If you’re in the market for a compact laptop and have an eye on style there’s one obvious choice: the Apple MacBook. Unfortunately, while the MacBook is a desirable piece of kit, its starting price of £1,250 for a mere Core m3 processor and 8GB of memory is hardly what you’d call good value.
While there are Windows alternatives to the MacBook—Microsoft’s Surface and Dell’s XPS 12 spring to mind—few are based on the same compact 12-inch laptop form factor, or cost substantially less money. Chinese gadget maker Xiaomi wants to change all that with the Xiaomi Air 12, a MacBook-style laptop that retails for a third of the price. Not only does the Air 12 feature a remarkably similar industrial design to Cupertino’s offering, it boasts similar specs too. It’s almost too good to be true.
Buying an Air 12 is not a wholly risk-free undertaking. Xiaomi hasn’t officially released the Air 12 (or its 13-inch big brother the Air 13) in the UK, US, or other western markets. Buying one means dealing with grey importers and sucking up the associated ramifications regarding import duties and after-sales support, or lack thereof. My review sample came from Chinese reseller GearBest, which, at the time of writing, wants just under £400 for an Air 12. Unfortunately, DHL charged another £19 of import duty before delivery, bringing the total cost to just shy of £420.
The version on offer at £400 comes with the Chinese iteration of Windows 10 Home installed, which means there isn’t an option to swap the system language into English. This makes the Air 12 all but unusable out of the box—unless you can read Chinese—but the fix is straight forward. You need to log the into your Microsoft account on the Air 12, make a Windows 10 USB installation stick, overwrite the Chinese version of Windows with an English version, and then hit the “troubleshooting” button on the Windows activation screen.
Windows then checks the machine for a bona fide activation code, finds the one that shipped with the laptop, and bingo: a new, English, and entirely vanilla version of Windows 10 is activated.
Of course, you can always refuse the offerings of Microsoft in favour of something open source. Handily the Air 12 takes to Linux just fine. My experience installing Ubuntu Gnome 17.04 was fuss-free, and everything worked from the get-go bar some fiddling with the touchpad control panel.
Copy or homage?
If you can see past the barriers to entry, the Air 12 is a very usable, handsome laptop. The brushed aluminium exterior is well made, and the design of the lid hinge, the cut-out in the front of the base to aid lid-lifting, and the shape of the central one-piece touchpad are all very Mac-like. So too is the packaging, and the one-piece, two-pronged power supply it comes with.
There’s surprisingly little to choose between the MacBook and the Air 12 in terms of size, despite the Xiaomi’s display being half an inch longer between the corners. Measuring 292mm x 202mm x 12.9mm it is a few millimetres wider and deeper but also a fraction less thick than the Apple machine. At 1.07kg it weighs 150g more than a MacBook, but it still feels very light.
Considering the Air 12 is slightly thinner than a MacBook, Xiaomi’s designers deserve credit for squeezing in a full-sized USB 3.0 Type-A port and HDMI port. Combined with the USB Type-C port (which also serves as the power socket), and 3.5mm audio jack, the Air 12 makes the MacBook’s offering of a lone USB Type-C port and audio jack look a little inadequate.
On the underside of the Air 12 are two small speaker grilles. This is traditionally a terrible place to put speakers in a laptop, but the AKG-branded speakers sound surprisingly good, even with the laptop placed on a lap or table. They’re suitably loud too. Meanwhile, the backlit US-International keyboard features good sized, well-spaced keys that have a positive if slightly shallow action.
Visually, I prefer Xiaomi’s silver keys to Apple’s black. Some degree of adjustment to the backlight duration once you stop typing while running on battery power would be handy, but that’s a very minor niggle. The accompanying touchpad is nothing extraordinary. It’s a Synaptic rather than Microsoft Precision affair, but works well enough. At 104mm x 61mm it’s a decent size too, pleasant to the touch, and the corner-click actions are satisfyingly positive.
The obvious corner-cutting is with the display. With a full HD 1080p resolution, the Air 12 can’t compete with the MacBook’s high-res 226ppi display. That said, the 176ppi IPS screen of the Air 12 is still as sharp and bright as you could wish for, while contrast levels are excellent. Viewing angles are robust too, although the toughened glass that covers the display could do with a better anti-reflective coating.
Flip the Air 12 over and you find the text “Designed in Beijing by Xiaomi. Made in China” inscribed on the base. This knowing dig at Apple’s facile “Designed in California” strap line suggests Xiaomi has more of a sense of humour than its generally given credit for.
Design credit and internal Mi badge aside, the exterior of Air 12 is devoid of any branding. That’s a brave decision by Xiaomi and not without repercussions. In the week I toted the Air 12 around I suffered numerous enquiries regarding what it was—two on a Virgin train in the space of as many hours. A man can tire of explaining how to spell “Xiaomi.”