Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review
The 13-inch MacBook Air gets a handful of updates for 2015 - but has Apple done enough?
The 13in MacBook Air isn’t the tour-de-force it once was. While Apple has lavished the MacBook Pro with a slew of upgrades, and endowed the dainty new 12.5in MacBook with a Force Touch trackpad and Retina display, the Air hasn’t been so lucky.
In fact the only major upgrades in this year's edition are Intel’s latest Broadwell processor technology and an upgraded SSD. In every other respect, it's the same old laptop with an identical chassis and 1,440 x 900 resolution TN display.
Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: Broadwell and SSD performance
Last year’s 1.4GHz Haswell CPU has been replaced by the 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U, and along with it comes a new integrated GPU, the HD Graphics 6000, and as ever it's possible to upgrade to a 2.2GHz Core i7 for a £130 premium.
As I’ve found on other laptops, performance increases aren’t necessarily the order of the day here: Broadwell’s move to a 14nm process simply means the new CPUs generate a little less heat.
Apple’s decision to bring the supercharged SSD over from the 13-inch MacBook Pro is far more exciting. The previous PCI-Express SSDs weren’t exactly slow, easily outstripping the mSATA drives found in most Windows laptops, but Apple has upped the internal PCI-Express interface from two to four lanes for 2015, doubling the available bandwidth.
The result is one very fast SSD. Where the previous generation achieved sequential read and write speeds of 664MB/sec and 542MB/sec, the new model stormed past with 1,145MB/sec and 979MB/sec.
Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: general performance and battery life
Taken as a whole, however, there isn’t a huge impact to the changes. The MacBook Air sailed to a respectable score of 0.7 in the old PC Pro Real World Benchmarks – exactly the same result as last year’s model. In the new benchmark suite, it scored 36 overall, a result which puts it slap bang in-between the 13in MacBook Pro, which scored 56, and the MacBook, which managed a modest overall result of 20.
Subjectively, the MacBook Air remains a spritely performer. The capable CPU and SSD make for scorching application load times, not to mention a general feeling of snappy responsiveness. Meanwhile, the low screen resolution does at least have one benefit: despite the humble GPU, OS X feels slick and smooth, and there are fewer of the slight judders you occasionally get on the Retina-class MacBook Pro models.
Battery life was always a strong point, and here the 2015 MacBook Air outstrips its predecessor by a huge six hours. In our light-use test, with the screen brightness calibrated to 75cd/m2, the MacBook Air kept trucking for 16hrs 46mins, which is around the same time the 13in Macbook Pro achieved. In a video rundown test, with Wi-Fi off and the screen set at a brighter 120cd/m2, the 13in MacBook Air played a 720p movie on loop for 11hrs 51mins.
Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: connectivity and display
Around the edges of the chassis, there are two USB 3 ports, an SD card reader, a 3.5mm headset jack and a Thunderbolt 2 port for both ultra-fast connectivity and monitor output via mini-DisplayPort. Wireless connectivity is ample, too, with dual-band, 2x2 stream 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4 connections.
Thunderbolt 2 provides a generous 20Gbits/sec of bandwidth to connected devices, and since it now also supports the DisplayPort 1.2 standard, the MacBook Air is capable of driving a 4K display at 60Hz as well as supporting the daisy-chaining of multiple displays. That’s a welcome bonus in itself, but with an increasing amount of high-end professional hardware adopting the Thunderbolt standard, its presence on the MacBook Air remains a significant plus over Windows devices.
Apple hasn’t skimped on the basics, either. The 720p FaceTime camera isn’t especially crisp, and there is the tell-tale fizz of sensor noise, but the combination of natural colour reproduction and ample detail are good enough for video chats. The inbuilt speakers remain a cut above many laptops, too, with plenty of volume and enough clarity that you don’t need to always reach for a pair of headphones.
Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: connectivity and display
If there's one area where the MacBook really shows its age, though, it's the 13.3in, 1,440 x 900 display. With Full HD fast becoming a de-facto standard on most mid-range Windows machines, and high-DPI displays standard fare on high-end devices, the MacBook Air’s display has never been in more dire need of a Retina upgrade.
At first glance, however – and as long as there isn’t a Retina-screened MacBook Pro in the vicinity – it looks reasonably competent. Brightness peaks at a decent 313cd/m2, and contrast hits an acceptable 786:1. Apple has colour calibrated the display to the best of its abilities, too, so onscreen colours look as bold and bright as the elderly TN panel technology will allow.
Those with more exacting demands will find plenty to criticise. Sharpness is severely lacking compared to Full HD and high-DPI displays, and poor vertical viewing angles cause colour and contrast shifts as you move the screen back and forth. Nor can Apple’s factory calibration remedy the panel’s limited range of colours. The TN panel is only capable of reproducing 60% of the sRGB colour gamut, so it can't dredge up the deepest reds, blues and greens. As if to prove the point, the MacBook Air’s display achieved an average Delta E of 3.7 and a hugely wayward maximum of 13.9.
Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: design and ergonomics
There’s no doubt the MacBook Air remains a handsome laptop, but with the chassis remaining millimetre-identical over the past few years, there’s the nagging feeling that it’s beginning to look, well, ordinary.
The slim, 1.33kg all-metal chassis still strikes a fine line between prettiness and toughness, but the thick silver bezels circling the display are beginning to look clunky. In truth, the new MacBook has well and truly stolen its thin-and-light thunder, and the competition has had plenty of time to catch up – the MacBook Air is well overdue a makeover.
Despite our criticisms, it is tough to actively dislike the MacBook Air. The backlit keyboard and buttonless touchpad remain as able a pairing as ever, even if the absence of Force Touch is a disappointment.
Indeed, the keyboard remains a pleasure to type on, with good-sized keys that provide a reassuring notch of feedback, and the buttonless touchpad is only bettered by the newer Force Touch-equipped models. The only enduring gripe I can report is that the Air’s sharp leading edge does occasionally dig into the wrists, but this may not prove a problem if your hands are smaller, or typing style is different to mine.
Apple 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: verdict
Ultimately, the Air is usurped by its own family members: flanked by both the MacBook and the 13in MacBook Pro in Apple’s line-up, the MacBook Air finds itself second-best on portability, weight, power and battery life.
If you’re buying a MacBook now, then you really have no excuse not to spend the extra on either of those two devices – and whatever your opinion on the MacBook’s design, it’s tough to argue that the £999 13in MacBook Pro with Retina Display isn’t the better buy.
Even if you haven’t got your heart set on OS X, the ever-multiplying legions of affordable Windows Ultrabooks leave the MacBook Air struggling to keep up. Take the Asus Zenbook UX303LA, for instance: this Windows Ultrabook now marries a similar, all-metal design with a Core i7 Broadwell CPU and Full HD display for a mere £700. There’s no Thunderbolt; no super-fast SSD – but I suspect most people won’t care.
For all its good points – and several still remain – the 13in MacBook Air feels like a diminished force, and Apple’s reticence to update it with Force Touch or a much-needed Retina display says a lot about its future in the MacBook family. Say your goodbyes, for the 13in Apple MacBook Air looks to be ready for retirement.