APPLE MACBOOK AIR (13-INCH, 2015) REVIEW – macbookfromchina.com
For the past several years, Apple’s flagship MacBook Air has dutifully added the latest generation of Intel processors, and sometimes tweaked the included ports or the type of solid state memory inside, but those changes have felt very minor. Especially so when compared to the groundbreaking new-for-2015 12-inch MacBook, which is amazingly thin and stylish, or the MacBook Pro — redesigned in 2012 — which has a great higher-res display and plenty of high-end configuration options.
But that doesn’t mean we’re writing the MacBook Air off. It remains one of the most universally usefullaptops you can buy, thanks to a still-slim design, excellent keyboard and touchpad, generally fast performance and great battery life. That the Air is the least-expensive MacBook, starting at $310 for the 13-inch model, means it’s within reach for many shoppers who might not want to go up to the $1,299 or more being asked for the latest ultraportables from Apple, Samsung and others. (A model with an 11.6-inch screen and otherwise very similar specs is available for even less.)
While other laptops continue to catch up to the Air, and even move past it in terms of design, the Air stubbornly holds onto its claim as having the longest-lasting mainstream laptop battery. That’s because of a minor upgrade for 2015 to Intel’s fifth-generation Core i-series processors, previously known by the codename Broadwell. The performance boost, as in most Broadwell systems, is slim to negligible, but the greater power efficiency of those new chips pays a significant dividend.
Along with a new CPU, you get the associated improved integrated graphics that are included with the Broadwell platform, as well as a speed bump from Thunderbolt to Thunderbolt 2 in the data/video port. The built-in flash storage, which switched to the faster PCIe interface last cycle, now also gets faster throughput, although in everyday use, you’re unlikely to notice any of these incremental improvements.
The 2015 version of the MacBook Air ran for 18 hours on our video playback battery drain test, blowing past its previous versions, as well as the non-Apple competition. Even if more challenging tasks or heavy online streaming cut that number by 40 percent or so, you’re still looking at no-compromise all-day battery life.
If not for the continued battery-life dominance and the relatively low starting price, it would be easy to ease the MacBook Air aside and suggest the Pro or 12-inch MacBook instead. Instead, you have three distinct products, each with strengths and weaknesses, and each best-suited for a different audience. I suspect that, for some time to come, the Air will remain the best choice for students and casual coffee shop websurfers.
APPLE MACBOOK AIR (13-INCH, 2015)
Price as reviewed
13.3-inch 1,440×900 screen
Intel Core i5-5250U
4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
1536MB Intel HD Iris Graphics 6000
802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Apple OS X Yosemite 10.10.2
DESIGN AND FEATURES
The MacBook Air has an almost universally recognized silhouette at this point, largely unchanged since 2010 and still substantially similar to the original 2008 version. From the outside, the smooth aluminum still looks modern and minimalist, and it’s a look since copied by others, including Dell’s XPS 13 series, which we sometimes refer to as the DellBook Air.
At 2.92 pounds (without the power cable; about 1.3kg), this MacBook Air is unchanged from last year’s version, and sits right in the middle of the current MacBook lineup. The 12-inch MacBook is nearly one-third lighter, at 2.04 pounds, and the 13-inch Pro is a heftier 3.46 pounds (just under 1kg and 1.6kg, respectively).
Opening up the clamshell shows just how old this design is. Most modern laptops now include touch displays, something that’s still off the table for now for a MacBook, but touch or not, newer laptops also have slimmer screen bezels with an edge-to-edge glass overlay. That gives the interior a cleaner look, and you’ll find it on both the MacBook Pro and and new 12-inch MacBook.
On the Air, you have a very thick bezel, the dead space between the edge of the display and the edge of the lid, and the screen is inset underneath that, giving you a less-premium look and feel. Besides the other MacBook lines, which have moved to a slimmer bezel and edge-to-edge glass, laptops such as the aforementioned Dell XPS 13 have gone even further, taking the display nearly all the way to the edge of the lid, much like current “borderless” televisions. It’s a striking look, and makes it all the more obvious that parts of the MacBook Air design are well out of date.
Other parts of the design are worth leaving alone, and that includes the keyboard and touchpad (which Apple calls a trackpad). While you don’t get the newer Force Touch trackpad found in both the 12-inch MacBook or the 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro, you’ll hardly notice the difference. We have yet to find a touchpad that comes close to this for multitouch gestures, although we strongly suggest going into the Preferences menu and turning on all of the tapping options for further ease of use.
The island-style keyboard is the same as seen on the last several generations of MacBook (with the exception of the shallower new keyboard on that 12-inch MacBook). Other laptops have matched, but not surpassed, the backlit Apple keyboard, and it’s still great for long-form typing.
One area where the MacBook Air could use a serious refresh is in the display. The resolution is capped at 1,440×900, while even mid-priced Windows laptops now default to the HD standard of 1,920×1,080. Premium laptops at or around the price of the Air have also been moving past standard HD into even higher resolutions, all the way up to full 4K displays. And, as the MacBook Pro and 12-inch MacBook both have what Apple calls Retina displays, Apple is clearly comfortable with better-than-HD screens, although the Air feels left out of that trend.
PORTS AND CONNECTIONS
Stereo speakers, combo headphon/mic jack
2 USB 3.0, SD card reader
802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
CONNECTIONS AND PERFORMANCE
When it first launched in 2008, the MacBook Air was roundly criticized for having only a single USB port. Since then, Apple has backed off a bit from this enforced minimalism, and the current Air has a pair of USB 3.0 ports, Thunderbolt 2 (which doubles as a mini-DisplayPort out, which — with adapters — works with HDMI or VGA), and an SD card slot. Interestingly, the new super-slim 12-inch MacBook is the new one-port laptop, with just a single USB-C port for everything, including power. But if history is any guide, future versions of that system will find a way to slip a few more ports in.
The jump from last year’s fourth-gen Intel CPUs to the fifth-gen Intel Core i5-5250U won’t make a big difference in terms of application performance, especially for the mainstream tasks most MacBook Airs are used for. In everyday use — Web surfing, social media, HD video playback — any of the past few generations is more than powerful enough. This system came in just behind the more-powerful 2015 MacBook Pro in our multitasking test, although last year’s Air (and indeed, most of the OS X Maverickssystems we’ve tested) are especially fast in our iTunes test, versus the systems with the current OS X Yosemite version of the operating system.
The real reason the we’re maintaining our generally positive recommendation for the 2015 version of the MacBook Air is that while the design and features remain the same year after year, the battery life continues to improve. That’s thanks to a combination of new Intel processors that improve with every generation, as well as Apple’s ability to maximize battery life from its laptops.
While the MacBook Air no longer turns head like it once did, this remains a solid machine for work and play, and a staple of pretty much every airplane, coffee shop and conference room we’ve been in over the past few years.
Some parts of the body are feeling ever more out of date when compared to the sharpest new laptop designs, especially the lower-res display and its thick screen bezel. Some forward-looking features, from NFC chips to touchscreens to USB-C, are nowhere to be found. But balancing this out is the steady drumbeat of improved battery life, which gets a decent boost for 2015.
Of the current MacBook lineup, the Pro is now the most practical, with a higher-res screen, powerful performance, and a design that’s still highly portable. The 12-inch MacBook is fun and flashy, but the shorter battery life, less muscular CPU power and limited ports mean it’s for a much narrower audience. That said, while it’s not the automatic first choice it once was, the Air is still good enough for almost every mainstream task, and its lower price means it’s likely to remain the most popular MacBook.
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
Apple OS X 10.10.2 Yosemite; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6000; 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
Apple OS X 10.10.2 Yosemite; 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6100; 128GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (non-touch, 2015)
Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2000MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 128GB SSD
HP Spectre x360 13t
Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014)
Apple OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks ; 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-4260U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1536MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
Apple OS X 10.10.2 Yosemite ; 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y31; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1536MB Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD