To some extent, Apple has made a rod for its own back. The MacBook Air reached such impressive heights last year, with just about the best computer hardware on the market, and with more than enough features to keep even demanding users happy. This year then, it's got to fight to make its new generation of machines better. A tough task when there was nothing wrong with the last lot.
But technology does move on, things become easier, cheaper and more compact. The new Air features lots of tweaks to the hardware, better graphics, faster RAM and more processor options. The stuff you love about the old machine is still here, but this has to be the best Air ever. Right?
We tested a 13-inch 1.8GHz Core i5 model with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. This model will cost you £1000. Compared to a Dell XPS 13, it's also pretty reasonable value for money. The Air is faster - it uses 1600mHz RAM, while the Dell uses 1333mHz although both have the same capacity. You can opt to install 8GB in the Air, but you have to do it when you buy the machine; there is no way to add RAM later.
We have to say that - while no one would say £1000 is cheap - for this kind of machine, with this kind of power, it's very reasonable. Certainly, all of the Ultrabooks worth owning cost at least this much, many of them come in at higher price points. Apple it seems, is starting for the first time ever, to look like a comparative bargain.
Cost of ownership seems reasonable too. Everyone buying the new Air will get a voucher for the next version of OS X thrown in, so there's no need to wait for that operating system to go on sale to buy your Mac. Plus, even when the next update comes out, you won't need to cough up much more than £25 to upgrade. Rumours are, Windows 8 will be a similar price for upgrades, but this is the first time Microsoft has sold its OS for such a reasonable price. This is no doubt something to thank Apple for.
The first thing we noticed about the MacBook Air 13-inch is that, at least compared to the Dell XPS 13, it's a much nicer machine to type on. The Dell has slightly squashed keys - it's a smaller laptop, because the screen ratio is different - while the Mac has a much longer wrist rest, and the trackpad is much taller.
It might sound stupid, or a small point, but these two things have a huge impact on the usability of the laptop. We found our typing rate and accuracy were much improved on the Mac. This is something of a surprise in some ways, because the key travel isn't huge on this laptop. Pressing the button doesn't feel like it's going very far, but that doesn't seem to a problem at all.
On a slightly less positive note, our model has some slightly squeaky keys. The backspace button, for example, has a very slight, high-pitched creak when pressed. This might work its way out over time, but on a premium machine, you'd not be pleased if that happened for the rest of the time you owned it.
Looking around the machine, you won't see anything here that's a surprise. There's an SD card slot, as there has been on this size Air for some time. You get two USB sockets, both of which Apple has enabled for USB 3.0, which is a brilliant decision, and yet another we wish more PC manufacturers would take.
On the left, there's one of these USB sockets, along with the Magsafe power connector and a headphone socket. On the right of the machine, there's a Thunderbolt connector, for hooking up displays and storage devices, along with the SD socket and the second USB.
Still no Ethernet - as you'd expect - and a distinct lack of HDMI. We can see why. Space is at a premium here, and there's nowhere for these things to go. You also don't get the Apple battery meter, which we think is sensible, as it would kill off the SD card slot. The XPS 13 has the LED meter, and we'd honestly prefer a card reader. It makes much more sense for us.
Underneath, you'll find some torx screws that will, in theory, give you access to the innards of the Air. In practice, there's nothing you can do in here - although there are some third-party SSD upgrades that you might look at in a few years, once you'll filled up your 128GB (or 256) internal storage.
On the base of the laptop there are four rubber feet. One thing that struck us was that on a wooden desk, these didn't offer much purchase. The lack of friction meant that with only minor pushing and shoving, the laptop slid around a bit. This might be bad, as you might find the machine moves too easily when you're trying, but it could also be a problem if the power chord gets yanked. While MagSafe should keep you safe, the laptop's willingness to slide might mean that even Apple's patented magnetic lock isn't weak enough to prevent the machine being pulled off a desk.
We did some tests, and while quite unscientific, we discovered that, when pulled at no angle - straight out - the Dell XPS 13 power connector slides out far easier than the Mac's does. At an angle, of course, things change dramatically, and it's here that Magsafe comes into its own . We aren't saying it's defective or flawed, but it's worth bearing in mind that it's probably unwise to leave the Mac alone anywhere where a child or animal could tug at the cable. Although, make sure you leave it somewhere that forces the cable to be angled, and things become a lot safer. Magsafe is, however, still the best innovation in power connectors any computer has seen in the past 20 years.
Screen and audio
There was some mild disappointment that the MacBook Air didn't get a Retina display. If such things are important to you, then perhaps you should wait a couple of years. Our estimate is that all MacBook Pro models will be available with Retina in the next year. It's fair to guess a Retina-equipped Air will arrive this time next year, and quite likely that the displays will be on all of Apple's computers some time after that.
Until then, don't worry. The screen on the Air is stunning. Rich colours and plenty of brightness mean that it's a joy to look at. You'll never mourn the lack of detail, because there's plenty of if, and that screen is larger than you get on most computers these days because Apple has stuck with 16:10 as a ratio.
We didn't have a chance to test the Air in bright sunlight, this is because we live in Britain, and the sun is now so rare that we'd have more chance of taking a bath in unicorn tears warmed from the body heat of a combusting phoenix than actually glimpsing our nearest star. That said, we do have some bright lights, and the screen performs well.
As with all Macs, the sound quality is very good. We found the built-in speakers a little quiet - especially compared to the Dell XPS 13, which is incredibly loud. That said though, it's never going to be a problem and the speakers work well enough.
It's worth noting that the Apple webcam now supports HD at 720p. This is great, as long as whatever you're calling with supports these higher resolutions. Skype does, but it's picky about hardware. With Facetime, it depends on the device you're calling. But we're sure, over time. the uses for HD webcams will increase.
If you're a Mac user, then obviously, moving from anything else to an Air is like all your christmases coming at once. This machine is the be all and end all in desirability. From that delightful case, through to the reasonable hardware spec. If you're a PC user, then things are a little more difficult.
For example, it's worth bearing in mind that Apple ships all the Mac laptops now with the beautiful glass trackpad. This thing has almost no friction, so your hands glide across it. Using these things is a little bit addictive. Especially if you're three finger swiping across the screen to get to the various different desktops. This is a delightful way to work, because you can have different screens running different apps. We had Safari in one, Tweetdeck on another and the normal desktop on another. Getting around this way soon becomes very natural, and to be honest, beats anything Windows based. Certainly, compared to the mess of Windows 8's user interface, the Mac just slots in to how our brains work. Different desktops for different tasks.
Things do become a little more annoying in mouse terms. If you ever access a menu with a right mouse button, then the Mac is going to slow you down. Say, for example, to see autocorrect spelling options, on a PC you'd right click, on the Mac, you have to press control and then click the single mouse button. It's illogical to us, although as PC users we concede that native Mac people might find this more natural. By default, too, the trackpad works the wrong way around. Apple has set it up like a touch screen, so you scroll down by pushing two fingers up the pad, as you would on an iPad.
This is another thing that is easy to adapt to though, and we only had very occasional problems, and those weren't especially huge.
Where the mouse does score, is when it comes to clicking. Every PC we've used, without exception, has made a hash of the whole trackpad clicking system. Usually, they are just too hard to press, and that means, if you're trying to click when your finger is at the top of the pad, you're going to have a hard time getting the button to press. This is still true at the very top of the Apple trackpad, but it's much easier than any PC we've seen.
Apple also understands that NO ONE USES FUNCTION KEYS. This is something that PC manufacturers steadfastly refuse to accept. There is no human alive who spends their time using F1-12 for functions. Everyone wants quick access to Wi-Fi controls, screen brightness and volume. On the Air, these are all the default action for the function keys, and you have to press "ctrl" to access the F-functions, whatever it is the hell these things do on modern computers.
Oh, and if you're British, five minutes using a Mac to send an email to someone with quotes in will have you screaming at them for not producing a true English language keyboard for non-Americans. The @ is in the wrong place, and that's a fact. So if you use Twitter a lot, or send a lot of emails, prepare to get things wrong. How hard would it be for Apple to make British keyboards? We suspect not hard at all.
Apple claims that you can get seven hours' battery life out of the 13-inch Air, when it's doing simple web browsing. We have to say, we have no reason to disbelieve that. We don't do formal benchmarks, because they're pointless, but we haven't charged this Air today, it started the day with a little more than half charge, and we've still got an hour left on the clock after using it all afternoon.
Apple has never had much trouble with the Air batteries, so it's pretty reasonable to assume that the 50-watt-hour pack in this 13-inch machine is up to the job.
Of course, you can't remove the battery, and if you want to have it replaced, it will have to go back to Apple. With most laptops starting to show reduced power retention at between 12 and 18 months, that means you'll have to look at replacing the battery long before the machine itself is outside its useful life. That's a problem, but sort of an unavoidable one for a computer this compact.
According to the Apple website, a replacement battery for the old Air will cost you £99. Considering what's involved, we think that's incredibly reasonable. You won't get an original PC replacement battery for much less than £50 anywhere, and many cost a lot more.
We aren't sure what has happened, but it very much appears that Apple laptops are no longer all that much more expensive than a decent PC. The Dell XPS 13 uses older tech, but still costs nearly the same as this 13-inch Air. Arguably, the Air offers a lot of advantages too. The screen is 16:10, which, for most computer use is far better than that stupid 16:9 ratio, foisted upon us by HD television.
So, for £50 more than the entry-level Dell XPS 13, you get faster RAM, a quicker processor built on more modern technology and better graphics (Intel 4000 on the Mac, as opposed to 3000 on the Dell).
Of course, computers are not "one size fits all" and some just won't get along with Mac OS. That said, it's worth remembering that Macs make lovely Windows PCs. And much of the stuff that makes them lovely computers with Mac OS is true when you install Windows too. That's something that will make Apple purists shudder, but you can't hide from the fact there are still lots of great reasons to use a Windows-based PC.
But however you look at it, the Air remains an object of desire, a powerful laptop and a computer that you just want to use constantly. It certainly is the best MacBook Air, and it really has to be a contender for the best laptop of the year too.
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