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.
Mostly, just the guts. The 13-inch Air now includes a 5th-generation Intel Core i5-5250U processor, Intel HD Graphics 6000 (Iris graphics are reserved for the 13-inch MacBook Pro) and a Thunderbolt 2 port.The upgraded flash storage promises twice the performance of the previous-generation Air.
What's the Same
The look. Apple apparently perfected the design of its 13-inch ultraportable in 2010. With the exception of the ports, this all-aluminum notebook looks the same as it did five years ago. Here's hoping that, for the next generation of the notebook, Apple lets you choose at least the color, as you can with the 12-inch MacBook (space gray, silver or gold).
At 2.98 pounds, the Air is light enough to carry around all day, but it's heavier than the Dell XPS 13, the Asus ZenBook UX305 and the Lenovo Yoga Pro, each of which weighs about 2.6 pounds. The HP Spectre x360 is heavier, at 3.26 pounds, but it also has a flip-around screen.
Also, 13-inch Air's display hasn't changed in five years; Apple has stuck resolutely to a 1440 x 900-pixel panel. Count me among those disappointed that the 13-inch Air didn't get a Retina display, or at least one with a resolution of 1080p.
The keyboard and touchpad on the Air are the same as before. As of this review, only the 12-inch MacBook and the 15-inch MacBook Pro have Apple's innovative ForcePad, which uses haptic feedback instead of a physical click and lets you perform different functions depending on how hard you press.
The Air's keyboard hasn't changed, either, but this is one area where I don't mind continuity for continuity's sake. While it has just 1 mm of travel (we prefer at least 1.5 mm), typing on the Air remains as comfortable as ever.
In fact, I prefer the Air's keys to those on the 12-inch MacBook, which are just too shallow for extended typing sessions.
Plenty of Ports
Unlike the 12-inch MacBook, which has just one USB-C port, the 13-inch Air has a Thunderbolt 2, two USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot.
Most significant, I think, is the MagSafe power connector. Why abandon such a great idea?
Epic Battery Life
The battery life of the past few generations of the MacBook Air has been impressive, and the 2015 model is no different in that regard. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test (Web surfing at 100 nits of brightness), the notebook lasted an epic 14 hours. That's 2 hours longer than Apple's claim as well as last year's Air (12:20), and 6 hours better than the ultraportable average of 8:05.
Among competing systems, only the nontouch version of the XPS 13 came close, at 11:42. While better than average, the Asus UX305 (9:38) and HP x360 (9:28) simply can't match the Air's endurance.
Blazing Flash Storage
The 128GB PCIe-based flash storage in the Air is leagues better than that offered by the competition. It duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files at a rate of 358.4 MBps. That's twice as fast as its predecessor (190.3 MBps), the Yoga 3 Pro (175 MBps), the Asus UX305 (154.2 MBps) and the HP x360 (141.4 MBps).
On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, the Air's Core i5-5250U processor scored 5,783, which just edges out the XPS 13 (5,530) and the HP x360 (5,614), which have slightly less powerful Core i5-5200U CPUs. The average ultraportable scored 4,523.
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The Air also dominated the competition on our Spreadsheet test, matching 20,000 names and addresses in 4 minutes and 3 seconds. That's a minute faster than the XPS 13 (5:02) and the HP x360 (5:04), and more than twice as fast as the average (8:33). However, the 2014 Air was even faster, completing the task in 3 minutes and 46 seconds.
I can think of two reasons why Apple has yet to boost the resolution of the 13-inch Air: Higher-resolution panels use more power, and Apple wants to ensure that the Retina display on the 12-inch MacBook remains special. Yet, all of the Air's competitors -- including ones that cost $300 less -- have at least a 1080p display. What's more, if Apple is boasting that the Air is better than ever for playing games, shouldn't it have a screen to match?
At 334 nits, the Air's brightness is on a par with the HP x360 (339 nits) and is brighter than the typical ultraportable (272 nits), the nontouch XPS 13 (298), the Asus UX305 (281) and the Lenovo Yoga Pro (318).
However, the Air's display falls down on some other display metrics. Our tests revealed that it can produce just 65.8 percent of the sRGB gamut, which makes it far less colorful than not only the average ultraportable (78.7 percent), but the XPS 13 (92), the HP x360 (103), the Yoga Pro (99) and even the less expensive Asus ZenBook UX305 (94).
And the colors it can display aren't very accurate. With a Delta-E score of 4.3 (numbers closer to zero are better), the Air didn't fare as well as the average (3.4), the x360 (1.3) or the UX305 (1.5). The Dell XPS 13, however, was even worse, at 8.1.
Graphics Don't Wow
Although Apple touts the Intel 6000 Graphics in the 2015 Air as better than ever, we saw only marginal gains, at the least, over last year's model.
In World of Warcraft, the 2015 Air hit 32 frames per second with the resolution at 1440 x 900 and the effects on Good. That's just barely better than what we consider playable (30 fps). At a higher resolution of 1080p, the Dell XPS 13 notched 33 fps on Good, and 24 fps on Full.
However, the 2015 Air did outperform the 2014 Air on the OpenGL portion of the Cinebench benchmark. This year's model scored 24.81 fps, which is comfortably higher than the 18.47 fps of the previous model.
MacBook Air vs. 12-inch MacBook
Should you spend an extra $300 for the 12-inch MacBook? In terms of portability, the MacBook weighs nearly a full pound lighter than the 13-inch Air. The MacBook also has a smaller but much sharper 2304 x 1440-pixel display that's not only brighter, but shows more colors.
However, the Air trumps the MacBook when it comes to performance and endurance. The Air's Core i5 processor beats the MacBook's Core M processor at every turn, and its flash memory is 100 MBps faster than the MacBook's. The Air's battery life also bested the MacBook's (8 hours and 43 minutes) by more than 5 hours. Most important, the MacBook has just one port (USB-C), so you'll need to buy adapters if you want to charge the notebook and plug in another device at the same time.
The 2015 MacBook Air is a very good upgrade over last year's model. You get better performance and better battery life, all for $999. I also continue to like the comfortable keyboard and accurate touchpad, even though the Air lacks the new ForcePad. However, the notebook's design is due for an overhaul, and shoppers deserve a sharper and more colorful display.
For $100 less, the Dell XPS 13 has a crisper but dimmer 1080p display and a lighter and more adventurous design. However, it lasts about 2 hours less on a charge and isn't quite as fast. If you're not wedded to Apple's operating system, Dell's notebook is the way to go, but Mac fans who value endurance above all else will find the new 13-inch Air the best there is.