It's an exceedingly light update on the 2013 MacBook Air. Apple has given the 2014 MacBook Air a small processor speed bump, from 1.3GHz to 1.4GHz, but the design, screen and basic features remain exactly the same. The only other technical improvement is a claimed 12 hours battery life, up from 10 hours last year, added to the fact each version is now £100 cheaper than before with the 13-inch starting at £850.
Is this enough for the MacBook Air to continue as the gold standard of ultraportable laptops, or is the lack of the much-demanded improved screen update a black mark too far? It's an argument that will doubtless rage on for a while, but the MacBook Air's quality still remains hard to argue with.
We're not going to waste much time here because there's nothing much to report apart from it's the same, and that's fine. The basic design of the MacBook Air hasn't changed for several years, but we're yet to see a rival conclusively beat it. It's a timeless piece of design.
Nothing illustrates this better than the large, glass-surface touchpad, which has spawned many (often poor imitators). It remains one of the best things about all Mac laptops, where its size, friction-free surface and neat gesture support make using the MacBook Air very enjoyable. The backlit keyboard, by comparison, is just quietly excellent. Usual Mac / Windows differences aside (don't ask where the '#' key is), it has a great layout and it's very nice to type on.
Connectivity is, as ever, basic, with two USB 3.0 ports joined by a DisplayPort / Thunderbolt 2.0 port and a memory card slot. It's just enough to get by and that's about it. Inside, meanwhile, you get Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which is as much as you can ask for and should keep you future proof for several years to come.
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The MacBook Air's screen, in contrast, is nothing like as 'future proof'. It isn't downright bad, but it's certainly nothing more than adequate and quite a step behind what we'd expect from laptop at this price and one with Apple's logo on it.
The resolution debate is something of a distraction, actually. A retina screen is, arguably, a stretch too far right now on cost and performance grounds (it would make the MacBook Air more expensive and would likely reduce battery life considerably) and the 16:10 aspect (1,440 x 900) screen means a switch to a 1080p screen to match rivals would necessitate a re-design. A 1,900 x 1,200 resolution would be ideal, but we suspect Apple can't find anyone to make such a screen at a reasonable price. Apple has, more than likely, worked itself into something or a corner here.
So far as resolution goes, however, we're of the opinion this resolution works well at this size -- it's a reasonable compromise between usable space, readability and sharpness. We'd like more, but there's more to screen quality than just resolution, and it's in these areas where the MacBook Air's screen really disappoints.
The measured contrast ratio of 633:1 is half that of the Sony VAIO Pro 13 (1,215:1) and considerably worse than the 2,326:1 of the Toshiba Kira we reviewed recently. This shows up in videos, where the MacBook looks a little washed out and lacking depth in nuanced, dark scenes in comparison to better screens. This is further supported by an underwhelming 0.5 nit black level, compared to 0.1 for the Kira and a 0.3 average on most laptops in this class. This means blacks look 'greyer' on the MacBook than rivals.
Colours look pleasant enough, but tests show it only covers 59% of the sRGB colour space, much less than several laptops we've tested recently such as the Toshiba Kira (94%) and the Dell Precision M3800 (92%). Colour accuracy is decent enough and an uneducated eye won't be disappointed with what they see day-to-day, but it will disappoint you if you put greater demand on screen fidelity.
The saving grace is the brightness, which at 342 nits is very bright. We have seen brighter, but it's more than bright enough for all but direct sunlight. Indeed, for a glossy-screened laptop, the MacBook Air is quite usable in bright light, a fact helped by the lack of an extra touch layer as on many Windows rivals.
And, as ever, the speakers on the MacBook Air always sound a little better than you initially expect. As with any laptop this size they lack a little bass and are at their best when you're actually sat at your screen (go to other side of the room and things sound messy), but there's a decent amount of mid-range that's ample for casual music listening.