Review: MacBook Air

Introduction

The arrival of Apple’s 12-inch MacBook earlier last year marked the beginning of the end for its MacBook Air lineup. At least, that’s what people said at the time.

The new MacBook is more portable, lighter, has a gorgeous high-resolution display and can go for almost as long as the Air on a single charge. Who would pick a machine stuck in the past over a laptop from the future?

13-inch MacBook Air (2015)

As it turns out, the future’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The new MacBook’s inconvenient USB Type-C port, controversial keyboard and moderately powerful Intel Core M chip have proved a compromise too many for some people.

Now that Apple has refreshed its 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air models with Intel’s fifth-generation Broadwell processors, Intel HD Graphics 6000 and Thunderbolt 2, they’re suddenly looking much more appealing, even if it’s business as usual on the outside.

Recent developments

Though rumors suggest the MacBook Air could be eliminated altogether, we’re not convinced. The MacBook Air 2016 has been all but confirmed at this point, alongside a more glamorous set of MacBook Pro 2016 models. At Apple’s September 7 event, we hope we’ll see – at the very least – a teaser for the new MacBooks.

The latest MacBook Air, which is nearly a year and a half old at this point, is suggested to ship in two sizes: 13 and 15 inches, replacing the 11-inch MacBook Air of the past. Both, we believe, will come fully stocked with the latest Skylake processors, to be succeeded shortly thereafter only by the marginally more powerful Kaby Lake microarchitecture.

The new MacBook Air 2016 models will reportedly utilize USB-C ports in the spirit of the 12-inch MacBook, effectively making an even slimmer chassis easier to digest. If you don’t plan on making the upgrade, however, your current MacBook Air won’t be outdated. Quite the contrary actually.

Thanks to the advent of macOS Sierra, you can expect new features like Siri, Apple Pay and the TouchID-esque Auto Unlock to make their way to your current MacBook Air later this year, assuming it’s compatible.

Design

Speaking of which, the MacBook Air’s design has now remained unchanged for five long years. If Apple didn’t feel the need to tinker with it before, there’s even less chance that it’ll change any time soon now that the 12-inch MacBook is out there. Which is a shame, because the Air’s classic design could really benefit from slimmer bezels and an overall reduction in footprint.

Forget the Dell XPS 13‘s physics-defying Infinity 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.

13-inch MacBook Air (2015)

Still, the old "if it ain’t broke" mantra applies – up to a point. The MacBook Air’s aluminium 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 aluminium 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.

Specifications

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 1.6GHz (Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz) Core i5 CPU, 128GB of flash memory and 4GB of RAM.

We reviewed the top-spec model, which starts at £999 ($1,199/AUS$1,699) and gets 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, adding a further £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.

Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015)

Spec sheet

  • CPU: 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache
  • Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 6000
  • RAM: 8GB 1600MHz DDR3
  • Screen: 13.3-inch, LED-backlit glossy widescreen display (1440 x 900)
  • Storage: 256GB PCIe-based flash storage (configurable to 512GB flash storage)
  • Optical Drive: Not included
  • Ports: Two USB 3.0 ports (up to 5Gbps); Thunderbolt 2 port (up to 20Gbps); MagSafe 2 power port; SDXC card slot
  • Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible; Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology
  • Camera: 720p FaceTime HD camera
  • Weight: 1.35kg (2.96 pounds)
  • Size: 32.5 x 22.7 x 1.7 cm (W x D x H)

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 connection 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.

Ports right

OS X 10.10 Yosemite is the version currently shipping with Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air. Introducing a new colourful visual style, Yosemite marks a welcome change from the cold, grey tones of Mavericks, though some have decried it as unprofessional-looking compared to its predecessor.

Yosemite is set to be succeeded by OS X 10.11 El Capitan, which will be available as a free upgrade when it launches in October. El Capitan brings a number of under-the-hood performance improvements in addition to features such as Split View, a Windows-like feature that lets you "snap" windows to the side of the desktop, and Spaces Bar, a tweaked version of Mission Control that provides a more expansive view of the desktop.

Bundled software

For now, Yosemite ships with Apple’s own iWork and iLife apps, including a new Photos app that replaces iPhoto:

Photos app

The new MacBook Air also comes with Apple’s own iWork and iLife apps, including:

  • Movie
  • Garageband
  • Pages
  • Numbers
  • Keynote
  • Safari
  • Mail
  • Messages
  • FaceTime

Yosemite

In addition to:

  • Calendar
  • Contacts
  • App Store
  • iTunes
  • iBooks
  • Maps
  • Photo Booth
  • Time Machine

Performance

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.

Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015)

Benchmarks

  • Cinebench R15 Single Core: 103cb cb; Multi Core: 255 cb
  • Cinebench R15 OpenGL: 24.91fps
  • Geek bench 3 Single Core: 2,873; Multi Core: 5,768
  • Xbench (CPU and disk): 469.55
  • NovaBench (Overall): 634; Graphics: 42
  • Unigine Heaven 4.0 (Medium); FPS: 14.4; Overall: 438
  • Blackmagic Disk Speed test: Write average: 612.4 Mbps; Read average: 1302.4 Mbps
  • Battery, streaming 1080p video via Wi-Fi: 13 hours and 24 minutes

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.

13-inch MacBook Air (2015) keyboard

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.

Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015)

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.

dd

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.

We

Verdict

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.

We liked

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.

We disliked

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.

Final verdict

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.

Source: Tech Radar