When will Apple release a new MacBook Air? Or is the 'Air' brand being killed off?
Apple did technically update the MacBook Air in 2016, but it was a minor and frankly disappointing update - merely including what had been an optional RAM upgrade in the standard package for the 13in model, and not touching the 11in model at all. Will 2017 see a proper update to the MacBook Air lineup? Or will the MacBook Air be killed off for good?
In this article, we round up all the rumours, hints and clues about the new MacBook Air release for 2017, including the new MacBook Air's UK release date, tech specs, new features, design, along with speculation that Apple may be phasing out the 'Air' lineup completely.
For buying advice related to the current Apple laptop range, read our Best MacBook buying guide and Best cheap MacBook deals articles. You can also see our one-stop guide to the best place to buy any Mac.
When is the MacBook Air 2017 coming out?
New Apple laptops will be unveiled at WWDC 2017, according to a report from Bloomberg - and these may include a new MacBook Air.
The site based its predictions on anonymous sources referred to only as "people familiar with the matter", who said that the 12-inch MacBook, the MacBook Pro and even the long-neglected MacBook Air could see a refresh at June's keynote event.
The MacBook Pro, updated as recently as autumn 2016, will be refreshed again but less radically, getting a processor bump to the Kaby Lake chipset. Read more: New MacBook Pro release
A new model of the 12-inch MacBook will be announced, again getting faster Intel processors. Read more: New MacBook release
But the most surprising forecast concerns the MacBook Air, a line-up which most of us had assumed was dead and buried. "The company has also considered updating the ageing 13-inch MacBook Air with a new processor as sales of the laptop, Apple's cheapest, remain surprisingly strong," writes Bloomberg.
We'd previously felt that the MacBook Air line was being quietly wound down, especially following the demise of the 11-inch version in the autumn of 2016. However, Bloomberg's sources only say that Apple is considering an update, although we note that they say "considering".
This may or may not be significant, but in February 2017 the US retailer Best Buy dropped the price for the cheapest MacBook Air to just $800. Price cuts often precede the launch of a new model, as retailers try to clear their store of the older machine, but this could just as easily indicate that Best Buy thinks a new MacBook Air is on the way (or the old one is going to be discontinued) as it could indicate that it's got wind of some inside information. You'll recall that late in 2016 Best Buy accidentally published a spec of a new iMac on its site, which some of us thought might indicate an upcoming launch, but we're still waiting on that one.
Will the MacBook Air be discontinued?
There are a number of reasons why it looks likely that Apple will not continue to sell the MacBook Air.
- The fact that the MacBook Air saw only a small update in March 2016
- The demise of the 11-inch MacBook Air in October 2016
- Apple's own comparison of the newly introduced MacBook Pro 2016 to the MacBook Air when it was introduced in October 2016 - suggesting that Apple was pitching the new, thinner, lighter model against the cheaper model which used to be the lightest Mac laptop sold (hence it's name, Air).
- While it is the cheapest Mac laptop, the MacBook Air can't really be described as low-cost. At the same time as the 11in MacBook Air was discontinued, the 13in variant received a £100 price bump, taking the new basic model's price from £849 up to £949 and the 256GB model up from £999 to £1,099 in the UK. (This price increase is most likely due to Brexit.) Not many people will want a costly Air with more powerful, and thinner, Mac laptops available for not a lot more. The MacBook and the 2015 model of the MacBook Pro (which is still available) both cost £1,249.
- There is some evidence that Apple plans to ditch the Air brand - it has already ditched the iPad Air. Apple discontinued the iPad Air line up when the new iPad, reviewed here, was introduced in March 2017.
- Even the 12.9in iPad Pro could be reason enough for Apple to discontinue the MacBook Air. The iPad Pro may indeed have been the killer of the 11in MacBook Air if Apple CEO Tim Cook's comments to the Telegraph are taken into account (published on 1 December 2015). Regarding the new Pro iPad, Cook told the Telegraph: "Why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one? Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones."
Of course, Apple could reduce the price of the MacBook Air further, but it is more likely that the company will introduce a cheaper variant of the MacBook to be it's entry level Mac laptop.
It would certainly not surprise us if Apple stopped using the word Air now that there is a smaller, lighter and thinner MacBook on the scene. At many times over the years Apple has had just two types of Mac laptop - the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, and we think it's likely that they will return to that format.
It seems likely that the MacBook Air range will be discontinued and replaced by a lower priced MacBook range. In January 2017, DigiTimes cited Chinese site Economic Daily News and said Apple is going to drop the price of the non-Touch Bar 13in MacBook Pro and discontinue the MacBook Air, which only exists now in the 13in size.
It added: "Apple is expected to unveil a new 12-inch MacBook in early second quarter with an additional memory option of 16GB" - this would all but render the Air unnecessary to Apple, even if consumers might lament the absence of its lower price point.
When was the MacBook Air last updated?
The MacBook Air hasn't really received a lot of attention over the past few years.
Back in March 2015 we were expecting Apple to award the MacBook Air with a Retina display - two years later and it still doesn't have one. Instead, Apple's 2015 Spring Forward event saw the company launch the Retina MacBook with its 12in display and a USB-C port (and very few other ports) - a new strand of products for Apple's MacBook laptop line-up.
Even then it looked like the MacBook Air was being pushed out by this new MacBook, although Apple's MacBook Air did get an update at the same time, with new, faster processors, faster flash storage and better graphics.
That was back in 2015 though, the Air was then updated in April 2016 but all it gained was increased RAM. A very minor (although necessary) update.
How much will the new MacBook Air cost?
For the past few years the MacBook Air has been the entry-level Mac laptop. It wasn't always that way. When the MacBook Air initially launched it was quite overpriced for the specs, just like the current Retina MacBook.
At the time the MacBook Air launched in 2008 the entry level Mac laptop was the old MacBook models - the ones that were aluminium, then white and black, and then eventually aluminium again.
Over time the price of the MacBook Air was reduced and those older MacBook models disappeared from the lineup.
It seems likely that the same will happen with the new MacBook models eventually replacing the MacBook Airs, at a lower price.
If Apple does keep the MacBook Air onboard, we are sure it will be reducing the price significantly. Prior to its demise, the 11in MacBook Air started at £749, while the entry-level 13in model was £849 - this has now changed with the 11in axed - making the new 13in model, with a £100 price hike start at £949. We would expect that a new MacBook Air would be priced no higher than £749 if it is to remain in circulation.
More likely the entry level MacBook price will drop to below £1,000, bringing it into line with the current entry-level Air, and that model will be no more.
MacBook Air 2017: Specs & new features
If the MacBook Air models do get an update you can expect to see faster processors, better battery life, and USB Type-C.
The next-generation MacBook Air is likely to feature next-generation Intel processors, as well as graphics and RAM upgrades. Intel has started shipping its Kaby Lake processors - that's the generation of chips after Skylake, and offers support for Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1 and DisplayPort 1.2.
But here's a leftfield alternative. The Dutch-language site Techtastic has posted a reference in the kernel of macOS Sierra to "ARM HURRICANE", a chip family that is now supported.
This isn't a chip that anyone has heard of, but it would make sense for this to be an Apple custom ARM chip, fitting in as it does with the company's previous naming conventions: the A7 (in the iPhone 5s) was codenamed Cyclone, the A8 Typhoon and the A9 Twister. Those are iPad/iPhone chips, of course, so does this mean Apple is going to let iDevices run macOS Sierra? Certainly not - but it might be about to put ARM chips in the MacBook Air.
Image courtesy of Techtastic
Update 08/02/2017: It's not just the CPU that's getting an upgrade either, as a recent Bloomberg report claims that Apple is working on a processor that's meant to improve the battery life of its laptop range. According to the report, the chip is said to handle basic tasks like checking for email and installing updates while the computer is asleep. Apple's current way of working relies on the MacBook's main processor to handle the tasks, but by implementing a dedicated low-power processor, Apple can further reduce battery consumption and provide a longer battery life.
Those with knowledge of the subject claim that the chip is similar to that used by Apple in the MacBook Pro to manage the Touch Bar, and that the new chip may make an appearance in the 2017 MacBook Pro, along with other laptops. It makes sense, as Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar has been criticised since launch for its poor battery life.
Rumours are rife concerning Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro and, more specifically, its OLED touch bar. The OLED touch bar is rumoured to provide contextual shortcuts to the user based on the application that they're using at the time - but the most recent report suggests Apple isn't happy enough with the feature. 9to5Mac and TrustedReviews report that Apple has been in talks to use a laptop variant of Sonder Design's dynamic keyboard technology.
Sonder Design is famous for developing an E-ink keyboard, using E-ink to change the key labels on the fly. This means that the entire keyboard is customisable, providing multiple languages as well as contextual shortcuts from a single keyboard. It allows users that are, for example, editing in Final Cut Pro to look down at the keyboard and see exactly which tool they need to use without having to memorise them before hand.
What isn't clear is how Apple is planning on implementing the software, or which laptop it could be featured on, leading us to believe that it could possibly make an appearance on the 2017 MacBook Air. Sonder has confirmed that talks between Apple and the company has taken place, although it won't comment on whether or not it's a deal - it has only confirmed that it's "closing B2B procurement contracts" with three laptop makers.
When Apple updated its MacBook Air in March of 2015, we had been convinced that the company was about to give the laptop a Retina display. Instead, it launched a brand-new MacBook line that's super-thin, super-light and does offer that high-resolution display, but does that mean Apple won't enhance the MacBook Air with a Retina display in the future? With the 2016 update only adding more RAM to the basic 13in model, it may be the case.
The suggestion that the MacBook Air will feature a Retina display has been long running but those rumours were prior to the launch of the 12in Retina MacBook and the iPad Pro - suggesting the sightings of the Retina display some thought was destined for the MacBook Air was instead for these models.
Does this mean that there will be no Retina display on the new MacBook Air when (or if) it launches? If Apple wants to keep the price down maybe not. Find out what a Retina display is here: What is a Retina display?
We assume the next MacBook Air will feature USB-C ports, a report from Taiwanese website DigiTimes seems to confirm our theory - if believed, anyway. The publication claims that Apple is planning to release a MacBook Air with USB-C ports in future, but doesn't provide a launch timeframe for the upgraded laptop.
"Currently, Apple has decided to adopt the USB Type-C interface for its MacBook Air, while Asustek Computer and Hewlett-Packard (HP) are upgrading one of their notebooks' regular USB port to the Type-C. Lenovo, Acer and Dell are still evaluating the option," according to that report.
This seems a logical step; the MacBook has just one USB-C port and the new MacBook Pro also features this connection type. It would still represent a bold move overall for Apple however - it'd mean all of its laptops would no longer support standard USB-A connections, a move sure to annoy a few people, but ultimately shape the future of mobile computing.
And of course USB-C supports the latest iteration of Thunderbolt, a favourite of Apple.
Apple Pencil-enabled Trackpad
While this isn't a new patent (it was originally filed back in 2014), a patent application has recently been granted that allows the Apple Pencil to work with Mac trackpads. What is most interesting about the patent is that it depicts a more sophisticated Apple Pencil than the one currently available, suggesting that the accessory is due to get an overhaul at some point in the future. It even goes as far to describe the Pencil being used as a general input device like a joystick or an 'air mouse'.
"Inertial sensor input may be gathered when operating the stylus in one or more inertial sensor input modes such as an air mouse mode, a rotational controller mode, a joystick mode, and/or other inertial sensor input modes."
What isn't clear is if the upgraded Apple Pencil will only work with certain trackpads - if this is the case, we imagine that the technology would make its way to the next-gen MacBook Air. However, Apple has a habit of applying for a patent and then doing nothing with it, so it isn't set in stone that we'll be seeing this featured on the next MacBook Air - but we can sure hope.
Touch ID and Force Touch
We expect this feature to come on the Air model - if it isn't discontinued!
There are also reports to suggest that it'll boast Touch ID within its Trackpad, which may also get the Force Touch upgrade that was given to the 13in MacBook Pro back in March 2015, and comes with the new MacBook.
Touch ID is the fingerprint sensor that's built into the Home button of the iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus and beyond. It's also used to make Apple Pay more secure and with the recent announcement of Apple Pay coming to Mac as part of macOS Sierra, this rumour makes a lot of sense.
According to an Independent report, Touch ID for the Mac line would require a dedicated chip to be built into the device.
The rumour started with Taiwanese blog AppleCorner, which cited sources in the supply chain. Apparently, the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad may get a biometric update too, enabling users to make Apple Pay payments on the web, but both those accessories were updated alongside the launch of a new 4K iMac so that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
We'll be updating this article as more information about the rumoured MacBook Air emerges so check back from time to time for the latest news.
Wondering which MacBook is best for you? Read: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro comparison review: 13in Apple laptops compared