New MacBook Air models revealed

This time the Apple rumour sites had it nailed, with the new MacBook Air unveiled at Apple's 'Back To The Mac' (they weren't kidding) event on Wednesday incorporating pretty much the entire slate of features that had been speculated on. The ones that has been widely predicted anyway.

With the new razor-sharp laptop, Apple also addressed most of the original MacBook Air's manifold shortcomings. We could still quibble about Ethernet connectivity requiring an optional £25 USB adapter and no FireWire support (although I doubt that anyone was seriously expecting FireWire on the Air) but that would seem a bit petty now that Apple appears to have got things mostly right this time around.

The original MacBook Air was nicely sized, lightweight and spectacularly styled, but had a raft of deficiencies, several of which even considered in isolation would have ruled it out of serious consideration for me and evidently many others, as witnessed by the Air's mediocre sales performance after an initial burst of market enthusiasm wore off.

There was the lacklustre CPU power in the form of 'special' (60 per cent smaller than standard) Intel Core 2 Duo silicon clocked at 1.6 GHz or optional 1.8 GHz with 4MB L2 cache and an 800 MHz frontside bus, and mediocre Intel GMA integrated graphics support.

Standard system memory configuration was a respectable 2 GB of RAM, but it was soldered to the logic board, and there was no provision for upgrading the memory. The standard hard drive was an iPod-sized 1.8-inch 4,200 RPM unit maxing out at 80 GB, or just 64 GB for the optional SSD and no officially supported upgrade path.

There was the aforementioned lack of built-in Ethernet support, and a pathetically impoverished array of I/O ports consisting of a lone (and grossly overworked) USB port, a micro-DVI video port, and Audio out port crammed close together behind a too-clever port door on the right-hand side.

There was no internal optical drive, so disk burning, software installation from disks and emergency CD or DVD booting required purchase of the optional external USB SuperDrive.

Speaking of price, the base model started a steep-enough £1,200, but once you added the optical drive module (£85), an Ethernet adaptor (£30), or opted for the SSD model, you were up to over two grand, making the low-powered, connectivity and upgrade-compromised Air the most expensive MacBook model ever. Not exactly a bargain.

However, that's all been fixed with these latest models. The new MacBook Air is now available in 11 inch and 13 inch configurations, which should please both diehard 12 inch PowerBook G4 holdouts who thought the original 13-inch Air's footprint was too large, and folks like me who demand at least a 13-inch display.

Apple chose to stick with Core 2 Duo silicon, rather than going with Intel's state-of-the-art Core i3 low-power draw processors - in my estimation the correct choice. Using core two duo CPUs supports the use of Nvidia's fast and powerful GeForce 320M integrated graphics
processing units with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM annexed from system memory, whereas a licensing dispute between Intel and NVIDIA would've mandated going with Intel's more pedestrian HD IGPUs.

In a machine this size, faster graphics arguably make more sense than greater processing power. The 11.6-inch Air is equipped with ultra-low voltage Intel SU9400 and SU9600 CPUs, running at clock speeds of 1.4GHz and 1.6GHz that draw 10W of power or less. The 13-inch model comes with faster 1.86 GHz or 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duos.

RAM expandability with the Air is still not as expansive as with the MacBook and 13 inch MacBook Pro, both of which will support up to 8GB of RAM. However, you can specify a 4GB configuration on all four MacBook Pro models, although the upgrade from the standard 2GB must be ordered from Apple at the time of purchase, as the memory is reportedly not retro–upgradable. At least Apple is charging a fairly reasonable £80 across-the-board for the 4GB upgrades.

All MacBook Airs come standard with solid-state drives that Apple claims are 90 per cent smaller and lighter than conventional notebook hard drives - in storage capacities ranging from 64GB for the base 11.6-inch model, with 128GB optional for an extra hundred bucks.

The 128GB SSD comes standard in the new 13 inch MacBook air, with a 256GB unit available for a £250 surcharge, which takes you up to a list price of £1,350. Upgrade to a 2.13 GHz CPU, and the tariff will be £1,429, plus another £65 if you want the optional external SuperDrive optical drive. Tack on another £25 if you need the Ethernet adapter.

The optional external SuperDrive is not quite the must-have it was with the original MacBook Air, because these new machines ship with a solid-state USB Software Reinstall Drive from which you can restore the operating system and bundled iLife software, and use to run
essential applications and utilities without the necessity of resorting to an external optical drive or DVD Sharing.

If you elect to pre-install apples iWork productivity software at the time purchase, iWork will also be included on your MacBook Air Software Reinstall Drive. You can start up the computer from the MacBook Air Software Reinstall Drive to select a Startup Disk, restore your system from a Time Machine backup disk or Time Capsule, reinstall Mac OS X, reset your administrative password, enable a firmware password, and run Disk Utility, among other tasks.

The new AirBooks all come with two USB ports - one on each side - and also have a real Mini DisplayPort (you'll still need optional adapters at £25 apiece in order to connect to anything), a headphone mini-jack, and the 13-incher comes with a SD Card slot.

For wireless connectivity, Apple's Airport WiFi and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR are built-in standard equipment.

The The 11.6-inch MacBook Air's 18-bit display has 1366 x 768 resolution, making it the first MacBook with 16:9 aspect ratio screen. The 13-inch model retains the previous model's traditional 16:10 aspect ratio, but bumps the display resolution from 1280 x 800 to 1440 x 900, which incidentally is the same resolution as my old 1.33 GHz 17-inch PowerBook G4, and the standard resolution for the current 15-inch MacBook Pro. Both displays support dual display mode and video mirroring.

Both MacBook Air models still have full-size keyboards, although keyboard backlighting has gone missing. Both also have MacBook Pro style glass Multi-Touch trackpads, the better to support the multi-touch capabilities Mr Jobs says are coming with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion next summer and will eliminate the necessity for the user actually touch the display (hooray! I detest display glass smeared with greasy fingerprints).

Jobs noted on stage: "We've done tons of user testing on [interfacing with a vertical display using a multi-touch UI], and it turns out it doesn't work... touch surfaces want to be horizontal." Amen. Another new wrinkle is a built-in FaceTime camera.

The compact size of the SSD units makes more room for larger built in batteries, with the 11.6 inch model rated by Apple at five hours runtime, and the 13-incher at seven hours, plus up to 30 days of standby time with iPad-like instant-on responsiveness from standby.
Boot ups from a cold start will still take longer.

With their aluminum unibody construction, these new machines are even thinner than the original Air: 0.68 inches at their thickest point, tapering to 0.11 inches (as opposed to tapering from 0.76 inches to 0.16 on the older model).

They both also weigh-in lighter than the three-pound original machine; the 11.6-inch model at 2.3 pounds and the 13-inch unit at 2.9 pounds.

I'm not finding much not to like here although the price of entry for a high-end equipped 13-inch models is still more than a bit daunting, especially compared to what you get in a 13 inch MacBook Pro for a bargain £1,000, but they've managed to hold the price for the
entry-level 11.6 inch unit at a MacBook-like £850, which is better than I had expected, and they should sell very well at that price.

Both the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs are available now through the online Apple Store, Apple's retail stores and Apple Authorised Resellers.

The 1.4 GHz 11-inch MacBook Air with 2GB of memory and 64GB of flash storage starts at a suggested retail price of £850 with a 128GB model for £1000.

The 1.86 GHz 13-inch MacBook Air with 2GB of memory and 128GB of flash storage starts at a suggested retail price of £1,100 with a 256GB model for £1,350. Configure-to-order options and accessories include faster processors, 4GB of memory, MacBook Air SuperDrive and a USB Ethernet Adapter.