Aside from the keyboard backlight, the key upgrade involved in the latest-generation MacBook Air is the use of a Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5 processor. This is a dual-core chip running at 1.7GHz, and gives great overall productivity results.
To see how it compares with the opposition on even ground, we installed Windows 7 onto the laptop using Boot Camp and subjected it to our usual rounds of laptop testing. Attaining just under 10,000 points in the PCMark Vantage benchmark, we're confident in saying that the Apple MacBook Air 13in is more than up to the vast majority of tasks.
Thanks to the hearty processor and 4GB of RAM, it's happy to take on image and light video editing, on top of the more common tasks of email, web surfing and HD video playback. The latest generation of Intel's integrated graphics also makes big strides on the gaming front, too. Though it can't compare to dedicated graphics, at least some titles will be playable at decent frame rates.
In the Trackmania Nations benchmark, it helped the Air trot out a perfectly playable 47.3fps average, while the more intensive S.T.A.L.K.E.R. test ran at an average of 20fps. Playing at this speed wouldn't be much fun, but this nearly-ok result demonstrates that the laptop will be able to crank-out a few advanced 3D games too. Given that Apple's smaller MacBook Pro models use the same chipset, we imagine plenty of App Store games will be coded with the HD 3000's featherweight fighting skills in mind.
The SSD makes it wonderfully nimble too. Boot-up from a fully shut-down state took just under 15 seconds, while doing so from sleep took less than two seconds. This sort of speediness has been a Mac staple for a long time now, but is something to bear in mind if you're getting fed up with your continually decelerating Windows laptop [though an SSD will also make a marked difference for Microsoft's OS - Ed].
This level of power offered by the Core i5 processor finally rips up the idea that the Air series is inhabited by something less than proper laptops. They're perhaps not feature-packed, lacking 3G mobile internet, an optical drive, extensive on-body data connectivity and a VGA/HDMI output, but they are more versatile than some claim. Nab yourself a Windows license on the cheap and you'll have access to all the software of a PC user, while being able to retreat to the MacOS haven should the blue screens of death start causing one too many headaches.
If MacOS holds little attraction, though, some eerily similar rivals are starting to surface. The Acer and Lenovo Ultrabook ranges have recently been revealed, offering a comparably metal-bodied silvery design for (a currently unconfirmed) couple of hundred pounds less. However, having recently been able to check out these two rivals, we found that the build quality didn't quite meet Apple's flawless standards - and while the idea of paying £500 for a Windows laptop instead of £1500 for a MacBook Pro is attractive, paying £800 for an Ultrabook instead of £1000 for an Air doesn't have quite the same ring.
The latest and, at 13 inches, largest version of the MacBook Air series is undoubtedly the best. Over the previous generations it offers a better processor, a backlit keyboard and a Thunderbolt connector, while leaving everything that made its predecessors so attractive intect. It's still not cheap, but it has gained that vital bit of credibility as a worthwhile premium laptop solution, and is now worth its asking price. For many, PCs costing half the price offer a better, more sensible solution, but the MacBook Air remains king of the ultraportable brigade.