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gadget review

The MacBook Air one of the most versatile off-the-shelf mobile computing solutions around

Place the freshly minted mid-2014 incarnation of the 13" MacBook Air side-by-side with last year's model of the laptop and you'd be hard pressed to tell which one is which.

Many of Apple's critics are quick to call the versioning that the company heaps on their hardware a sign of stagnation. But they're wrong: while the Apple brand name is traditionally associated with innovation, it is a company which above all else excels at tweaking. And let me tell you, this is an ultra-portable laptop that has been tweaked very well indeed.

For an ultra-portable, the mid-2014 13" MacBook Air offers impressive performance. The base model of the hardware Features a 1.4GHz or 1.7GHz i7 dual core Intel processor, 4GB or 8GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 and 128GB or 256GB of solid state storage. And yes, portability is a key feature: It weighs just 1.35 kilograms and measures 32.5 cm wide, 22.7 cm deep and 0.3 cm high at the thinnest points.

I spent a month with the 4GB RAM/128GB SSD version of the laptop, which was more than capable of powering most users through their daily e-mail, word processing, photo editing and web browsing tasks. I found few evident graphical stutters during tests with light gaming and audio or video production. World of Warcraft and Starcraft II, for example, ran well on their software recommended settings. And while the laptop did heat up enough for its fans to kick in while I was editing audio in GarageBand and smartphone-captured video in iMovie, I noticed that mid-2014 MacBook Air offered a satisfying speed boost over the last generation's base model hardware while performing these same tasks under identical conditions.

As with the last generation 13" MacBook Air, the 2014 version comes packing enough connectivity options to meet the needs of most users: two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone jack, SDXC card slot and a Thunderbolt port – the latter of which can be used to daisy chain multiple storage devices simultaneously, connect to a Thunderbolt compatible monitor or be fitted with an adapter for HDMI output or ethernet access. In addition to running the company's OS X operating system, this hardware can also dual-boot into Windows 7/Windows 8 or run Windows-compatible software and other alternate operating systems through the use of aftermarket virtual machine software. This makes the MacBook Air one of the most versatile off-the-shelf mobile computing solutions around.

Of course, all of this portable computing power and adaptability would be useless if it weren't backed up by a substantial amount of battery life. Fortunately, this Air delivers. With its display set at 50 per cent brightness, the computer's battery provided me with just under 12 hours of Web surfing, word processing and music streaming – that's more than enough juice to last through a day of classes, work or on a cross-country flight and roughly a full three hours more than my personal laptop (a 2012 MacBook Air) was able to offer even back when it was brand new.

Sadly, however respectable the speed and battery bumps this updated Air boasts, they do nothing to hide the warts that come part and parcel with the hardware.

Despite being around $100 cheaper than its 2013 iteration, at $1,099, the 13" MacBook Air isn't exactly cheap. But it's not grossly overpriced, either. Similarly specced Windows 8 ultra-portables like HP's Split X2 and the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro Touchscreen Ultrabook currently retail at around the same price.

A capable ultra-portable system is a serious investment. If you can live without having a sliver-thin, feather-light laptop in your life, equally powerful, albeit bulkier portable computers can be had for less.

But I was also disappointed by the Air's display. It is bright and features good colour reproduction and wide viewing angles, but it only comes in a mediocre 1440 x 900 pixel resolution. Anyone who's recently used a 13" MacBook Pro with Retina display, current generation iPad, Nexus 7 tablet or laid hands on LG's G3 smartphone will find the new Air's display a little underwhelming. It's not terrible – just not top of the class.

Finally, as with past generations of the MacBook Air line, this laptop can't be easily upgraded. The computer's RAM is soldered directly its motherboard and no third-party options currently exist for upgrading its flash-based SSD. So users who want their laptop to be equipped with additional processing power and internal storage space are forced to fork over a premium for the privilege at the time of purchase.

But these are the minor complaints of an individual who's paid to find the downside to everything that comes across his desk. More likely than not, the MacBook Air's hardware and what it does to your software will make you quite happy.


So, should you get one? If you already own the 2013 13" MacBook Air, then probably not. The capabilities of the two computers are so similar that I can't recommend the upgrade. A small spec bump and improved battery life, for most people, simply aren't worth the steep price of admission. But if you've been thinking about upgrading from an older laptop or considering the purchase of your first portable computer, be it a Mac or Windows-powered PC, the mid-2014 13" MacBook Air has strong industrial design, insanely long battery life, overwhelming versatility and is a good get that will serve most users well.

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