Even before the concept of an 'Ultrabook' became popular, Apple seemed to have all the elements in place. The first MacBook Air launched in 2008 was a wonder not many of us believed could exist. But unfortunately, there were a bunch of issues that prevented the product from really taking off, one of which was it being a bit early for its time. Since then, the Air has seen a couple of avatars, but last year's model, running on 2nd gen Intel Core i5 and i7 processors elevated the Air to an almost cult status. This year, Intel's much awaited Ivy Bridge processors have hit the market, and with it, a whole flood of new Ultrabooks. Apple wasn't far behind though, and at WWDC this year, it announced the new MacBook Air 2012. Here is our review of the new 13-inch MacBook Air which landed on our test bench right after the June launch. We spent a couple of weeks with it.

What's different?

The revamped MacBook Pro with the amazing 2880x1800 Retina Display literally had people drooling, but most were disappointed to learn that the Air's screen remained unchanged. Visually, there's really no difference between the 2011 and 2012 model. You still get the same, beautiful aluminium unibody casing and multitouch glass trackpad. The Air measures 0.11 inches at its thinner end, and no other Ultrabook, save maybe the ASUS Zenbook comes close to that. It weighs 1.35 kg, which still makes it one of the lightest laptops in the market. So light, in fact, that I constantly checked to see if it was still in my bag. The Air feels solid and sturdy despite its skinny profile and maintains the same quality finish as its predecessor. So while the exterior has remained pretty much the same, there are a few small changes worth noting. First and foremost, the two USB 2.0 ports have been replaced by faster USB 3.0 ports, something we didn't expect to see on an Apple product. The old MagSafe connecter has been replaced with a thinner MagSafe 2.0 connecter, which is thinner than its predecessor. Apart from the fact that you won't be able to use the old power brick, there's not much of a difference. The FaceTime camera has had an upgrade too and can now record video in 720p HD quality. A Thunderbolt port, SD card reader and 3.5mm headphone jack completes the Air's meagre offering of ports. It's disappointing that Apple doesn't include Thunderbolt cables in the package. But the port is catching on though, and manufacturers like Seagate are now selling Thunderbolt adapters to go with GoFlex series of portable hard drives.

Same old, same old

The rest of the MacBook Air, the keyboard, display and sound are also unchanged, but for the uninitiated, here's a quick look. The Air's large, island style keyboard has very few serious contenders. Apple did make a few tweaks to the keyboard in last year's Air, but this year they chose not to. The keyboard is roomy and the keys are wonderfully springy, requiring the lightest of taps. Apple's beautiful glass trackpad is still a pleasure to use, supporting a bunch of multitouch gestures that can be customised to make the entire experience even better. The Air's 1440x900 LED backlit display screen is great for watching HD quality video. However the very fact that the Pro was rewarded with that mind-blowing Retina Display left many Air users, including myself, sorely disappointed. Sound quality is pretty good going by Ultrabook standards, and I was quite comfortable watching an entire movie without connecting up external speakers.

Software and configurations

The MacBook Air 2012 ships with OS X Lion, but anyone who buys a Mac product now is eligible for a free Mountain Lion upgrade, which should bring in a bunch of interesting features. For example, you will be able to use iMessage across any Apple device that runs iOS 5 – so you can start a conversation from your Mac and keep chatting on your iPhone or iPad. You have a new Notification centre which can access with a single swipe for a quick update on mails, messages or other alerts.

The 13-inch MacBook Air is available in two models, 128GB and 256GB, with a number of configuration options available. Memory has been standardised at 4GB, but both models can be upgraded to 8GB DDR3. The US website says that the 256GB variant can be upgraded to 512GB of flash storage, but that hasn't appeared on the Indian website. The new Air sports a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU (Turbo Boost up to 2.8GHz), with the 256GB model eligible for an upgrade to a 2.0GHz dual core Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz) CPU.

Performance

In order to benchmark the Air, I ran Geekbench and got a score of 6187, which is an improvement over the 2011 model. In terms of battery performance, with a normal day of use, I got between 5-7 hours of usage, which is a slight improvement over last year's variant.

As compared to the last MacBook Pro 13-inch, the overall performance of which was an amazing 6,910, the score falls a bit short.

Our verdict

The new MacBook Air brings with it a more powerful Intel CPU, added USB 3.0 ports and a better FaceTime camera, but not much else. While there definitely is an improvement over last year's MacBook Air, there isn't enough of a difference to seriously warrant an upgrade. Unless you're still using the 2010 model with a Core 2 Duo chipset, in which case you should definitely upgrade. The new MacBook Air has seen a drop in prices as well, which makes it even more tempting. As far as the competition goes, this year has seen even more Ultrabooks being launched, making the choice that much more difficult. Many brands, including Lenovo and HP have dropped the prices of their Ivy Bridge ultrabooks, so this is becoming a much more affordable category. But having said that, there still hasn't been an Ultrabook that can really take on Apple's, yet. So, for now, the Air still reigns supreme.

Love: USB 3.0 ports, HD FaceTime camera

Hate: No Retina Display, restricted changes

$1,199

(This article was published on July 9, 2012)
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