Keyboard and Trackpad

The keyboard on the 2012 MacBook Air is the same as the 2011 model. You get a full sized keyboard on both the 11 and 13-inch models, with the alphanumeric keys measuring ~15 x 15mm. The function keys are half height on the 13 and even smaller on the 11, but there's no sacrifice in key size otherwise. Key travel and physical feedback are both as good as they can get on a chiclet-style keyboard. As Apple has now fully transitioned to this style of keyboard across all of its Macs, I can't really say I have any complaints about it. Apple's keyboard remains one of the best on the market.

The dedicated power button from the older Macs is gone and replaced with a power key that looks like another function key. The power key is functionally no different than the old power button - tap to turn on, hold to power down in the event of a hard lock.

The 2012 keyboard is nicely backlit, just like on every MacBook Air but the 2010. Apple offers fine grained controls over the keyboard backlight (16 adjustable levels). You can either choose to control it on your own or let the ambient light sensor control the intensity of the keyboard's backlight.

We spend so much time pointing out poor clickpads in the latest Ultrabooks that it's important to mention just how good the clickpad is in the MacBook Air. Apple continues to use the top hinged design on its glass covered clickpad. Clicks are easier towards the bottom of the pad than at the top where the hinge is. The clickpad is glass covered which makes it very smooth and comfortable to use. Finger rejection is handled extremely well under OS X, accidental clicks are very rare. I typically keep my thumb on the clickpad, near where the right mouse button would traditionally be, and mouse around with my index finger. While I normally have issues with this usage model on most of the clickpads I use, Apple's implementation is both the exception and the benchmark. It just works.

USB 3.0 Performance

USB 3.0 is alive and well on the new MacBook Air. Both ports support the standard and both OS X and the hardware supports the USB Attached SCSI Protocol (UASP). I have noticed that USB device compatibility is more finicky on the MacBook Air compared to the rMBP. Most devices seem to work fine but Kingston's HyperX Max 3.0 for example wouldn't work, although it worked fine on the rMBP. The hardware is actually detected by OS X, the drive simply never appears to Disk Utility or in Finder. A few folks have noticed something similar with other drives on Apple's support forums but the issue doesn't seem to have widespread implications.

USB 3.0 performance however is just as good as on the rMBP. I still need to grab a UASP enabled USB 3.0 device with 6Gbps SATA support to really stress the interface, but using Seagate's GoFlex USB 3.0 drive and a Kingston HyperX SSD in place of the mechanical drive I'm able to hit around 260MB/s:

Thunderbolt support comes courtesy of a 4-channel Cactus Ridge controller. The Thunderbolt port continues to be on the opposite side of the machine from the power connector. Anyone who owns a Cinema or Thunderbolt Display will bemoan the continued use of this configuration.

FaceTime HD Camera

Last year Apple introduced a 720p FaceTime HD camera to its MacBook Pro. The 2012 MBA inherits the same camera. Image quality remains acceptable as long as you're in a room with not terrible lighting.

Most of the Ultrabooks I play with these days try to mimic the FaceTime HD experience by using a 720p sensor. Arguably just as important as the sensor is the software that goes along with it. Photo Booth and Apple's FaceTime app are both extremely simple and quick to launch. I can't stress the importance of getting little details like this right when selling to general consumers.

SD Card Performance

The SD card reader on the 13-inch MacBook Pro had no compatibility issues with Patriot's EP Pro UHS-I SD card. Max performance of the reader appears to be capped at 40MB/s however:

The rMBP by comparison can deliver more than 80MB/s in the read portion of this test. Even writes are faster at ~40MB/s on the rMBP compared to around 32MB/s here. It's a lot of these little things that contribute to the differences between Apple's MacBook Air and Pro lines.

WiFi Performance

Wireless connectivity remains unchanged from last year's model. Broadcom is on 802.11n WiFi duty with its BCM4322. Both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are supported. The same 2x2:2 configuration (2 send and receive antennas with 2 spatial streams) remains from last year as well.

I ran the 13-inch MacBook Air through the same three location WiFi test that I put the rMBP and 2011 MBP through, on both 5GHz and 2.4GHz. Performance on 2.4GHz was unusually low on the Netgear WNDR4500 I usually test with (10 - 20Mbps regardless of location) so I had to switch to the previous generation Apple Time Capsule to ensure there was nothing wrong with the notebook itself. All of the 2.4GHz MBA numbers have a star next to them to indicate that they aren't totally comparable as they're using a different AP. The 5GHz numbers all came from the Netgear however.

  Location 1 Location 2 Location 3
2011 MacBook Pro (2.4GHz) 124.0 Mbps 12.6 Mbps 61.6 Mbps
Retina MacBook Pro (2.4GHz) 117.9 Mbps 87.6 Mbps 44.0 Mbps
2012 MacBook Air (2.4GHz) 95.7 Mbps* 75.2 Mbps* 31.2 Mbps*
2011 MacBook Pro (5GHz) 186.8 Mbps 154.6 Mbps 24.7 Mbps
Retina MacBook Pro (5GHz) 227.7 Mbps 156.8 Mbps 33.7 Mbps
2012 MacBook Air (5GHz) 159.4 Mbps 97.0 Mbps -

Overall WiFi performance is decent but obviously not as good as what you get from a MacBook Pro. Looking back at the results I almost wonder if the 2011 MBP wasn't showing some of these weird 2.4GHz issues on the Netgear router as well.

In the best conditions on 5GHz you can hit around 160Mbps, but you pretty much have to be right next to a good AP for that to work. Across a large room or in an adjacent one just under 100Mbps is possible on 5GHz as well. Go further out and you'll have to switch over to 2.4GHz.

There are no wired network options by default, however Apple's Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet adapter works just fine on the new Air as well as the rMBP.

MagSafe 2

MagSafe 2 makes an appearance on the new MacBook Air, although it's curiously absent from the non-retina MacBook Pro. Eventually I'd expect all Macs to use MagSafe 2. The current state of things is likely temporary fragmentation. Similar to the rMBP, the actual power adapters themselves haven't changed: 45W is all you need for both systems.

Ivy Bridge on Air

Apple keeps its CPU options pretty simple and straightforward. You get a choice of three different CPUs, all dual-core, all rated at a 17W TDP. The Core i5-3317U comes standard in the 11, the i5-3427U comes with the 13, and both systems can be upgraded to the Core i7-3667U.

The breakdown between the chips is below:

Apple 2012 MacBook Air Comparison
  1.7GHz dual-core 1.8GHz dual-core 2.0GHz dual-core
Standard On 11-inch MBA 13-inch MBA Optional for Both
Intel Model Core i5-3317U Core i5-3427U Core i7-3667U
Base Clock Speed 1.7GHz 1.8GHz 2.0GHz
Max SC Turbo 2.6GHz 2.8GHz 3.2GHz
Max DC Turbo 2.4GHz 2.6GHz 3.0GHz
L3 Cache 3MB 3MB 4MB
AES-NI Yes Yes Yes
VT-x Yes Yes Yes
VT-d Yes Yes Yes
TDP 17W 17W 17W
Processor Graphics Intel HD 4000 Intel HD 4000 Intel HD 4000
GPU Clock (Base/Max) 350/1050MHz 350/1150MHz 350/1150MHz

The Core i7 upgrade is likely worth it if this is going to be your primary system for an extended period of time, particularly if it's acting as a desktop replacement. As a mobile device the standard CPUs are quite fast. If you're an annual upgrader, save your money, but if you're going to hold onto the system for a while and do a lot of heavy work on it, the upgraded CPU is probably worth it.

There is a known bug with the upgraded CPU under Windows today. Turbo Boost is disabled under Windows on the 3667U, although it's fully functional under OS X. Apple is aware of the problem and I'd expect a fix at some point, but there's no indication of when.

Introduction The Display
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  • notposting - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Anand, the 2012's are obviously superior (especially in the graphics department, wow!) than the 2011 models, but if someone is looking for their first "modern" Mac, do you think the 2011 13" MBA would hold up well?

    Apple offers their refurbed 2011 fully loaded model (1.8GHz i7, 4GB/256GB SSD) for only $1199 with full Apple warranty which seems like a pretty good value for the dollar...assuming the machine isn't used for any sort of demanding games (ie Solitaire at the max), just your basic web, movies/music, office, etc, it seems like it would be a good deal.

    For that matter they offer the i5 with 4/128 for only 929 which might be even better though I think the increased storage would be a good idea....

    What are your thoughts on this?
  • phillyry - Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - link

    Either will do all of your basic tasks and you likely won't notice the difference unless you do stuff that is GPU intensive (which these things aren't really designed for anyways).

    Traded in a 128GB one for a 256GB one because storage is the real limitation.
  • PatM - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Have been waiting for this review since their announcement! I'm trying to decide between the i5 & i7. The issue is performance vs temp (and fan noise). And wouldn't you know it, every chart in the review separates the 13" i5 & i7 until the temp section, and all of a sudden, it's just 11" vs 13".

    Is there a reason for this that I'm missing? Does anybody know if the i7 runs hotter (and is louder) than the i5? If so, how much?

  • yuanshec - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link


    Great review again.
    I just wondering do you have testing results on 4G vs 8G RAM?
    Does the extra performance gain outside 4GB worth the $100 upgrade fee?
  • Deepcover96 - Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - link

    I think if you do anything more than web-browsing and document editing, then the $100 upgrade is a no-brainer. But I'm not Anand.
  • phillyry - Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - link

    Increasing RAM doesn't increase performance.

    It just makes it so that your less likely to hit the ceiling and suffer performance degradation as a result of page file swapping (or whatever, correct me if I'm wrong). But most 'normal people', e.g. non-Anandtech readers, would never notice the difference - especially since the MBAs are pure SSD with no nechanical hard drive to slow you down (when you do need to access it).
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Pleeeaaaassseeee can we get some meaningful comparisons to non-Apple hardware in the benchmarks? Boot Camp is definitely a thing now. It exists. It is there. Install Windows, run the benchmarks. I want to know how their hardware compares to other machines, not just Apple machines. Some of us care about this. :(
  • Galatian - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Anand, thanks (again) for your review. I downloaded your profile for my MacBook Air 13" 2012 which has the Samsung screen, but I feel it is completely off. Blues become a little to greenish and everything just seems dull. Blacks are now...well shades of gray...hard to explain. Are you sure you have uploaded the right profiles?
  • wditters - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    It seems that there are more users commenting about the Samsung profile. I have the same experience as you have. Somehow it seems to be way off target, and actually makes the screen look worse.
  • aliceyoung - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Please, guys, if you're going to publish all these nice tables, check to make sure they are correct. There is no 11 inch i7 2010 MBA. And "Intel HD 4000 graphics" is not a "base clock speed." I found those two errors and I barely skimmed 20% of the article. There must be many more.

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