MacBook Air: Still the best laptop in its class

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.

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(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

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Talkback

105 comments
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  • Any laptop at a grand or better should be good

    Anytime I read about praise for a Apple product I think to myself this product should be great.
    If your paying over a grand for a laptop, it should be no problem for the maker to produce a quality product. Like the Acer A7 gets high marks as a Ultrabook Windows machine. I have a 2010 Macbook Air I gave to my daughter because I don't care so much for OS X anymore or Apple's ecosystem. But the praise I have for their hardware is still valid. But I would expect nothing less and I imagine if Apple started cutting corners Macbook Air sales would drop.
    JohnnyES-25227553276394558534412264934521
    • Apple has shown

      It does not lower prices. It has little to compete against, otherwise prices would be much lower.

      Quality build in terms of form. Looking at various support forums, including Apple's, with people angry over $2500 laptops failing within 6-36 months, "quality" is a many splintered word...
      HypnoToad72
      • Re: Apple has shown it does not Lower prices....

        Incorrect. Prices have been lowered on the Retina MacBook Pro. and iMac 2013 releases compared to those of 2012.
        5735guy
        • There are a couple of occasional exceptions

          1. Mac Mini refresh where the switched Aluminum Chassis, the entry price increased from $499 to $699, to which they dropped that down to $599 shortly after when they performed another product refresh and removed the optical drive.

          2. As Apple phases out a product line, the like taking over that spot is likely to get a price cut in order to "fill the price point." This happened with the MacBook and MacBook Air. The Macbook was removed and the 11.6" MacBook Air was dropped to $999.00 to fill the gap. The 13.3" MacBook Air was lowered from $1299 to $1199 as well. I think that was only to keep the product profit percentage in line. I would still prefer a MacBook Air over anything else when factoring price verses percentage. I have to remain platform agnostic because there is just that much to consider when purchasing a new laptop. I am hoping the refresh will start with 8 GB of RAM so I can handle a bit more virtualization.
          nucrash
    • $1k for an i3 Laptop

      is bloody stupid.
      I don't really care if it's cool and hip, it's just STUPID!
      Yeh, Apple has no competition for the stupid crowd.
      warboat
      • It's not an "i3 laptop"

        The MacBook Air uses an Intel i5 (or optionally, Intel i7) processor.
        deasys
      • Even more stupid

        What's even more bloody stupid is when people post about topics when they have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Stupid and humorous!
        Tiggster79
        • Where is this i3 MacBook Air, warboat?

          I went to http://store.apple.com/us/buy-mac/macbook-air and I did not see any i3 based laptops.

          So what i3 laptop are you talking about, warboat?
          CaptainGoodnight
        • well Blow me

          JK originally wrote about a $1k i3 MBA and then edited it.
          I was unaware that an i3 MBA didn't exist so call me ignorant, but not stupid.
          warboat
    • Cheesiness

      I personally think the Aluminum Macbooks are dated and look cheesy now in 2014. The Acer Aspire S7 is pretty nice and innovative, especially with the lid that's made of gorilla glass. Who would waste their money on something that doesn't offer nearly as many features as other laptops? The MacBook Air doesn't even have a touchscreen, I mean hello Apple its 2014 now, not 2007!
      Pollo Pazzo
      • An Acer??? Seriously??

        A bottom feeder brand that makes products out of mostly cheap/low quality plastic pretty and innovative??

        You surely have very low standards about what is pretty and innovative.
        wackoae
        • I happen to agree with him

          The aluminum macbooks look like somebody trying to be futuristic in the 80's. And the S7 is a really nice machine. Great build quality, good performance, great screen, great battery life, and it doesn't look like a mini fridge on an airplane.
          blarelli
      • Aluminum macbooks are today's version of "wood paneling on cars"...

        Some still find aluminum laptops stylish, and that's their opinion. In the future, it will be known as a particular style.

        I still have my Aluminum Sony Vaio from the early 1990s. It didn't have a CD drive; and was very similar to today's Macbook Air.
        MalcolmTucker
      • Cheesiness

        Yeah, that laptop milled out of a solid block of aircraft aluminum is much cheesier than the one made out of melted down legos.
        varase
  • Day to day use

    I am yet to buy a Mac but whenever I think of buying, I hit a dead end. I get confused between the Air and the Pro.
    I am so used to the Retina Display in my life that the resolution of the Air just won't work for me. But I need portability as well which is good in the pro but not quite as good as the Air. My dream laptop would be the Air with a retina display. If that comes around, my waiting would come to an end.
    Thanks for the article.
    chhabramohit
    • air w retina

      that's probably in the next refresh, possibly a 12" retina in the fall. http://www.macrumors.com/roundup/macbook-air/
      gtvr
    • Macbook Pro is just a Maxi Air anyway

      Same sh17, just a bit more beef and pork.
      Modular Pro gear hasn't existed at Apple for a while now.
      They just use the Pro moniker to fool the masses.
      warboat
    • A suggestion

      Buy one used; a website- GainSaver or Aarow is worth a glance.

      If you go Macbook Air, I'd suggest getting an AirPort Extreme. The AirPort Extreme WiFi has a USB connection on it; you can connect storage to it... wireless.
      MalcolmTucker
  • Thinnest point?

    Sorry, why do people go on about the "thinnest point" with laptops (and iMacs), surely the thickest point is the more interesting measure.

    I might be able to cut myself on the edge of the lid, because it is so razor thin, but if it is wedge shaped and the butt end is 30cm thick, it isn't all that useful...

    The same goes for the new iMacs. My old one was on my desk and it looked flat from the front, but it was thick enough on the side for a DVD drive.

    The new one is "only" a few tenths of an ich thick at the edge! Wow, you know what? Sitting in front of it, it doesn't look any thinner than my old one! The only big difference is that I can't play my DVDs on it any more (unless I clutter up my desk with a DVD drive)...

    (And yes, not having a DVD drive is a problem, when you have over 1500 DVDs and no streaming services like Netflix available in your region).
    wright_is
    • LOL

      I love my MacBook pro, but with your AIR imaginary dimensions they would make great tree-splitters or skateboard ramps!
      AdeeFeinstein