Apple MacBook Air Review (Late 2010)

macbook-air-side-viewThe MacBook Air has always been a proof of concept for Apple. A product that shows them as one of the world’s leading companies in design. A product which boasts such a thin profile. A product so light that you can put it in your bag without knowing it’s there. Unfortunately, that phenomenally gorgeous exterior has always been marred by an underpowered interior and other issues such as a lack of ports for peripherals.

For me the MacBook Pro laptop has always been a far more viable option despite the additional weight, and whilst the latest refresh doesn’t exactly present us with a flawless product free of issues, it throws up some interesting new form factors and technology. Is this the year of the MacBook Air? I’ve been using the 13-inch model on and off for a couple of weeks now, so let’s take a look as I dish the dirt!

Unibody Exterior

The casing of the new MacBook Air is now milled from one single piece of aluminium, going one step further with the display also included in the housing. This means that the display is not only thinner than it was on the previous model, but it’s a lot stronger too.

The new models are actually thinner than the previous generation, thanks in no small part to the incredibly thin display, and they have a more modular look too thanks to a re-design of the housing.

The display doesn’t have the flush look that it does on the glossy displays that you can find on the MacBook Pro line-up, which is slightly disappointing; there is still a silver outline to the display rather than the gorgeous, black surrounding that’s present on the Pro, but all things considered the Air is one hell of an attractive machine.

Classy Components

When Apple announced the new Air, I was incredibly surprised to see that on paper, the new models look more underpowered than the old ones. The base 11-inch model packs a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, with the 13-inch model coming with a 1.86GHz version of the same CPU as standard. Just to put things in perspective, the older generation came with a 1.86GHz processor as standard as well, so things don’t appear to have improved on that front.

In addition to this, you’re only given 2GB of DDR3 RAM as standard, although you can upgrade to 4GB. Initially, this put me off the Air a little; why upgrade to a machine that’s only as powerful as the last generation? Well, don’t let these specs put you off as they did me at first. In use, the 11-inch MacBook Air was quicker than my 13.3″ Macbook Pro with a 2.4GHz CPU and 4GB of RAM. How is this possible? It’s all down to the storage.

The latest MacBook Air uses flash storage in favour of a hard drive, but not in the form of a 2.5″ SSD as many may have expected. Instead, Apple has mounted the storage on a card connected to the motherboard, bypassing the SSD casing altogether, as well as the opportunity for users to upgrade at a later date if they wished to.

This does improve performance several times over, though. The speed of the SSD unit in the new MacBook Air is multiples quicker than the hard drive that you’d have found in the previous generation, and you can tell, too! Let me give you a few figures. Booting in to Mac OS X: under 15 seconds. Launching Safari: too fast for me to count. Launching iTunes 10: under a second.

Using this type of connection for storage also seriously reduces the size of the module, and it’s just 10% of the size you’d see in a 2.5″ SSD. Space was always a commodity in the 13.3″ model of the MacBook Air, and it’s even more crucial now as we have an 11-inch option as well. Most of the space saved from the lack of a SSD has been given to the battery to ensure that this thing will run for as long as possible. If you’re using the 11-inch model, you can expect to see around five hours of usage on a charge, with the 13-inch offering a further 2 hours on top of that.

It’s apparent that a lot has been learnt from Apple’s other products in its line-up that run iOS. One thing I’ve always liked about the iPad tablet is the ability to put it on standby, come back four days later and still have battery life left to do my thing. This has been taken one step further with the new model of the Macbook Air. After sleeping for an hour, it will go in to a low power state where it can last for as long as a month and still have juice left over when you come back to it. To be able to shut the lid of your laptop with the knowledge that you can come back to it a couple of weeks later and have no trouble carrying on where you left of is pretty amazing, and something that I would love to see in the MacBook Pro’s as this technology makes its way across Apple’s line of products.

Any Mac OS X loving Steam users out there will be glad to know that the graphics chip inside the Air can hold its own fairly well against the rest of Apple’s line-up of portable machines with an integrated NVIDIA GeForce 320M GPU with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with the main memory being utilised in both models. If you want to play some light games and view HD video content on your machine then you shouldn’t have a lot of problems in doing so. I was surprised to see that gaming performance on the 11-inch model is actually better than the previous generations 13-inch model thanks to the flash storage.

One area which certainly hasn’t been forgotten by Apple is the display. Both models feature a backlit LED display, with the 11-inch model’s resolution of 1366 x 768 giving you a far higher pixel density than you’ll find on the vast majority of 13-inch laptops on the market. The screen resolution on the 13″ Air is equally impressive at 1440 x 900. If you thought that an 11.6″ screen meant dropping your productivity, think again. With a resolution that high, you can easily run your everyday apps such as Safari and iTunes without worrying about fitting everything on. I’ve even used Safari with a visible Tweetie window sitting next to it, and I had no problems with content fitting in the window.

Despite the many advantages to the new MacBook Air, there is one feature missing that really does let me down: a backlit keyboard. Before I had a backlit keyboard I couldn’t care less about them; when I needed light to type with I’d just tilt my screen down a little. Now I’ve been using one for well over a year, I couldn’t even think about purchasing a laptop that doesn’t have one.

Why the backlighting has been removed is anyone’s guess, maybe it just took up too much room in the small chassis of the Air. Whatever the actual reason is, I want it back, and want to see it in the next generation.

Plenty of Ports

If there is one thing that seriously hampered the previous generation of MacBook Air it’s the sheer lack of ports available. With such a thin shell, there obviously isn’t enough space for the number of ports that you’ll see on a MacBook Pro, but everyone has peripherals and one USB port simply didn’t cut it. If you carried a USB to Ethernet adaptor, you were out of ports. If you carried an external DVD drive, you were out of ports.

Fortunately, Apple has doubled up on the USB port count for both the 11-inch and 13-inch Air. You’ll find one next to the Magsafe adaptor on the left hand side of the machine, and one next to the Mini DisplayPort on the right hand side. In many ways, the importance of the Mini DisplayPort is as significant as the additional USB port. You can carry around your 11-inch MacBook Air and hook it up to an external display or projector without any problems.

Not only can you use the Air as a portable machine, you’re safe in the knowledge that you can prepare a presentation on it and use it at the office with the projector, or take it round to a friend’s house for a movie on the big screen. It’s this kind of flexibility that is appreciated when you’re working with such a small machine. If you opt for the 13-inch model, you can make good use of the built in SD card reader, too. That’s one less USB port needed when you’re copying photos across from a camera!

You won’t find an Ethernet port or DVD drive for obvious reasons, and there isn’t a FireWire port in sight either, although quite frankly I can imagine the vast majority of users living without those ports without any issues. I can’t remember the last time I used an Ethernet cable to connect my laptop to the internet, I seldom use the DVD drive, and I haven’t any FireWire peripherals to speak of. Of course there are some Pro users that will sorely miss a FireWire port, but the MacBook Air isn’t a Pro machine, and doesn’t try to be one either.

With FaceTime making the transition from iOS over to Mac OS X, the newly named FaceTime camera is also present above the screen (goodbye iSight, we’ll miss you). Apart from the name, you won’t notice anything technically different here, just a new name for the same toy.

One thing that I would have loved to see in the new Air is the ability to use a MicroSIM like you can in the iPad. The freedom of having an independent data connection on your machine when you haven’t got a WiFi connection is one that I would sorely miss if I traded in the ol’ iPad for a MacBook Air; for me, it’s the killer feature. If Apple really wants to transition features of the iPad in to its MacBook line, then it needs to start with 3G. Google’s done it with the Cr-48, and will continue to do it with every Chrome laptop that hits the market. As far as I’m concerned, Apple needs to jump on board too.

Of course there isn’t anything stopping you from getting a USB 3G dongle with that spare USB port that you’ll have, or alternatively if you’ve got mobile phone running Android 2.2 ‘Froyo’ then you could also use wireless tethering, but either option is a bit more awkward than having a built-in connection and will completely kill the whole portability theme you’ve got going with your new Air.

Little Extras That Make A Big Impression

As with all Apple products, there’s always that sense of luxury about what you’ve just bought. A little addition that makes that £1000 completely worth it. For me, it’s the super cool Apple branded USB flash drive that contains Mac OS X so that you don’t need to use an external DVD drive or borrow the drive from another computer over your network. Of course, you can install Mac OS X with any standard USB flash drive by following our handy little guide, but the Apple pen drive is just so damn cool!

A Small Conclusion To A Comprehensive Review

Taking in to account the number of considerations that have to be made when creating a product such as the MacBook Air, it’s incredible to think that so much has been packed in to such a small enclosure. When you use the new Air for the first time, you immediately look past the fact that you’re working with a 1.4GHz CPU and just 2GB of RAM as soon as you start to launch applications in under half a bounce on the dock, and boot OS X in under 15 seconds.

It’s clear that the new Air once again sets the bar incredibly high for competitors in the ultra portable PC market. With a weight of just 1.06kg on the 11-inch model and 1.32kg on the 13-inch model, you are looking at the definition of ultra-portable. Hopefully, a few of the drawbacks such as the lack of a backlit keyboard will be rectified with the next refresh, and we’ll start to see some more powerful processors developed for the machine, too.

The entry level Apple MacBook Air starts at £849 and the 13-inch model will put you back £1099, only £100 more than the entry level MacBook Pro. With competitive pricing and a formidable list of specs, the new Air is certainly a feasible alternative to the MacBook and MacBook Pro, and I can’t wait to see what Apple have in store for us next.