If you want a Mac and you're on a budget, the cheapest option is the base configuration of the 11-inch MacBook Air. But while the price is comparatively low, performance is surprisingly robust.
The 11-inch MacBook Air is more than powerful enough for most tasks. Apple's entry-level laptop lacks some features found on the more expensive MacBook Pro and Air laptops, but reviewers say the 11-inch ultraportable is powerful enough for typical users. The component lineup includes a dual-core Intel Ivy Bridge processor, 4 GB of RAM and a speedy 64 GB solid-state drive (SSD).
The graphical chops have been greatly enhanced in Intel's current Ivy Bridge processors, so casual gamers will even be able to play 3D games at acceptable frame rates. The 1,366-by-768 screen resolution might not sound very high, but experts say it actually works very well on a screen this small. Hardcore gamers will want to look elsewhere, however, such as at the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (*Est. $2,200 and up).
As far as negatives go, at around five hours the battery life is a bit below the ultraportable average. Most reviewers think the 64 GB storage capacity is a bit too small and recommend upgrading to the 11-inch MacBook Air with a 128 GB solid-state drive (*Est. $1,000 and up). Finally, while Apple notebooks are known for their excellent audio, the entry-level MacBook Air is an exception; it sounds notably worse than the 13-inch MacBook Air (Est. $1,100 and up).
It's built for traveling and typing. Despite its small size, critics say the 11-inch MacBook Air's backlit keyboard feels great to type on. Apple's highly regarded glass trackpad earns similar praise. At 11 inches and less than 2.5 pounds, it's easy to lug around, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity ensure you can stay productive when you get where you're going. Ports are limited to a pair of USB 3.0 connections and a single Thunderbolt port. There are Apple and third-party adapters available to convert the video output from the Thunderbolt port to DVI, VGA and even HDMI, but those are sold separately. If you need a wired Ethernet rather than a Wi-Fi connection, a separately sold USB-to-Ethernet adapter is available as well. What's not available in any MacBook Air is an optical drive.
The MacBook Air is a paragon of beautiful design. Although it's a few years old at this point, critics still love the MacBook Air's sleek, wedge-shaped aluminum body.
Apple has a sterling reputation for quality. Although the company's 90 days of phone support doesn't come near the one-year-plus boutique notebook standard, the 11-inch MacBook Air comes with a full one-year parts and labor warranty and free in-person technical assistance at Genius Bars across the country. Not that you'll likely need it; Apple products rarely break down. If yours does, however, the hyper-efficient internal design of the MacBook Air makes repairs difficult, costly and impossible for the average consumer to handle.
The 11-inch MacBook Air is the only Apple notebook under $1,000. That alone will make it attractive to many would-be buyers, and experts say that between the high-class internal components and best-in-class industrial design, it's a good deal for the money. Several Ultrabooks offer similar power for similar prices, however, and they often come with additional features such as built-in HDMI and Ethernet ports or higher-resolution displays. If you have the extra cash, reviewers say the 13-inch MacBook Air is the best Apple laptop for most people, although benchmark tests show that the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air laptops offer similar performance in the real world.
Review Credibility: Excellent Dan Frakes examines all of the new MacBook Air offerings in this extensive review, but only an 11-inch model nabs a perfect score. "The 13-inch model sports a slightly faster processor, but the actual performance differences are small enough that those who prize portability can go with the 11-inch Air -- a frequent traveler's dream machine -- without worrying about what they're giving up," he writes.
Review: Mid-2012 MacBook Airs Offer Improved Performance and Connectivity, Dan Frakes, June 22, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent CNET's Scott Stein gives the 11-inch MacBook Air an Excellent rating, but the relatively steep price point for an Ultrabook with a 64 GB solid-state drive and small screen cost it an Editors' Choice award. Whether or not it's preferable to a 13-inch MacBook Air is up to you, he says. "The new 11-inch MacBook Air is every bit as fast as the 13-inch Air, despite its smaller size, but you'll give up 2 hours of battery life in the bargain."
Review: Apple MacBook Air Review (11-inch, Summer 2012), Scott Stein, June 25, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good TechRadar.com says the slight performance upgrades and still-attractive design cements the MacBook Air's position as the go-to ultraportable, but notes that Ultrabooks are rapidly closing the gap. "In a market becoming densely populated with slim-line laptops from a massive range of manufacturers, Apple still holds the trump card with the MacBook Air -- but only just," Paul Lamkin writes. The notebook earns a 4.5 (out of 5) rating.
Review: MacBook Air 2012 Review, Paul Lamkin, June 29, 2012
4. Expert Reviews (U.K.)
Review Credibility: Very Good Expert Reviews gives the 11-inch MacBook Air a perfect rating and a Best Buy award. The MacBook Air's mash-up of excellent portability, performance and aesthetics impresses Tom Morgan, although he does issue one small note of dissent: "This year's 11-inch MacBook Air is a superb ultra-portable laptop, but there's one model that's better for most people -- the 13-inch MacBook Air."
Review: Apple 11-inch MacBook Air (2012) Review, Tom Morgan, June 20, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good T3.com gives the MacBook Air lineup an overall rating of 4 (out of 5) stars, with reviewer Paul Lamkin praising the addition of Ivy Bridge and USB 3.0 to an already top-notch notebook. They're getting a bit tired of the laptop's aging design, however, which hasn't changed in years. "Despite the Ultrabook onslaught, it is still the most desirable notebook available," Lamkin remarks in conclusion.
Review: MacBook Air 2012 Review, Paul Lamkin, July 30, 2012