on its stock £1,199 configuration, which features a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 80GB of storage provided by a 1.8in traditional hard drive.

Since then, we've obtained two 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Airs: one with the same 1.8in 80GB hard drive, and one with 64GB of flash memory as its primary internal storage device (what Apple calls a solid-state drive, or SSD.)

With those three models, we can begin to assess the effects of the MacBook Air's two main build-to-order configuration options, the £190 processor-speed upgrade and the £639 SSD upgrade.

Both upgrades improve things. The processor upgrade improves calculation-based tasks such as 3D rendering and video encoding and the SSD upgrade enhanced disk-intensive tasks such as duplicating a file or launching Photoshop.

In terms of Speedmark, our battery of general-use tests, the base MacBook Air scored 124. The MacBook Air with the same hard drive but a 1.8GHz processor improved to a score of 130. The model with the 1.8GHz processor and the SSD earned 140. To put that in percentage terms, the £190 processor upgrade improved the overall speed of the system by 4.8 percent, while the £639 drive upgrade improved speed by 7.7 percent.

Of course, speed isn't the only reason to invest in the SSD option. In theory, its lack of moving parts makes it a safer storage device, because it's not exposed to the mechanical failures that hard drives with spinning platters can suffer. However, until we get a long-term read on the reliability of the SSD, that advantage remains theoretical.

Life with the SSD

We spent two weeks using a 1.8GHz MacBook Air equipped with the 64GB SSD as the primary system. It turns out that trimming down a system in order to fit on the 64GB SSD was – for us – almost impossible.

After formatting and installation of the full OS X 10.5 operating system, our fresh model showed only 35.4GB of free space. You can free up more by re-installing without certain files (printer drivers, fonts, language options etc) and by removing iLife programs that you may not use (iMovie, Garageband), but even so you really have to consider whether the 64GB drive is going to provide enough space. Especially if you are planning to use the MacBook Air as your primary Mac.

We managed to squeeze our content down to fit the 80GB option, but found the only way to get it all on to the 64GB SSD drive was to remove the 10GB Parallels Desktop Windows disk image and sacrifice the ability to run Windows.

There are two ways to measure speed: the cold, hard reality of numbers and the fluffy, fuzzy world of anecdote. Here's a splash of cold, hard reality from our Test Centre: launching Photoshop on the SSD version of the MacBook Air is stunningly fast.

We've noticed that other applications also seem to launch much faster on the SSD Air. Similarly, this Air feels more responsive when running numerous programs at once – possibly because the speedy SSD makes the swapping of programs between RAM and disk faster. The Assorted Speedmark tests table shows a few of the tasks that make up our Speedmark 5 checks. As you can see, tasks involving the hard drive are faster on the SSD model; for tests dependent on the processor, the 1.8GHz MacBook Air with the standard PATA drive fared better.

NEXT PAGE: The upgraded MacBook Air on test > >

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Apple MacBook Air 1.8GHz 64GB SSD 13-inch Expert Verdict »

1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip at 800MHz
13.3in widescreen display
Mac OS X 10.5
USB 2.0
headphone jack
Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • Build Quality: We give this item 9 of 10 for build quality
  • Features: We give this item 7 of 10 for features
  • Value for Money: We give this item 7 of 10 for value for money
  • Overall: We give this item 8 of 10 overall

The public reaction to the MacBook Air has been fascinating. Our original conclusion could probably be boiled down to “it's good for people it's good for, and not for people it's not” – this appeared to be a Rorschach test for readers, since we've received praise from MacBook Air critics and fans alike. Across the internet we've seen similar reactions, with some users embracing the product despite its compromises, and others attacking it as a product with no purpose other than to part fools from their money. Not wishing to sound like a broken record, but how you see the Air has a lot to do with your priorities. For some, the Air's lack of a swappable battery and its underpowered processor make it a terrible value proposition – like paying for black on a MacBook. We take the point, but have to disagree. For us, the value of dropping down a kilo in weight will make all the difference when on the move. So if you're someone who places a value of going from three kilos to two, you'll see the point of the Air. If you're someone who doesn't see that value, go no further – the Air was not made for you, and you shouldn't buy one. Would the MacBook Air be better if it had a faster processor and more hard drive space? Absolutely. In fact, the most critically lacking feature of this product is its lack of internal storage. We've seen numerous users who insist that the MacBook Air is not meant to be a standalone product, but is meant as a secondary system for someone who has a primary Mac. We've yet to see Apple market the product that way, but there's no disputing that the Air works best as a secondary system – entirely because of its lack of storage.

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