If you don't need quad-core processing power, but still require a stable, comfortable keyboard to do your writing, this year’s refreshed Apple MacBook Air 11in (which starts at £849) might be the chariot you're looking for.
It's the MacBook for those who already have a larger MacBook Pro, iMac, or Mac Pro at home, but need something more portable. Its full keyboard makes the machine a superior writing tool in comparison to simply carrying around an iPad or other tablet. Plus, it fits perfectly on an airplane tray table. However, competition from ultrabooks and other ultraportables has narrowed the lead the MacBook Air once enjoyed.
Design and features
The 11in MacBook Air's chassis hasn't changed too much from the previous iteration. It still measures 300 x 192 x 17mm (WxDxH), and it still tapers down to a 2.8mm wedge point. It has the same updated, chiclet-style, backlit keyboard as the MacBook Air of 2011, as well as the same glass touchpad with multi-touch functions. The trackpad supports one, two, three and four-finger gestures, although the latter takes a little acclimatisation for those unfamiliar with quad-digit usage.
The keys are comfortable to type on, although as you might expect, they have a shorter key travel than you may be used to with a full-sized laptop. The key travel isn’t uncomfortably short, mind you, but the keys may feel stiff if you're used to a desktop keyboard. The palm rest, like the rest of the unibody construction, is made from machined aluminium. The system weighs a feather-light 1.07kg alone, and 1.27kg with its AC adapter.
The system's screen measures 11.3in diagonally, with a 1,366 x 768 resolution and a 16:9 aspect ratio. While 1,366 x 768 is starting to feel cramped on larger 13 and 14in ultrabooks and laptops, the screen resolution is fine for the 11in form factor. Text and images look crisp without any pixellation, and the display is nice and bright. However, 11in laptops still seem a bit of an odd size, with most ultrabooks focusing on the 13in form factor.
The top of the screen houses a 720p FaceTime camera, which can be used to video conference with other Macs and iOS devices such as iPhones and iPads. The left-hand side of the system plays host to Apple's new MagSafe 2 port, which uses a slimmer connector than the older MagSafe AC adapters that came with previous MacBook laptops. It's not an inconvenience if this is your first MacBook, but you'll find it to be a pain if you have older MagSafe AC adapters lying around your house or office. Apple has a MagSafe to MagSafe 2 converter in its stores that you can use with older AC adapters or Apple displays. Apple displays like the 24in Cinema display and the 27in Thunderbolt display have built-in leads for MagSafe charging.
The MacBook Air comes with a single Thunderbolt (10Gbps) port on the right, which can drive a Mini DisplayPort monitor without an adapter. You'll need separate adapters for HDMI, VGA, or DVI output, none of which are included. There are two USB 3.0 ports, one on each side, which are themselves ten times faster (5Gbps) than the old MacBooks' USB 2.0 ports (480Mbps). Last but not least is a headset jack that’s compatible with your iPhone. Notably absent is an SD card reader, missed out because there doesn't seem to be room for it (the previous 11in MacBook Air didn't have one either).
Like all new Macs, the MacBook Air comes with iLife apps (iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand and so on) and iTunes for music and videos. Speaking of videos, 720p videos display fine on the system's widescreen, and even full 1080p videos look okay (downscaled to fit the display). We didn't see any stuttering or missed frames while viewing the 1080p trailer for Star Trek, for example.
The MacBook Air comes with 64GB of Flash Storage, which isn't a lot. Granted, that’s the base model, and it can be specced up to 128GB, 256GB or even 512GB – but the latter two options are unsurprisingly expensive (at £240 and £640 extra, respectively).
However, we reviewed the base model, and if this is what you plump for, if your top-of-the-line (64GB) iPhone 4S or iPad is full, you won't be able to sync it with this MacBook (you'll run out of space). In this respect, the MacBook Air 11in is best thought of as an adjunct to a more powerful MacBook Air or iMac at home or in the office.
It's got enough space to load Photoshop, Office, and a couple of other programs, but it's not large enough to house your entire iTunes music and video libraries – unless you leverage iTunes Match heavily by keeping all those files in the cloud.
The MacBook Air isn't really a power machine, but it gets the job done with a Core i5-3317U Ivy Bridge processor under the hood. The laptop was able to complete our Photoshop test in 5 minutes and 16 seconds under OS X. The previous MacBook Air with the same clock speed, but an older second generation Intel Core i5 CPU, was slower at 5 minutes and 36 seconds.
The 2012 MacBook Air was able to complete the video rundown test with a battery life of 4 hours and 14 minutes, which is a lot less than its sibling, the Apple MacBook Air 13in (mid-2012) which lasted almost 7 hours.
We ran MobileMark 2007 under Windows 7 in Boot Camp, and got a result of 5 minutes and 19 seconds, not a great performance compared to some ultrabooks we’ve seen. The MacBook Air hit a decent 4,246 point score on PCMark7 (again under Windows 7 Boot Camp). To summarise, the MacBook Air will feel fast doing day to day tasks, but don't expect all day battery life – nor should you expect the 11in MacBook Air to be the photographer's best friend. It's really best suited for on-the-road writing and college student use.
The MacBook Air 11in (mid-2012) is a great laptop for writers. It's speedy enough for day to day use, very light – even if you cart along the AC adapter – and highly portable in general.
The downside is that today’s ultrabooks have caught up in terms of features, and their lightweight nature – while offering larger 13in 1080p screens in some cases (the Asus UX31A, for example). Storage on the base MacBook Air model is small, and the battery life isn’t any great shakes, either. Even so, it remains a worthy choice as a secondary laptop for when you need more than a tablet (such as a proper keyboard, for starters).
Manufacturer and Model
Apple MacBook Air 11in (mid-2012)
Ultraportable, Business, Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage
Intel Core i5-3317U
Mac OS X 10.8
Screen Size Type
1,366 x 768
Intel HD Graphics 4000
Storage Capacity (as Tested)
Wireless Display Capability (WiDi)