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Apple MacBook Air 13in (mid-2017) review: has Apple changed enough to stay on top?

Nine years after its original release, the MacBook Air is still one of the most desirable notebooks out there. With excellent performance and a sleek design, it's hardly surprising it's still on the market, even with Apple's newer MacBooks muscling in on its turf.

The style of the 2017 MacBook hasn't changed from previous generations, but don't let appearances fool you – inside, it's an entirely different beast.

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Design and build

It's hard not to like the familiar MacBook Air design that's remained mostly unchanged over the last few years. Unlike the other devices in the MacBook range, there's no colour options available – it's silver aluminium or nothing – but we don't feel this impedes on its desirability at all. It still has the impressively thin dimensions as previous generations, measuring just 17mm at its thickest point and weighing just 1.35kg – not bad at all when you consider its internal specifications.

The backlit keyboard, which hasn't been received the "butterfly" switches treatment given to the new 12in MacBook Retina, has excellent tactile feedback although is perhaps just a little rattly, but the key press action is nonetheless pleasing and there's enough travel to make it comfortable to type on for long periods.

The touchpad works exceptionally well, with no Windows-based laptop able to match the precise feel of Apple's design. Taps and clicks are effortless while gestures such as two-fingered scrolling, back and forward browser commands and two-fingered "right-clicks" are reliable, accurate and instantaneous. It makes navigating the macOS Sierra operating system incredibly easy.

Connectivity and Thunderbolt 2

There are two USB3 ports - one on the left and one on the right - as well as a 3.5mm headset jack, an SDXC card reader and a Thunderbolt 2 port. This is the first notable upgrade to the MacBook Air, which was previously equipped with a Thunderbolt connector.

The difference between the two is purely a speed upgrade: connected devices now have 20Gbps of bandwidth to play with instead of 10Gbps. The peripherals you can connect are the same: high-speed storage (such as RAID arrays) and high-resolution monitors (with Thunderbolt or DisplayPort inputs). But with this new, improved performance, huge files such as ultra-HD/4K video will be easier to handle when streaming to your MacBook Air and simultaneously writing it to another drive. Up to six devices can be connected over Thunderbolt (using an external hub) simultaneously.

Thunderbolt 2 will be of particular importance to business that use external storage for large files, such as media companies and firms with reams of data on external hard disc that needs to be sifted through at high speed.

Elsewhere, you still get 802.11ac wi-fi connectivity, great for connecting to the latest networks with better coverage and higher speeds than 802.11n. There's no gigabit ethernet connector but you can buy a Thunderbolt to gigabit ethernet connector direct from Apple for £29, or a bit cheaper elsewhere on the web.

Screen

We were disappointed to see that Apple hasn't boosted the resolution of the Air's 13.3in screen. The 1,440 x 900-pixel resolution is still perfectly usable and items on screen look reasonably sharp. But they lack the detail and crispness you get on higher quality displays such as those in use on the MacBook Pro and Dell XPS 13.

Colour coverage remains an issue, with just 70% of the sRGB gamut served by the TFT panel. This lack of colour performance is offset slightly by a very bright backlight and matt screen that makes this laptop suitable for use outside and in bright office conditions. Viewing angles are sub-par, though, particularly when adjusting the screen vertically. It would have been nice to have a higher quality or higher resolution panel in the Air, and at this price it's starting to look a little bit lacklustre.

Performance, storage and battery life

As you might expect from what is now effectively the entry level device for the MacBook range, the Air doesn't have the top-of-the-line specifications featured in the MacBook Pro or new MacBooks. For example, it still has a fifth-generation 'Broadwell' line dual-core Intel Core i5-5250U chip, whereas the newer notebooks have Intel's seventh-generation 'Kaby Lake' CPUs. You can upgrade the Core i5 chip to a Core i7, though.

It runs at a base clock speed of 1.8GHz – up from 2015's 1.6GHz – and you can also use Turbo Boost, a new feature from Apple that effectively allows you to overclock the processor while still running at a safe temperature. The device comes with 8GB RAM and 128GB or 256GB storage as standard. If you need an extra umph, though – and you have £150 going spare – you can upgrade this to 512GB.

Operating system

At the time of writing, the 13in MacBook Air runs macOS Sierra out of the box. This is likely to change towards the end of September, however, when Apple finally releases macOS High Sierra.

High Sierra was demoed at WWDC 2017 but is still currently in beta testing. You can read more about what to expect from the new operating system here, but for the time being, let's dig into macOS Sierra.

Sierra was released in June 2016, with Apple ditching the 'OS X' moniker at the same time. It brought Siri, Apple's virtual assistant, into the dock and allowed the software to perform complex file queries in natural language.

You can also use your Apple Watch (assuming you have one) to unlock your computer and there's also support for Apple Pay as well as a Universal Clipboard function, which works across Apple devices.

For full details of macOS Sierra's specs, click here.

Conclusions

The upgrades made to the MacBook Air this year are minor, meaning that those looking for an overhaul will be disappointed. While the rest of the recipe is great, we're still underwhelmed by the screen and this is an area that really needs attention.

It's particularly concerning as the MacBook Pro continues to improve: the cheapest model with a Retina Display is £999 and has a more powerful processor. The only thing to choose between them now is weight (the Pro is 300g heavier, which is significant) and battery life, which is slightly shorter on the Pro.

Update: Apple has now boosted the default 13in Air configuration to 8GB of RAM as standard. This is a very welcome, if long overdue addition. This is enough to keep the storied Air ticking over, but we'd still like to see a meatier update with new Skylake processors, Thunderbolt 3 and a higher quality screen. 

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