When it was initially released in 2008, the Apple MacBook Air was unapologetically marketed as a boutique laptop. Back then, features like the Air's specifications and thin chassis were notable enough to warrant its premium status. As other laptop manufacturers began focusing on these design aspects, though, the standards for a basic laptop quickly followed a similar upward trajectory.
Within the MacBook lineup, the MacBook Air has gone from a high-end model to the entry-level tier in Apple's laptop computer catalog. While it's certainly not a budget laptop, the MacBook Air's exceptional combination of portability and speed earns it the Top Ten Reviews Gold Award.
Internally, the MacBook Air touts a base configuration of a 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor, a 128GB solid-state drive and 4GB of memory. In benchmarking evaluations run by our colleagues at Laptop Magazine, the Air showed itself to be a reliably performing laptop.
During processing speed test Geekbench 3, the Air produced a score of 5393, which was in line with other competing laptops. Although the MacBook's solid-state drive offers less storage compared to standard hard-disk drives, it significantly increases the laptop's speed during daily tasks. In Laptop Mag's file transfer test – measuring how long it takes for 4.97GB of files to be transferred – the Air's transfer time of 27 seconds was among the fastest marks for Laptop's tested units.
Beyond work tasks, the Air can also handle light gaming relatively soundly. On default settings at the Air's native resolution of 1440 x 900, "World of Warcraft" averaged around 46 frames per second. A game typically needs to have a frame rate of above 30 frames per second in order to run without visual stuttering and playability issues. But as Laptop Mag notes, the Air's integrated Intel graphics processor has a hard ceiling when it comes to gaming performance ceiling: On higher-quality graphics settings, the Air's "World of Warcraft" performance dropped to 28 frames per second.
Despite the MacBook Air's compact form factor, its use of high-end internal components allows it to compete with larger competing laptops and minimize any performance gap. As a result, the Air can handle tasks ranging from editing to web browsing without missing a significant step. During the checkout process, the Air can also be configured with a 256GB or 512GB solid-state hard drive, 1.7GHZ Intel Core i7 processor and 8GB of memory.
With dimensions of 12.8 x 9 x 0.68 inches and a weight of 2.9 pounds, the Air remains a notably lightweight 13-inch laptop. In addition, the laptop computer is equally flexible when you're away from your power cable. In Laptop Mag's battery test – where a laptop repeatedly browses through webpages until the laptop powers down – the MacBook Air lasted for an exceptional 740 minutes.
Despite the MacBook's grate-free bottom, the laptop's ventilation system was also capable of keeping the Air cool during Laptop Mag's benchmarking. After 15 minutes of full-screen video playing, the Air's bottom only clocked in at 81 degrees. The Air's tinier stature does give the computer some inherent advantages when it comes to portability, but thanks to the MacBook's solid component selection, you don't have to choose between speed or mobility with your laptop.
However, the MacBook Air does have some hurdles that can't be avoided with its build quality. Laptop Mag's hands-on testing found the Air's display to be a consistent performer, with above-average brightness levels and color reproduction quality.
Still, the Air is notably limited on resolution options for its 11-inch and 13-inch models, which respectively top out at 1366 x 768 and 1440 x 900. By comparison, a resolution of at least 1920 x 1080 is a typical higher-definition minimum on non-budget laptops. While the Air's display has respectable visual fidelity, its lack of a high-resolution option does hinder its competitiveness.
Apple's warranty options remain among the top of the pack for laptop manufacturers. The Air comes with 90 days of free phone support and a one-year warranty. Additionally, thorough help pages are available through Apple's website. Chat support is also part of Apple's AppleCare, which offers additional coverage options through an extended warranty program.
Apple's retail store locations can also provide in-person tech support for your Air. While turnaround times can vary depending on the exact problem, Apple's same-day tech support is an option few companies can match. During Laptop Mag's in-person tech support evaluations, they found a similarly effective level of customer service. Phone call hold times were consistently short, and help pages were easy to navigate through.
Port options on the MacBook Air can be limiting. The 13-inch Air comes with two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone jack, a Thunderbolt port and a SD card reader, which the 11-inch model omits. With transfer speeds of up to twice as much as USB 3.0, Thunderbolt does have its upsides as a port standard.
For general users, though, the problem with the Air's connectivity options comes from accessibility. While the Air can still output video the same as any laptop, its Thunderbolt port will require additional add-ons for connection options such as HDMI, VGA or DVI. In addition, Thunderbolt peripherals are generally aimed at enthusiast or enterprise-level customers.
If you're planning on editing large amounts of video or moving gigabytes' worth of data, Thunderbolt can be a worthwhile investment. But if you're simply using the Air for less processor-intensive tasks, USB 3.0 devices will usually be an adequate alternative.
While operating systems OS X and Windows 8 have their respective strengths and weaknesses, the MacBook Air shows how narrow the gap in laptop performance is between the two platforms. Coupling high-end components with excellent build quality, the MacBook Air remains among the best laptops on the market.
The MacBook Air features excellent computing performance and battery life.
Apple's limited display resolution options keep the Air a step behind competing laptops.
With speedy internal components and superb build quality, the MacBook Air shows that a laptop doesn't have to sacrifice performance for looks.