Apple MacBook Air (mid 2011) review

4.5 out of 5
£1449.99

For

Thunderbolt, screen, backlit keyboard, large touchpad, light, great design

Against

No Ethernet, No DVD drive, no HD webcam

Apple has updated it's MacBook Air laptop promising boosted performance in an elegant and slim design. But is it enough for you to want to upgrade from your current MacBook model or ditch your Windows machine altogether? We got the 13-inch Core i7 1.8GHz model in to see what's what.

Design

For the most part the design is identical to the previous version of the MacBook Air. There are two models - an 11-inch and 13-inch - and they both come with a full-sized keyboard, large glass touchpad and very thin design. For the purpose of this review we are going to focus on the 13-inch model rather than the 11-inch version. Differences include on SD card slot on the 11-inch model, a shorter battery life, and slower processor; 256GB flash memory is an upgrade rather than standard.

For those that need a quick recap, the 13-inch MacBook Air is an all metal laptop from Apple that measures 32.5 x 22.7 x 1.7cm that tapers down to 0.3cm (h). It weighs 1.35kg. If you've ever found yourself overcome with envy at how thin your mate's MacBook Air is, nothing will have changed. That all metal design is thin, it's light, and whether you agree with Apple and the way it does things or not, it's very impressive.

Ports, spilt down both sides of the laptop, include two USB (one for each side) a headphone socket, SD card reader and new for 2011 is the addition of a Thunderbolt port replacing the DisplayPort. There is still no Ethernet socket - a pain if you travel a lot to hotels with only an Ethernet socket in every room - however you can get an optional Ethernet dongle, just remember to pack it in your bag.

While the keyboard is the same as you'll find on any of Apple's laptops, it is now backlit allowing to you see the keys when the lights go down. It sounds stupid, but it's amazing how much it makes a difference when on the sofa watching television. Meanwhile the touchpad is very good. It is responsive and more than big enough to cope with the plethora of gestures you'll now be performing thanks to Apple's new operating system, Mac OS X Lion.

The screen is still the same glossy 1440 x 990 pixel resolution display as found on the 2010 Apple MacBook Air. Yes, it is still reflective in the sun, however the brightness is able to combat most problems outdoors or next to windows. It would be nice to have a matte option here like you can opt for on the MacBook Pro models, but that's a niggle for the select few.

Above that luscious screen is a "FaceTime camera" for video calling - don't worry it works with Skype as well of course. Performance is dependent on your broadband speed, however those that we have called via Skype have been impressed with the quality. The angle is fairly wide allowing you to get lots in, but disappointingly it isn't Apple's FaceTime HD camera found in the MacBook Pro range.

Inside

The biggest change to the MacBook Air range is on the inside with the range getting a considerable performance boost. We've been testing the daddy of the lot, the MacBook Air 13-inch 1.8GHz dual core Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB of onboard 133MHz DDR3 SDRAM and the 256GB flash hard drive. This model, which isn't a pick up in store model, will cost you £1449.99 in the UK ($1599 US) and is available from Apple's online store.

If you aren't able to push the boat out completely, or merely want to walk in store and grab one, there are more affordable options. The standard off the shelf model comes with a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5. While you can opt to have a smaller 128GB hard drive with the Core i5 model, you can't with the Core i7 offering. All configurations come with wireless 802.11n and Bluetooth connectivity.

On the graphics front Apple has ditched the Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics card found in the 2010 MacBook Air and replaced it with Intel's HD Graphics 3000 processor with 384MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with the main memory (that 4GB number from earlier). Unless you are a heavy gamer we suspect you won't notice. HD video playback at 1080p via YouTube or film downloads from iTunes was flawless. Videos certainly look nice on that crisp high-res screen. The MacBook Air just about coped playing Half Life 2 with all the settings turned to maximum, running at the native 1440 x 990 resolution.

As you might expect the speakers are rather lacklustre in their performance, but not excessively so. They are good enough to listen to music while you work, or provide the soundtrack to that movie you're watching in bed, but it's not going to beat a pair of cheap desktop speakers or be enough to provide the soundtrack to a party in your hotel room. Positioned in the same place as the 2010 model, the sound comes out the back just beyond the keyboard and bounces off the screen back at you.

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is Apple's new port that allows you to write to Thunderbolt hard drives considerably faster than you would with a standard USB 2 or USB 3 connection. Sadly Thunderbolt drives aren't out on the market yet so we've been unable to test the new MacBook Air at home with any to see if they work. However have seen them demoed at various Apple events - they are as fast as all involved claim.

Where Thunderbolt will also come into its own when used in connection with the new Apple Thunderbolt Display. If you can stretch the budget a further £849 you'll not only get a 27-inch LED-backlit screen, but the mother all of docking stations too. That Thunderbolt cable is enough to power the FaceTime HD camera, FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet and a further three USB 2 sockets in the Display, all via a single cable. Of course we plan to review the Apple Thunderbolt Display when they go on sale in September.

Performance

Needless to say, our Core i7 model is beefy. Beefy enough to cope with most tasks that we've thrown at it. Be it editing video, editing photos with Adobe Lightroom or just about playing Half Life 2 (old school). Unless you've bought a brand new MacBook Pro in the last couple of months, chances are this will be faster than older models and that's an impressive feat given the MacBook Air 2010 model which many felt made you give up performance for that thin design.

To really test the MacBook Air we've been running a mirror of our standard system on it and using it as our sole computer in the office. Only when we asked it to run Half Life 2 with everything turned on did we see the "spinning beach ball of death", but for the most part it's taken everything we've thrown at it with ease even when we've had a series of applications open - Mail, Safari with multiple tabs, Twitter, Spotify, Adobe Lightroom, Skype, Pages and Word, as well as Fireworks, Fetch, and TextMate open all the time and occasionally other programmes too including iMovie and other Adobe products.

As you might expect, running all that at the same time did occasionally cause the fan to kick in - mainly when we were downloading large files from the Internet while exporting photos in Lightroom while playing a HD video (we like to push things to the limits). Incidentally we also noticed that the MacBook Air didn't run as hot on the lap as our 2009 MacBook Pro. 

Unless you are really doing some "heavy lifting" this will suffice for most of your office-based tasks with some casual gaming thrown into the mix too.

Battery is always a funny one and will vary massively depending on what you do with it and how you use the laptop. Apple claims over 7 hours from a single charge for the 13-inch model. Small print will give you a slightly different picture. That 7 hours is wirelessly browsing 25 popular websites with display brightness set to 50 per cent.

If you're doing video editing, watching movies, playing games, and have that brightness whacked up full that 7 hours quickly becomes a lot less. Even then, in general office and home use since we've got the laptop, we've been able to get a good 5 hours worth of battery out of a single charge. If you turn off the Wi-Fi and just use an app like Pages with the screen brightness down really low you can push this much even further.

Mac OS X Lion

The MacBook Air comes with a spanking new operating system - Apple Mac OS X Lion - and that means a whole host of goodies to enjoy, learn and in some cases get annoyed by. We aren't going to go over the operating system here in any detail. If you want to see what we think about the new OS from Apple we would recommend you read our detailed review of Mac OS X Lion.

Needless to say the Air makes good use of the new OS. As we've said, the big touchpad has plenty of space to perform those gesture commands, and the addition of a new Launchpad button (F4) in place of a dedicated Dashboard button will appeal as well.

The new OS only enhances the experience rather than detract anything from it.

Verdict

The MacBook Air 2011 model is now a worthy challenger to the MacBook Pro range and certainly worth looking at if you aren't fussed about some of the features found on that range. Yes you will lose the DVD drive, Ethernet, and FireWire connectivity, and have to settle for a non HD webcam (the horror), but rather than the Pro being the only option for those that want speed, the MacBook Air is now a laptop that gives you speed, style, and slinkiness in one package. The days of having to be penalised for wanting something ultra portable are over.

For many the new MacBook Air is going to be a winning option making this the MacBook to have, costs not withstanding. It perhaps cements the larger MacBook Pros as a laptop designed for the "professional" market who need the horsepower to do video processing and the like, although if costs are a limitation, then you can still get the powerful MacBook Pro 13-inch for less than this model of MacBook Air.

If you're in the market for a new Mac this is certainly worth the upgrade. We for one will be going out to buy one once our review model goes back, and you can't get better praise than that.