The MacBook Air has come a long way in the five years since I first wrote about Apple's popular ultralight laptop. But technologically, it's been eons. That's how fast technology changes, and an indicator of how much the latest MacBook Air has achieved the promise of portability without sacrificing too much power.
My initial hesitations regarding the Air -- that it was slow, had a limited number of ports, not enough storage, and emphasized style over substance way too much -- have since been shattered by the elegant balance of portability and power the newest Air offers. Gradual improvements with every iteration have culminated in this year's model, which was unveiled at last week's Worldwide Developers Conference and went on immediate sale.
Oh, and Apple even trimmed prices a bit, making the Air even more of a bargain. The 2013 line-up starts at $999 for the 11-in. model (now with 128GB of flash storage, double what it had before), $1,099 for the 13-in. model with the same storage. If you want 256GB of storage, you'll pay $1,199 for the smaller Air, $1,399 for the 13-in. model. All Airs use a Core i5 chip running at 1.3GHz and come with 4GB of RAM. If you want a faster processor, you can get a 1.7GHz Core i7; you can double the RAM to 8GB; and you can get up to 512GB of storage on all but the entry-level model.
Put another way, if you maxed out the processor, RAM and storage, you'd pay $1,749 or $1,849, depending on screen size. That might sound like a lot for a MacBook Air, but remember how much the first one cost in 2008? It started at $1,799.
The biggest change this year is the move to Intel's new Haswell processor, which delivers notably longer battery life than previous generations. (Apple estimates the 13-in. model can now go for a solid 12 hours before you need to recharge.) That, along with a score of other improvements such as the move to faster PCIe flash, have transformed the Air from compromised portable to a no-brainer must-have for mobile users requiring a notebook.
In terms of style, the Air looks exactly like its predecessor, with the exception of a second microphone hole for better sound quality when doing video chats or dictating.
During the five years it's been around, the MacBook Air has become the blueprint for the Ultrabook market. In what I'm sure is pure coincidence, Apple's Windows-based rivals bear more than a passing resemblance to the Air, some of them shamelessly so.
The model in hand, sent over by Apple for my upcoming detailed review, is the 13-in. Air with a i5 chip, 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. For the next couple of weeks, I'll be giving this new model a thorough going-over. But, even after a few days, I wanted to offer up some quick first impressions. So far, I'm more than pleased. It's clear that Apple engineers have been busy, though as already noted, virtually all of the changes are internal. If you liked the slender, wedge-like shape of the beautifully crafted previous generation, then you'll like this one.
Build quality and the materials used are still of the highest order. At 2.96 pounds for the 13-in. model, and 2.38 pounds for its little brother, the Air offers full computing for those who don't need the power of the MacBook Pro, but need to run OS X-based software while on the go.
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