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Apple MacBook air review: Fast, featherlight and radically restyled

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Speeds are up to 40 per cent faster while the display is bigger, brighter and pin-sharp  (The Independent)
Speeds are up to 40 per cent faster while the display is bigger, brighter and pin-sharp (The Independent)

Ever since Steve Jobs debuted the first MacBook air by sliding it out of an envelope to show how thin it was, this is a laptop that has turned heads. Since the original launch in 2008, it has only had three redesigns, a tiny one in 2010, a big one in 2018 and an even more radical one now.

The new model is thinner and lighter than before, has a redesigned keyboard and sees the return of an Apple fan-favourite feature: MagSafe charging.

Inside, there’s an all-new processor, the Apple M2, which is only found on one other laptop, the 13in MacBook pro, released in June this year. The display is brighter than before, and bigger, though because it has thinner bezels now, the overall size of the device is hardly changed. The improved webcam sits in a cut-out at the top of the display.

In short, it’s a whole new shooting match. All these innovations come with a price bump, though the previous-generation MacBook air remains available, too, at the same price, in the older design and colours.

Read more:

How we tested

I’ve been using the new MacBook air for the past week, checking out the new design, running multiple programs to see its speed and responsiveness under pressure and seeing if the battery lives up to Apple’s claims. I’ve also been testing the comfort of the keyboard, efficiency of the fingerprint sensor and the quality of the screen and speakers for elegant efficiency while working or doing a video call and punchiness when watching video, listening to music or playing a game.

Apple MacBook air with M2 processor: From £1,249, Apple.com

 (Apple)
(Apple)

Rating: 9/10

  • Processor: Apple M2

  • Display: 13.6in, LED-backlit, 2,560 x 1,664 native resolution, 500 nits brightness

  • RAM: 8/16/24GB

  • Storage: 256/512GB/1TB/2TB

  • Dimensions: 30.41 x 21.5 x 1.13 cm

  • Weight: 1.24kg

  • Colour: Silver, space grey, midnight and starlight

Design

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: the new MacBook air is gorgeous. And not only is it better-looking than before, it’s lighter, too.

It’s so light, in fact, and I’m not sure this is the effect Apple is going for, that the first time I picked it up, I wondered if it was a toy. It’s not, by the way.

In terms of its looks, every detail has been re-thought, from the larger Apple logo on the lid to the keyboard, where full-size function keys replace the top row of half-size keys on previous air models. There’s also a bigger power button with an inviting, dimpled fingerprint sensor. The keys themselves are sumptuously comfortable. This is what Apple calls a magic keyboard. There’s no actual witchcraft involved, you understand, but it’s pretty special. The keys have enough travel to be easy to type on for extended sessions, with a subtly concave shape to help your fingers find them effortlessly.

This latest restyling is the biggest yet, replacing the familiar tapered edges of all previous models with a simpler, flat lid. The same redesign has come to the 14in and 16in MacBook pro recently.

Available in four colours, mine is the ‘starlight’ colouway, which is spectacular (David Phelan)
Available in four colours, mine is the ‘starlight’ colouway, which is spectacular (David Phelan)

The grille speakers sitting either side of the keyboard (now only found on the pro and the previous air) have also gone, replaced by four directional speakers which sit unobtrusively between the keyboard and the lid of the laptop, designed to bounce the sound off the display.

The audio here is good, but not quite as stellar as on the last-gen MacBook air or the latest MacBook pro models. Where the upward stereo speakers on those laptops were warm and rich, the sound here, even though there are four speakers instead of two, is a touch harsher.

But the four speakers are designed to work with spatial audio, that enhanced audio set-up which makes movies and songs sound like they’re coming from all around you. Play compatible tracks, like The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” on Apple Music, and everything changes. The sound is suddenly powerful, immersive and deeply impressive.

The MacBook air comes in four colours, all of them attractive. There’s silver and space grey, but the eye-catching ones are midnight, which is almost black but with noticeable blue notes that stand out, and starlight. That’s the colour I’ve been using and it’s spectacular: mostly silver but with just a hint of gold, only really noticeable when it catches just the right light. It’s understated rather than blingy, but subtly distinct from silver with an understated warmth.

Display

By shrinking the bezel around the screen, Apple has been able to increase the display size from 13.3 to 13.6in without significantly changing the dimensions of the air. The last-generation model measured 30.41cm x 21.24cm x 1.61cm (though the edge tapered so the thickness went down to 0.41cm) and this one is 30.41cm x 21.5cm x 1.13cm.

Apple says that these changes mean it takes up 20 per cent less volume than the last generation of MacBook air. It’s lighter, too, at 1.24kg against 1.29kg for the previous model.

A bezel this narrow means there’s no longer any room for the webcam to sit above the display, so instead there’s a cut-out at the top of the screen where the camera and ambient light sensor sit. Apple has designed it so that the cut-out is a fraction less deep than the menu bar. In everyday use, the cut-out vanishes from your consciousness in seconds.

The bright, pin-sharp screen is a palpable step up from the last air (David Phelan)
The bright, pin-sharp screen is a palpable step up from the last air (David Phelan)

The screen is pin-sharp and satisfyingly bright. It’s rich and vibrant, so when you’re watching video, it really comes to life. The display on the last air was great, but this is a palpable step up. Incidentally, the cut-out is not visible when you’re watching a movie because the air automatically plays the video in the area just below it.

Performance

Apple recently switched from Intel processors to its own silicon chip which is very fast and responsive. The first Apple silicon chip was called M1, quickly followed by M1 pro, M1 max and M1 ultra.

It is an understatement to say the new processors have been highly successful. In June, Apple announced the next-generation of Apple silicon, the M2 chip. That’s what’s in this MacBook air.

Read more: 8 best Chromebooks

The speed and responsiveness of the new air are improved since the last model – Apple says it’s 18 per cent faster than the M1, with some areas of performance being 40 per cent faster. If you’re coming to this laptop as your first Apple silicon machine, however, the increase is massive, Apple says. It claims that some operations, like compiling code (no, neither do I) are 600 per cent faster compared to an Intel-chipped MacBook air. In plain terms, this is a very fast laptop.

The MacBook air is completely silent – there’s no fan to kick in when it gets hot. And it doesn’t get hot, the processor is so efficient. Battery life, which went up hugely when Apple moved to its M1 chip, remains extremely good here – Apple claims 20 hours of video playback. When I was testing it for long periods of time, I never carried the charging brick with me. Not only did I not need it, I had the confidence to believe I wouldn’t, changing my state of mind from “I’ll pack the charger, just in case,” to breezily leaving it behind.

Read more: iPad mini 2021 tablet review

Speaking of the charger, if you choose the air with the faster processor, there’s a neat extra bonus: the charging brick has not one but two USB-C sockets, so you can charge the MacBook air and another device, like a phone or a tablet, at the same time. Handy.

The air charges through either of the USB-C sockets on the left edge of the case, but it also comes with an attractive braided cable (colour-matched to the laptop itself) with a MagSafe connector.

MagSafe was a staple of Apple laptops until recently and has been missed by many. Apple reintroduced it on the 14in and 16in MacBook pro models last autumn and it’s here, too. If you aren’t familiar, it’s a quietly excellent thing, perfect for a lightweight laptop like this. The power cable connects magnetically to the air, so if some clumsy passer-by catches their foot on the cable, it simply detaches rather than sending the air flying.

Pricing

Apple’s latest MacBook air has quite a price increase over the current model with the tapered design and M1 chip. That’s still in the range and costs £999. The new model costs £250 more, starting from £1,249.

Apple MacBook

Buy now £1249.00, Apple.com

The verdict: Macbook air

Apple describes the MacBook air as the world’s best-selling laptop. As it’s just become faster, thinner and lighter, we can likely expect it to do very well.

It’s fast and effective. Unless you have seriously advanced programs that you regularly use, I’d say this laptop is easily powerful enough for most. The M2 processor is noticeably faster than the already barnstorming M1 and the battery life remains outstanding.

It must be said that the MacBook air with M1 processor is still a potent machine and saves a chunk of cash. For many, that laptop will be a sensible choice. But this is undoubtedly a better machine: it outguns the M1 MacBook air in almost every way. As for other computer brands, this laptop compares very well.

The new MacBook air shines because of its superb light weight and bright display, its great keyboard and fast performance, and its sheer drop-dead glorious design.

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