Thin and light. Long-lasting battery. Multiple USB ports.
Low-resolution display. Older Intel Core i5 CPU.
- Bottom Line
The MacBook Air remains an excellent ultraportable choice for students and other macOS fans with basic computing needs, but despite killer battery life, it will disappoint power users with its low-resolution display and outdated processor.
While notable design changes have come to the MacBook and MacBook Pro in recent years, the 2017 iteration of the MacBook Air ($999) appears very similar to the 2008 original. Since then, the Air has inspired many Windows competitors, giving rise to the red-hot ultraportable category of laptops. Updates to the Air have stalled, though, with the only upgrade in this version being a slightly faster but still outdated 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 CPU, suggesting that Apple is only keeping the Air around to appeal to students and bargain hunters. Luckily for them, it remains the excellent ultraportable that it was nearly 10 years ago. But you can get a better value by stepping up to the Editors' Choice 13-inch MacBook Pro, or with a similarly priced Windows competitor if you're not wedded to macOS.
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MacBook Air vs. the March of Time
Features that prospective Mac buyers took for granted a few years ago, such as an island-style keyboard, a MagSafe power cord, and a backlit Apple logo are now found only on the MacBook Air. If you're not a fan of the new ultra-low-profile keyboards on the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, for instance, the Air is now your only macOS-based option for picking up a more conventional set of keys. They're backlit and they have significantly greater travel than those on the newer Apple keyboards, but at the expense of much less stability. The glass trackpad, meanwhile, is decidedly inferior to those on the newer Mac laptops, lacking both their enormous size and Force Touch capabilities.
The 13-inch aluminum MacBook Air, available only in silver, measures 0.68 by 12.8 by 8.94 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.96 pounds. Those dimensions are identical to the previous generation Air, and the notebook still slopes from back to front, so the front edge is actually just 0.11 inches thick. That wedge-shaped design remains very much in vogue, showing up on the MacBook and on its competitors, including the Asus ZenBook 3 and the Huawei MateBook X. But it is no longer the only way to achieve extraordinary thinness and lightness. The flat HP Spectre 13, for instance, is both thinner (0.41 inches) and lighter (2.45 pounds) than the Air. The flat 13-inch MacBook Pro is thinner too, at 0.59 inches, though it's a few ounces heavier.
The 11-inch MacBook Air is no longer available, so you're left with the 13.3-inch screen as your only option. Its 1,440-by-900 resolution remains unchanged from the previous version (we're starting to sense a pattern here), which means that it's woefully fuzzy compared with competing screens. The HP Spectre has a full HD (1,920 by 1,080) display, which is the minimum we now expect from high-end ultraportables. The Microsoft Surface Laptop has an even better screen, with a resolution of 2,256 by 1,504. If you're looking to replace an older Mac and you've never used a higher-resolution display, you might be OK with the Air's screen, which is adequately bright and displays accurate colors even in the fluorescent-lit PC Labs. Like all other Macs, the MacBook Air lacks a touch screen, and it also lacks the Touch Bar that can be added to the 13-inch MacBook Pro and comes standard on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The stereo speakers are fine for listening to music or YouTube videos in a pinch, but their highest volume setting fails to fill a room.
Ports are—you guessed it—unchanged from the last iteration. On the left side, you'll find a headset jack, two microphones, a MagSafe 2 power port, and a USB 3.0 port. On the right are an SDXC card slot, a Thunderbolt 2 port, and a second USB 3.0 port. This complement was relatively sparse a few years ago, but the march of time means that it's now quite generous compared with competing ultraportables. The MacBook, the ZenBook 3, and the Spectre 13 only feature USB-C ports. What's worse, the MacBook and the ZenBook each have just one, while the Spectre 13 includes three. Two USB Type A ports and a dedicated charging jack seem downright luxurious by comparison, especially if you need to plug in older peripherals. On the other hand, the lack of USB-C means that the Air isn't future proof. The Thunderbolt port can connect to mini-DisplayPort-equipped monitors, but you'll need an adapter for HDMI connections.
Above the display, you'll find a 720p webcam for FaceTime calls, surrounded by a large bezel that is incongruous in a world of ultraportables with displays that seem to extend into thin air, as is the case with the Dell XPS 13.
Storage options include the 128GB SSD of our review unit, as well as a 256GB option for an additional $200 or a 512GB drive for a $400 upcharge. Like all Mac portables, internal components aren't upgradeable after purchase, so you'll probably want to opt for one of the more expansive SSDs unless you store your video and music collection in the cloud. Wireless connections use either 802.11ac Wi-Fi or Bluetooth 4.0. A one-year warranty is included, and Apple also offers a $249 three-year warranty that includes reduced-price repairs for accidental damage. That's comparable to Dell's extended warranties, which hover around $300.
Our test unit is loaded with macOS Sierra, but macOS High Sierra, an iterative update, will be available for free once Apple rolls it out this fall.
Disappointing CPU, Excellent Battery Life
The fifth-generation Intel Core i5-5350U processor on our review unit runs at 1.8GHz (a slight jump up from the last generation's 1.6GHz) and is supported by 8GB of RAM (the Air's only memory option). This landed the Air in the middle of the competition on our multimedia tests, which include tasks that many Mac users will likely complete on a regular basis, like manipulating images in Photoshop and encoding videos using Handbrake. (Macs can't run some of our other benchmark tests, like the all-purpose PCMark 8, which simulates general productivity tasks).
The Air's Handbrake score of 2 minutes and 36 seconds is comparable with the Core m3-powered MacBook (2:38) but slightly slower than the New Razer Blade Stealth (2:14), which is equipped with a seventh-generation Intel Core i5 CPU. On the Cinebench 3D benchmark, the Razer's score of 325 is also better than the MacBook (265) and the MacBook Air (261), but the pair of Macs outpace the Razer on our Photoshop test. Both the Macs and the Razer are all significantly slower than the Core i5-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro, as well as the Core i7-powered Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre 13. If you need more processing oomph, you can configure the MacBook Air with a 2.2 Ghz Intel Core i7 for an additional $150.
Neither the MacBook Air nor any of its comparable ultraportables include dedicated graphics cards, although they are available on some models of the 15-inch MacBook Pro and the Dell XPS 15. Relying on an integrated graphics chip means that you won't be able to play demanding games unless you run them at very low quality settings, and the Air predictably failed to breach the 30 frames per second (fps) threshold for smooth gaming on our Heaven and Valley benchmarks. Thanks to its superior Intel Iris Plus Graphics GPU, the 13-inch MacBook Pro (our Editors' Choice for Mac laptops) achieves the highest frame rates among the comparable laptops, so if you do plan to play games occasionally, you'll want to consider it over the Air.
The only performance metric that the Air unquestionably dominates is battery life. Its 54Wh lithium-polymer battery clocked in at 16 hours and 28 minutes on our rundown test, which means that it should have plenty of power to last through a typical workday, even if you're occasionally taxing the processor with multitasking or video editing. The Air's battery life is comparable with the 13-inch MacBook Pro (16:26), and nearly twice as long as the HP Spectre 13 (8:36) and the New Razer Blade Stealth (9:27). It fell slightly short of its 2015 predecessor, however, which posted more than 17 hours of battery life and remains the longest-lasting general purpose laptop we've tested.
The First Guest Parties On
The MacBook Air arguably started the ultrabook party, and it's still there even as a younger, thinner, and better-equipped crowd has arrived. But it has yet to overstay its welcome. For macOS fans—especially note-taking, paper-writing college students—who just need a capable computer to tote around all day without plugging in, the Air will not disappoint. It's also a good choice if you have a mix of older peripherals and can take advantage of its relatively generous complement of ports. To other users, however, especially creative professionals looking for more computing power, the lack of a seventh-generation Intel processor and resulting good-but-not-great performance results will stick out like a sore thumb. Those people would do well to consider a MacBook Pro, which starts at $300 more than the Air, or one of several faster and comparably priced Windows machines like the Dell XPS 13.
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As a hardware analyst, Tom tests and reviews laptops, peripherals, and much more at PC Labs in New York City. He previously covered the consumer tech beat as a news reporter for PCMag in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where he rode in several self-driving cars and witnessed the rise and fall of many startups. Before that, he worked for PCMag's sister site, Computer Shopper, where he occasionally dunked waterproof hard drives in glasses of water. In his spare time, he's written on topics as… More »
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