The 13-inch MacBook Air essentially forced competitors to create an entirely new class of laptop, but this venerable ultraportable hasn’t received much love from Apple in the past few years. While the latest Air sports a faster new 5th-generation Core processor and faster flash storage, it doesn’t get the Retina display found on just about every other Apple laptop, a redesigned chassis or cool new features like the ForcePad. Nevertheless, for $999, the Air’s combination of class-leading battery life (14 hours) and faster performance make it one of the best values around.
Apple tends to change things only when it needs to, which explains its incremental, yet impactful upgrades to the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air ($999 as tested). While it uses the same aluminum unibody design and many of the same components as its predecessorBest Price at Amazon, the latest MacBook Air 13-inch is updated with one of the newest Intel Core i5 CPUs. Even with this modest improvement (and the same list price as last year’s base model), the MacBook AirBest Price at Amazon stays ahead of the pack in terms of performance, and astounds with its 17.5-hour battery life. It remains a top choice for general computing tasks, and is our Editors’ Choice for midrange ultraportables.
Design and Features
The MacBook Air 13-inch measures 8.94 inches long and 12.8 inches wide, and it weighs 2.96 pounds. It tapers in thickness from 0.68 inches at the back of the system to 0.11 inches at the front. Other 13.3-inch laptops, like the Acer Aspire S7-393-7451, the Asus Zenbook UX305FA-ASM1$870.54 at Amazon, and the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro$949.99 at Lenovo, are slightly thinner and lighter, but you’ll still have no trouble toting the MacBook Air around with you. The 12-inch MacBook is currently Apple’s thinnest and lightest laptop at 0.52 by 11 by 7.75 inches (HWD) and 1.98 pounds.
Compared with the 1,920-by-1,080 or higher resolution that’s common for midrange Windows laptops, the MacBook Air’s 1,440-by-900 resolution seems relatively deficient, at least on paper. However, the screen appears clear and bright in real-world use. It should be sufficient for day-to-day tasks, like writing office documents and Web browsing. If you need a higher-resolution Mac laptop, you’ll have to go for the pricier Apple MacBook and its 2,304-by-1,400-resolution screen or the latest Apple MacBook Pro 13-inchBest Price at Amazon with its 2,560-by-1,600-resolution display. There is currently no option to add a high-resolution Retina Display to the MacBook Air; it would increase the system’s cost and weight and decrease battery life.
Ports are unchanged from last year’s model. On the left side are a headset jack, two microphones, a MagSafe 2 power jack, and a USB 3.0 port. The right side sports an SDXC card slot, a Thunderbolt 2 port, and a second USB 3.0 port. While this seems sparse, it’s pretty typical for the ultraportable category and will be sufficient for many users. You need an adapter cable for HDMI or other display connectors, but the Thunderbolt port works just fine with mini-DisplayPort-equipped monitors without an adapter. Wireless connectivity comes via 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
The keys on the backlit, chiclet-style keyboard have an excellent feel, and it’s easy to use the glass-covered trackpad for multitouch gestures. The trackpad lacks the extra Force-Click capabilities of the 12-inch Apple MacBook and the Apple MacBook Pro laptops, but those gestures are still unsupported in most third-party applications. Like all Macs, the MacBook Air lacks a touch screen.
We’d like to see more memory in the MacBook Air, since the standard 4GB is a bit low for a $1,000 laptop. You can only upgrade up to 8GB during your initial purchase (which is what our review unit of last year’s iteration is configured with), so you’ll need to consider if the extra $100 is worth it for multitasking or for your multimedia projects. Flash storage is also a relatively low 128GB, but that is less of an issue these days, since online cloud storage is so inexpensive. Thankfully, the system is unencumbered by bloatware.
The flash storage is PCIe-based, which makes it faster than the SATA-based solid-state drives (SSDs) and flash storage in older ultraportables. This helped the system boot in only a few seconds and the apps to load quickly in testing. The MacBook Air comes with a one-year warranty, which is on par with its Windows-equipped peers.
Equipped with a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 6000, the laptop performed well on our multimedia tests. It completed the Handbrake test in 2 minutes 49 seconds and our Adobe Photoshop CS6 test in 5:13. Both scores are faster than the Intel-Core-i5-equipped Dell XPS 13 Touch$949.11 at Amazon (2:58 on Handbrake; 5:54 on CS6) and the Lenovo Yoga 3 14$849.99 at Amazon (3:04 on Handbrake; 5:16 on CS6), which sports an Intel Core M CPU. Systems with Intel Core i7 processors, like the Acer Aspire S7-393-7451$1,499.99 at Amazon (1:19 on Handbrake; 3:04 on CS6) and the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Series 2-in-1 Special Edition Laptop (7352)$899.99 at Dell (2:43 on Handbrake; 4:44 on CS6) were predictably quicker in testing. Ultimately, the MacBook Air shows it’s much faster on multimedia tasks than the Apple MacBook, which scored 3:39 on the Handbrake test and 6:24 on the Photoshop test.
Results for the 3D tests are predictably mediocre, given the integrated graphics. The system should be fast enough for simple games like Diablo III, but you wouldn’t want to run Grand Theft Auto V at
The MacBook Air’s biggest performance coup is its battery life. It lasted an epic 17 hours 36 minutes on our rundown test, almost two hours longer than last year’s iteration (15:51). In contrast, the longest-lasting Windows laptop in this field is the Acer Aspire S7-393-7451, which hit 9:57. You could watch the complete Lord of the Rings Trilogy extended edition on this system, and still have enough power to watch the first two movies in the Dark Knight trilogy. That’s an insane amount of battery power for a traditional laptop.
The 2015 Apple MacBook Air 13-inch outmuscles its Core M-equipped <spancompetitors, and does so with even more battery life. The classic design of its chassis is one that other ultraportables have been trying to emulate for the past 5 years, with varying degrees of success, but the original still looks fresh. It’s a lot of laptop for the money, especially if you need to work untethered for a majority of the day and on your commute. It has 4GB less memory than the configuration we tested last year, but it’s also $100 less expensive. You’ll have to decide if you multitask enough to make the extra expense worth it. But given its solid performance, and especially its impressive battery life, the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch offers more than enough to supplant its predecessor as our Editors’ Choice midrange ultraportable laptop.