Innovations galore

One of the least obvious innovations in the new laptop - and the one virtually everyone will use - is the track pad, which integrates many of the multi-touch technologies found in the iPhone. You can use three-fingered motions (called swipes) to flick backwards and forwards through Web browser pages, photos in iPhoto and in other ways throughout the system.

The track pad also supports "spreading" and "pinching" motions to zoom in and out on items such as photos or Web pages, and it even works with the Cover Flow view in the Finder. Likewise, a new rotate feature makes rotating photos and similar content easy. The number of tasks and finger combinations can be confusing, so the MacBook Air's track-pad preferences offer video tutorials directly in System Preferences; you can activate only the multi-touch techniques you need.

Yet another innovation in the MacBook Air is the use of 1.8-in. hard drives (2.5 in. is common in laptops) and the option for a solid-state drive (SSD). Apple is no stranger to this hardware, which has been used in iPods for more than five years now. SSDs are a major change for laptops, offering better performance on less power than traditional hard drives.

Both are inspired choices for reducing bulk, though there is a trade-off: The MacBook Air offers the least amount of storage of any current Mac. The 1.8-in. drive holds 80GB of data and spins at a relatively leisurely 4,200 rpm; the SSD, while faster, is smaller, too. It holds just 64GB of data - and adds a whopping £829 ($999) to the price of the laptop.

Whether that poses a serious problem will vary from person to person. If you're buying, choose wisely - and check your bank account first!

So should you buy one?

There can be no real question that the MacBook Air is a truly innovative product. One close-up look at its incredibly bright, clear screen; its stunningly light and thin design; the inclusion of multi-touch functions; and the combination of wireless technologies show that the MacBook Air continues Apple's tradition of next-generation innovation and design. But does that mean that it's the perfect portable Mac for everyone?

Probably not.

Several factors may limit its overall effect on the market. First, the subnotebook market is small. Many users aren't willing to sacrifice features for portability. They want speed. Or a big screen. Or every variety of port available. Although Apple's latest laptop strikes a better balance than most of its competitors, it isn't for everyone.

Anyone looking for a portable Mac as his main machine will find the MacBook Air somewhat limited. Yes, you can get the optional USB SuperDrive for £65, but there's still no FireWire or an audio-in port - each of which can be issues for someone wanting to do professional or consumer video or audio work. The limited hard drive capacity could also be an issue.

Enterprise environments will likely hesitate because of the lack of built-in Ethernet. Although the USB add-on solves that problem, the port limitations and reliance on other hardware will likely be turn-offs to large-scale enterprises, particularly given the £1199 (or $1,799) starting price. For not much more than that, you can get a 15-in. MacBook Pro or even two entry-level MacBooks.

The MacBook Air imposes limits on expandability. It's doubtful that users will be able to upgrade the hard drive, and the built-in 2GB of RAM is soldered to the motherboard. While 2GB is fine for most users now, down the road, that may not be true.

Those caveats aside, for users who want a second Mac for the road, the MacBook Air could put you on cloud nine. If you already own another computer to balance out the MacBook Air's limitations at home or work, you may not even notice them. Even if you don't rely on another Mac, an external hard drive - either connected directly or shared via an AirPort Extreme or the new Time Capsule - may be all you need, though it's still a wise idea to get the USB SuperDrive.

For users who want a Mac that goes anywhere and weighs next to nothing, the MacBook Air is an incredible solution. Any road warrior will love both its size and weight, as well as the battery life. While there may not be a huge number of Mac users ready to pay for such portability, there is no doubt a market for the MacBook Air - especially when you consider that it is aggressively priced compared with the competition. And like all Intel Macs, it allows you to run both Mac OS X and Windows.

The MacBook Air won't be out for another couple of weeks, but anyone who spends a few minutes with the machine will be amazed on many levels. It may not be the portable Mac for everyone, but no one can say that it isn't an incredible achievement. And for those for whom it makes sense, it is also an incredibly sophisticated next-generation computer.

OUR VERDICT

Apple has cut a lot of corners to meet its goal of the thinnest laptop. If you don't mind paying a high price (as usual bulked up further in the UK) and living without no CD drive and only one USB slot, then go right ahead.