Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, 2015) Review

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Strong performance; Small, light design; Above-average battery life; More ports than 12-inch MacBook

The Cons

Low screen resolution; Staid design; No SD card slot

Verdict

While the screen could be sharper, the updated 11-inch MacBook Air is a very light ultraportable that offers great performance and battery life for the price.

There are some for whom even a 13-inch notebook is too big. The 11-inch MacBook Air, the least expensive and (nearly) smallest model in Apple's lineup, could be what those users are looking for. Although it weighs less than 2.5 pounds, the 11-inch Air now packs a 5th generation Core i5 processor and flash storage that's supposed to be twice as fast as what was inside the last model. Plus, this machine lasts more than 9 hours on a charge. But although it's inexpensive (for Apple), is the 11-inch Air the best value for space-conscious consumers?

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Design: Same as it ever was

Like the larger, 13-inch model, the design of the 11-inch MacBook Air has remained the same for several years now. There's nothing wrong with it -- it's spawned countless imitators -- but given that the 12-inch MacBook is at least available in a few colors, we'd like to see the Air's design updated.

At 2.38 pounds, the 11-inch Air is slightly heavier than the 12-inch MacBook (2 pounds), but is lighter than the 2.6-pound Dell XPS 13. While the Air's 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.11-0.68 frame was at one time the smallest in Apple's portfolio, it's been eclipsed by the even smaller 11 x 7.7 x 0.14 -0.52 inch MacBook. The XPS 13 (11.98 x 7.88 x 0.33-0.6 inches) is only slightly larger than Apple's 11-inch ultraportable but packs in a larger, 13-inch display.

Ports

The Air has two USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt 2 port and one headphone jack.

While not overwhelming by any stretch -- the XPS 13, for example, has an SD card slot, which the Air lacks -- that's still much more than the MacBook, which has just one USB-C port.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The Air's backlit keyboard remains as excellent ever. I much prefer it to the ultra-shallow keys on the MacBook; it's more comfortable when typing long documents.

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Unlike the MacBook and MacBook Pros, the Air does not have Apple's new ForcePad, so you can't deep-press to look up something on Wikipedia, for example. No matter: The Air's glass touchpad executed every gesture and swipe smoothly and accurately.

Display

The Air's 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display also remains the same. For an 11-inch display, this resolution still works for me. However, if you're opting for a larger display, you deserve more pixels. While I don't necessarily require the 2304 x 1440 panel of the MacBook in a 12- or 13-inch screen, I do like to see at least a 1080p display, as on the Dell XPS 13 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X250.

With a brightness of 370 nits, the 11-inch Air outshines the MacBook (322 nits) and the XPS 13 (298 nits), but was slightly dimmer than the X250.

However, the brightness of the Air's display can't make up for the fact that it can show only 67.4 percent of the sRGB color gamut, making it a less colorful screen than those on the XPS 13 (91.7 percent) and the MacBook (101.8 percent). Still, the X250's display was even worse, at just 64.3 percent.

The Air's color accuracy also leaves something to be desired. With a Delta-E score of 4.2, it's less accurate than the MacBook (1.2) and the X250 (1.18) -- numbers closer to zero are better -- but is much better than the (nontouch) XPS 13's score of 8.1.

Performance

The 11-inch Air packs a 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-5250U processor and 4GB of RAM, the same as in the base model of 13-inch Air, and more powerful than the Core M processor in the MacBook.

On Geekbench, the 11-inch Air scored 5,800. That's more than 1,000 points higher than the average (4,523), the 12-inch MacBook (4,631), and the XPS 13 (5,530) and X250 (5,259), both of which also have Core i5 processors.

On our Spreadsheet test, the Air smoked the competition, taking just 3 minutes and 55 seconds to pair 20,000 names and addresses in OpenOffice. That's more than 30 seconds faster than the MacBook (4:33), and more than a minute faster than the XPS 13 (5:02) and X250 (5:07).

However, the 12-inch MacBook has faster flash memory than the 11-inch Air's 128GB storage; the former duplicated 5GB of multimedia files at a rate of 254.5 MBps, while the latter's speed was 188.5 MBps. Still, that's faster than the ultraportable average (182MBps), the X250 (108.3 MBps) and the XPS 13 (87.7 MBps).

Integrated Intel 6000 Series graphics in the Air were able to power World of Warcraft to a just-playable 32 frames per second, with the resolution at 1366 x 768, and with effects set to Good. While that's better than the MacBook (27 fps), it's well below the XPS 13 and X250, which managed 41 and 42 fps, respectively, at the same settings.

Battery Life

The MacBook Air lasted 9 hours and 23 minutes on the Laptop Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi at 100 nits). While that's nowhere near the epic 14 hours of the 13-inch MacBook Air, nor the 11:42 runtime of the XPS 13, it's more than an hour longer than the ultraportable average, and 20 minutes longer than the 12-inch MacBook (8:43). The Lenovo X250 lasted just 7:39 on its 3-cell battery, but hit 15:12 with its extended 6-cell battery.

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MacBook Air vs. 12-inch MacBook

So which of Apple's smallest ultraportables is right for you? Although the 12-inch MacBook has a faster hard drive, the 11-inch Air outperforms the MacBook on every other test, including battery life. Just as important, if not more so, the MacBook has just one USB-C port, while the Air has two USB ports and one Thunderbolt port. In other words, you can plug in one more than one device at once without an adapter.

However, the 12-inch MacBook has a larger, brighter and much sharper display, and packs it all into a smaller, lighter and arguably more attractive package.

Starting at $899, the Air is $400 cheaper than the least-expensive MacBook. Even if you were to configure the Air with the same amount of RAM and storage as the starting-model MacBook, you'd still save $100.

Bottom Line

Apple's 12-inch MacBook gets more attention due to its high-res display, but the 11-inch Air is a more practical solution for students and those who want a highly portable notebook. Its performance, keyboard and battery life hit all the right notes for a sub-3-pound ultraportable.

As much as I like the 11-inch Air, for the same $899 you can get the Dell XPS 13, which has a larger and crisper screen in a similarly sized body, and much longer battery life. But if you prefer using a Mac, the 11-inch Air is a good value.

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  • Author Bio
    Michael A. Prospero
    Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor
    Michael A. Prospero has overseen reviews on Laptopmag.com since 2007, focusing on producing the most thorough and authoritative mobile product reviews. After receiving his Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia in 2003, Mike worked at Fast Company. Prior to that, he worked at The Times of Trenton, George and AlleyCat News.
    Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor on
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    CPU 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-5250U
    Operating System OS X Yosemite
    RAM 4GB
    RAM Upgradable to 8GB
    Hard Drive Size 128GB
    Hard Drive Speed
    Hard Drive Type
    Secondary Hard Drive Size
    Secondary Hard Drive Speed
    Secondary Hard Drive Type
    Display Size 11.6
    Native Resolution 1366x768
    Optical Drive
    Optical Drive Speed
    Graphics Card Intel HD Graphics 6000
    Video Memory 1.5GB
    Wi-Fi 802.11ac
    Wi-Fi Model
    Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.0
    Mobile Broadband
    Touchpad Size 4.1 x 2.5 inches
    Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
    Ports (excluding USB) Thunderbolt 2.0
    Ports (excluding USB) USB 3.0
    USB Ports 2
    Warranty/Support
    Size 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.11-0.68 inches
    Weight 2.38 pounds
    Company Website www.apple.com
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