The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is a bit of an enigma. It’s arguably the closest current Apple notebook model to the original MacBook Air concept first released in 2008, which isn’t necessarily a flattering association. The original Air was an intriguing novelty because of its form factor, being able to fit in a standard large mailing envelope, but nevertheless having a 13-inch 1280 x 800 display, full-sized keyboard and trackpad input, and able to run Mac OS X, which placed it several cuts above the highest-end PC netbooks still popular at the time.
However, the 2008 Air was a seriously compromised machine, with a scaled-down Intel Merom Core 2 Duo processor, a measly 2GB of non-upgradable RAM, an iPod size 1.8-inch, 4,200 RPM, 120 GB standard hard disk drive (a 128 GB SSD was optional at substantial extra cost), and just two peripheral connectivity ports — a lone and much oversubscribed USB 2 port and a miniDVI port. That at least was more than what you get with an iPad. A mild update in late 2008 replaced the miniDVI output with a MiniDisplayPort. Speaking of cost, the original Air sold for a whopping starting price of $1,799.
Happily, the second-generation form factor(s) MacBook Air, introduced in October, 2010 and adding an 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 16:9 aspect ratio display version as well as a new 13-incher, is a far better computer. Its first iteration had the same faster, non-downsized Penryn CPU Intel Penryn that a second refresh of the original Air had introduced in mid-2009, but subsequent upgrades have used Intel Core i Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, and most recently Haswell processors in succession. The 2008 through 2010 Airs had Nvidia GeForce integrated graphics processors, while upgrades have progressed through Intel HD Graphics 3000, 4,000, and 5,000 series IGPUS.
The mid-2011 upgrade added Thunderbolt connectivity (in tandem with the MiniDisplayPort), a backlit keyboard, and a FaceTime camera. With the mid-2012 refresh came USB 3 and a new MagSafe 2 charge port.
And as many people reading this column will be aware, this month at WWDC Apple announced arguably the most revolutionary MacBook Air upgrade yet, sticking with the same form factor, but (finally!) both the 11-inch and 13-inch models having a minimum 4GB standard RAM, with available configuration at purchase to 8GB, Haswell ULT 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 and 1.7GHz processors with Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz and 3.3GHz available respectively. The ridiculous 64 GB standard storage on the 11.6-inch model is mercifully history, with 128GB configuration and 256GB configurations available on both size models, and the 256GB models being upgradeable to 512GB SSD, all now communicating with the processors through a much faster PCI Express bus instead of the previous SATA bus.Most exciting of all, the efficient Haswell silicon and other energy efficiency improvements such as slightly higher-capacity batteries have increased claimed battery life to nine hours and 12 hours for the two models respectively.
No longer a premium priced boutique model, the 11.6-inch MacBook Air took over as Apple’s price-leading, entry-level laptop model when the full-sized polycarbonate bodied MacBook was discontinued in 2011. And with the mid-2013 upgrades, the 11.5-incher becomes a genuine value at that price with a practical minimum 128 GB flash. Except that you can get a 13-inch unit for just a hundred bucks more, which is one of the enigmatic issues.
Some would suggest that the 11.6-inch MacBook Air’s real competition is neither its bigger sibling nor PC Ultrabooks, but rather the iPad. That’s no doubt partly true in terms of sales, but doesn’t entirely hold up to critical scrutiny for all user markets, although there is some overlap. Even at its diminutive dimensions for a clamshell laptop, the baby MacBook Air has a substantially larger footprint, weighs about a pound more, and displays about 25 percent more screen real estate compared with a 9.7-inch iPad.
With the Air’s real keyboard, trackpad, support for mice and other peripheral pointing devices, and its ability to run full featured OS X applications, aside from the advantages of one piece portability the iPad is a markedly inferior content creation and production tool. The Air’s Haswell processor silicon with Intel HD Graphics is a much better, faster, and more powerful CPU than the iPad’s A6X ARM-based system-on-chip, and the iPad has only 1 GB of RAM compared with the MacBook Air’s standard 4 GB and available 8 GB.With its x86 chip, the Air can even run Microsoft Windows, further enhancing its versatility edge over the iPad, and now with nearly as long battery life.
In terms of data storage, the top-of-the-line iPad can match the MacBook Air’s standard SSD capacity, but only by erasing all but $200 of the iPad’s price advantage (or all but $70 if you opt for a 4G ‘Pad). It should however be acknowledged that iOS applications don’t require nearly as much storage capacity as OS X apps. After two years of service, my 16 GB iPad still has nearly half its storage volume free. Personally, I’m skeptical about 128 GB being adequate for an OS X computer the way I use it with lots of apps loaded up, along with file archives dating back to the mid-’90s. The 160 GB HDD in my MacBook is full after four years of service. For another 200 bucks, you can get a 256 GB SSD in the MacBook Air, or even 512 GB as a build-to-order option at a price so stiff I didn’t bother committing it to memory.
The abiding conundrum for me is whether I could be satisfied with having just an 11.6-inch MacBook Air and no iPad now that the laptop offers near parity in battery life. Despite my complaining about its manifold shortcomings as a content creation device, I find myself using the iPad more and more for content creation because of being able to use it virtually anywhere in laid back comfort and its hassle-free lack of complexity. In principle I much prefer typing on a good real keyboard, but I don’t like doing it on a laptop sitting on my lap, and I find that the iPad combined with an iPevo Pad Pillow lapstand is more satisfactory even with the virtual keyboard to contend with. I would love to have the iPad form factor combined with the ability to run OS X — an analog of Microsoft’s Surface Pro. But no such thing is available (and yes, I’m aware of the Axiotron Modbook , but that modified MacBook Pro is huge by comparison, is not a touchscreen tablet, and the entry-level price is $3,199).
In his June 2013 Best Mac Laptop picks, the formidable Anand Lal Shimpi of AnandTech recommends the 11-inch MacBook Air as your best bet for getting into a notebook that ships with OS X as inexpensively as possible, noting that the updated base configuration isn’t terrible, and advises budget-conscious buyers not upgrade the CPU or SSD since both can add considerable cost and if your goal is to stay cheap, you’ve got to stay committed. However, the base 13-inch model is only $100 bucks more, gives you a more practical 1,400 x 900 display I used that resolution on a PowerBook for four years and found it plenty), and one-third longer battery runtime. Lal Shimpi says If you need a larger display on a tight budget he’d simply opt for the base 13-inch model at $1099.00. I have to agree, and would venture that it’s a hundred bucks well expended if you can scrape it together unless the not dramatically lighter weight and smaller footprint of the 11-inch unit is of primary importance to you.
However, at the end of the day, I don’t think I would be satisfied with either Air as a do-all solution in lieu of an iPad. there are a whole raft of things that the MacBooks are better for than an iPad, but there are also tasks and use modes where the iPad is markedly superior, and despite my partiality for OS X over the iOS, I still spend about the same amount of time on my iPad over the run of a day as I do cumulatively on my three OS X laptops. While the iPad has proved addictive (indeed, I can’t imagine how I ever managed without it), it hasn’t necessarily made life more economical despite a base price half that of the cheapest OS X laptop, although for me it has already helped extend my anchor Mac’s replacement cycle interval by at least a year, and counting.
Perhaps the best compromise for me will be to take Mr. Lal Shimpi’s advice, stick with the base configuration 13-inch MacBook Air, rely on external storage more (I have a nice little Apricorn Aegis 500 GB capacity external hard drive that even has a tray loading optical drive built-in, solving two MacBook Air shortcomings in one unit), stay with a lower- capacity iPad (possibly 32 GB instead of 16, but no more), and just swallow hard about my combined hardware upgrade costing $1599 or $1,699 plus tax, which at 15 percent in the Canadian province where I live will bring the grand total uncomfortably close to two grand.
Going with the 11-inch MacBook Air would shave a little off that, but not enough to make it worth coping with the lower-res. 1366 x 768 display, so for me the small Air’s rationale remains an enigma.