When it first launched, the MacBook Air line was known more for its svelte frame than its processing chops, but Apple's ultraportable laptop has slowly added more power -- and with it, expert recommendations -- over the years. The 2011 model was widely praised as a near-perfect blend of performance and portability, and the 2012 update, while fairly incremental, adds slightly more powerful Intel Ivy Bridge processors with vastly improved graphical capabilities, faster USB 3.0 ports and lower price points across the line.
The MacBook Air comes in two sizes, 11 inches (*Est. $1,000 and up) and 13 inches (*Est. $1,200 and up). Both wedge-shaped models are just 0.68 inches at their thickest and a barely- there 0.11 inches at their thinnest, with each weighing less than 3 pounds. As with the MacBook Pro, the backlit keyboard and glass trackpad are widely considered to be best in class. In tests, battery life clocks in at 5 to 6 hours for the 11-inch model and up to 8 hours for the 13-inch model. The MacBook Air includes a Thunderbolt port, a redesigned MagSafe 2 port and a pair of USB 3.0 ports, with the 13-inch models tossing in an SD card slot for good measure.
Though both screen sizes of the MacBook Air are well liked in general, the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air receives the most kudos. "The MacBook Air is still the one to beat," says Michael Prospero at Laptop Magazine. However, experts also say it's not a must-have upgrade if you own one of last year's models with Sandy Bridge CPUs.
Multiple reviewers say the 13-inch MacBook Air is fast and powerful enough to serve as a primary computer, as long as you use it for tasks like surfing the web, sending emails or watching videos. Moderate gaming is a possibility, thanks to the beefed-up integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics. You'll need to fiddle around with detail settings and lower the resolution to get smooth frame rates in modern 3D games, but Macworld reports the 2012 MacBook Air models generally surpass their predecessors graphically by anywhere from 20 to 60 percent, depending on the testing method.
The 11-inch MacBook Air, on the other hand, does earn respect as the best MacBook for buyers on a budget: its processor isn't quite as powerful as the 13-inch MacBook Air's, but experts say that the difference isn't readily apparent in most everyday situations. What can become apparent to some is that the 64 GB solid-state drive can fill up fast. Most suggest opting for a step-up configuration (*Est. $1,100 and up) that increases the SSD to 128 GB. Speaking of upgrades, make sure you are happy with the memory you select at purchase. Unlike many computers', the MacBook Air's RAM is soldered directly to the motherboard, so there's no chance of upgrading the memory after the fact.
Reviewers also note that while the MacBook Air line is still among the top ultraportable offerings, Windows-based Ultrabooks are starting to sport the same blend of power and portability and often include additional features and better connectivity. Ultrabooks are also usually priced more competitively than the MacBook Air. Nevertheless, the MacBook Air's mix of long battery life, top-notch keyboard and trackpad, portability and everyday power lead reviewers to recommend it heartily.
Our laptop computers report covers the MacBook Air's Ultrabook competition.