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MacBook Air (late 2010) review

MacBook AirLet’s be honest, the original MacBook Air was beautifully flawed. Outwardly it was a desirable laptop, but under that pretty aluminum exterior all was not swell. Overheating, under performing and overpriced, the original MacBook Air failed to achieve mainstream success. With the new models, though, Apple has rewritten the playbook.  This 13″ 1.86GHz 2/128 model has superior specs to the previous version while putting itself on offer for hundreds of dollars less at $1,299.  Let’s see what it’s like…

First impressions of the MacBook Air

MacBook Air restore USB driveAs with all Apple products the Macbook Air comes in nicely designed packaging. There’s precious little in the box, just the Macbook Air, magsafe power adaptor with extension cable, start guide and a unique USB flash restore thumbdrive. The Macbook Air doesn’t have an optical drive so the inclusion of the USB thumbdrive is a cool idea and feels like the way forward for future laptops.

The original MacBook Air was svelte, but the new model raises the bar even further.  0.68 inches at its thickest, the new MacBook Air tapers to just 0.11 inches at the front.  It really is remarkable and made possible due to the all solid-state nature of the guts of the beast.  The hard drive of the old model has given way to an SSD on a bare circuit board, which saves precious millimeters of height.  The weight meanwhile has remained at 2.9lbs, presumably because any space and weight efficiencies have allowed for more battery cells.

MacBook Air logoIt’s difficult to describe just how stunning this new MacBook Air really is, so I suggest you feast your eyes on the photos in the gallery.  In my view this is the best looking laptop ever made, it’s definitely worth making a trip to a store just to fondle it if you have the opportunity.

Around the sides of the MacBook Air are two USB ports, an SD card slot (only on the 13″ model), a mini display port, headphone socket, microphone and charging port.  The keyboard is the standard MacBook chicklet affar, the trackpad is able to register four-fingered multi-touch gestures and the screen is LED-backlit like the previous MacBook Air.  There’s a webcam above the screen and the speakers are nowhere to be seen, but they’re in there somewhere.  The underside has four black feet and that’s it.

Using the MacBook Air

In many ways using the new MacBook Air is a similar experience to the old one, except pretty much everything that was problematic about the original has been resolved in the new model.  MacBook AirFirstly, the replacement of the unpleasantly slow 4200rpm hard drive with the new SSD has resulted in a 13.7 second boot time and 1.6 second shutdown time.  That speed bump carries over to application launch times, which are fast.  Most apps seem to launch with one or two seconds and the whole system feels extremely snappy even though the processor has remained the same.  It just goes to show how much of a bottleneck can be created by a slow hard drive.

The speediness of the new MacBook Air carries over to its graphics capabilities, as the new model has been stepped up to a GeForce 320M.  While no graphics powerhouse, the new model handles full screen video very capably, without any alarmingly heat buildup.  I was able to stream a 1080p YouTube video without any problems.  Sure the underside does become warm, but far less than other laptops I’ve used recently, and when the fan does kick-in, it’s whisper quiet.

Battery life was a big disappointment with the original MacBook Air; while the specs promised 5 hours, I never seemed to be able to get more than 2-3 in actual usage.  The new 13″ MacBook Air promises 7 hours and, although I haven’t done a full drain test, it feels pretty accurate.  Apple is definitely making strides in this department, as we saw earlier this year with the iPad which also delivered as promised on battery life.

The trackpad, keyboard and screen work just like a 13″ MacBook Pro, so I’ll hold off on going into specific detail here.  On the software side, the new MacBook Air ships with OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard and iLife ’11 as with the rest of the current MacBook range.

On the downside, there is no option to specify a backlit keyboard.  In my view this is a real omission, as using the MacBook Air in a dimly lit room or on a night flight for example becomes very problematic.  This can be partially remediated by using a USB gooseneck light, but it’s not a particularly elegant solution.

The 13″ MacBook Air’s 128GB of storage (upgradeable to 256GB) is potentially limiting if you have a large media collection.  Personally I think 128GB is enough storage for most users’ music and photo collections, plus a range of apps, on the basis that most video content is streamed from the likes of Netflix and Hulu these days.  There’s always the option to use a portable drive for the rest of your content.  I could easily cope with this amount of storage for my main computer, as long as I had a little 2.5″ 500GB USB drive in my bag for video edit footage and backups.

Is the new MacBook Air a good buy?

Many commentators have suggested that there is still a viable role for the base 13″ MacBook Pro alongside the 13″ MacBook Air.  I’m not so sure.  Even though the MacBook Pro has a faster processor and more storage space, I think this will make little difference to the average user.  The new MacBook Air boots-up faster, has great performance for everyday tasks and weighs far less than the Pro.  In my mind that leaves the MacBook Pro in the hands of niche users who really need more power and the MacBook Air in the hands of pretty much everyone else.  This is going to be a big seller.

Neil Berman

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Nov 6, 2010 - Posted by | Apple, Computing, Hardware, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , ,

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