When it first launched we were highly sceptical of the MacBook Air, as it was underpowered and over styled. The last couple of generations, though, have been highly desirable ultraportable laptops, combining class-leading build quality, beautiful styling, and surprisingly capable performance. Now in its fifth iteration, the platform has finally been updated with a modern CPU and a new - rather ingenious - multi-purpose, high-speed ThunderBolt port. It also ships with the new Lion version of Apple's Mac OSX.
Available in 13in or 11in form factors, we're looking at the 11in model that starts at £849.99 and reaches £1,249 for the top configuration. The 13in model, meanwhile, starts at £1,099 and goes up to £1,349.
It's no surprise that the new MacBook Air 11in looks very similar to last year's model with the same super slim profile, footprint and hewn-from-solid-metal build. Considering that was already the most beautiful looking laptop on the planet by at least three country miles, we can forgive Apple for not tinkering. It really does astound us quite why so few other manufacturers are able to build machines that even come close to competing with the styling and build of Apple's machines. The Samsung Series 9 came close and the Sony Z series is another valiant competitor but neither quite captures the true allure of the Air.
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The key is that it's not just about styling, as Apple literally mills the Air from solid slabs of Aluminium. This gives it a solidity that is very difficult to emulate with pressed panels of metal, let alone the plastic of many rivals.
It's the little details too. For example, the thin strip of rubber that runs all the way round the screen bezel to prevent scratches is an ingenious solution to keeping things protected but still stylish. The ventilation grills being hidden in the hinge is also a neat solution, not least because it means you can't block the fan intake by putting the laptop actually on your lap, like on so many alternatives. Perhaps most impressive, though easily missed, are the tiny patches of dots (holes) either side of the webcam that are in fact for the light sensor and microphone – you'd never know they were there unless you look really hard.
It's also worth mentioning just how much more petite and portable this 11in model is than both its own 13in sibling and other 13in laptops. 11in has always been the true mark of an ultraportable, and always will be. At 1.08Kg, it's a very light machine too, despite all that metal.
It's not all rosy, though, as Apple's usual bug bears are immediately in evidence. While connectivity has improved greatly thanks to the addition of a ThunderBolt port, the Air still falls some way behind the competition if you don't fancy a gaggle of messy, expensive adapters. There's no USB 3.0, no HDMI, no Gigabit Ethernet, no SD card reader (which the 13in model does have) and no 3G either. How much this will affect you will vary greatly on how you use your machine. Regularly take photos? Want to game online? Often find yourself in Hotels with only a wired network connection? Like to hook up your laptop to your TV to easily playback a video? Doing any of these will require you to invest in a dongle or adapter.
What the Air does have in its favour, though, is that ThunderBolt port. ThunderBolt is a universal bi-directional, high-speed data connection that can be used to transport all manner of data to and from your laptop in double quick time. It's compatible with DisplayPort (which in turn is compatible with HDMI), Ethernet, USB, and much more besides. So, as long as you have the right adapter, you can pretty much hook the Air up to anything.
Indeed one such accessory is Apple's own new ThunderBolt 27in Cinema display, which uses this connection to not just pull image data from your computer but also the data for its speakers, a webcam, USB ports, a network port, Firewire 800 socket, and a further ThunderBolt connector for daisy chaining other ThunderBolt products. So when you return home or to the office, you just plug in one cable to your laptop and you've got access to a full desktop setup (though it's worth noting there's no extra processing power in the monitor to boost performance, as on some rival systems like the Sony VAIO Z - your laptop's still doing all the grunt work).
There's no doubting this is a pretty neat ability for the Air to have and it's a sign of how things should be in the future. But nevertheless, right now there will be many people that find the Air a little limiting straight out of the box. At least your local wireless technologies are well catered for with Wi-Fi N and Bluetooth 4.0 onboard.