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Review: MacBook Air 11-inch

Compromising everything has never been this easy...

Over the past couple of years, netbooks have revolutionised the laptop market.
Small, cheap and underpowered, they’ve been a popular choice for people who only need a basic computer for checking email, browsing the web and logging into Facebook. There’s only one problem for Mac fans: with Apple CEO Steve Jobs quoted as saying, “They’re not better than laptops at anything, they’re just cheaper”, Apple looked set never to make one. Then it did. And while the 11-inch MacBook Air may not be the best at anything, and while it certainly isn’t cheaper (in the sense of a sub- £400 PC netbook), for many people it’s certainly going to be the most desirable Mac – if, that is, they’re prepared to make a few compromises. If the 13-inch model is impressively svelte, then its smaller sibling is nothing short of stunning. The difference in thickness is subtle but it’s the smaller footprint that makes this the first Mac that you can just toss into your bag and forget. Trimming the two inches from the screen size also means that you should never have to struggle to squeeze it onto a cramped aeroplane or train table.

So, while the screen may be great for portability, how it is to use? In terms of pixels, there are an incredible amount crammed into a very small space. This makes for a beautifully sharp screen, but certainly not the best choice if you struggle with small type.

With a 16:9 ratio screen, the MacBook Air’s display also feels far wider than it is tall. This is perfect for multi-paned apps like iTunes or for watching movies, but can feel cramped in single-windowed apps like Safari, where you’ll soon find yourself turning off spare window clutter (like the Bookmarks Bar) to save every single pixel of height you can muster. If you spend a great deal of time in apps like GarageBand or Aperture, then you might as well forget it – or at least invest in an external monitor, which will plug in happily to the Apple- standard Mini DisplayPort socket on the side of the machine.
The concession in screen size is probably the biggest compromise you’ll have to make with the 11-inch Air, but it’s certainly not going to be the last. While Macs are not renowned for their upgradeability, the new Airs take it a step further – the MacBook you buy today is going to be exactly the MacBook you’ll be using next year, and the year after that. To fit an impressive amount of computing power into such a diminutive package, Apple has ripped out all the standard parts, like a hard drive and user-upgradeable memory and has instead opted for custom hardware built directly onto the motherboard. While this isn’t going to be a big problem for most people considering an Air, it certainly makes it sensible to go for the 128GB model with the optional upgrade to 4GB of memory. The processing power shouldn’t be holding you back in two years’ time, so it would be a shame to let the capacity cramp your style.

That solid-state drive deserves a little more attention. Doing away with the traditional spinning hard drive, the solid- state storage in the Air accounts for a great deal of the machine’s snappiness. Hit the power button and you’ll hardly have time to twiddle a thumb while it powers up, the entire boot process (from off to desktop) taking less than 15 seconds. Waking up from sleep is even more impressive; you’d struggle to have the lid lifted before it’s ready to go. Combined with a decent amount of computing horsepower this means the MacBook Air never feels anything less than a fully-fledged computer, something that certainly couldn’t be said of most netbook class laptops. Oh, and on the subject of drives, there’s no DVD drive, but this feels so reasonable in this age of digital media that it hardly seems worth mentioning any more (if you disagree then you may be relieved to see that Apple’s external DVD drive is still available as an optional extra).
Perhaps a little more lamentable is the lack of the SD card slot you’ll find on the 13-inch model. While the bigger screen is certainly better suited to keen photographers, the convenience was something we quickly fell in love with when testing the larger of the pair. We can’t help but feel that, for the crowd sitting on their sofas uploading photos to Facebook, it would have been worth cramming in (but to be fair, it’s a pretty tight squeeze in there).
A great deal of what is crammed in there is battery, but with a machine this small and light, you’re going to have to accept yet another compromise. While Apple leads the way in eking every possible second of power from its portables, there’s only so much you can squeeze into a very small space. Apple claims it offers about five hours of typical use, and our real-world tests gave us about the same performance – even if you’re just casually browsing the web or Twitter during ad breaks, you’re still going to be plugging it in to charge at least every other day.
Reading this review, in cold black and white, you’re probably thinking that there’s a great deal going against Apple’s most minuscule Mac, and you’d be right. But the chances are that most of that isn’t going to matter once you’ve spent five minutes in the company of the Air. For creatives, this isn’t a machine that’s going to replace your main Mac, but it’s pretty easy to see how it would make the perfect second computer in your household. Sure, you have to compromise on almost everything bar power, but what you get is an incredibly portable computer that performs as well as Macs more than twice its size.