One thing that shocked many people about the previous generation Air is that Apple dropped the backlit keyboard. Thankfully Apple has reversed this and the backlighting is back, which, for a portable machine potentially meant for use in all sorts of places, is a very welcome thing.
The layout of the keyboard is also decent, though not perfect. For a start it has some US centric elements like the “@” symbol being swapped with the” ” ” symbol. Also, the Return key is a bit small and “” key is on the right. And obviously Windows users will have to get used to using the cmd key for many keyboard shortcuts. Incidentally, how did it end up that, despite both Macs and Windows machines having Ctrl keys, they use different keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste? But we digress.
Otherwise the typing experience is excellent. The key action is quite light and shallow so fans of big chunky keyboards that give lots of feedback may not be happy, but to our nimble fingers they seemed just right for speedy typing.
The screen is also among the best available in its class. Its 1,366 x 768 resolution is high for an 11in device meaning you can fit plenty of sharp detail on screen. It also produces vibrant colours and has a very powerful backlight when needed. Backlighting also seems reasonably consistent with no obvious bleed from round the edges. Finally viewing angles are excellent for a TN panel, if not quite on par with the Samsung Series 9 or laptops with IPS panels like the Lenovo X1. All told however, it excels at all things work and play.
MacBooks have long had surprisingly good speakers and so it is even on this tiny machine. Bass certainly isn’t thumping but there’s a fullness to audio that means it far surpasses the tinny wastes of space that pass for speakers on many small laptops. You’d probably want to invest in external speakers for bopping about your bedroom but for general video watching and gaming, they’re great.
Then of course there’s the famous Apple TouchPad. Formed from frosted glass atop yet another piece of aluminium, the large pad has a wonderfully smooth yet solid surface that is also one big button. It is effortless for general navigation, feeling absolutely spot on in terms of tracking and clicking. It’s so good that the same style is rapidly being adopted by other manufacturers, including on the Samsung Series 9.
And then there are all the multi-touch gestures.
For a while now, Apple MacBooks have had class-leading use of gesturing but with the latest Lion update to Mac OSX things have taken another big leap forward. Obviously there’s the pinching to zoom and scrolling around web pages with two fingered swishes and swipes but it’s the next level stuff that really makes a difference.
Swipe upwards with three fingers and Mission Control is launched. This interface lets you see all your open apps and your different desktops (you can create multiple desktops to, for instance, easily separate your work programs from those for play) in one easy view, making it super quick and easy to jump from one thing to the next.
Alternatively, swipe left and right with three fingers and you’ll move between your existing desktops or fullscreen apps. By setting an app to fullscreen it’s automatically given its own ‘desktop’, allowing you to quickly swipe from it to your ‘normal’ desktop where all your other programs are open in windows.
Even four fingered gestures are supported, with a inward pinch bringing up the new iOS-style app launcher that presents all your installed apps in a simple grid pattern. Spread your fingers outwards again and LaunchPad, as it’s called, closes again.
Combined, these gestures and interface elements make for a truly game-changing way of using your computer – going back to using a normal trackpad after using a Mac with Lion installed just feels like stepping back in time. That said, we do concede that it’s a somewhat different matter when it comes to using a ‘real’ mouse, but then the interface is just as compatible with a conventional rodent.