Apple MacBook Air 1.6GHz review

An instant design classic that wins us over despite its hardware omissions

TechRadar Verdict

Despite the lack of hardware features, the MacBook Air is a wonderful Mac that will turn heads wherever it goes


  • +

    Ultra-light chassis

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    Intelligent, enlarged scrollpad

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    Incredible screen


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    No optical drive

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    Poor battery life

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    No Ethernet connection

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Falling in love can blind you to your lover's faults. And we've fallen head over heels in love with the MacBook Air...

Despite the removal of key hardware components, a lack of processor oomph, so-so battery life and only one USB port, we're still thrilled to be owning one of the first units to enter the UK.

It really is a thing of beauty, light and compact, and a capable performer, given its tech-compromising design.

Light yet powerful

Several of us at TechRadar have a Mac desktop for heavy workloads, so performance grumbles about the MacBook Air are mostly mute. It's not meant for heavy work and doesn't really need more power than it has.

Owners of MacBook Pros might cluck that their processing power widdles all over the MacBook Air for the same price, but hands up all those people who really push the MacBook Pros to the limit? And how much does your MacBook Pro weigh? For surfing, corresponding and handling most media needs, the MacBook Air is perfectly spritely.

We took a look at the 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Air with an 80GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM. You can upgrade to a 1.8GHz chip at purchase (£190) and a solid state drive (SSD) for £639.

The Air sports the same 13.3-inch glossy screen as your standard MacBook (1280x800 pixels), although the Air's screen has an LED backlight source, which has better power efficiency and looks brighter at the maximum setting. The connection options are limited but you do get Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11n Wi-Fi.

Limited connectivity

The ports are one headphone jack, one USB 2.0 port and one micro-DVI port (common adaptors are included in the box), which you access via a tuck-away flap in the base. You also get the iSight, a speaker under the keyboard and twin mics. But that's yer lot, folks. There's no Ethernet port, FireWire, audio input jack, ExpressCard, Apple remote or optical drive.

The two biggest adjustments for us were the lack of an optical drive and the lack of an Ethernet port. If you want to access DVD or CD media, you need to buy an external SuperDrive separately (£65) and connect it to the Air's single high-powered seven-volt USB port.

Alternatively, you can install a new software release from Apple called Remote Disk onto a second Mac that has an optical drive. The MacBook Air can then access the drive wirelessly.

Remote Disk works fine for small software packages, but the lack of a FireWire or Ethernet port starts to suck when you try larger file transfers - say, using Migration Assistant to move your old Mac's files to your new Mac. Wi-Fi data rates are glacial in comparison to wired, and we were soon buying one of Apple's USB Ethernet adaptors to help us out (£15).

Strong Wi-Fi performance

Now that most people are downloading software, movies and music, the lack of an optical drive is less critical than it would have been a few years ago. If you have a Bluetooth mouse, then the one USB port is free, unless you have that Ethernet adapter in place, but very clearly the MacBook Air is suited for people who hop between Wi-Fi hotspots all day long.

Wireless performance was certainly good. We worried that the aluminium casing would crimp reception, but it didn't affect things too badly. Inside a 802.11n-enabled WiFi catchment area, we streamed trailers from with decent speeds.

What else is lacking? Well, the capacity of the hard drive is small at just 80GB, and slow at 4200 rpm, and there's no upgrade option at purchase unless you go for the SSD drive for a whopping tariff.

The SSD drive has a longer life, no moving parts (read: less heat) and better power handling. But it's small at 64GB and the price takes some swallowing. The 2GB RAM is soldered into the slots so there's no upgrade path there, either. Still, 2GB is a decent allocation.

Typical Mac wow factor

The MacBook Air wouldn't be a Mac if it didn't have design elements with that wow factor. The chief draws, apart from the advantages of the light design, are dramatic improvements to the scrollpad, the backlit keyboard, the neat tuck-away port drawer, the MagSafe and magnetic latch, and the ambient light sensors.

It also feels great to Skype people on the Air, perhaps because the two microphones embedded in the lid are great performers. Ambient sensors adjust screen brightness and the keyboard backlight to suit your environment, too.

At nearly five inches across, the scrollpad dwarfs the pad on the 17-inch MacBook Pro, and any other laptop we can think of. But its main strength is its broadened acceptance of finger commands.

It caters for a three-finger back/forward gesture, a two-finger page scroll, a two-finger spread and zoom in/out gesture, plus two-finger rotation. These are incredibly intuitive to use and will make you wonder how you managed before.

Performance issues

The performance of some software, particularly graphics applications, on the MacBook Air is less impressive than on the MacBook. In fact, it's only a marginally better workstation than a Mac mini, which many are perfectly happy with.

Generally, if you're just doing basics, then we doubt you'll feel the performance hit. The OS feels responsive working in Mail, internet browsers and the iLife apps. iPhoto is fast enough for our needs, and spinning a large photo with a two-finger gesture on the scrollpad is instant.

We could still run Photoshop with decent times, too. You only start to notice differences in behaviour if you start performing number-crunching edits in Photoshop, like applying a radial blur.

Our main gripe is the battery. You can't replace it yourself, which is annoying, and we averaged less than a meagre three hours per charge under normal use. There is a fan inside the MacBook Air, which is quiet by the way, but without a bank of ports or an optical drive we expected a bit more stamina.

Value for money

Despite the hardware drawbacks, the MacBook Air offers the performance welly required by most people, and is a superb choice for those on the go - it's so incredibly light.

However, we still recommend buying the USB Ethernet adaptor, and suggest getting the external SuperDrive, too. This may be a laptop made for people who hop between wireless hotspots, but the storage will come in useful.

The large screen on such a light model distinguishes it in the market, and although a MacBook Pro is available for the same money, it's a different beast that might be out of place for your needs.

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