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Opinion: The humble MacBook Air is a secret workhorse


I’ve long recommended the MacBook Air to friends who want something a little more capable than an iPad but don’t need their machine to do any heavy lifting. But recent experience has now led me to go rather further …

I’ve written at length about why I’m doggedly sticking to my four-year-old 17-inch MacBook Pro as my main machine. The tl;dr version is that I really like working on a large screen, and I also like having all my files on board when travelling – something I can do because I upgraded it to 2 x 1TB SSDs.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that it fell victim to the GPU problem that has afflicted a number of 2011-2013 MacBook Pros. The first symptoms were everything slowing to a crawl when connected to my 27-inch Thunderbolt display, followed by random crashes and then the characteristic graphics distortion that confirmed the logic board as the culprit.

The good news was that Apple would fix it free of charge under its Repair Extension Program. The bad news was that it would take a week, during which time my second Mac – a Mid 2013 11-inch MacBook Air usually used exclusively as a mobile writing device – would have to take over all its duties. I wondered how well it would cope … 

I’m of course comparing a Late 2011 machine with a Mid 2013 one, but even so, the specs of the two are some way apart.


In the office, I use a dual-display setup, apps split across both the MacBook’s own display and my 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display. That was, of course, immediate reason to be grateful I’d stuck to the Air rather than replacing it with the 12-inch MacBook, which has no ability to drive a Thunderbolt display. Given the number of apps I need open at once, the single MacBook display would have made it a complete non-starter.

The apps I typically have open include three different browsers (helps to keep things organized), Lightroom, Photoshop, Tweetdeck, Postbox, iTunes, HipChat and a number of smaller apps. Not everything was installed on the Air, so I did have to take care of that first, but soon had an acceptable mirror of my MacBook Pro dock.

Admittedly much of my work is relatively undemanding of processing power, but it does include both photo and video editing. The work can also be fast-paced, so I need a machine which doesn’t break sweat when it’s being asked to work quickly.

The MacBook Air performed absolutely perfectly. Virtually the only difference I noticed was that it was very slightly slower performing a few Photoshop tasks – but even there the difference was tiny. Had it not been for the small screen sitting to the left of my main monitor, I honestly think I might not have noticed the difference.

I’d long considered the MacBook Air to be Apple’s best-value product, offering an excellent balance of price and performance (especially when discounted). But based on this experience, I’d now go even further. I’d say that unless you need the larger screen or storage capacity of the Pro – or really want the Retina display – the Air is the only MacBook most people will ever need.

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  1. Neil Quinn (@neilq5) - 7 years ago

    I know a lot of people who don’t like the thick bezel around the Air when compared to the MacBook Pro

    • justincirello - 7 years ago

      This definitely bothers me. It really just makes the Air look old/outdated because the bezel is so thick. The Macbook/Pro bezel “melts” away with the black on black. I definitely prefer that.

      I will say, my Macbook Air treated me very well during college and it continues to be very fast and responsive. I’m with you Ben, I would recommend it to anyone.

      • r00fus1 - 7 years ago

        Form factor + cost. The 13″ is sooo light. It also existed a couple of years before a retina 13″ was available.

  2. P. G. (@p_giguere1) - 7 years ago

    The performance, form factor and connectivity of the Air are perfectly fine. It’s the display that’s holding it back. You get used to good displays so if you’ve used a Retina MacBook/MBP, going back to a MBA is hard on the eyes. Maybe the fact you use a non-Retina MBP means you haven’t been spoiled by HiDPI, so you don’t find the MBA that bad.

    Also what’s up with that part:
    “I’d stuck to the Air rather than replacing it with the 12-inch MacBook, which has no ability to drive an external display. ”

    The 12-inch MacBook can drive an external display. It’s only the Thunderbolt display that’s not supported, since the MacBook doesn’t support Thunderbolt.
    In due time however, the MacBook will have Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C, and the Thunderbolt Display will be upgraded with a 5K panel and TB3/USB-C connectivity.

    • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

      Perhaps so, yes, though I do have a Retina iPad and iPhone, and don’t have any issue going back and forth between those and my Macs.

      More properly should say ‘my’ external display, aka Thunderbolt – will change that.

  3. Steve Grenier - 7 years ago

    I never understood why people bought the 13″ MacBook Air over the 13″ MacBook Pro Retina. The price difference is a few hundred dollars and the performance difference is drastic. Not to mention a significantly better display. It weighs more but not much. I have a hard time recommending the Air over the Pro.

    Personally I’ve been using a 13″ MacBook Pro Retina as my primary work computer for several years now. I did max out the specifications, but my work is rather demanding. I love it. I use it primarily with an external 4K display and therefore preferred the portability of the 13″ over the 15″. It’s a fantastic computer.

  4. PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

    That’s a good write-up. Funny enough, I had a similar experience recently: the videocard in my Mac Pro 5,1 died and took it to an Apple Store. Since I have a Mini sit next to the Apple TV I put that on my desk, bought a dual DVI adapter and hooked it up to my 30″ ACD. While the Mini is HDD and the MP SSD, the speed difference wasn’t all that noticeable. Obviously I didn’t stress the Mini as I do on the MP, but after launching all apps I use during the day, and the Mini ‘settles in’, it works just fine.

    It really made me wonder if I should get a MP after this one dies. The Mini is from 2011, supposedly a better model than the current cheapest one. I saw that one is a paltry 1.4 dual i5 (versus my 2.3 or 2.5 IDK, dual i5).

  5. Peter Rooke - 7 years ago

    Ben, I’ve been using an Air as my day to day work machine for 5 or so years now – it used to be faster than the traditional-disk MacBook Pro. I love them… much lighter than the old 15″ Pro and still more than powerful enough for me to do what most people would be doing on a work computer all day long.

    However, for my blogging I wanted the retina display – so I bought the 13″ Pro and haven’t questioned the decision once. Lightroom and Photoshop on the retina is a whole different game. In the morning the Air can feel a bit antiquated after a night on the better display.

    • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

      Yes, some people really do rate the Retina display. Somewhat to my surprise, as a keen photographer, I don’t find the difference as dramatic as many seem to.

  6. Doug Aalseth - 7 years ago

    I have a 15″ 2012 Non Retina MacBook Pro. I’ve boosted the RAM and replaced the DVD with a second HDD so it’s a beast. When it comes time to replace it I very well might go with a MacBook Air. By then the Air will out perform the ’12 Pro very handily. The only issue will be storage. It’ll be tough to lose the 1.5TB. Of course now the Pro doesn’t have room for that much either. Maybe I’ll have to get a NAS.

    • r00fus1 - 7 years ago

      If you get the 13″ Air, you can put a Nifty or Minidrive there, +128GB (or Sandisk’s 200GB micro SD that fits the drive) and it looks flush with your body for another $150.

      Both can be merged (via OSX Fusion Drive) with your existing SSD. Not 1.5TB, but 400-450GB isn’t shabby.

      I just wish Apple offered an SD slot in the 11″ form factor…

  7. triankar - 7 years ago

    I totally agree. From a mid-2011 MBA I went to a late-2013 rMBP, both 13 inch.
    I miss the Air’s lightness, comparatively. Performance-wise, it wasn’t doing badly.
    I don’t miss its lack of a retina display. The retina on the Pro is a beauty to behold.

    This year I was hoping Apple would be giving the Air the retina treatment. Instead, Ive gave us the shiny new MacBook, to my (and I guess many others’) utter disappointment.

    In the last earnings call they didn’t release (to the best of my knowledge) sales breakdowns by model, but I can bet the 12 incher didn’t fare that well on the market. Maybe that will bring Ive back down to earth for a little while, away from his obsession(s).

  8. PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

    Turns out the iPad Pro is faster than the 2015 MBA:

  9. An IT pro, I have a loaded 11″ inch 2013 Macbook Air (8GB, 512SSD). I have two 27″ Cinema Displays, one at work and one at home, to which I connect the Air when needed. I have parallels installed (which I rarely use).
    My Air is (almost) always with me in a small Tumi bag. If I need to remote into somewhere on the go, I tether to my 4G/phone and voila.
    I wouldn’t trade the 11″ Air for anything. So much power in such a small form factor, with such great feel and design, and a wonderful, full-size keyboard…
    I have an iPad but never use it.
    I certainly hope they’ll keep making and improving the 11″ Air (there is a flimsiness to the Macbook that really turns me off).

    • aaronh - 7 years ago

      Totally agreed. I’m a full time developer and do plenty of design work as well. Yes, the screen can be cramped, but portability and form factor of the 11″ Air cannot be beat.

  10. Ramon Solorio - 7 years ago

    i have that model MBA and have the exact same feeling about it. I got it used for super cheap on CL and it has been invaluable.

  11. It’s no secret. I think the MacBook Air has been the default MacBook that is best for most people since its redesign in 2010. Nowadays the 13″ MacBook Pro w/ Retina is arguably a better choice for most people, but the MacBook Air is still a solid choice for anyone who wants something lighter a cheaper.

  12. Rodrigo Alves de Brito - 7 years ago

    I’ve been using my mid-2013 MacBook Air, 13 inch base model, for two years now, and I can say it feels as snappy and solid as it was day one. Of course, considering my daily usage it is just what I need, that is, I don’t do lots of video and image editing or perform heavy tasks. But even when I have tens of apps running and tabs open in Safari, it still does the job very well. I’ve been considering upgrading to a rMBP just because of the screen, but I’ll certainly stick with my trusty Air for as long as it gets the job done.

  13. Tom Adams - 7 years ago

    I have the 2013 macbook air (13″). I have owned a lot of laptops, including a lot of MacBooks. The air is absolutely the perfect laptop for my purposes. It took them until 2013 to get it right but they did nail it with this version. I have no desire to upgrade, the screen resolution could be better but really I just wish the resolution were the same and it had an IPS display with better colour

  14. Tom Adams - 7 years ago

    I would like the 11″ air but I just hate 16:9 aspect ratio screens on computers

  15. cavsjack - 7 years ago

    I have always preferred the MacBooks air to the MacBook Pro or for its long battery life, portability, and back in its early days, inclusion of solid state drives and then flash storage which the MacBook Pro then didn’t have. Unfortunately my original 11″ was stolen on one of my trips but I recently purchased a new one. I successfully edit 4K videos in Final Cut while simultaneously having Photoshop and Motion open and easily getting 10 hours of battery life. But what I found most amazing was that when I boot in Windows and run Solidworks, my little MacBook Air handles complex parts and assemblies better than some of the multithousand dollar workstation desktop PCs next to it.

  16. For Work I have a MacBook Air from 2014 (1.4 ghz i5 with 8gb) and I run Photoshop, Indesign and Illustrator (all together) without problems. Biggest file I worked with was a 1gb Photoshop and a 1gb indesign file, it handled them without hickups … it could have opened it faster but it wasn’t slow either. All in all I am very impressed with its performance and would recommend it for various types of work (excluded are things like audio/video editing, those will probably not work well with larger projects).

  17. gkbrown - 7 years ago

    I use a 13″ 2015 MBA for work, but I still prefer my 15″ 2010 MBP. Given a choice, I’d still opt for the Pro.

  18. bishopharold - 7 years ago

    Im late to read this, but i too love the mba 11′. I had my sons 2012 with an aftermarket ssd upgrade, which made it faster, so i was thrilled. Id never have bought one virgin as i ever thought it would suit my needs, oh was i wrong. I gave the kid my 13 inch macbook in exchange. Now he wants it back, ive bought a second hand 2015 11″ and although it has the lg screen, which is a bit glary, i love it. And the battery life!!! Now, id LOVE it to have a retina screen…. The 12 inch is soooooo beautiful, but too expenaive for a travel machine that doesnt get used that much. Id love apple to release the 11 with retina, id have to buy pne then new! But they wont, as usual they will beat the consumer into submission by killing off the 11…..


Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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