It used to be that the MacBook Air was iconic. It was the Apple logo-illuminated design you would see out in public as you hop between coffee shops. Now, you could argue that the devices it inspired are more widely used than the MacBook Air itself.
Before its first appearance almost 10 years ago now, there was nothing like the MacBook Air. It was under 0.8 inches thin, it was light, it was stylish. Everyone had to copy it.
As such, the outward design of the MacBook Air has changed marginally since its most flavorful 2010 refresh. While the guts of the system grew more powerful and capacious, the philosophy generally stayed the same.
It’s now been two years since the MacBook Air has seen any substantial changes. In 2016, Apple bumped up the RAM from 4GB to 8GB. In 2017, we saw a slight clock speed boost from 1.6GHz to 1.8GHz, albeit to the same 5th-generation Intel Core i5 ‘Broadwell’ CPU the MacBook Air has been clinging to for almost three years now.
Needless to say, the MacBook Air is in desperate need of an upgrade, even if what we have now is perfectly suitable. Eventually, this machine is going to be outpaced by the latest version of macOS, but until then we’ll continue to recommend the MacBook Air for those in hot pursuit of the most affordable MacBook you can still buy new.
By and large, the MacBook Air generally looks the same as it has since 2010, and there don’t appear to be any changes in tow, either. That’s a shame, particularly because we’re now seeing virtually bezel-less laptops with smaller footprints and high resolution screens that dismally put the MacBook Air in its place.
Forget the Dell XPS 13‘s physics-defying InfinityEdge display, which is lightyears ahead – even Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, once seen as slightly tubby compared to the Air, has a smaller footprint and takes up slightly less space on your lap.
Yet, the old ‘if it ain’t broke’ mantra applies – at least to a point. The MacBook Air’s aluminum unibody design, which supports the main enclosure and the display, is as durable as ever. Its lid can be easily raised with a single hand and doesn’t droop in any position, and you have to press really hard to detect flex on the machine’s base or lid.
It’s also easy to clean with a damp cloth. If there’s one drawback, it’s that the aluminum body can scratch easily to leave permanent black marks, so you should consider buying a sleeve if you’re going to sling it into a bag for transportation.
The 13-inch MacBook Air is more interesting than the 11-inch model due to housing flash storage twice as fast as its predecessor – or so Apple claims. It’s available in two configurations starting at £849 ($999, AUS$1,399) for a 1.8GHz (Turbo Boost to 2.9GHz) Core i5 CPU, 128GB of flash memory and 8GB of RAM.
We reviewed the top-spec early 2015 model, starting at £999 ($1,199/AUS$1,699) and netting you a 1.6GHz (Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz) CPU, 4GB of RAM and 256GB of flash memory. Our unit had been further configured to ship with 8GB of RAM which, at the time added £80 (around $124, or AUS$170) to the total cost.
That price makes the 13-inch MacBook Air more expensive than the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina (early 2015), which also starts at £999 ($1,199/AUS$1,699). Price is no longer a differentiator, so which one you go for depends on a few factors that will be explored in this review.
One advantage of the MacBook Air versus the 12-inch MacBook is its wider selection of ports. On the left-hand side is a MagSafe 2 connector for power, one USB 3.0 port and a headphone jack. On the right is a Thunderbolt 2 port, another USB 3.0 port and a full-sized SDcard slot. The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro doubles the number of Thunderbolt ports compared to the Air, and adds HDMI.
macOS Sierra is the version currently shipping with Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air. It doesn’t divert too much from the visual style of its predecessor, OS X 10.11 El Capitan, but it does introduce a range of new features such as Siri, Continuity between your Mac and iOS devices and Apple Pay for expediting online purchases.
Sierra has since been succeeded by macOS 10.13 High Sierra, though it doesn’t come with it out of the box – you have to download and install it yourself, for free. There aren’t many significant improvements by way of macOS High Sierra, save for better security, VR support down the road and refinements to the Photos app.
That said, given that you don’t have to pay for it, macOS High Sierra is probably worth the 4.8GB hit to your data cap for the also-new Apple File System (APFS) alone. The new 64-bit file system brings native encryption and faster metadata operations to the table, making the MacBook Air quicker to use as a result.
For now, macOS Sierra ships with Apple’s own iWork and iLife apps, including a modernized look for Garageband.
In addition to:
Manufactured on the 14nm fabrication process, the 13-inch MacBook Air’s Broadwell CPU is a die shrink of Intel’s 22nm Haswell chip. It means better battery life versus last year’s MacBook Air models, although the gains aren’t on the same scale as the switch from Ivy Bridge to Haswell. Still, battery life was staggering, clocking up more than 13 hours when looping a 1080p video over Wi-Fi.
Broadwell brings performance gains too, even if they’re nothing to shout about. The MacBook Air scored 5,768 on Geekbench 3’s Multi Core CPU test, representing a 9% gain over the 13-inch Air from 2014. However, it proved 20% slower than the 2.7GHz Core i5 chip in the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, which is to be expected considering that machine’s faster clock speed.
Apple’s claim that the 2015 Air’s storage is twice as fast as the 2014 version stands up. The MacBook averaged write speeds of 612.4 Mbps, and average read speeds of 1,243 Mbps, which gives the MacBook Air MacBook Pro-level storage speeds for the first time.
The MacBook Pro with Retina’s Iris Graphics 6100 proved 38% faster than the MacBook Air’s HD Graphics 6000 in Unigine Heaven 4.0’s benchmark. That said, Intel’s decision to allocate die space to graphics on the CPU has been paying off for some time, and the MacBook Air is capable of playing a wide selection of games on low-medium settings with the resolution dialled down – especially when installed on a Windows partition using Boot Camp.
The MacBook Air cranked out a smooth 60FPS played at 1440 x 900 with the graphics on medium, while Skyrim managed the high 50s played at the same res with the graphics on low. If your intention is to play games, you’ll want to invest in a decent headset as the MacBook Air’s speakers are tinny and unsatisfying. Apple managed to squeeze an impressive amount of low and mid-range tones into the 12-inch MacBook’s speakers, but it’s yet to use the same technology in the Air.
If the MacBook Air’s consistency of design can grow stale over time, this reviewer is happy for the keyboard to remain unchanged. Its slightly convex keys are the best I’ve used yet on a computer, and that includes the new MacBook, Lenovo’s ThinkPad notebooks and Logitech’s well-regarded Mac keyboards. Even the MacBook Pro with Retina’s keys, which are hardly uncomfortable, feel stiff in comparison. The keyboard is also backlit and easy to clean.
The MacBook Air’s trackpad is just as impressive, providing a smooth gliding action that makes executing OS X’s trackpad commands a breeze. It’s just a shame that Apple didn’t carry over the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina’s Force Touch Trackpad – it’s once again regular two-button clicking action for owners of Apple’s slimmer machine.
Apple’s decision to put a 480p camera in the 12-inch MacBook was a poor one, and thankfully it hasn’t followed suited with the MacBook Air. At 720p it’s up to the task of Skype and Google Hangout sessions, producing sufficiently clear and defined images.
Like a pair of old trainers, Apple’s 2015 MacBook Air is boring, familiar, reliable and more than up to the task. If you don’t need tons of screen real-estate (or a half-decent screen for that matter), or prefer to hook your laptop up to an external monitor, it remains the most solid all-rounder out there today, whether you’re desk-bound or frequently travelling.
The MacBook Air’s stellar battery life remains best-in-class for a 13-inch laptop, and its keyboard is the best in the business. The addition of Thunderbolt 2 will go a long way if you own compatible peripherals. Its storage speeds hold up to Apple’s “twice as fast” claims and will prove a boon for those who regularly copy information to their Mac’s storage drive.
New machine, same chassis. Apple’s reluctance to give the MacBook Air a Retina display is wearing thin, and it’s causing buyers to look at alternatives – even defecting to Windows in some cases. Its lack of personality is compounded by poor speakers, an unsightly bezel and large footprint. Simply put, the MacBook Air just isn’t that cool anymore.
Much faster storage and a better performing processor/graphics combo make this year’s 13-inch MacBook Air a technically better machine than its predecessor, but unless you really need those gains it’s not worth the upgrade. That’s particularly so in the absence of any new features – such as the Retina MacBook Pro’s Force Touch Trackpad.
Elsewhere, it’s business as usual: while the MacBook Pro with Retina is a faster than the Air and packs more features, Apple’s lighter machine is no slouch. And while the Retina model is chunkier than the Air, it’s not a great deal heavier and has a smaller footprint. With both machines residing in the same price bracket, the deciding factor is more likely to be how prepared you are to put up with the MacBook Air’s outdated display.