The MacBook Air had a good run. For a while there, Apple had no one to compete against but itself, and it's easy to look great with no one nipping at your heels. But the MacBook Air was just different enough—light enough to really take anywhere, powerful enough to really use—that it caused users and PC vendors alike to rethink the laptop, and it couldn't be unique for very long. It may have taken a couple of years for the rest of the PC world to get their act together, but get it together they have. The Ultrabooks have landed and Apple is suddenly facing stiff competition—enough so that current MacBook Air models have the latest, fastest Intel processors where originally they lagged a year or two behind, using hardware that was merely good enough. My how things have changed.
The first round of Ultrabooks bore a distinct resemblance to the MacBook Air, mimicking everything from the low profile keyboard and glass surfaced trackpad to the minimalism of the aluminum Unibody. The ultrabook category may have been laid out by Intel, but it was defined by Apple, with nearly every defining point aping the MacBook Air. The new slim laptops would be razor-thin (under 21mm), light (under 3.1 pounds), and long-lasting (with 5+ hours of Asus a32-f3 battery life). People noticed it too, and manufacturers have realized that "Copy Apple" isn't a viable design strategy anymore.
We recently named several of the best ultrabooks now on the market, but even in the weeks since then, we've seen new entrants into the category, touting newer hardware, longer lasting batteries, and crafted from everything from carbon fiber to Gorilla Glass. Newer models are bold departures from Apple's influence, and getting bolder if this fall's announced designs are any indicator. As new models compete with each other on everything from features to price, Apple's MacBook Air is looking more and more like one of the crowd.
Apple's not out of the fight by any means, however. Though no longer leading the pack, it's still the slim-bodied laptop to beat. The thin and tapered MacBook Air is still shockingly light (2.85 pounds), but now boasts the speed of USB 3.0 ports in addition to the (mostly) exclusive Thunderbolt port. The 1,440 by 900 resolution display is still among the better screens, but plenty of competitors have ditched the 1,366 by 768 screen as well (more on them in a moment). There are also a few features offered by Apple that you won't find anywhere else, starting with Lion OS X, soon to be updated to Mountain Lion. Throw in iLife apps, like GarageBand, iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, and FaceTime, and it's a package that could sway plenty of Windows users. Apple's trackpad is still the best clickpad mouse we've used, and the gesture support in OS X is second to none. And Apple is no longer resting on its laurels with two and three year old processors, having swooped in with Intel's third-generation Ivy Bridge processors before many PC manufacturers have even made it to market.
But an army of PC Makers, united under Intel's Ultrabook flag, are putting Apple in its place with systems that offer lighter weight (Toshiba Portege Z835-P370), innovative designs (HP Envy 14 Spectre) and price (HP Folio 13-1020us). Even Ivy Bridge processors have made an appearance (Sony VAIO T13) giving ultrabooks the same performance and energy efficiency that Apple offers. In addition to the variety of options offered by the several manufacturers making ultrabooks, you can also bank on the fact that you will be able to get equal or better battery life and a wider selection of ports on most ultrabooks available today.
There are certainly compelling reasons not to dismiss the Apple MacBook Air, but when all things are taken into consideration, the current crop of ultrabooks gives the Apple MacBook Air a run for its money, and this is one race that won't be over anytime soon.
FEATURED IN THIS ROUNDUP: