One of the few Macs we haven’t reviewed in a while, it’s time to check out Apple’s baby of the bunch before what we expect will be a 2016 overhaul.
Apple’s MacBook Air will probably be one of the next computers to get an update, so before the company pulls a new idea out of air — literally — we’re checking out one students can get familiar with: the 11 inch Air.
The next MacBook Air is likely just around the corner, but if you’re in the market for a new machine, particularly with a back-to-school season now in full swing, or even a “new work, new you” approach, there’s a good chance that 2015 MacBook Air is in your sights.
So what are you getting in the MacBook Air?
The current model is not quite a year old, but still due for an update, and that’s because this edition relies on an Intel Core i5 dual-core processor from Intel’s fifth generation of processors, referred to by many as “Broadwell”.
We’re up to sixth-gen in the current Intel spectrum, but that only happened at the end of last year, meaning Apple’s current MacBook Air and Pro range are out of date, but not by as much as you think.
So it’s not that bad, and this “not that bad” situation is paired with 4GB RAM, either 128 or 256GB storage, and a relatively premium set of other specs, including 802.11ac WiFi (compatible with 802.11b/g/n), two USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt 2 port, and support for Bluetooth 4.0.
Stereo speakers can be found on the unit, as can a microphone and FaceTime HD camera sitting above the frame.
And all of this sits under an 11.6 inch display, coming with a native HD only resolution of 1366×768 that utilises one of the older panels from Apple, a screen type that has been around for few years now.
If there’s one area Apple is pretty much known for, it’s in design, and here in the 11 inch Air, you’re getting crystal clear design.
Yes, this is the MacBook Air we’ve seen over the past few years, and while very little has changed, very little also needs to be touched, because this is probably one of Apple’s better concepts.
As such, you’ll still find the sleek and slightly angular metal body provided to you, and just like we’ve seen in the 13 inch variant, it is just as lovely and sexy here, too.
Apple’s insistence on aluminium also means this body is very sturdy, with a design that feels strong enough to survive your backpack, even if we wouldn’t recommend dropping it.
It’s not that the body is fragile, but rather that it won’t be friendly to falls. That being said, the unibody aluminium piece makes it feel stronger than other plastic machines, and since the majority of laptops out there are made from plastic — particularly those under the 13 inch space — this is a big deal.
The weight is also impressive, because while it isn’t quite industry leading on the same level as the 12 inch MacBook with its 920 gram weight, the 1.08kg weight of the MBA 11 isn’t too shabby either.
Thin and light machines aren’t always the be-all end-all in regards to performance, and really they don’t need to be.
What they do need to do, however, is be good in a pinch. The last thing you’d want is to take that laptop out from your luggage only to find its battery hasn’t quite survived your daily life and workload.
That being said, if it can run your productivity apps without making you grit your teeth in anger, that would be a bonus, too.
With the MacBook Air 11, you’ll find a dual-core variant of the Intel Core i5 processor inside the machine, clocked on this body to 1.6GHz and paired with 4GB RAM.
For Mac OS X 10.11 “El Capitan”, this combination of specs appears to be plenty, with the system rarely struggling, and usually only throwing problems back your way when you decide to overload the machine, say with too many tabs (you know who you are) or if you get some gaming on.
Do the regular productivity schtick, though, and you’ll be fine, and we found we could make good use of the 11 inch MacBook Air and its hardware provided we were surfing the web, writing and working, and generally using the slimline box.
That’s the thing about the MacBook Air: technically, it’s a slightly more capable MacBook, but you get actual usable USB ports and yet a weaker screen. Because of the chip difference, you can do a little more, like open up more tabs and get a little bit of design or graphics work done.
But make no mistake: this isn’t a Mac for graphics work, and if you’re thinking of plonking down cash on the cheapest Mac for that reason — maybe for a son or daughter — the approach is wrong.
Rather, this is a dual-core system made for people who like to take their work on the go, because that’s what this machine can do.
While Apple nails nearly every other aspect of the design, and has even boosted the performance with a new processor, the screen is the one section we haven’t seen a change with.
Remarkably, the 11 inch MacBook Air still feels like it runs a screen from when Apple’s second-generation MacBook Air model appeared, brandishing its thin angular design for the first time.
Indeed, this is one computer you need to orient yourself for, shifting your view and the limited hinge to match the best colour and contrast you can get out of the screen. That tells us the sort of panel Apple is likely using (Twisted Nematic), and that this isn’t one of those lovely pin-prick sharp Retina panels you find on either the super-thin MacBook or still-quite-thin MacBook Pro.
Strangely, it’s still a fairly clear display, and it’s clearer than many of the low-grade panels we see on laptops these days, but this screen isn’t up to the same level of quality you get when you spend a good four or five hundred more over at the Apple store.
Mouse and keyboard
At least the MacBook Air doesn’t suffer from any usability complaints, because even in the smaller 11 inch body, the standard keyboard mechanism handles itself quite well, providing a decent amount of travel and a soft feel for typists who don’t like to press to hard or strike with excessive force.
We found we could type with speed on the thin keyboard, even if it was a little thinner than what we were used to. In fact, some might even find this standard keyboard to be more comfortable than even the new butterfly mechanism keyboard found on the 12 inch MacBook.
Essentially, if you find the travel too shallow on the ultra-light MacBook, consider the Air, even if the screen and performance isn’t quite up to par.
And hey, there are backlit keys, too, with a good 15 or 16 degrees of lighting differences, though good luck working out the minor changes between bright and not bright compared with the obvious one of “off”.
The mouse on the other hand lacks the same sense of upgrade that the MacBook Pro received, and that means you’ll miss out on the Force Touch trackpad, meaning no definable action and no silent click mode, something El Capitan 10.11 brought in.
It’s not a huge issue this omission, and there’s no doubting that the MacBook Air trackpad is still better than the majority of trackpads you find out there on other laptops, but it’s still worth keeping in mind.
An area that certainly handles itself well is the battery, and provided you’re keeping Google’s Chrome out of the picture, you’ll find the battery like can hit asm much as nine hours, though we found seven to eight was more likely.
That’s not a bad performance altogether, especially when you factor in there being a laptop-grade Intel Core processor here, something that technically outflanks the slim-line model that practically screamed its existence from the future back in April.
One thing you can’t really call the MacBook Air 11 is “budget”, because carrying the price of $1399, this 11 inch machine ain’t cheap. There’s just no way of calling this small computer inexpensive, and given that it goes right up against the slim-bodied MacBook, it’s hard to even find the value in the 11 inch Air.
There is a pretty massive difference in specs, that’s true, with a fifth-generation Intel Core i5 processor found in the MacBook Air 11 and a low-power Core M in the MacBook 12 inch. They’re not remotely the same style of processor, and all things considered, the Core M could be outpaced easily by its fifth-gen Intel Core sibling, but this combination of specs combined with a low-grade screen can make the MBA 11 seem a little pricey.
A little too pricey.
When Apple changes the screen technology, we might actually be able to make sense of the price, but right now, it’s not there.
Still a great option for people in need of a decent battery and a couple of standard sized USB ports, the 11 inch MacBook Air is no longer the best ultra-light out there, and as such, it’s difficult to call this model out as something to buy.
While the Air design and build are still second to none, the price of this computer isn’t far off where 13 inch machines normally sit, and you don’t even get a decent screen or a memory card slot to work with.
If you needed a budget MacBook, though, the 11 inch Air certainly fills that spot, though we’d probably look towards the even thinner 12 inch MacBook if we had to choose a slimline ultra-light Apple machine below 13 inches.