You don’t have to love Apple, or even like it, to have a deep appreciation for the new generation of MacBook Air. The two models, of 13- and 11-inches, are the most visually impressive and delightful laptops on the market.
Where Apple scores with the Air is somehow managing to cram in a good, dual-core 1.6GHz processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD into a case that makes netbooks look lardy and ungainly. We'll stop short of calling it magical, but it certainly is quite the feat of science.
No one can beat this design
It’s all too easy to sound like an Apple fanatic when talking about the Air. But this machine is groundbreaking, and there's no one who could really argue about that. While PCs usually offer lower prices and sometimes even better performance, there's beauty in the balance that Apple has found between styling, performance and battery life.
The all-metal body is the classiest we’ve seen on any computer, and it also has the advantage of being strong and durable too. There’s a chance you won’t want a garish silver laptop, in which case Apple isn’t the manufacturer for you. We do miss the old, black, G4 laptops Apple used to make, but those days have - at least for now - gone.
The keyboard too, is distinctive and very usable for typing. It’s not perfect though, and while the island-style keys are easy to hit, they don’t have a lot of travel, and Apple’s layout is a little American-centric for our liking. Of course, we understand that the company doesn’t care if we want our @ key where it puts the quote button, but it still annoys us. And PC "switchers" are going to find this highly irritating.
The lack of a delete key might irk some - you use it more than you might think - as might the decision not to include home and end keys, or any of those other navigational buttons that you might find handy in day-to-day use.
The trackpad, on the other hand, is one of the best of any computer out there. Apple’s silky-smooth, gigantic, multi-touch surface is a huge part of the new Macs and is put to great use in the latest version of OS X.
Three finger swiping will move you around your "spaces", which allow you to keep your application windows separate, and easy to find when you’re working. The only problem here - and it’s a big one - is that this gesture is slightly to similar to the "back" motion. This has caught us out a good few times when we were entering text in to a webpage, and swiped back, instead of swapping to a different space. No doubt you’d get used to this over time, but that doesn’t stop it being annoying.
Flick three fingers upwards and you'll get to Apple's mission control, which allows you to see running apps, with a live preview of what they are doing, and switch to them using the mouse pointer. Although we liked this, we actually fell for using spaces more. The swipe gesture seems to make more logical sense for getting around your various applications.
Spaces are, really, nothing new in Linux desktop environments, but Apple has done its usually decent job of making them a bit more whizzy and attractive. They are also the bedfellows of Apple's new "full screen apps". In any full-screen ready app, pressing the full screen button will move the app to its own space.
For the rest of the world, using Windows and other operating systems, maximising a windows has been standard procedure for years. Apple, on the other hand, has forced its users to mess about with windows that only ever fill a small percentage of the screen. On a large monitor, this is no problem for most users, but on a tiny laptop, it becomes very bothersome. So, having apps that expand to their own space is really good.
The only problem is not all apps are full-screen capable at the moment, so there will always be a battle between you, the dock and getting as much on screen as possible at any one time.
The MacBook Air is more powerful than you might expect for such a small laptop. But it does sometimes run out of grunt too. We noticed that when switching between spaces there was sometimes a little lag. This was never serious though, and the only way we were able to really cause a performance issue was by running video, then triggering the Mission Control interface.
Video does play superbly on the Mac's beautiful screen though. The LED backlighting has more than enough power to produce beautiful, vivid pictures that represent the source material really well. We took a look at both 720p and 1080p MKV video files. Played via MPlayerX we had silky smooth video, with no really noticeable playback issues.
For the most part though, the Air won't be used as a desktop replacement. It's most useful as a carry-everywhere machine that only weighs a modest amount more than a tablet and has dozens of times the functionality of, say, an iPad.
The 11-inch display on the smaller Air is a real delight. It’s super-bright, and can easily been seen outdoors in direct sunlight or in other bright conditions. At its lowest setting, the backlight still pumps out enough light to work on a train, or in a normally illuminated home.
The only issue we have with the display is that 11-inch screens aren’t really enough for most people to happily work on for a long period of time. The Mac tends towards smaller fonts too, so with a standard set-up this computer is likely to challenge the eyes of a thirty-something-year-old. Of course, you can always enlarge things, but you can always tell that isn’t what Apple had in mind.
If your years are advanced, like ours, then perhaps consider the 13-inch model instead.
The area there is little debate about is the dearth of ports on the Air. We all understand that on a compact machine there is not much room for every kind of port, but the pair of USB sockets and lone Thunderbolt connection really is the most basic connectivity Apple could have offered.
Thunderbolt might be the tech everyone will be using in a few years, but right now, we’d prefer to just have an HDMI output. That would give us the opportunity to connect the air to standard monitors and televisions without the need for expensive adaptors and needless messing about.
If you're willing to invest though, Thunderbolt does have a lot of potential, from connecting up monitors or external hard drives. It's fast, and while the connector is less common on monitors than DVI or VGA, at least it is directly compatible - and the same connector - as DisplayPort.
For Internet and network connectivity, there’s no doubt that the Air’s 802.11n is fast enough for most uses. Copying a lot of large files over would be a real pain, but there is always the option to get a USB Ethernet adaptor. At £25 though, we'd be surprised if anyone bothers.
As the Air has no DVD or Blu-ray drive, recovering if something goes wrong could be a little tricky. Happily though, Apple has thought of that and come up with a pretty decent solution.
Hold down the Apple CMD key at boot, along with R and you'll end up in the recovery system. From here, you can perform a restore of the OS, and get your computer back up-and-running. We like the fact that the newly-launched iCloud service also offers you the chance to keep your photos and documents safe.
While it's fair to say that there are other, third party, solutions to these problems for all platforms Apple has done a nice job of integrating them all into one, simple to use package.
The Air was derided when it was first launched, and to some extent, rightly so. It was too slow and an example of form over function. With the 2011 refresh, Apple has managed to keep the remarkable form, but also add some internals that make this more than just a rich person's plaything. Now, the Air is an excellent day-to-day laptop, and one that we think most people will find more than adequate for their needs. Unless those needs are crunching the data that comes out of the CERN supercollider.
If nothing else, Intel's Ultrabook specification proves that Apple had the right idea when it first launched the Air. There is demand for these small laptops, and it's possible to build them and make them objects of desire while remaining useful.