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Macbook Air 2012 hero (1024px)
Macbook Air 2012 hero (1024px)

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MacBook Air review (13-inch, mid-2012)

With only a modest upgrade, can the Air still lead the ultra-light pack?

Apple’s MacBook Air was initially an expensive luxury, but with an update in 2010 became an affordable, excellent machine. It’s light, well-made, and relatively powerful, and it’s become the choice of many people willing to trade the raw computing prowess of a more high-end machine for a device that’s a little easier on the spine. Last year’s model brought a new level of computing power to the Air, without changing much about the design.

New year, old story: last week at WWDC Apple announced the latest revision of the Air, changing the internals without altering the body at all save for the new MagSafe 2 port. The Air’s always been a looker, but with Intel’s Ivy Bridge processor inside along with faster flash storage, it looks like its brains might finally match its beauty. It’s not the only thin laptop out there, though. Plenty of other manufacturers have built excellent ultrabooks — many that shamelessly ape the best features of the Air, many that successfully go a different way.

We spent a lot of time using and testing the base-spec 13-inch Air, with a 1.8GHz Core i5 processor and a $1,199 price tag. Does it still stand apart in a much more crowded market, with a two-year-old body and brand-new internals? Read on.


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Remember me?

Apple's evidently very happy with the look and feel of the MacBook Air, because not only has it stayed the same for the last two iterations, but the rest of the company's laptops are starting to look ever more like the Air. (Case in point: the new MacBook Pro with Retina display.) I won't bore you with a rehash of the look and feel of the device, except to say that it's almost entirely unchanged. The wedge-shaped unibody aluminum body weighs 2.96 pounds, and fits as easily as ever into your backpack. At 0.11 inches thick at the front of the teardrop edge and 0.68 inches thick at the back, it remains one of the thinnest laptops we've seen. Though the competition has certainly heated up since the last generation of MacBook Air — the Asus Zenbook and Lenovo U300 stand near the top of the ultrabook pack, but there are a number of good options — Apple's hardware is still hard to beat.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness (in.) Weight (lbs)
MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11-0.68 2.96
MacBook Pro with Retina display 14.13 x 9.73 0.71 4.46
HP Envy 14 Spectre 12.88 x 8.7 0.79 3.79
Dell XPS 13 12.4 x 8.1 0.24 - 0.71 2.99
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 12.8 x 8.5 0.58 2.90
Asus Zenbook UX31 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86
Acer Aspire S3 12.6 x 8.5 0.51 - 0.68 2.98
Toshiba Portege Z835 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.47
HP Folio 13 12.54 x 8.67 0.71 3.3
Samsung Series 9 12.9 x 8.9 0.62 - 0.64 2.88

From design touches to colors to features, the Air is virtually unchanged. The one noticeable difference is the charging port, of all things: Apple's switched the MacBook Air to the new MagSafe 2 connector, which means if you're upgrading, your current power cables will go the way of the Dodo unless you spend $10 on a tiny adapter. MagSafe 2 is shorter and wider than the last version, and seems like it'd help Apple make the Air thinner, but last-gen MagSafe worked just fine on the 2011 model of the same size.

Other MacBooks are changing to look like the Air

You still get two USB ports on the MacBook Air, though they're now USB 3.0 instead of 2.0 — that makes a big difference in performance, as you'll see below. There's also a Thunderbolt port and a full SD card slot. The Thunderbolt standard hasn't changed, and generally speaking neither has its glacial pace of adoption, but it did get some new functionality thanks to new Thunderbolt-to-Gigabit-Ethernet and Thunderbolt-to-Firewire 800 adapters, which Apple announced at WWDC.

The Air's no longer the only MacBook model to forgo an optical drive and a dedicated Ethernet port, but there are certainly people who need both. I can say that at least in my experience owning an Air I've never once needed an optical drive, and the $29 USB-to-Ethernet adapter worked flawlessly the few times I've been in need (hotel rooms, mostly).

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Keyboard / trackpad

Keyboard and trackpad

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The black, backlit, chiclet-style keyboard on the Air doesn't seem as impressive as it once did, but that's only because nearly every other laptop manufacturer has copied the style. It's still a great keyboard, with well-spaced buttons and lots of handy function keys above the number row. I do wish there were a bit more travel as you type — keys just don't quite depress as much as I'd like. That's a space constraint to be sure, but I definitely prefer the keyboard on the MacBook Pro to the Air.

Can't beat this combo

If Apple does one thing universally better than any of its competition, it's building trackpads: the MacBook trackpad is better than any PC trackpad we've seen. It's fast and responsive, smooth and accurate, and full of handy gestures like two-finger scrolling and three-finger swipes across desktops. The trackpad remains the single biggest reason I prefer MacBooks to any other laptop (even for running Windows), and the new Air continues the tradition.

Display / speakers

Display and speakers

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After a few days of using the MacBook Pro with Retina display, I could barely stand to look at the display on the MacBook Air. That's the crazy thing: this is still a really good display, the same 13.3-inch, 1440 x 900 screen the Air has had for the last two years. It has phenomenal viewing angles, incredibly accurate colors, and a frustrating level of glare and oleophilia. It's not as good as the 1080p display on the Sony Vaio Z (a far more expensive computer), but it's still really solid. The Pro and its mesmerizing 2880 x 1800 screen are a quantum leap beyond "solid," though, and it's hard not to wish for the same thing to come to the Air. Of course, we've been hearing rumors that just such an upgrade is coming later this year, and that's tantalizing enough that I might recommend waiting a few months to see if the rumors are true.

2012air

The FaceTime camera on the new MacBook Air is now technically "HD," but I wouldn't call it a big upgrade. The new 720p camera is definitely an improvement, allowing other people to see me considerably better — when I chatted with our intern Tyler Gold, he pointed out that with the new MacBook Air he could count how many teeth I had, whereas on the old model my grin was just a single white blob. Details are a bit clearer, and the picture's a little sharper, but the Air’s camera is still about on par with the front-facing shooter on the iPhone. Which is to say, not very good.

I've long been impressed with the MacBook Air's internal speakers: they're not the highest-fidelity drivers you'll ever hear, but they're pleasantly loud and sound is clear and crisp. On the new model, the speakers have been slightly improved. Highs and lows are still clipped a bit (that's why I still recommend a good set of external speakers) but mids are richer and fuller than ever. If you like bass-heavy music, though, you're still out of luck.

Once you go Retina, it's hard to go back
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Software

Software

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Last year's MacBook Air was the first laptop to ship with OS X 10.7 Lion. This year's model is among the last. OS X 10.8, Mountain Lion, is due for release in the next few weeks. As Joanna mentioned in her review of last year's Air, recent iOS-ified versions of the operating system feel perfectly geared toward this device. Gestures are plentiful and useful, the OS starts up and resumes incredibly quickly, and though I can't force myself to get used to "natural" scrolling — moving your fingers up to scroll down, like you do on a touchscreen — it's just another step toward this feeling like a touch-enabled device. (Fortunately natural scrolling is also easy to disable.)

Normally I'd say hold off and wait for the new version before upgrading your laptop, but Apple's made that a total non-issue. One, anyone who buys the new Air will get a free upgrade to Mountain Lion (it'll be $20 for everyone else); two, upgrading through the Mac App Store is now a ludicrously simple process. So buy now, upgrade later.

Performance

Performance and battery life

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If I held up last year's MacBook Air and this year's, you'd never know the difference — until you turn them on, that is. The new Air comes with Intel's latest Ivy Bridge chips, starting with a 1.8GHz Core i5 processor, plus 4GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, and 128GB of flash storage.

Both in benchmarks and in regular use, there's a genuinely noticeable improvement in overall performance. Apps launch faster, especially intensive ones like iMovie; it's also hard to get the machine to slow down and present the dreaded Spinning Rainbow Wheel of Death. Lots of tabs, Flash videos, managing lots of photos — all these things used to slow down the Air, and now it breezes through them with ease. Anyone who's tried importing video or RAW photos on an Air will definitely appreciate the extra punch.

GeekBench 32-bit 64-bit
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012) 6,197 6,736
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2011) 5,014 5,477
MacBook Pro with Retina display 11,965 13,014

Our benchmarks and tests back up that experience. Geekbench shows about a 20 percent bump in the Macbook Air's overall performance, and every individual test we ran was much improved as well. We transferred a 2.68GB movie file from a Seagate SSD to the Air’s internal storage in 25.1 seconds over USB 3.0, compared to one minute, 15 seconds on the previous model. Transferring 455 photos? 17 seconds on the new model, 51 on the old. Importing that same 2.68GB video into iTunes required 19 minutes, 50 seconds — it took 24:45 on the 2011 Air. It still can't measure up to the Pro lineup, which nearly doubles the Air's Geekbench scores, but it's a markedly more impressive piece of machinery now.

I'd guess that for many people, the most obvious upgrade is going to be the jump to USB 3.0, but across the board the 20 percent improvement feels about right. It's enough to be noticeably better, without feeling like you've upgraded to a new class of laptop.

The computer boots in 14 seconds, and I went from totally off to watching a YouTube video in 21 — the flash storage really sings here. Last year's device was about seven seconds slower in both tests, and it's still among the faster machines we've tested. Whether booting, shutting down, sleeping, or waking, the computer pops to life remarkably quickly.

Graphics are clearly improved, too: we played Portal 2 on the new Air, and never dropped below 29 frames per second at native resolution — that's a very playable number. The Air is easily capable of streaming 1080p video at full screen, though it stuttered pretty heavily trying to play back 4K footage. This is still no gamer’s machine, but it’s plenty capable for simple gaming or watching movies.

All that extra power does take its toll on battery life, though. In our battery test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with the screen at 65 percent brightness, the new Air lasted five hours, 34 minutes. That's more than an hour less than last year's Air. In practical use, the numbers are a little more even: heavy usage seems to strain the battery a bit less than on the previous model, so if you're gaming or using Photoshop the newest Air might even last slightly longer — the Air I own drains really quickly with iPhoto or Aperture running, and that's not the case on the new model. Still, for light use the old model is still a better bet.. I typically do a bit of both throughout a day, and I got about seven hours of regular use out of both machines.

Battery Life
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:34
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2011) 6:53
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:14
Dell XPS 13 4:55
Asus Zenbook UX31 5:31
HP Folio 13 7:07
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
5:33
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 5:27 / 10:34*
*With slice battery
Everything's faster, smoother, better
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The MacBook Pro received a much bigger upgrade than the Air this cycle. The Pro with Retina display has a new design, a drop-dead-gorgeous screen, and a new and improved chipset — the Air settles for only the third. Still, it's a nice bump, and makes the Air an even better machine for even more people. It's faster, more powerful, and capable of handling more and more complex tasks than ever. It's still basically the same laptop as last year (and that's a good thing), just with a little more oomph.

There's a lot more competition now, however, especially as manufacturers start to get more aggressive and creative in anticipation of Windows 8’s impending launch. Ultrabooks are better and more plentiful than ever, and you really can't go wrong with devices like the HP Envy Spectre or the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S (not to mention the upcoming ThinkPad X1 Carbon). Still, the MacBook Air comes with some of the best hardware, software, and performance on the market, and at a base price of $1,199 it can be had for $100 less than last year's model. If you bought last year's Air, I'm not sure there's enough here to make you want to upgrade, but if you're in the market for a new laptop and don't need the power (or the price tag) of the new Pro, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than the Air. It may not be as ground-breaking a laptop as it was a year ago, but it’s still every bit as appealing.

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