MacBook Air: Still the best laptop in its class

Summary:I test a lot of laptops so I frequently get asked to recommend one by friends and family. After almost a year in the rapidly changing mobile landscape, Apple’s smallest laptop still gets the nod.

MBA
Image: Apple

Regular readers know I have no connection with any brand or platform. I use mobile devices from every vendor, running software from all platforms. I use what works for me, as it should be.

I try a lot of laptops from every major vendor, and I am in the position to keep close tabs on what’s out there. For that reason alone, friends, family, and readers regularly ask me to recommend a laptop when they are shopping for one. It’s significant that after owning the 11-inch MacBook Air since it appeared a year ago, I still find Apple’s laptop to be a good fit.

Platform preference aside (I’ll deal with that in a bit), the MacBook Air often beats the competition in my primary hardware criteria. When mobility is a major concern, there is nothing on the market that beats the Air for the price.

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Portability

The MacBook Air is still the thinnest and lightest laptop on the market for the price. The 11-inch model is only 2.38 pounds, and that’s as portable as you can get. It is crazy thin for a laptop (0.3 inches at its thinnest point), so it will fit in the smallest gear bag for those who want to move around as fleet of foot as possible.

When it comes to basic performance in day-to-day operation, the MacBook Air keeps up with or surpasses the best of the competition I have tried.

Looking around at what’s available, there's not much in this class. There are some Windows hybrid systems that get close, but those either cost more or have Atom processors. They don’t come close to competing with the processor used in the entry-level MacBook Air for anywhere near the price.

Battery life is a major advantage of the MacBook Air over the competition. The ability to run 10+ hours on a single charge adds to the portability of the laptop from Apple. Many competing notebook computers don't even come close.

Performance

The MacBook Air with the Core i5 processor I own is as fast as any laptop I test. That covers Windows 8 laptops from all the major vendors, running Core i5 to i7 processors, as the MacBook Air running OS X is as fast or faster in real-world use than all of them.

No matter what I run, the Air plows through it without a hiccup, and I can’t say the same about some Windows laptops I test. Don’t get me wrong, these laptops are not bad, I quite like some of them. But when it comes to basic performance in day-to-day operation, the MacBook Air keeps up with or surpasses the best of the competition I have tried.

Software

Mac software now has everything that most people need for both work and play. The old days of requiring Windows to get work done are long past. Take any particular task performed with some Windows program, and odds are there is a Mac equivalent that works just fine.

I can hear the chorus of “Office, Office” being sung right about now, and my response is there is no longer a valid “Windows required” argument. Apple has its own capable office apps, and there are a number of ways to run Office on the Mac.

There’s Office for Mac, an admittedly old suite that doesn’t really compare to the latest Windows version. There’s Office Online, which is the same on the Mac as on Windows. Last but not least, there is the ability to run full Windows 8.1 in a virtual machine on the Mac.

That’s right, you can run Windows on the Mac, and quite well. This is particularly appropriate for those wanting to run special Windows apps on their shiny new laptop. The major virtual machine apps on the Mac — I prefer Parallels — make buying and installing Windows very easy to do on the Mac. Once it’s installed, you can run Windows 8.1 on the MacBook Air much the same as on any Windows laptop. Truth be told, the MacBook Air runs Windows better than some Windows laptops in the same price point.

In fact, Microsoft has Windows 8.1 running on the Mac even better with the latest update to the OS. It added specific features and UI controls designed for those using Windows on systems without touch screens, just like the MacBook Air.

Price

The cheapest MacBook Air is $999, and that price is more competitive than many people realize. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, which I absolutely loved when testing it , is hundreds of dollars more expensive than the MacBook Air. Yes, the ThinkPad is bigger and has a slightly higher resolution screen, but that’s actually a hit on the portability criteria. As in being heavier and thicker.

Look around laptop shops online and chances are any of the models that approach the size and weight of the MacBook Air will be a lot more expensive. That’s if you can find any that are similarly equipped.

Still the best portable system in its class

I am not recommending the MacBook Air over the competition, merely pointing out how it stacks up against similarly priced laptops in the ultraportable segment. Those wanting a very mobile system with good performance, that has the ability to run virtually any app available, will be hard-pressed to find another laptop at a similar price point.

Believe it or not, when you start looking at laptops as powerful and portable as the MacBook Air, you can easily get up around the $2,000 range. That puts the $999 price for the 11-inch MacBook Air, and $1,099 for the 13-inch model in perspective.

Rumors are everywhere about new MacBook Air models coming soon. Given Apple’s normal method of refreshing its laptops, including adding more of everything for the same or lower prices, it’s likely the MacBook Air will be the best laptop for many for a while.

I don't expect some readers to agree with my thoughts about the MacBook Air. There may very well be another laptop or two that meet your needs. If so, leave your choice in the comments and share why you like it. We may learn something as a result.

Keep your discussed laptops to around 11 inches as covered in the article. We know there are bigger laptops out there but they don't really compare to the smaller MacBook Air. If we include those in the conversation we will have to also include the rest of the Apple line of laptops.

See related:

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Laptops, Windows 8

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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