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MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is Apple’s mid-ranged laptop. Priced at $899 for the entry-level model, it’s also Apple’s cheapest laptop. It can be considered a step down from the MacBook Pro, and is far cheaper than the regular MacBook, despite being superior in most of its specifications.

 

Note: I’m using the late 2012 11” MacBook Air with 8 GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM and Intel Core i7-3667U CPU. Aside from the CPU, antenna, and the newer Thunderbolt 2 port (mine has a Thunderbolt 1 port), as well as the better battery life, everything else is identical.

 

Size

 

When I first got this laptop, I almost wasn’t even sure there was a laptop in the box, just the charger. The MacBook Air is very light, with the 11” model weighing 2.38 pounds (1.1 kg). It’s also quite thin, at only 0.68 inches (1.7 cm) at its thickest. It’s 11.8 inches (30 cm) wide by 7.56 inches (19.2 cm) in length. It’s great for people who don’t want to lug around a big fat laptop.

 

Display

 

The built-in display for the 11” model has a resolution of 1366x768 (16:9), while the 13” model has a resolution of 1440x900 (16:10). Both use TN panels. That’s about as lackluster as laptop displays get, because Apple has neglected adding a Retina display to their MacBook Air. As of recent, all MacBook Pros carry Retina displays, and the new MacBook has a Retina display. Hell, the new iMac has a Retina display. I wouldn’t be surprised if the iPod Shuffle ends up getting a Retina display before the MacBook Air gets one. Aside from an occasional CPU refresh here and there, the MacBook Air simply hasn’t seen any major improvements in quite a long time.

 

Webcam

 

The built-in 720p camera is even more mediocre than the display. At night, it can be hard to make out anything even with a decently bright light. It’s okay in bright environments and does its job well, but it can get cloudy fast with any bit of dimness. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not scoring any points, either.

 

Microphone

 

The built-in microphone is actually all right. It doesn’t sound super muddy like what many laptops can have. It’s not even close to the $50 Blue Snowball microphone I use, but it decently gets the job done.

 

Speakers

 

The built-in speakers are pretty good. They’re not that loud at maximum volume compared to most other speakers I’ve used, but I’m more likely to use headphones at that point. The headphone jack is also located on the left side of the computer. Unfortunately, being left-handed, my headphone cable gets in the way when I want to use the trackpad.

 

Keyboard

 

The built-in keyboard isn’t very impressive. It’s not the most comfortable keyboard to type on, but it’s not painful at all either. However, if you’re doing anything CPU-intensive such as games or video encoding, it can get quite uncomfortable to type on it due to heat. Like any other laptop, I would highly avoid eating near the keyboard. Cleaning the keyboard sucks.

 

Trackpad

 

The built-in trackpad, however, is the best trackpad I’ve ever used, as far as trackpads go. To me, the gestures were very natural and had little learning curve. I shouldn’t have to include this in a review, but most laptops’ touch pads/trackpads are absolute garbage and crap out randomly. The trackpad included in Apple’s MacBook Air, however, is second to none. Or it was, until Apple’s newer Force Touch trackpad came out for the MacBook and MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, the MacBook Air’s trackpad lacks this feature, but it’s still a very good trackpad.

 

Wireless

 

The MacBook Air supports 802.11ac, which has numerous improvements over 802.11n, one of the biggest improvements being improved bandwidth. It’s also backwards compatible with 802.11a/g/b/n, and it supports Bluetooth. Many people probably won’t be able to try out 802.11ac, because many routers still don’t support even 802.11n. It’s also strictly 5 GHz, which has a lot less range compared to 2.4 GHz.

 

No optical drive?

 

When this laptop was initially launched, many people completely dismissed this laptop due to the lack of an optical drive. That was in 2008. In 2016, many computers aren’t being made with optical drives, and hardly anyone is complaining. You simply don’t see very many things requiring optical drives anymore, aside from music CDs and movie DVDs and Blu-Rays, and a few other things made by people and publishers who still have faith in the almighty digital video disc. Therefore, the lack of an optical drive will not be listed as a con.

 

If the lack of an optical drive is a problem for you, you can purchase a USB DVD-RW drive from Apple for $75. I think $75 is just way too pricey, considering it doesn’t handle Blu-Rays.

 

Ports

 

The MacBook Air has only two USB 3.0 ports. While this is better than having only one USB 3.1 Type-C connector like in the case with the MacBook, you may want to use a USB hub, especially if you plan on using an external keyboard and mouse.

 

However, it does have a Thunderbolt 2 port, which is something that’s still not very common on laptops. Thunderbolt 2 doesn’t use a USB Type-C connector, but it is backwards compatible with Thunderbolt 1 and any Mini DisplayPort adapters. Thunderbolt is very versatile, allowing you to use that port for outputting video or for using it for transferring data, as it uses PCIe (PCIe 2.0 x4, to be exact) and DisplayPort 1.2. There are many uses for having a Thunderbolt port. You could add an Ethernet port, for instance, or you could output video to an external display using HDMI, DVI, or DisplayPort 1.2 (1.1 if Thunderbolt 1).

 

If you really wanted to, you could attach a PCIe-based graphics card and use that to play games at much higher framerates and much lower temperatures than the integrated GPU, though PCIe enclosures are expensive. You will also need the necessary drivers for said GPU, which OS X may not always have (you should install Windows if you want to play games, anyway).

 

Battery

 

Unfortunately, I got the MacBook Air before their latest refresh of it, so the battery life of mine is only a few hours when just browsing the Internet. The current models, however, promise up to 9 hours for the 11-inch model and 12 hours for the 14-inch model. Needless to say, that it’s a lot of work you can do between charges.

 

Gaming Performance

 

Anyone getting a Mac just for gaming is either foolish or misinformed. This is not a gaming laptop, and trying to compare it with one is comparing apples (no pun intended) with staplers.

 

I’m sure you still want to know how well it can do, though. If you do want to play games, you may want to purchase and install Windows, or else you’ll only be able to play 38% of the Steam library. With 8 GB of RAM and using an Intel Core i7-3667U CPU (the MacBook Air is using Broadwell now, but it’s similar performance), it can manage War Thunder at medium settings at just over 30 FPS in 720p, and lowest settings at around 60 FPS in 720p. It can also play Killing Floor 2 at the lowest settings at just over 50 FPS in 720p at lowest settings, though Intel HD graphics is unsupported, so there are potential graphical glitches that are not addressed. Playing Fallout 4 results in crashing at almost every time the game is launched, and the one time I managed to get the game to play, it could only manage 3-5 FPS on the lowest settings at 720p. With Minecraft, it plays well, reaching 80-90 FPS with default settings (Vsync off) at 768p. If you want to play Minecraft, consider playing multiplayer rather that singleplayer, or turn the render distance down if you play singleplayer; singleplayer runs a server in the background, which the dual-core CPU can have a hard time keeping up with. This can result in momentary freezes of game logic when a lot of new terrain is generated at once. The Windows 10 version of Minecraft doesn't have this problem and can play it just fine, though you forego access most mods and servers.

 

FPS is not the entire story, however. This laptop’s CPU temperature will often reach 80 C or higher when playing games, which can make the keyboard uncomfortable to the touch. In some games, especially HTML5-based games, I’ve seen it exceed 105 C. While Intel CPUs are designed to throttle and/or shut themselves off when they overheat, you should still be careful. Judging by how the MacBook Air hasn’t received any updates to the overall design, this is likely still a problem with current models.

 

If you want a gaming laptop, go get a gaming laptop - one with a dedicated GPU. The MacBook Air, like most non-gaming laptops, can play games, but not very well. In the MacBook Air’s case, its thinness can even be considered a double-edged sword, as it reduces ventilation. You cannot blame the Mac itself for its lousy gaming performance, as Macs are not targeted towards gamers. You really can’t blame Apple, though. Most prebuilt PCs that aren’t built for gaming are lousy for gaming. If you seriously want a Mac that can play games well, then get the MacBook Pro with Radeon graphics, though its price-to-performance is worse than most other gaming laptops, as it, too, is not for gaming.

 

Upgrades

 

Apple devices are well-known for being pretty expensive, especially when you aren’t happy with the entry-level model. Unfortunately, like many devices nowadays, Macs are not supposed to be user-upgradeable. The $899 base model has a 1.6 GHz 5th generation (Broadwell) i5 with 4 GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM (presumably the i5-5250U). The CPU is okay (Intel ARK suggests $315, so it better damn well be), but I feel that having only 4 GB of RAM in a $899 laptop in 2016 is ludicrous. Paying $100 more will get you a total of 8 GB of RAM and (optionally) a 13" screen, instead, but alas, no blowjob is included.

 

For $100 more, you can get the 13” model, which has a 1440x900 display (16:10), while the 11” model has a 1336x768 display (16:9). It also comes with a bigger battery, adding 3 hours on top of the 9 hours of battery life you normally get. In addition to that, it comes with an SDXC card slot. Not bad.

 

For $150 more, you get a 2.2 GHz 5th generation i7 (presumably the i7-5650U). The difference of the two parts is $119, so you are paying a slight premium. Also, as the i7 is still only dual-core and only gets a little more cache, all you really get in practice is a 38% frequency improvement. Not in practice, though it won’t affect gaming performance one bit (Seriously, don’t get this for gaming. Buy a gaming laptop if you want a gaming laptop.).

 

For $200 more, you can double the SSD storage to 256 GB. For those of you who just cringed after reading that first sentence: you try fitting a 2.5" drive in a MacBook Air. The only way you’re going to fit an SSD in there is with a PCIe-based SSD, and that's still quite expensive. Here's where it gets ridiculous, though. For an additional $300 ($500 total), you can double it to 512 GB. While that's very unreasonable, Microsoft and most OEMs do this, too. It's not just Apple's fault. However, unlike the other parts, the SSD can be replaced (voiding the warranty), and there are guides online on how to do that.

 

Overall

 

The MacBook Air has a lot to offer, despite not seeing much in terms of improvements lately. It’s incredibly portable, has an excellent trackpad that doesn’t suck unlike most laptops at this price (or any price, for that matter), and it’s got a pretty good processor. The processor won’t be running the latest AAA games, and attempting to do so will result in watching a slideshow of your favorite games (if they can even load), but this laptop isn’t for gamers, anyway.

 

Most of its shortcomings have less to do with any flaws in it and more with how mediocre some of the components are. For $899, being limited to 4 GB of RAM, having a rather webcam, and the generic 1366x768 non-Retina display just brings a sound “meh” when initially looking at its specifications, especially when you compare it to some of the alternatives listed below.

 

Pros:

  • Excellent trackpad
  • Great battery life
  • Excellent portability
  • Thunderbolt

Cons:

  • Entry-level model is limited to only 4 GB of RAM
  • Lackluster webcam and keyboard
  • No Retina display (1366x768 TN panel, instead)

Alternatives:

  • Microsoft Surface Pro 4 – Same price, but it has a superior display, and a better webcam. Because it’s a tablet, it’s slightly more portable when a keyboard isn’t needed. When one is needed, that portability goes away, and you have to buy one separately. The RAM is the same configuration, but the CPU is a considerably slower and lighter dual-core Intel Core m3 processor instead of the dual-core Intel Core i5, though you can get one with a dual-core i5 or i7. Also, it only has one USB port. The upgrades are also a little more expensive, as well, but it uses 6th generation CPUs (Skylake) instead of 5th generation CPUs, and has RAM configurations up to 16 GB of RAM. It also comes with Windows 10 Pro.
     
  • HP EliteBook Folio G1 – It's a little more expensive, but it comes with 8 GB of RAM, and it’s even thinner. It also has two USB 3.1 Type-C ports (Thunderbolt 3), though no USB Type-A ports. It uses a slower Intel Core M CPU, making it more of a competitor to the MacBook than the MacBook Air, but if you want even more portability, consider it. It comes with Windows 10 Pro.
     
  • Acer Aspire S 13 – Not only does it cost a little less, but it has 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, a 256 GB SSD, a 6th generation (I think I’m starting to see a trend here) Intel Core i5 CPU (i5-6200U to be exact), similar battery life, a USB 3.1 Type C port in addition to two USB 3.0 ports (one with power-off charging), an HDMI port, and it has a 1080p display. However, it comes with Windows 10 Home, it’s a bit bigger, and it weighs a bit more.
Pra3tor1an, Tucker933, WaeV and 1 other like this

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On July 10, 2016 at 2:36 PM, WaeV said:

Good review. Knowing the Surface Pro 4, I'd clarify that it comes with m3, i5, or i7 processors so it's no slouch.

Something else to note is that the Surface Pro 4's processors are all Skylake-based generation CPUs and has a high pixel-density display, where the 11" MacBook Air uses Broadwell and a rather mediocre 1366x768 display. Another thing to note is that the newer MacBook also uses a Skylake-based m3 processor, it comes standard with a 256 GB SSD (512 GB if you pay an additional $300 for the m5 model), it has 8 GB of memory, and has a Retina display, pretty much leaving the MacBook Air in the dust in terms of features (aside from having only one USB port). Granted, the CPU on the MacBook Air is still much faster, but it's disappointing that Apple hasn't done much with the MacBook Air line since I got mine in 2013.

WaeV and NeX like this

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