capsule review

Apple MacBook Air Ultraportable Laptop

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Apple MacBook Air Notebook

    PCWorld Rating

    The Air's looks can't be denied. Its performance and expandability are whole other matters, though.

The MacBook Air is a super-slim ultraportable laptop computer that you can slip into very thin spaces. Like anything else that Apple crafts, the Air's industrial design is phenomenal. But its beauty is little more than skin deep.

Miraculously, the Air houses a 13.3-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel display; a roomy keyboard; and a double-wide, multitouch trackpad within its petite, 0.75-inch-thick frame. But aside from a headphone jack, a USB port, and a mini-DVI port, it's not very well equipped. It lacks an optical drive, and to connect to a network via ethernet, you must purchase a $29 USB adapter.

Since the machine's base price is $1700, you pay a lot for the Air's style. At that price, the Air comes with a traditional, 80GB platter-based hard drive, but for an extra $1000, you can get a 64GB solid state drive. That raises the Air's price to that of the much-better-equipped Lenovo ThinkPad X300.

The Air's anodized brushed-aluminum casing is cool to the touch, and even the most anti-Mac person can't help but appreciate it. The gorgeous keyboard's cut-out key design is not only unique, it provides huge keys that feel great to the touch. They're amply spaced, too, so you won't find yourself regularly hitting the wrong keys.

You won't have trouble seeing the keys in dark rooms, either, because thanks to an ambient light sensor, the Air adds a subtle background glow to the keyboard when it gets dark. That feature works in the preinstalled Mac OS, of course, but not in Vista.

In the Mac OS, the enormous touchpad adorning the laptop's bottom recognizes multitouch commands, much as the iPhone's interface does--use two fingers pinching inward to zoom in, or stroke across the top to navigate pages, and so on. The feature is neat to see in action, but I'd consider it a bigger deal if Synaptics hadn't already delivered drivers that provide somewhat similar functionality for many Windows-based trackpad-based notebooks.

Despite having a 1.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L7500 (that's a relatively powerful CPU for an ultraportable), the Air scored behind some of the ultraportable notebooks in its 3-pound weight class--even ones that had slower processors. After we installed Apple's Boot Camp software and Windows Vista, the Air earned a 57 on our WorldBench 6 tests. Lenovo's ThinkPad X300, a business-oriented notebook, has a lower-powered CPU (a 1.2-GHz Core 2 Duo L7100), and yet scored a 64 on WorldBench--a significant 12 percent difference. You might suspect that the Air's being a Mac might have something to do with it--and perhaps it did, but previous Apple notebooks haven't had any performance issues on WorldBench, and in fact, for a time a MacBook Pro held the title of the fastest notebook we'd tested.

We also ran into some speed bumps with the Air initially (specifically, getting hardware-related function keys to work, such as those for the volume and brightness controls), but Apple's Boot Camp utility resolved some of the stickiest problems. However, this lightweight is light on run times: In our lab tests, the Air's battery lasted for 2.5 hours of operation. And because of its closed-case design, you can't swap in a new battery. So what at first seems a godsend if you're a frequent flyer will quickly ground you--unless, of course, you fly first-class on those planes now offering power outlets.

Ultimately, though, the Air is a victory of industrial design and single-minded purpose. It has decent performance for an ultraportable, but few standout features to speak of beyond the superficial. And yet, I still can't help wanting to stop and touch it.

--Darren Gladstone

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The Air's looks can't be denied. Its performance and expandability are whole other matters, though.

    Pros

    • Sleek, sexy, spartan design
    • Greatly improved graphics power
    • Full-size keyboard
    • Fantastic keyboard
    • Weighs three pounds
    • Bright display

    Cons

    • Single USB port
    • So slim, there's little room for inputs
    • No video adapters in box
    • Poor battery life
    • Slower than much more affordable Apple laptops
    • Unswappable battery
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