Apple 11-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review
Apple has denied it the latest upgrades, but the 11-inch MacBook Air remains a cute, capable laptop
Apple and cheap are two words rarely seen in close proximity. Yet, with the MacBook stepping into the range at £1,049, the 11in MacBook Air now finds itself in the curious position of being the most affordable laptop in Apple’s line-up. Starting at £749, and with Intel’s Broadwell CPUs at the helm, the burning question is whether the miniature MacBook Air is still worthy of your cash.
Apple 11-inch MacBook Air: what’s new?
It’s difficult not to feel a little sorry for the 11in MacBook Air. While its stablemates have been bestowed with Force Touch trackpads, faster SSDs and Intel’s newest family of CPUs, the miniature MacBook Air has had to make do with a CPU upgrade and the arrival of Thunderbolt 2. Like its larger cousin, the 13in MacBook Air, Apple has cruelly denied it what it truly deserves: a glitzy new Retina screen.
Unlike its big brother, though, the 11in MacBook Air hasn’t begun to lose its looks. There’s no question that the slender new MacBook is the prettier of the two, and dramatically thinner and lighter, but there’s something about the MacBook Air design scaled down to an 11.6in chassis that still hits the spot. The design hasn’t changed a jot, but it remains a handsome little devil.
Moreover, this 1.08kg laptop is exactly what people look for in an ultraportable. It’s thin enough, light enough and small enough to carry around every single day, yet big enough not to compromise on the essentials – performance, comfort and connectivity are all given top billing.
Apple 11-inch MacBook Air: hardware and performance
It might be the only major upgrade but, sour grapes aside, the arrival of Intel Broadwell is welcome. There’s little, if any, speed benefit to be found: the Broadwell architecture is the tick to Skylake’s forthcoming tock, so offers similar performance to the previous generation with slightly greater efficiency and less heat. These might be minor improvements, but they’re the perfect fit for an ultraportable.
Delve through the specification list, and there are no grand reveals. The £749 model partners the same 1.6GHz Core i5-5250U CPU as found in the 13in Air, and comes with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. If that isn’t enough storage for your needs – and I suspect for most people it won’t be – the £849 model provides a more capacious 256GB SSD. Dig into the configuration options and you can bump up to a 2.2GHz Core i7 CPU for £130; upgrade to 8GB RAM for £80; and expand the storage to 512GB for £240.
Sadly, Apple hasn’t brought over the high-speed SSD interface that it introduced on the 13in MacBook Air and Pro models. That’s a minor gripe, though, as it wasn’t lacking for performance in the first place: with sequential read and write speeds of 623MB/sec and 282MB/sec, this is still a speedy drive by any reasonable standards.
And, in practice, the 11in MacBook Air delivers a nigh-on identical turn of pace to its bigger brother. Start-up and application load times aren’t quite as lightning-quick due to the slower SSD, but there isn’t a scrap of difference in the benchmark results: both the 11in and 13in Air scored a very respectable 37 in the PC Pro benchmarks. That’s quite a contrast to the Core M-powered MacBook, which scored 20. Clearly, there’s enough horsepower here to handle demanding applications and multitasking without grinding to a halt, even if the Air’s cooling fans spin up audibly under tougher workloads.
Despite this, battery life doesn’t drag far behind the MacBook. Apple has performed its usual trick of cramming every spare nook and cranny with lithium-ion battery cells, and it shows. With the display calibrated to a brightness of 120cd/m2, Wi-Fi off and a 720p video set to loop indefinitely, it lasted a creditable 6hrs 38mins – only half an hour less than the MacBook.
Apple 11-inch MacBook Air: gaming performance
There’s little, if any, impact to the arrival of Intel’s HD Graphics 6000 GPU – it remains as underpowered as the previous generation. The low 1,366 x 768 display resolution means that it certainly doesn’t struggle with the demands of OS X, but you can wipe any serious gaming from your aspirations.
In GFXBench GL’s offscreen T-Rex benchmark, the 11in Air racked up similar numbers to the 13in model, scoring an average framerate of 92fps to the 13in Air’s 95fps.
Fire up something a little more demanding, such as Crysis, and the Intel GPU quickly reaches its limits. Running at 1,366 x 768 and with Crysis’ detail settings set to minimum, the Air achieved an average framerate of 48fps. At 1,600 x 900 resolution and Medium detail, that figure tumbled to 25fps.
If you do want to dabble with the latest games, at playable framerates, then you have one option: drop the detail settings right down and cross your fingers.
Apple 11-inch MacBook Air: display quality
On the topic of the MacBook Air’s display, I have but one piece of advice: don’t, whatever you do, compare it to an Apple device with a Retina screen. I say this because, viewed in isolation, it isn’t half bad – at 408cd/m2 it’s very bright, and the contrast ratio of 645:1 is passable, if behind the best. Apple’s decision to colour calibrate the display works wonders; although it actually reproduces only 63% of the sRGB colour gamut, the calibration squeezes every last drop of performance from the TN panel.
Try as it might, however, Apple can’t defy the laws of physics. TN panel technology has a variety of downsides – not least its inferior colour reproduction – and the poor vertical viewing angles mean that it’s necessary to tilt the screen back and forth to prevent images washing out or becoming unnaturally dark.
Yet, despite those complaints, it’s the display’s 16:9 ratio and 1,366 x 768 resolution that irk the most – there simply isn’t as much breathing room as the 16:10 Retina displays on Apple’s other MacBooks. It’s not unworkable: OS X’s multiple desktop feature, Spaces, goes some way to making up for the display’s low resolution, but it’s a sticking plaster. A Retina display upgrade is long overdue.
Apple 11-inch MacBook Air: connectivity and features
It’s fair to say that the 11in MacBook Air outpaces the new MacBook in almost every other department. Connectivity sees two USB 3 ports and a 3.5mm headset jack now joined by a Thunderbolt 2 port – an addition that allows the tiny MacBook Air to power a huge 4K screen at a silky 60Hz refresh rate.
There’s also a 720p iSight camera, which provides crisp, amply detailed video chats. Even the built-in speakers are surprisingly serviceable: they dredge up a decent amount of clarity and volume from the Air’s compact chassis.
Having spent weeks with both the MacBook and the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, I couldn’t help missing the Force Touch trackpad. Thankfully, Apple’s original glass touchpad is excellent. It remains head-and-shoulders above most Windows laptops, and allows for deft, gesture-friendly control in OS X; even working well in a Boot Camp installation of Windows 8. The keyboard, as ever, is superb: every tap of a key clicks back with a reassuring, cushioned bounce.
Apple 11-inch MacBook Air: verdict
All things told, the 11in MacBook Air is a capable, compact all-rounder. So capable, in fact, that it makes a far better buy than the £1,049 MacBook. It’s just as long-lasting, ostensibly just as portable, and the extra CPU grunt and improved connectivity make it a far more flexible choice.
Cast your net wider than Apple’s line-up, however, and a troop of rivals emerge. It faces a stiff challenge from Windows laptops such as the Asus Zenbook UX303LA, not to mention hybrid designs such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. It’s cheap by Apple’s standards, but not especially so by those of anyone else.
Yet, despite Apple’s attempts to hobble the Air’s appeal with a frugal smattering of upgrades, and growing pressure from a cast of able contenders, the 11in MacBook Air still delivers almost everything you could ask from an ultraportable. A dramatic facelift (or early retirement) is almost certainly due in the not-too-distant future – but for now, the 11in MacBook Air serves as a welcome reminder of what made Apple’s ultraportable so great in the first place.