MacBook Air review: is this a better choice than the smaller MacBook?

Updated: Though young at heart, the MacBook Air is beginning to show its age

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For

  • Battery life
  • Fast storage
  • Ports

Against

  • Display
  • Dated design
  • Speakers

More powerful than the MacBook but packing fewer features than the Retina MacBook Pro, the 13-inch MacBook Air now sits somewhere in-between the two.

The Air lost its status as Apple’s most lusted after MacBook some time ago, but that’s not to say it no longer serves a purpose. Apple has kept the machine attractive by upgrading it with Intel’s latest processors each year and lowering the cost of entry.

This year’s model gets Intel’s fifth-generation Broadwell processor, Intel HD6000 graphics and Thunderbolt 2 connectivity, in addition to faster internal storage.

Starting at £849 for the entry-level version 128GB version that comes configured with an Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 1.6 GHz (Turbo Boost to 2.7 GHz), we’ve reviewed the top-spec model with 256GB of flash memory for £999.

As of April 2016, all MacBook Air 13-inch models come with 8GB of memory as standard.

That’s more than both the entry-level MacBook (£1,049) and 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (£999), which are both jam packed with features the Air lacks — so the decision to plump for an Air instead isn’t one to be taken lightly.

MacBook Air Design

The MacBook Air’s design was revolutionary when it debuted in 2008, spawning countless imitators. Times have changed, and Apple’s decision to leave unaltered for five years has seen the competition close the gap. It’s far from ugly, but the “wow” factor disappeared long ago.

Measuring 17mm at its thickest point, the Air is bested by the Dell XPS 13 (15mm), the 12-inch MacBook (13.1mm) and the Yoga 3 Pro (12mm). Asus’s UX305, which can be had for £649, measures just 12.3mm at its thickest part.

One big turn off when it comes to the Air’s design is its chunky bezel, which is thicker than the ones on its competitors. It’s not helped by its metallic finish, which can prove distracting when watching movies compared to the thinner black bezels of its competitors.

The 13-inch MacBook Air also has an unusually large footprint compared to the XPS 13 and even the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, meaning it takes up more space whether rested on your lap or on an aeroplane table. The one advantage there is that it has a protruding wrist rest on either side of the trackpad which makes typing for long periods of time a comfortable experience.

Aesthetics aside, the MacBook Air’s build quality remains top-notch. Its unibody aluminium enclosure that forms both the Air’s screen and body is durable, easy to clean and more than capable of taking a few knocks and scrapes.

MacBook Air Features

If the 12-inch MacBook could be accused of introducing too many features all at once, the MacBook Air has the opposite problem.

Aside from its Thunderbolt 2 port, which has been upgraded from standard Thunderbolt, it’s business as usual. Apple hasn’t even carried over the 12-inch MacBook’s innovative Force Touch Trackpad which made it into the company’s new 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina models.

Like its predecessor, the Air has a below-par display that tops out at a pixel-resolution of 1440 x 900. It also has the same number of ports, made up of two USB 3 ports, one Thunderbolt 2 port, a MagSafe 2 power connector and a SDXC card slot.

Thunderbolt 2, which ups data transfer rates to 20 Gbps (versus 10Gbps for Thunderbolt and 5 Gbps for USB 3), is a useful addition if you plan to transfer data between compatible peripherals or stream 4K video.

Arguably one of the best reasons to own a MacBook Air (aside from its superb battery life), its roomy, smooth glass trackpad and backlit keyboard remain unchanged from previous generations. The latter’s keys still possess 1mm travel and a satisfying spongey typing action that, in the opinion of this reviewer, have yet to be bettered.

The MacBook Air's stereo speakers are poor compared to ones on the 12-inch MacBook, which despite being smaller are punchier with stronger mid-range and bass tones. As with the 720p Facetime HD webcam, they're good enough to get the job done but you won't be using your Air to fill the office with tunes on a Friday afternoon.

MacBook Air Performance

Switching from Intel’s fourth-generation processor in the 2014 MacBook Air to its newer fifth-generation one saw performance improve by 9% in our Geekbench test. It’s an improvement on paper, but you’re not likely to notice the difference in your day-to-day usage.

Compared to the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina's Core i5 processor, which is clocked at 2.7 GHz (Turbo Boost to 3.1 GHz), the Air was 20% slower in our Geekbench rest.

Overall, performance was impressive. As with last year's Air, apps spring into action instantly and you can get away with opening more than 20 tabs while streaming 1080p video in the background without experiencing slowdown. Push it further by opening 10 or more apps, however, and you run the risk of the spinning flywheel making its presence felt.

The Air performed much better under the El Capitan Public Beta 3 release compared to Yosemite, so you should have an all-round much smoother Mac come the availability of Apple’s next operating system in October.

The 13-inch MacBook Air’s speed is aided by its internal PCIe-based flash storage, which our BlackMagic Disk Speed test found to be twice as fast as the storage in last year’s model. It achieved averaged write speeds of 612.4 Mbps, and average read speeds of 1,243 Mbps.

Those are impressive figures, as was the one achieved in the Air’s battery life test. Streaming 1080p video over Wi-Fi, the Air managed a stunning 13 hours and 24 minutes.

MacBook Air Usability

The MacBook Air’s sub-par display has the biggest impact on its usability. It’s a shame Apple hasn’t felt the need to upgrade it in all these years, particularly as the rest of the machine - from its keyboard and trackpad to its good all-round performance - makes it a delight to use.

The first problem with the display is its low 900p resolution. Most competing laptops in the Air’s price bracket don’t come with anything less than 1080p, with many packing 2K or even 4K-quality displays.

The result is a lack of space on the Air’s desktop, which leaves little room for snapping windows side-by-side or using multiple apps at the same time. You’ll often find yourself zooming out in browsers and spreadsheets to squeeze more content into view, so hooking it up to an external monitor for serious spreadsheet or other productivity work is essential.

OS X’s features can go some way to helping here. Mission Control lets you set up multiple virtual desktops and allocate apps to certain zones, effectively broadening the desktop area you have to work on. It’s also possible to set up hot corners allow quick access to the desktop, Mission Control or OS X’s Notification Centre by scrolling into the screen corner.

T3 Verdict

The MacBook Air is unexciting and not as fashionable as it once was, but its excellent battery life, decent performance and good selection of ports make it worthy of your consideration for another year.

Though it doesn’t quite pack the power of a Retina MacBook Pro, Intel’s latest processor and faster storage make it a genuinely nippy machine that handles day-to-day tasks with ease. For owners of compatible peripherals, Thunderbolt 2 is a useful addition.

As usual, it all comes at the expense of a cramped display. If you can’t cope with its lack of pixels and don’t plan on using an external monitor, that alone should be a reason to give it a miss.

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