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
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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  • pmhparis - Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - link

    What software is heavily crippled on Macs? Other than CAM/CAD which is very specialized, needs specific harware & is only used by a tiny minority, I cannot think of any.

    Either be specific or admit that you're full of FUD.
  • Tegeril - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    I've seen a lot of discussion on the AT forums and elsewhere, trying to tangibly represent the changes in GPU performance over a number of generations of Mac laptops and desktops, but specifically what you really get out of Intel's new graphics versus the older Nvidia solutions.

    I'd love to see some kind of reporting on the relative performance of things like:

    Intel 2000
    Intel 3000
    Intel 4000
    Nvidia 9400m
    Nvidia 320m
    Nvidia 330m/gt/whatever it was
    AMD 6630M

    Basically to see how Intel's graphics stack up against the systems that many people are currently using and upon which they are contemplating an upgrade. Perhaps it will be best times for a Haswell comparison so you can throw in Intel 5000 or whatever they decide to call it. But I do think people would find it valuable when considering something like:

    "I have this first gen Core i7 CPU MacBook Pro with a 330m/gt in it, if I don't want a retina MBP, my only graphics option without spending $1800 is Intel 4000, how does that stand up to what I'm using now" etc etc.

    Anyway, great review as usual, if i weren't already an rMBP owner, I'd be gunning for a 13" MBA.
  • tipoo - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    I agree, they should be added to Bench
  • Tegeril - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    I can attest to frequent GPU issues, display corruption, other nonsense with my AMD equipped (6970M) iMac.

    I'd much rather they keep diversity between manufacturers in their product lines (even if it is generation to generation), but the drivers are kinda crap.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    If I remember correctly, IGZO will be able to reduce the amount of backlight that is caught in the panel. So a higher resolution panel would not necessarily mean increasing the backlight to get the same brightness. :-)
  • TEAMSWITCHER - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    When I was in college my computer traveled back and forth with me in multiple large boxes. These new MacBook Airs (and the PC Ultra-books) are dream machines for college bound young people, vastly more powerful than the machines I used back in the day. As a Computer Science major having such a device constantly at my fingertips would have been truly life changing! So...Use them for good, and not evil.
  • wditters - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    Hi Anand, are you sure about the Samsung color profile that your put up for download? It seems awfully off and washed out ... Cheers.
  • billgerr - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    May get high-end 11-inch MBA as replacement when E4300 bites the dust. I like the E4300, but to this day have not owned a successor to Digital Equipment Co. (can't use term DEC anymore, as few recognize brand) Hi-Note Ultra. IMHO one of the sweetest designs ever, even with its blazingly fast 486DX CPU and floppy-disc wedge.
  • Osamede - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    This article claims:
    "....Ultraportables prior to the MacBook Air's arrival in 2008 typically sacrificed in one or more of the above areas......"

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. There was the Panasonic Y series Toughbook, as well as the Soy SZ and Z. All of which far outperformed the MacBook Air. I had the Y5 with 14" screen 1400x1050 resolution, 8 hours useful life and it was 3.5 lbs WITH a DVD drive. The Sony Z11 and 12 for example pack power that even the most recent Macbook Air released NOW in 2012 still cannot match - and they also had 13" 1920x1080 screen and a "low end" model with 13" 1600x900 screen.

    The way Apple fans are trying to re-write history is scary.
  • KPOM - Monday, July 16, 2012 - link

    What part of "typically" you understand? That doesn't mean that there weren't ANY notebooks, just that they weren't typical of the class.

    Here is the full context:

    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.

    The Panasonic Toughbook was 1.9" thick. That fails the portability test:

    The Vaio Z series fits the bill, but is significantly more expensive than the MacBook Air. Ultraportables have been around for years, but mostly they had small screens, were thick, had bad keyboards. Heck, even Apple had the Powerbook Duo in the early 1990s.

    The Air in 2010 was the first successful attempt to make the ultraportable mainstream. In 2008, it did offer a full size screen and keyboard, and was extremely thin, though it was still pricey.

    The way some anti-Apple people are trying to re-write history is scary.

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