Apple's original 13.3in. MacBook Air turned heads with its slimline design, large multi-touch touchpad and high-quality LED-backlit screen. However, it also had its drawbacks — notably, limited connectivity and upgradeability, moderate performance and high price (particularly with the SSD option). The latest 13.3in. MacBook Air still isn't exactly cheap, but at £1,349 (inc. VAT; £1,148 ex. VAT) for the 1.86GHz, 256GB SSD model reviewed here, it's heading in the right direction. By way of comparison, a 13.3in. MacBook Pro with a 256GB SSD costs £1,849 (inc. VAT; £1,574 ex. VAT), although you get a faster CPU, more RAM, more connectivity options and an optical drive in the Pro's larger chassis.
The 2010 version of the 13.3in. MacBook Air has a unibody aluminium chassis measuring 29.95cm wide by 19.2cm deep by 1.7-0.3cm thick and weighing 1.06kg. Despite its slim dimensions, the new MacBook Air finds room for two USB ports (USB 2.0 rather than 3.0) and an SD card slot — the older model had just one USB port and lacked an SD slot. Also present is a Mini-DisplayPort and a headphone jack, but you'll look in vain for on-board Ethernet, FireWire or HDMI ports, an optical drive or integrated mobile broadband.
Apart from its elegance, the MacBook Air's other notable design feature is its closed nature. The backplate is secured firmly by ten small 5-point Torx screws that say firmly: 'do not enter'. Most users will therefore need to ensure that they choose enough RAM (2GB comes as standard) and storage (SSD-only, in 128GB or 256GB capacities) at purchase time. The new MacBook Air's SSD is notable for coming in a slim memory-card-like form factor (from Toshiba) rather than the traditional, bulkier, hard-disk-style enclosure.
The 2010 13.3in. MacBook Air's screen has a higher resolution than the 2008 version — 1,440 by 900 pixels compared to 1,280 by 800. The aspect ratio, 16:10, is the same though. Image quality from the LED-backlit display is excellent, but not everyone will appreciate its glossy coating. Similarly, although the 'chiclet'-style keyboard has decent-sized keys with good tactile feedback, a lot of people will be disappointed by Apple's decision to drop the keyboard backlight. It's hard to see the rationale for this omission: LEDs are not costly and don't draw much power.
Our review sample of the 2010 13.3in. MacBook Air was powered by a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL9400 processor, with a 2.13GHz CPU available for £80 (inc. VAT) extra. Some have expressed disappointment that Apple didn't go for Intel's latest 32nm Core i3/i5/i7 processors, although even the current 13.3in. MacBook Pro also uses previous-generation 45nm Core 2 Duo CPUs. You get 2GB of (motherboard-soldered) DDR3 RAM as standard, but if you're planning to use the system for anything more than basic productivity tasks, we'd recommend that you spend £80 more and specify the full 4GB at purchase time.
The 13.3in. MacBook Air's graphics are handled by a discrete Nvidia GeForce 320M GPU with 256MB of shared video memory. Combined with the high-resolution 1,440-by-900-pixel display, this gives the system a capable graphics subsystem.
Wireless options are pretty standard: AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth (2.1+EDR). As mentioned above, there's no integrated mobile broadband option, so you'll either have to attach a USB dongle (which will rather spoil the notebook's elegant lines) or use a mobile phone's internet connection via a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth link.
Performance & battery life
We've compared the 13.3in. MacBook Air on a number of performance metrics with Apple's latest 27in. iMac all-in-one desktop, which is powered by a 2.8GHz quad-core Core i5 processor with 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM, and has a 256GB boot SSD plus a 1TB hard disk. The iMac's graphics are handled by a ATI Radeon HD 5750 with 1GB of video memory. Not a like-for-like comparison, clearly, but it serves to put the notebook's figures into some sort of context.
The MacBook Air and 27in. iMac both run Mac OS x 10.6.4 and boot from 256GB SSDs, but the notebook boots considerably faster, making it from power-on to usable desktop in just over 14 seconds. You'll probably have to wait a little longer for the Wi-Fi to check in, but that's still an impressive startup speed.
Boot times (switch-on to usable desktop) for the 2010 13.3in. MacBook Air and 27in. iMac (shorter bars are better)
Cinebench 11.5 CPU
Cinebench examines the performance of both the CPU (in single-core and multicore modes) and graphics subsystems. The CPU test can be run in both single-core and multicore modes. Here the difference in the CPU generations is evident: with both of its cores running, the MacBook Air's 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo can only match one of the iMac's four 2.8GHz Core i5 cores.
The Cinebench 11.5 CPU test scene contains some 2,000 objects which in turn contain more than 300,000 polygons in total (longer bars are better)
Cinebench 11.5 OpenGL
As you'd expect, the ATI Radeon HD 5750 with 1GB of dedicated video RAM in the 27in. iMac clearly outclasses the MacBook Air's Nvidia GeForce 320M in the Cinebench 11.5 OpenGL test. Both GPUs also deliver over 99 percent Reference Match results, indicating a good level of hardware feature support.
Cinebench 11.5 uses a complex 3D scene depicting a car chase; the graphics card displays a huge amount of geometry and textures, plus a variety of effects including environments, bump maps, transparency and lighting (longer bars are better)
When running the Cinebench 11.5 CPU test in multicore mode, the 13.3in. MacBook Air consumes 24.8 watts compared to the 27in. iMac's 202W. Idling at the desktop, the relative figures are 7.5W and 133.5W. Screen brightness was set to 100 percent in both sets of tests.
Power consumption measured at the Mac OS desktop (Idle) and when running Cinebench 11.5's CPU test (Load) (shorter bars are better)
Apple claims up to seven hours' battery life for the 13.3in. MacBook Air, and plugging our 'idle' power consumption figure (7.5W) into the lithium polymer battery's 50 watt-hour rating gives a maximum of 6.67 hours' life (with screen brightness at 100 percent). Obviously you'll want to do some computing rather than stare at a blank desktop: according to our figures, a a continuously loaded system would last for just over 2 hours. Taking a mid-point between these extremes, you might expect around 4.3 hours of everyday usage, which is more than reasonable.
We found that reducing screen brightness to 50 percent brought power consumption down by about 3W, so you could expect to boost your everyday battery usage from around 4.3h to 6.7h in this way. Apple also makes great play of the MacBook Air's deep sleep mode, which gives it a claimed 30-day 'standby' capability.
As it happens, the one power-related problem we encountered during testing was a failure to wake from sleep, which required a hard reboot. This only occurred once during a two-week test period, but the problem has been reported elsewhere.
The 2010 version of Apple's 13.3in. MacBook Air is a very desirable ultraportable notebook. We like the slimline design, the high-resolution screen, the fast boot time and the long battery life. We're less impressed by the lack of integrated mobile broadband, the jettisoning of the backlit keyboard and the continued use of 45nm Core 2 Duo processors. Still, if the combination of these omissions and the price don't put you off, it's a great notebook to use and to be seen using.