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One of the best computers I've used in years. Why your next computer should be a Mac Air.
on 24 July 2012
Suffering from insomnia and irregular sleeping patterns due to my recent trip to California, I think I've found the perfect time to type this review at 2am in the morning. Now, I've had this wonderful machine for about a month now, so I feel more inclined than before to write my very own, definitive review on this new 2012 MacBook Air. Before I get on with the major details, I will have to give you a side-thought to this review and what you may be thinking when deciding a new machine in this technological year for computing.
First of all, you're probably thinking when buying a computer this year to wait for October when laptops start shipping with Microsoft's most radical operating system, Windows 8. In addition to its notable interface changes and performance improvements, it is also optimised for touchscreen/tablet use. No doubt with the release of Windows 8 we'll be seeing more and more hybrid laptop/tablets to make use of the touchscreen interface, in an effort to appeal to those who want both devices. The gimmicky nature seems to stand out further when you take into account people already owning tablets for a separate purpose, and for me personally, I can't see myself performing computer functions constantly with a touchscreen, when a keyboard and trackpad performs the same tasks with more efficiency and comfort. Obviously, at the time of this review I have not properly tested any final release of Windows 8 on a new laptop optimised for the OS, but I have tried the next best thing. I installed Microsoft's freely downloadable Windows 8 Release Preview onto my three-year old Acer laptop, and compared to Windows 7 the improvements in performance and boot up times are greatly improved. It definitely does not lag or freeze to the same extent as Windows 7 did, to a point where I thought that I wouldn't need to buy a new laptop but instead buy Windows 8 when it came out. However, like most people who have used Windows all their life (as have I) there were still moments where there would be an odd freeze and stutter, or total unresponsiveness (something that has been common with the Windows OS since Windows 95). It is then when I decided that a new laptop was high on my priority list. My dilemma however was if I should wait for the new batch on Windows 8 laptops to come out later in the year, or try something different instead, like a Mac. I then took a risk and set out to buy the new MacBook Pro with retina display when it would be released in June as I had heard rumours that Apple was likely to release such a model. I have had other Apple products, such as an iPod, iPhone and iPad, and I have heard many good things about MacBooks, despite their relatively higher cost in comparison to other Windows laptops and in terms of their specs.
I'm a student at uni, I could apply the education discount when purchasing my MacBook (I recommend you find a way to do this to, since it helps to make the price more justifiable and you just need to know someone who is at uni to buy it for you). Apple also does a educational promotion between now and October this year I think where you can also get a £70 voucher to use in iTunes, and in addition an extended 3-year warranty and 1 year customer call service, which are nice additional bonuses.
When I found out the price of the retina Pro model, I was rather shocked. I had expected Apple to release MacBook pros with retina displays across the whole size range, rather than release a separate individual model. This was somewhat disappointing, as I had planned to buy a 13-inch Pro model with such a display. Because of this, it was between the 13-inch Pro or 13-inch Air. I was not preparing myself to buy an Air prior to the release of the new models, because I never expected Apple to release retina-displayed Airs this year. However because of the large differences in price, it was now between the Pro and the Air.
From face value, it doesn't seem like the 13-inch Pro had much of an upgrade compared to the Air. For instance, the screen is still not on par or higher-res than the Air (1280x800 compared to the Air's 1440x900) and so there is a notable clarity in screen sharpness over the Pro. Sure, the Air has an inferior display compared to the Pro due to slightly worse viewing angles, but it's horizontal angles are still excellent while the vertical angles are above average. The contrast and colours are rich and wonderful for a screen of this size. I'm impressed. I would go as far to say that a retina display is hardly a deal breaker. Here's why. Despite a lower pixel density, you simply view a laptop screen in a different way compared to a tablet or phone so that it's not necessary for most purposes to have such a high resolution screen. Sure, when you look closer to the display you will see pixels, but no-one comfortably uses and views a laptop screen at such a close distance. With my glasses on and at a normal distance from the screen, I can't see the individual pixels. It's just the fact that using a laptop screen means you will always be at a further distance to it. It's perfectly usable and of a high quality. Plus, you would have to think about the requirements for having such a display. It would mean that the price of the laptop would be higher, plus a larger battery would be needed to power it. This could negatively affect the weight and size of the laptop, plus charge time of the battery would increase. In a couple years time when the cost of producing such displays decreases, and engineering finds a way to overcome these problems in such a thin laptop, then maybe the benefits of having a retina-Aired model could be justifiable. However, I don't see this happening in the very near future, or at least with an inflated cost added to it. MacBooks are already expensive as it is, and this is supposed to be the cheapest for consumers.
Next, let's compare other features of the two models. The Pro has a DVD drive, the Air doesn't. You would have to buy an optional drive that sticks out and connects through USB. If you use a lot of DVDs and stuff like that, then I would just quit now and say to you that you should go for a Pro if you're looking for a Mac laptop. However, when contemplating whether I would ever need a DVD drive in my laptop, I went back to look at my previous laptop that even had a Blu-Ray drive. I rarely ever used it, and I never owned any Blu-Rays for playing movies in it. It's mostly downloaded media and portable hard drive stored files now. I think it is safe to say that DVDs are becoming obsolete in this post-PC era. The benefits of removing this are quite beneficial, allowing the MacBook Air to be so much thinner and lighter than the Pro. Speaking of the size of the two models, the MacBook Air is also much better for travel and portability; the Pro look likes a giant in comparison. It makes it that much more usable in day-to-day situations, without having the compromise much in power. You just want to use it all the time on your lap because it feels so snug and rarely gets hot (unless your playing graphically-intense games). In terms of processing power, the Pro has a higher clock speed that the Air, but this is offset by the super-fast SSD contained in the Air. It's beautifully speedy - it boots and turns off in mere seconds, and applications open almost instantly. This contributes to the Air's overall responsiveness that the Pro just can't beat with its standard slow HDD drive. Sure, the Pro has a much larger capacity for storage, and, unlike the Air, you can swap it for an SSD drive later, but the fact that there is now cloud storage, cheaper flash drives and SD cards do help to offset the problem of low storage space. In fact, I could use a 64gig card for movies and a cheap portable hard drive for storage media files, which makes owning a 128gig model less of a hassle. And the benefits are a much thinner and lighter computer that you can take anywhere much easily. Trust me, your backpack will thank you in the long haul. On the other hand, the Pro has more ports, like an Ethernet port and Firewire port. I'll probably miss the Ethernet port, and you'd have to buy a separate adapter for the Air if you want wired connectivity (still cheap). But these days, I'm always usually connected to wifi instead, so it's becoming less and less of an issue. The ports that I need - USB 3.0, SD card, Thunderbolt port - are all I really need. It would have been nice to have a HDMI port, but then the space on the side of the device is limiting. Again, you can buy another adapter. I don't often connect laptops to TVs, and when I do I just wireless stream media to it instead. Not completely a necessity for me, again. However, the 13 inch Pro doesn't have a HDMI port either, and annoyingly all the ports are on one side of the machine (a problem that isn't found on the Air, where all the ports are evenly distributed on either side of the machine).
Whilst I have never owned a Pro (just used it) I think it can be safe to assume that its large nature means that it produces more noise and heat than this little Air. It never gets hot or even modestly warm during typing, music, movie or internet browsing, and the fans are utterly silent. It's beautiful. Compared to my 16 inch Acer laptop, it's like a totally different world. I can actually use this on my lap without ever having to worry that I'll get leg burns in the next couple of minutes or so.
Moving on to other aspects: the design. Like all Apple products, the Air is just a beautiful-looking laptop. It's thinness, simple aesthetic combined with ergonomics makes this one of the nicest-looking laptops ever IMO. The Pro is no ugly beast either, and some may find the black bezel of the Pro more inviting than the silver lines surrounding the Air's screen. However, it wedge-like design of the Air wins it for me, and I just can't get over how it makes the Pro look that much more chunkier in comparison.
Next is the keyboard and trackpad - two of the best aspects of a MacBook that no Windows laptop can touch, at least not together. While the Pro keyboard has slightly more travel than the Air, the Air's keyboard is still just so fantastic to use, and so comfortable at the same time. Whilst the urks of having no backspace button and the insistence of command functions seems very unintuitive to a Mac newbie such as myself, like most things I'll probably get used to it or find some way around it. The huge trackpad is one of the best reasons why you should choose a Mac - it's super responsive, smooth and so clever. The trackpad gestures to doing things like scrolling and swiping through applications is the sole reason why using a Mac so nice. It's so good that you'll never feel the need to connect a mouse to it. When I went back to my old Windows laptop I had forgotten that its small, stiff trackpad didn't have any trackpad gestures. It was sorely missed.
Next - battery life. The MacBook Air 13 inch is stated to have 7 hour battery life, but really anything over the half an hour I got with my huge desktop replacement was a massive improvement for me. I was never without the charger connected with that computer, but it just feels so free when using the Air because I can finally have the freedom to not have to worry about always being next to a plug. In real world use, I've gotten around 5-6 hours with moderate/heavy usage (e.g. wifi constantly on, screen brightness 50%/60%) which is still fantastic imo.
So...why choose a MacBook Air over a Windows ultrabook? One of the more encouraging reasons would be the heart of this computer - Mac OS. I've found that its more responsive and breezy to use compared to Windows, and it doesn't feel like a lags frequently like it does with a Windows machine. I have to admit, when first using this computer I felt slightly out of my comfort zone, as I had never properly used a Mac machine before. The totally different environment can be somewhat intimidating at first. But you have to give it a couple of days, but then soon enough everything just 'clicks' and you understand how to use it, because like most Apple products, everything is designed to be user-friendly. Sure, there are less programs and games for the Mac, but it's obviously going to grow given how popular Apple computers are becoming. Programs I use everyday such as Chrome, Spotify, Steam and iTunes are all there, and the growth of the fantastic Mac App Store is only going to get more easier and better to download a wide range of programs, just like the iTunes store for Apps for the iPhone and iPad. It's a wonderful and less frustrating operating system to use, in my opinion.
The MacBook Air also has configurable options that ultrabooks don't have - most notably the ability to upgrade the RAM to 8GB through the Apple Store online (which is highly recommended given its performance-enhancing qualities and future-proof benefits to the laptop). Many other ultra book equivalents don't give you this option as most are stuck on 4GB of RAM. Yeah, some ultra books are lighter and thinner than the Air now, but the additional perks such as extended warranty support and an iTunes voucher, as well as superior build quality of the Air, make it harder to choose over. Some ultrabooks also have slightly higher resolution screens, but then fail when it comes to keyboard and trackpad input. The MacBook Air is the overall best choice when taking account every factor. I even think it could be Apple's best computer right now (yes, even better than the Retina Pro) when you look at size, cost and overall value in Apple's Mac Range. It's fast, its improved graphics now makes it a competent games machine, you can have 8GB ram for not much at all, it's beautiful and it's less than a grand. Sure, it may cost twice as much as a Windows laptop with similar specs, but it feels as much as it's worth, it's built to last and probably easily outperforms such a machine. And I trust Apple's awesome customer service if something ever goes wrong.
Another thing that should be a plus when buying a MacBook Air (or any Mac for that matter) is if you already own one of Apple's iDevices (such as an iPod or iPhone). Most people these days usually have at least one in this day and age. Because they are part of Apple's products, there is much better and smoother intergration with the devices together. The most notable example is through iCloud, Apple's rather spiffy cloud storage service. For example, if you have an iPhone and a MacBook Air, you can use Photo Stream in iCloud which automatically backs up the photos you've taken on your iPhone and lets you view and store them on your Air without having to manually do anything. This integration is pretty sweet as it means all your devices are backed up, connected and synchronised accordingly. Imagine if you lost your iPhone and your contacts? Don't worry, you've still got your photos, contacts, mail and the like still available to you.
You will not regret buying this wonderful laptop!
Thanks for reading my review. If you got any questions, leave it in the comments box.
EDIT: And if it wasn't enough already, if you buy an Air computer now, Apple will give you a free upgrade to their latest operating system, OS X Mountain Lion! The stability and security improvements, along with new features from iOS like Notification Center, Messages, and more make the Air an even better computer. It feels even snappier than before, and unlike most new things that come out I've yet to experience a bug or fault with it. It's great!
EDIT 2: Thanks for the positive feedback, I really appreciate it. Now the 8th September, I want to add a few more details onto my review that I didn't add in the original review that have come up since owning the device for two months.
The first issue is to do with hard disk space. Obviously with the Air using SSD, the increased cost of such use means that the average storage space most people get is around 128gb. In this day and age this isn't really that much considering that even cheap computers have at the very least 500gb with a traditional spinning drive. That means that when it comes to storage, you'll face problems a lot faster than with computers with more space. In my original review I mentioned that cloud storage could be used to save local storage space on your harddrive. However, I've found this not to be the case. Most, if not all, online cloud services such as (Dropbox and Amazon Cloud Drive) copy the files you've uploaded to your computer, and I haven't found a way yet of overcoming this which is disappointing. Thus, I seriously recommend you buy a portable/external hard drive (preferably one that has USB 3.0 support for maximum data transfer speeds) which can be found for £50-60 for 1TB (more than enough space) so that data junkies can easily balance their files and save the most important ones on their Air. That way, you'll have lots of room to spare. I seriously don't recommend upgrading the SSD to 256gb or higher due to the staggeringly unproprortional cost to gb ratio compared to a nice small hard drive. Also, 64gb memory cards and USB flash drives are coming down in price, so 128gb should be plenty for the average/above average user. Obviously if you store and play around with loads of files then you might want to consider a bigger hard drive if you have the money, but at the sacrifice of slightly less convenience my alternative route is more cost-effective. It would also be time to mention the Macbook Pro instead if this is the case - bigger hard drives as standard (albeit with much slower performance) and the extremely beneficial option to replace it with an SSD (which are extremely cheap these days, moreso than the prices Apple offers for their upgraded SSDs). This means that in the future, you'll be able to have a high storage SSD for very little cost. With the Air, you are most likely stuck with the same space (although there are options of upgrading the SSD through third party alternatives at a high cost, search Google). Personally though, I don't really fiddle with computers so even if I did have a Macbook Pro I probably wouldn't get around to doing this; having the SSD in the Air as standard is the reason I chose it. Bear in mind - the cost of buying that SSD for your Pro would be more expensive storage space wise of buying an portable hard drive for your already SSD-equipped Air. However, it would be inside of the computer rather than being a separate peripheral. I seriously don't mind carrying something that small anyway, and plus it wouldn't have the most important files on it. Just some food for thought there.
Secondly, I failed to mention whether people had any doubts as to whether a 13-inch screen is too small for some tasks or moderate use, considering I know a lot of people have come from 15-inch laptops. As I've learned to use it, I've fallen in love with the size. It's pretty much the perfect balance of portability and workability. I've seen some of the 15-inch Macs and although they do seem to have quite a lot more screen estate, I feel they look just too big to be a portable machine. However, the 13-inch Air feels like it has a bigger screen for its size because of its 16:10 aspect ratio. This means that it's more vertical/less rectangular than 16:9 laptop screens, which is what I had on my previous 16-inch screen. Thus, there is a lot of area. Even my sister thought I was lying when I said the screen was 13 inches. The aspect ratio makes for comfortable multitasking and website browsing, all within the comfort of your lap. The only advantage of my 16:9 laptop was that it was much better for movie viewing (no black horizontal lines) but that's pretty much it. Multitasking was a bit of a pain when you had to scroll down a lot to read a full webpage, for example. So, if you're in doubt, go into an Apple Store and see how big and usable the display is for yourself. You'll be surprised. Heck, even the 11-incher has a bigger screen than you would expect.
The third issue that I came across was Mountain Lion (after my initial praise for it). When first downloading it, I realised after a while that my battery life was worse. A lot worse. I was getting just over 3 hours, which is pretty terrible. Fortunately, Apple was quick to release a new update with improvements and my battery life has increase to about 4 and a half hours, which is usable, but not on the same level when I was running Lion. It will take some time for them to address this, which I'm sure they will soon (as other people have noticed this issue), and seemingly the first update improving has reassured me at the very least.
Again, thanks for reading, any questions post below, and I'd be happy to respond as quickly as possible. :)
EDIT 3: June 1st 2013. Just a quick update. Apple will probably be releasing their updated Macbook refresh at WWDC on June 10th, so I would recommend you waiting until then if you're thinking about getting an Air, even if it's just for the Haswell processors (promising huge increases in battery life and graphics performance). Btw, my Air is still going very strong as it was a year ago :)