The Apple MacBook Air is a powerful, ultraportable notebook with a regal attitude, a considerable personality, and an egotistical price — the model we reviewed retails for as much as Rs. 67,900. Few computing devices can claim those lofty attributes in the year 2011, and fewer can muster up the design pedigree.

And with the new Intel Sandy Bridge processors, Apple delivers a spectacular ultraportable, unmatched in almost every aspect of design, performance, and build-quality. The Air brings to the table everything that a very demanding consumer wants: a sophisticated, powerful, and an ultra-thin computing device–a status symbol of sorts. Sure, it demands an arm and a leg to give you all of those features together. But to those who can afford it, all the pitfalls of owning one–and there are some–quickly fade into the background. 

Design and Build Quality

The super-thin 11-inch Macbook Air measures only 3-mm at its thinnest edge, and weighs just 1.08kgs (an Apple iPad 2 weighs 613gms). Overall dimensions are very much slate like: Height: 0.11–0.68 inch (3–17 mm) x Width: 11.8 inches (299.5 mm) x Depth: 7.56 inches (192 mm). The variable thickness (Height) is what gives the Air its unique wedge like shape. The rapidly tapering thickness of the body is probably the main reason why more ports aren’t accommodated on the sides of the notebook—you only have two USB ports. 

Unibody design form

Unibody design form

Compare these dimensions directly to the iPad 2, and you’ll be surprised that the iPad 2 is roughly 25% smaller, of course much of that is because of the smaller 9.7-inch screen compared to the 11.6-inch screen on the MacBook Air. These dimensions are very impressive design and engineering achievements. And you’d be hard pressed to find another notebook manufacturer that follows high-end machining processes to build “just the body”. The base of the Macbook Air is built out of a single aluminum block, which is then passed through CNC and milling stages to carve out a body-cum-chassis to house all the core components. This is what gives the Macbook Air a clear edge over its competition, and also causes the price to rise significantly.  But what that gives you back is equally significant: a built-to-last, non-flexing, solid metal body. Aluminum has other obvious benefits, it makes the entire body a heat-sink, and the cooling requirements drop to a great extent. I for one couldn’t hear any fan, not even the slightest of whirring during extended use–although, a small variable speed fan does exist. 

The trademark full-size backlit chiclet keyboard with 78 keys is great to use, although I often find the feedback a bit lacking while double-pressing keys, and that’s probably because I’m used to keys with greater travel. The backlighting of the keyboard is adjustable too, using the function keys F5 and F6. The function keys on the top row of the keyboard appear to be less than half the size of a regular key, and while the keys look great and operate alright, they wobble around quite a bit giving them a rather flimsy feel.

Multi-touch trackpad with gesture support

Multi-touch trackpad with gesture support

Also present is the large multi-touch trackpad, which is very responsive and supports inertial scrolling (the faster you flick, the faster the scroll), pinch, rotate, swipe, three-finger swipe, four-finger swipe, tap, double-tap, and drag capabilities. If you haven’t used one before, you’ll quickly get used to it, and once you’re hooked onto gestures, you’ll have a hard time using anything else.

A very basic low-res (0.3MP) webcam is used as a FaceTime camera which does not capture images over the resolution 640 x 480. Its use obviously is limited to use in chat, and that’s just about what it manages to do.

Keys light up for night-time typing

Keys light up for night-time typing

Probably the only major concern with the MacBook Air’s design is its display hinge. This was the case with the earlier Air models, and Apple does not seem to have addressed this issue with this release as well. While initially the hinge holds on well, it is prone to loosening up, causing the screen to wobble or even just fall. Not just that, the hinge mechanism looks fragile, and since the display does not flatten backwards it may very well break if it happens to receive some unnecessary pressure. There is even a dedicated section for loose and cracked hinges on Apple’s support site. 

Features

The review unit we received was a Macbook Air 11-inch powered by an Intel Core i5 1.6GHz with 3MB of share L3 cache (1.7GHz and 1.8GHz models are available as well). The processor is supplemented well with either 2GB or 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM–we received the one with 4GB. And here’s the important bit about memory configuration, do not make the mistake of buying the 2GB Macbook Air under the impression that you will upgrade it after a while or install a cheaper aftermarket stick. The Macbook Air’s memory is soldered onto the board, so you cannot upgrade later. 

Thunderbolt for lightening fast connectivity

Thunderbolt for lightening fast connectivity

Storage doesn’t suffer the same problem, and you could potentially upgrade the SSD at a later date. Apple currently offers three options for the 11-inch MacBook Air: 64GB, 128GB, or optional 256GB of flash storage. The model we reviewed came installed with 128GB of flash storage. While the capacities on offer are pretty limited, SSDs do offer significant advantages: chief among them being better reliability and lower power consumption. 

The MacBook Air’s display is an 11.6-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen display that runs at a maximum of 1366-by-768-pixel resolution. The gorgeous display is fed by an Intel HD Graphics 3000 384 MB graphics card.

There are sacrifices though, and the big one is no RJ-45 Ethernet port. And as we mentioned before, you’ll have to make do with only two USB ports, and there is no SD Card slot either. Of course, MacBook Air does offer the new Thunderbolt port, which is claimed to be twice as fast as USB 3.0, but we did not have a Thunderbolt cable to test with, and we will update this review with the results as soon as we get our hands on one.

Apple calls it - The Everyday Notebook

Apple calls it – The Everyday Notebook

Performance

Let us first put the glorified netbook argument to rest: your garden variety Rs. 20,000 netbook would score at best 0.55 points on Cinebench Release 11.5, on the other hand the MacBook Air we’ve reviewed scores 1.91 points. The MacBook Air is clearly playing in the fast ultraportable category, and would be able to mix it up with the likes of the Thinkpad X1. It's also important to say that the Air does not suffer from the lag and sluggish performance issues of a netbook, and can play toe-to-toe with any decently configured Core i5 notebook.

The OpenGL test in Cinebench is also telling, and while the MacBook Air is not meant for gaming, it still scores 11.21 fps, which is very decent, and much better than the vast majority of the onboard graphics powered thin-and-light and ultraportable notebooks that struggle to go past 6fps. Boot up time of the MacBook Air from a full dead-start is under 9-seconds, which is very impressive. Shutdown takes place in two seconds. And there is absolutely no lag moving from application to application. Much of the boot-up and app-to-app performance would be best attributed to the SSD and OS X Lion. 

OS X Lion on board

OS X Lion on board

I had at one point a whole bunch of software running: music through iTunes, Safari browser with 8 tabs open, a chat application open along with Mail, Word, iPhoto, and Twitter running on my desktop. I was able to move from application to application without any lag whatsoever, and the three-finger gesture that brought Mission Control up responded just like it does on the more powerful MacBook Pro. Rest assured, the machine is no slouch, and I would heartily recommend it to a power user prone to abusing the browser. But all of this pushing does make the machine hot, and if you have it on charge for a while, it can get a bit sweaty down there. In fact, if you really push the Air, like I did on several occasions by importing, editing, and uploading nearly a thousand images (yes, that’s correct… nearly a thousand) to Photobucket, and running a Youtube video simultaneously, the Air can get warm, and I had to actually take it off my lap. Of course, plain old browsing the Web keeps the CPU idle around 95%, and that also meant that the Air was very cool and running just a little over ambient temperature. On the other hand, in an office where the air-con is perpetually on full-blast, the MacBook Air’s full metal body can get icy cold, too!

Battery life

The battery life of a Macbook Air is surprisingly pretty good, considering that it’s such a thin device. Apple has managed to squeeze in a 4500mAh six-cell battery, and when combined with an SSD gives great results. On a regular run with browsing, office productivity software running on and off, and a few short Youtube videos the notebook ran for close to 7 or so hours from a full-charge. Our HD video loop test exhausted the battery in 136-minutes, which is pretty good. The movie was run with brightness set to 70% or so, and the video was run full-screen. 

Doesn't get thinner than this, unless you count an actual notepad and pen

Doesn't get thinner than this, unless you count an actual notepad and pen

Verdict

So should you buy it? If you need a slick ultraportable for light to medium duty, if design and aesthetics weigh heavily on your mind and price is not a concern, then this one’s a no brainer. Of course, if you’re like the vast majority of the notebook buying population of this country, then you will struggle to come up with a value for money, bang for your buck argument favouring this notebook. And therein lays the conclusion: the Air isn’t meant to be a VFM notebook, it’s meant to be the cutting-edge in ultraportable design and performance. 

The Macbook Air will encounter severe headwinds during the entire buying thought-process: pricing, configuration, connectivity, and upgradeability. And every one of those arguments is valid, but if you somehow do manage to go past these stumbling blocks, and focus on its core strength, then you’ll soon realize that it has no real peer.

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