Review: Apple MacBook Air (MD231X/A)

Apple's MacBook Air is the archetypal 'ultraportable laptop', and arguably what most Ultrabook designs are attempting to emulate. We tested the latest 13-inch model.

NameUltraportable laptop: Apple MacBook Air (MD231X/A)
At a glance:Intel Core i5-3427U dual-core CPU,4GB RAM,128GB SSD storage,Only two USB ports (both USB 3.0), no Ethernet,1.35kg
Summary:A beautiful piece of design and engineering, though it sacrifices wired connectivity for form.
RRP:$1,899 (128GB, as tested), $2,399 (256GB)

Apple’s MacBook Air is the archetypal “ultraportable laptop”, and arguably what most Ultrabook designs are attempting to emulate. It’s thin: tapered from 17mm at the hinge to an almost-sharp 3mm at the front edge. It’s light, at just 1.35kg, despite its solid aluminium body. It looks gorgeous and its build is top-quality all the way.

We reviewed the 13-inch model, which has a glossy 1600 x 900-pixel screen. Like the MacBook Pro, it’s one of the clearer and brighter screens we’ve seen.

The screen is not touch-enabled -- Mac OS X doesn't support touchscreens. However, the large touchpad is flush with the keyboard wrist-rest, which makes it ideal for the sort of touchpad gestures that both Mac OS X and Windows 8 use.

Sadly we weren’t able to test the MacBook Air with Windows 8 installed, though as usual we ran our hardware benchmarks via a Boot Camp Windows 7 installation.

The 13-inch MacBook Air includes an Intel Core i5-3427U dual-core CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. This makes for a snappy, responsive system whether you’re running Mac OS X or Windows.

Its performance in our standard benchmark suite was in line with similarly priced 13- and 14-inch competitors.

There did seem to be an odd performance drop in tests reliant on Intel’s Quick Sync Video transcoding, which seems unique to our Windows-on-Mac setup (other laptops with the same CPU and spec did not exhibit the problem).

Both of the Air’s USB ports are USB 3.0 (a recent addition to the MacBook lineup), which gives you a total of three high-speed ports including Thunderbolt.

The MacBook Air lacks of any kind of video output – HDMI, DVI or VGA. Granted the latter two wouldn’t fit on the Air’s slim edge, but surely mini-HDMI could have made an appearance. Any video output is done through the Thunderbolt port, which is backwards-compatible with DisplayPort (no adapter necessary). For HDMI, DVI or VGA, an optional adapter is required ($65, $51 and $51 respectively). Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth 4.0 are both included, but there’s no wired Ethernet. This means if you’re using an external display you can’t also use Apple’s Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter at the same time.

Battery life while running Windows 7 was 3 hours 16 minutes in our demanding ‘productivity’ test. More casual usage in either Windows 7 or Mac OS X gave us 6-7 hours of continuous use, as advertised.

We wouldn’t recommend that you buy the MacBook Air to use as a Windows 8 laptop. Windows 8 will run on it, same as Windows 7 does, but the price of the MacBook Air plus the price of a full copy of Windows 8, for a laptop with no touchscreen, isn't really worth it. If you wish to run both operating system simultaneously, you’ve also got the cost of virtualisation software such as Parallels to consider.

However, if you’ve tried Windows 8, and just can’t bring yourself to like it, Mac OS X is really not too much more of a shift. The MacBook Air will give you the Ultrabook advantages of portability, battery life and ‘instant on’ wake-up from sleep or hibernation, without actually being an Ultrabook.

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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