When Apple launched the MacBook Air in January 2008, some dismissed it as an overpriced executive toy. While it was no toy, it was certainly expensive. Very expensive, if you wanted the ‘real’ one with solid-state storage.
It was priced well out of reach of most people looking for a lightweight ultraportable. At £2028 for the SSD model, the MacBook Air did have a useful 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo processor, but just 64GB of flash storage.
Yet it was very far from being a plaything, the combination of true dual-core processor and fast solid-state drive letting it run faster than many a full-size laptop.
Now in its fifth generation, the Apple MacBook Air is not just a bit faster; thanks to the magic of new Sandy Bridge dual-core processors, it’s a damn sight faster.
The new 11in model has a choice of 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz Core i5 processors, while the 13in MacBook Air now comes with a 1.7GHz Core i5, or 1.8GHz Core i7. All MacBook Airs now take SSD for storage, up to 256GB for any model.
The sign of MacBook Air truly going mainstream, rather than being just the preserve of the board, is the entry price of just £849 for the starter 11in MacBook Air.
In features and construction, little has changed since the major refresh of last October. That was when the aluminium case was retooled to make it stiffer and more chiselled toward the front, and the number of USB ports was doubled, to a grand sum of two. Not to mention the surprise appearance of the dinky 11in version.
Those earlier generations of MacBook Air had a backlit keyboard, a neat feature for some, an extraneous and costly luxury for others. That could explain Apple’s decision to excise it from last year’s refresh anyway. Well, now the light-up keys are back. Illumination aside, the MacBook Air has one of the most comfortable keyboards we know for quick typing, with the 11in model also getting essentially the same layout.
Not that there’s much to indicate that fact, save the tiny lightning flash logo. But as the first Thunderbolted product outside Cupertino finally landed last week – the Promise Pegasus R4/R6 RAID drive – we’re hoping a thriving market in high-speed adaptors and boxes will appear to will make the most of that 10Gbit/s-in-full-duplex opportunity.
As a quick resumé of what makes the Apple MacBook Air stand out from its many imitators (Samsung, you’re not alone but we are looking at you), here’s a few stand-out features.
It’s ridiculously thin, starting at 17mm and tapering down to 3mm at the sharp end. It’s very light at 1.34kg, and feels well-balanced in the hand as its centre of gravity runs down its middle. The entire case is milled from aluminium blocks and has build quality that is quite literally second to no other maker of notebook computers.
The screen is the same glossy type as before; yet it’s not the pathetically reflective glass sheet we see in the MacBook Pro and most other consumer laptops. Instead it fields a thin anti-reflective coating that helps prevent the worst of the reflections that thoroughly despoil every other shiny screen on the market.
Colour balance of the screen is very good, it's exceptionally bright, and its 1440 x 900-pixel resolution gives sharp text and smooth graphics legibility.
The large Multi-Touch trackpad works well with the new gestures introduced by OS X Lion, such as three-finger-and-thumb pinch movements, which demand a large surface as friction-free as possible.
But strangely, a mainstay of trackpad computing has been removed – click and drag. If you like to touch-click a window frame before sliding it to a new position, you may be disappointed to discover that the option is no longer present on this new generation of Air.
We think we can see why: for certain MacBook models, including the new Air, you can use a three-finger gesture to drag windows around. This even has the advantage of not requiring your fractional pause after holding a tap down, in order for the OS to recognise your dragging intentions; and it can even be applied on unfocused windows.
Many laptop makers are now boasting of mult-touch touchpads, but Apple is still the only company we’ve seen to innovate here with truly useful control functions that actually work every time.
Before we reveal performance scores, expectations need to be managed for the swings-and-roundabouts trade swept in by Apple’s embrace of Sandy Bridge silicon. While real-world computing speed has soared, there are fewer ticks in the graphics-performance margin.
Apple stuck with the Core 2 Duo series of processors well passed their sell-by date, in part because they were more conducive to including third-party graphics processors – namely, the nVidia GeForce 9400M and 320M integrated graphics chipsets.
With the Core i-series chips, Apple has turned to Intel’s built-in graphics. And that unavoidably means graphics performance has been compromised, if not quite so much as the words ‘Intel’ and ‘graphics’ once spelt.
In our FEAR test at Maximum detail settings, the 13in MacBook Air delivered an average of 17 frames per second. That’s too few to make gameplay especially fluid; but one level down at High detail, the new Intel HD Graphics 3000 solution allowed a 52 fps average.
By way of comparison, last year’s 13in MacBook Air played FEAR at 30 and 74 fps, at Maximum and High settings respectively. In the Stalker: Call of Pripyat game benchmark, the MacBook Air could muster just 19 fps in our low-spec test at 1280 x 720 and Medium detail.
So one admirable string to the MacBook Air’s bow – that it was the only ultraportable that could truly play games – has been forsaken in the interest of just good-enough graphics. And very fast general computing.
In the WorldBench 6 real-world PC performance test, the 1.7GHz-fueled 13in MacBook Air scored 122 points. That’s a 34% score increase over last year’s 13in MacBook Air with 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo.
In the Geekbench 64-bit test of processor and memory performance, the MacBook Air scored 5860 points.
Battery life hasn’t been sacrificed since last year’s comparable 13in model. In the MobileMark 2007 Productivity test, the new MacBook Air lasted 455 mins (7 hrs 35 mins), against 2010‘s 424 mins.
Installing Windows on an Intel Mac has long been a relatively straightforward operation. In fact, in our experience of continually reinstalling Windows on Windows-optimised PCs, the Mac is always easier.
And that process has just become even breezier with OS X Lion now on the new MacBook Air.
The setup wizard does all the work for you: it puts your .iso of Windows 7 on a USB stick for you (a 4GB drive is enough), downloads all the necessary drivers from Apple, then copies these to the stick, ready for you when the core Windows install has completed.
With the help of this new procedure, and with a nod to the fast solid-state storage inside, we completed an installation of Windows 7 with all its drivers in around ten minutes. That’s probably faster than some PCs take to boot in the morning.