Things are getting very blurry.

The MacBook Pro once stood for tons of power plus upgradability. Add a Retina Display and now it's just tons of power. It's a thicker, faster MacBook Air (with an awesome display). It's not bad, in fact it's quite amazing, but it confuses the general order of things.

The MacBook Air doesn't help in the clarity department. You can now order a MacBook Air with up to 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, for the first time in MacBook Air history. Users who were once forced into Pro territory because of RAM and storage requirements can now happily live with an Air. And thanks to Turbo Boost, you do get similar performance in lightly threaded workloads.

Take a step away from the Mac world and you'll see the rest of the market is going through its own confusing period. Nearly every single Microsoft partner is mixing tablets and Ultrabooks. If your tablet uses smartphone hardware, and can dock into a notebook or Thunderbolt itself into a desktop, is all of this a lot of confusion before client computing moves entirely to smartphones? NVIDIA said it would happen publicly (even Intel did so privately a few years ago). Maybe it wasn't just convenient rhetoric. Maybe that's where we're headed. Until then, there are going to be a lot of different form factors, all with very compelling features. The MacBook Air continues to be one of them.

Despite the recent Ultrabook frenzy, the MacBook Air was one of the first (if not the first) to marry performance with usability, screen size/resolution, portability and battery life. Ultraportables prior to the MacBook Air's arrival in 2008 typically sacrificed in one or more of the above areas. I spent years in pursuit of the perfect ultraportable in college over a decade ago (30 is the new 20 right?), and generally came away disappointed and empty handed.


That ever so popular wedge

In 2010 Apple changed the expectations of cost with the MacBook Air. The new 11-inch model would start at just $999. And the 13-inch would only cost $300 more. The very first MacBook Air, by comparison, retailed for $1800. Apple took an ultraportable and made it its mainstream notebook. It was a bold move but one that was very forward looking.

Today the MacBook Air is even more affordable. The 11-inch model still starts at $999, but the 13-inch version is only $200 more. From the outside not a lot has changed, but that doesn't mean there's any less to talk about. Ivy Bridge, USB 3.0 and faster SSDs are all on the menu this year. Let's get to it.

The 11 & 13

Unlike the other thin member of Apple's Mac lineup, the MacBook Air chassis hasn't changed over the past three years. Since the 2010 update that gave us the 11-inch model and significantly lower prices, Apple has stuck with a design that only recently has seen widespread emulation.

While our last review focused on the beginning of a new generation, this review takes a look at a very mature, yet still very good design. The MacBook Air is just so pleasant to carry around. It'll make even the new rMBP feel like a pig.

Both the 11 and 13-inch models are effortless to carry around. While I dread traveling with a traditional notebook, slipping one of these into my backpack is barely noticeable. You can get used to and take for granted just about anything, but the form factor of the MacBook Air continues to be a favorite of mine even today.

Pixel Density Comparison

The 11-inch MacBook Air is a great option for those who want the portability of a tablet but find themselves wanting to attach a keyboard to it most of the time. The 11.6-inch display boasts the highest pixel density of all of Apple's non-retina displays at 1366 x 768, but it's still quite usable. You don't make any sacrifices on keyboard size or key spacing (it's identical to the 13-inch model for the majority of the keys), nor do you have to give up any performance either. Apple offers all of the same CPU, memory and storage upgrades across both MacBook Airs. And with no discrete GPU, thermal throttling isn't really a problem either in the 11-inch chassis. With Thunderbolt, the 11-inch MacBook Air can actually give you the best of both worlds: an incredibly portable computer when you're on the go, and enough to act as your desktop when docked to a Thunderbolt Display.

I've traditionally always bought the 11-inch MacBook Air with the thought that I'd carry it when I didn't need to lug around my MacBook Pro. I seemed to be fooling myself however as over 90% of the time I'd end up with the MacBook Pro. The 11-inch Air was relegated to typewriter duty when I needed a change of scenery while writing at home. It's a great writer's companion, but if I couldn't have more than one system I'd have to opt for its bigger brother.

When I first reviewed the redesigned 13-inch MacBook Air I wrote that it felt more like a normal notebook, while the 11 was something a bit more unique. Perhaps I was more infatuated with the new 11 at the time, because these days I'm more drawn to the 13-inch MacBook Air as the notebook to have if you can only have one.

You get a 23.5% increase in screen resolution on a display that's just easier to look at. While 1440 x 900 is a bit much on a 15-inch MacBook Pro, I'd say it's near perfect on the 13-inch Air. If Apple were to do the Retina treatment on here, it'd be magnificent.

The larger chassis allows room for an SD card reader, which is thankfully quite functional. Otherwise the port layout is identical to the 11-inch model.

2012 MacBook Air Lineup
  11.6-inch 11.6-inch (high-end) 13.3-inch 13.3-inch (high-end)
Dimensions H: 0.11-0.68" (0.3-1.7cm)
W: 11.8" (30cm)
D: 7.56" (19.2cm)
H: 0.11-0.68" (0.3-1.7cm)
W: 12.8" (32.5cm)
D: 8.94" (22.7cm)
Weight 2.38 lbs (1.08kg) 2.96 lbs (1.35kg)
Cores/Threads 1.7GHz dual-core Core i5 1.8GHz dual-core Core i5
Base Clock Speed Intel HD 4000
RAM 4GB DDR3L-1600
SSD 64GB SSD 128GB SSD 128GB SSD 256GB SSD
Display Resolution 1366 x 768 1440 x 900
Ports Thunderbolt, 2x USB 3.0, headphone jack Thunderbolt, 2x USB 3.0, SD card slot, headphone jack
Price $999 $1099 $1199 $1499

In its role as a proponent of simplicity, Apple has reduced the decision between what Air to get down to screen size, resolution and battery life (the 13-inch chassis houses a much larger battery). If you like having more of all of those things, the 13-inch Air is for you. If carrying anything larger than a tablet upsets you, buy the 11.

Ivy Bridge, USB 3.0 and More
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  • KPOM - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    Yes, this sounds like the words of an Apple fanboy:

    "The same is starting to be true outside of Apple as well. The competition has simply caught up and surpassed Apple in the low-cost, but high-quality display business. The MacBook Air is no longer competing against poorly designed netbooks, but a bunch of clones that are quickly approaching parity across the board. The MBA panel isn't bad, but it needs to be better."
    Reply
  • KPOM - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    What do you want him to say "This is an overpriced piece of junk and no one should buy it"? Would that be objective enough for you? Reply
  • Karltheghost - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    No, thats not objectice either. But calling a laptop "flexible" (according to upgrades), which isn't upgradeable at all and has to send in to service for several hundred dollars and some weeks time isn't more objective. Reply
  • Karltheghost - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    send in to just change a battery i meant to write. . . Reply
  • Tegeril - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    The expected lifespan of the batteries in these systems is 1000 cycles @ 80% of original life. Many users of this system will never reach that number of cycles at all (and may not even consider it in need of replacement at that time!). Making the battery replacement out to be that much of a con is preposterous.

    I just sold a MBP that I used pretty heavily over the course of 2 years and it had just shy of 400 cycles on the battery. Overall battery health was 96% of new. They just don't need to be replaced much at all.

    http://www.apple.com/batteries/notebooks.html
    Reply
  • Karltheghost - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    While you're nearly right (it's said 500 to 1000 cycles) at the expected lifespan of a battery, there are enough batterys who die a lot sooner. If one cell has a flaw, the whole pack will be useless. And this happens quite often these days, i know a lot of people who had that problem. I once got a bad battery myself, it went dead after maybe 25 cycles. And giving away your Laptop for several weeks to have a battery changed is as improper as giving your bicycle away for a month just to get a flat tire patched . . . Not to mention the exaggerated costs if this happens out of Warranty time of the battery. Reply
  • phillyry - Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - link

    On non-Apple, cheapo-generic batteries that some OEM puts in your build just because it's a 6-cell instead of a 4-cell.

    Better OEMs will (hopefully) use better batteries. Apple definitely uses top-notch batteries that rarely need to be replaced within their lifetime.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately these tradeoffs apply to everything in this form factor going forward. I believe that once you've made the commitment to opt for this form factor, whether MacBook Air or Ultrabook, you've accepted the lack of user removable components. It's the appliance-ification of the PC, and the tradeoff you make for portability.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • MrJim - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    Dear Anand!

    I remember back in the days when we were finding out viral marketing guys from Nvidia focus groups on the forum.

    Just to keep that in mind i love your site and your reviews.

    BUT for example with the asus ux32vd (which is cheaper than the Air)i can add memory (for 10GB of RAM-godness) and whatever SSD i like that fits. Of course there is a extra cost but it still isnt as much as for the Air.

    Ultrabooks doesnt need to be like a stone.

    I think that model i namned above is a good example of that. And i hope you will discuss this in your review of it.

    Sincerely from North Sweden.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    The UX32 is a great example, but it is thicker than the MBA/ultrabooks that don't offer that flexibility. In pursuit of ultimate portability, soldered DRAM (and soon to be soldered SSDs, just wait until you see some of the Windows 8 designs later this year) are necessary tradeoffs.

    That being said, as I mentioned in the conclusion of my rMBP review, I would like to see OEMs focus on introducing ultra small form factor removable DRAM standards. And I'd love to see them standardize on some ultra small form factor, high performance SSDs. We'll get there, but the pendulum isn't done swinging yet.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply

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