11in 2014 MacBook Air review

You can now buy an Apple MacBook Air for £749. This isn't the lowest ever price for a Mac laptop – back in 2005 you could buy a 12in iBook for just £699, but the price drop, as much as £130 in the case of the 256GB MacBook Air  models, is welcome.

The rather substantial price decrease for the Mac Air is the key change for this year's 11-inch MacBook Air, the only other change being the 1.4GHz dual-core Core i5 processor (100MHz faster than the 1.3GHz dual-core Core i5 processor in the 2013 model). The new prices place the entry-level 128GB 11in MacBook Air at £749, down £100 from £849. The 256GB 11in MacBook Air now costs £899.

Read our 13in 2014 MacBook Air review here & Read our 11in MacBook Air benchmarks.

We also share our 5 reasons to buy a MacBook Air and 5 reasons NOT to buy a MacBook Air. Apple has now launched a low-cost iMac that offers comparable specs and a comparable price. We compare the new entry-level iMac and the MacBook Air here.

11in MacBook Air: Processor

Aside from the pricing changes, there is a very subtle increase in processor speeds for this year's line up of MacBook Air models. The 11 and 13-inch configurations all feature the same Intel 1.4GHz dual-core Core i5-4260U processor, which is 100MHz faster than the 1.3GHz dual-core Core i5-4250U processor found in the 2013 MacBook Air models.

That is only be a 100MHz (0.1GHz) speed bump so we wouldn't expect to see appreciable performance gains, but the tiny lift may help to keep the MacBook Air competitive against Windows laptop rivals that may be employing the same revised chips.

You can upgrade the processor in the £899 model of the 11-inch MacBook Air to a 1.7GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7 for £130 – the same processor upgrade offered last year.

We ran Geekbench 3 to test raw processor performance, the test indicated an average score of 5392 points. We don’t have results from 2013's MacBook Air as that model was tested with the older Geekbench 2. However, the current 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, Retina, Late 2013) with its dual-core 2.6GHz Core i5 processor scored 6719 points in the same test.

The 2014 11in MacBook Air scored 1.13 points in single-core and 2.57 points in multi-core mode in the Cinebench 11.5 processor tests. The Cinebench 15 test returned results of 97 and 236 points respectively.

While we don't currently have many legacy models with which to compare, due to our revised benchtesting tests, we can see that the latest 11-inch MacBook Air is a speedy performer. When compared to a Retina MacBook Pro with 2.6GHz Core i5 processor (twice the clock speed, and sold for £1,499) the 1.4GHz Core i5 in the new Air was only around 24 percent slower (and it costs £899). 

For most daily tasks, you’re unlikely to feel any slowdown caused by the lower clock speed in the main processor.

11in MacBook Air: Specs 2014

Everything else about new 2014 MacBook Air is the same as last year's MacBook Air model: as previously, the 2014 MacBook Air models are available in four standard configurations, two with 11.6-inch screens, and two with 13.3-inch screens. Each screen size can be coupled with either a 128GB or 256GB solid-state drive for storage.

Each model offers 4GB of DDR3 memory as standard, Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics, and either 128GB or 256GB of PCIe-connected flash storage.

Because the spec of the machines are so similar, there is no need to sacrifice power for the portability of the 11in MacBook Air. The decision about which model to purchase boils down to the size of screen, the amount of storage, how much weight you are happy to lug around, your battery life requirements, and of course, how much you are willing to pay.

READ:

11in MacBook Air: Screen

Just like the 2013 model, the new 11-inch MacBook Air screen actually measures 11.6-inches and offers 1,366-by-768 resolution, compared to the 1,440-by-900 maintained by the 13.3-inch display on the Air. The 11-inch MacBook Air remains unique as the only Apple laptop to ever use the more letter-boxed 16:9 aspect ratio.

Unfortunatley, as we discovered in our tests, this panel also stands out as perhaps the poorest performing display of any current Apple product.

Using a Datacolor Spyder4Elite display calibrator, we measured just 64 percent of the sRGB colour gamut. This disappointing result was also borne out subjectively by off-key screens colours visible to the eye. The wider Adobe RGB gamut was measured with only 48 percent coverage.

Viewing angles of this twisted-nematic (TN) glossy panel were also very limited, with marked colour inversion effects evident as we tried to view the screen from the sides and above/below.

Contrast ratio was measured using the same calibrator, to gain an idea of the display’s contrast quality. Recorded at the display’s highest peak output of 344 cd/m2 it was a rather poor ratio of 330:1, falling to 300:1 at its nominal 50 percent brightness setting (corresponding to 64 cd/m2).

Delta E from 48 spot tones averaged a mediocore 3.76, with the highest deviation coming from the test’s ‘2G’ swatch (blue tone).

We have to admit that display quality was the only issue that failed to impress us. It appears that Apple is using budget TN panels which offer poor colour coverage and limited viewing angles. These panels are also undersized for the available lid size – a 12.5in panel could be included in the space available to this 11.6-inch Air and still leave room for bezel surrounding edge.

None of the MacBook Air models offers a high-res Retina display. There have been claims that Apple will launch a 12-inch Retina display version of the MacBook Air at some point this year, but this update to the MacBook Air was not it.

It is likely that adding a Retina display to the MacBook Air would reduce battery life, due to the extra power required to power the additional pixels and this may be one reason why the MacBook Air has not yet got the Retina display treatment.  Read our Retina MacBook Pro reviews here.

You can, of course plug your MacBook Air into an external display, benefiting from the portablilty while enjoying a larger screen when sat at a desk.

MacBook Air 11-inch: Size & Weight 2014

Both MacBook Air models still boast the incredibly thin 0.3-1.7cm unibody design. The 11-inch MacBook Air still weighs just 1.08kg and measures 30cm by 19.2cm. It's a fraction shorter than the 13-inch MacBook Air, which measures 32.5cm by 22.7cm, and weighs 1.35kg, 270g more than the 11in version.

If you are trying to decide whether to go for an 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook it will all come down to how much you need the extra screen real estate compared to your desire for a lighter laptop.

Read our advice for choosing between the 11-inch and 13-inch 2014 MacBook Air here: Which MacBook Air.

MacBook Air 11-inch: Storage space

Storage in the new MacBook Airs is the same as the 2013 models: both MacBook Air sizes are available with a choice of a 128GB or 256GB PCIe-attached solid-state flash drive, and you have the option of upgrading the 256GB model to a 512GB SSD at point of purchase for an additional £240 (the same price as last year).

Like the Flash storage in the 2013 model, this PCIe flash storage is up to 9x faster than a traditional 5400-rpm notebook hard drive. However, performance tests of this year’s MacBook Air series have suggested that despite improved processor performance. Indeed, the lab tests from Macworld US suggested that the storage in the 2014 models was slightly inferior to last year's offering. In those tests it appears that the overall system score was brought down by slower flash storage results in comparison between the two generations.

Our Macworld UK tests suggest that what has been reported is caused not by an over-arching slowdown in the latest models’ flash drives, but instead differences in the performance of drives from different OEM suppliers that Apple now uses for its notebooks’ solid-state drives.

We tested the 11-inch 256GB MacBook Air and a 13-inch MacBook Air model, also with a 256GB flash drive. Crucially these two MacBook Air laptops had flash drives from different drive manufacturing suppliers. Our 11-inch MacBook Air sample had a 256 GB SSD manufactured by Toshiba (part code APPLE SSD TS0256F), while the 13-inch MBA had the same capacity drive built by SanDisk (part code APPLE SSD SD0256F).

We used Intuit QuickBench to evaluate an unused 50 percent partition of the internal drive, we tested the sequential speed and random read/write (single-thread) speed of flash drives in samples of both the 11- and 13-inch Apple MacBook Air. In this test the 11-inch MacBook Air averaged 701MB/s for sequential reads 2-10MB size, rising to 723MB/s for 20-100MB data. Write speeds were almost as impressive, at 612 and 546MB/s respectively for the same data sets.

Down at the smallest file sizes, random reads from 4-1024kB averaged 172MB/s, and random writes averaged to 273MB/s. (For context, the best SATA SSDs fitted to state-of-the-art desktop PCs will peak at around 550MB/s.)

When we tested the 13-inch MacBook Air model, also with a 256GB flash drive, we found it turned in broadly similar numbers to the 11-inch Air, but with important differences. Sequential medium-file read speeds 2-10 MB were 723 MB/s, and 592 MB/s writes. With 20-100 MB files, this moved to 760 MB/s reads and 578 MB/s writes. Small-file random read/writes averaged 157 and 158 MB/s respectively.

As we mentioned above, these two MacBook Air laptops had flash drives from different drive manufacturing suppliers. A Toshiba drive in the 11-inch MacBook Air sample and a SanDisk drive in the 13-inch MacBook Air. These drives showed different transfer characteristics. In tests, the Samsung exhibited slightly higher overall large-file reads – around 5 percent faster – and similarly slightly higher writes, at almost 6 percent faster.

But in small-file transfers, the Toshiba drive measured much better, 9.5 percent faster for reads; and a massive 72 percent faster in random writes overall.

We imagine some people will want to find out which drive is inside their MacBook Air before purchasing it. Unfortunately this is easier said than done.

Another thing to note, since the storage in the MacBook Air cannot be updated at a later date you need to decide whether to fork out the extra for the additional storage when you buy the machine. It may prove cheaper to opt for a higher capacity external hard drive – that £250 could buy you a lot of terabytes.

Read about the difference between a traditional hard drive and an SSD drive here.

In this video we discuss 5 reasons not to buy a MacBook Air... Towards the top of this article you will see 5 reasons to buy a MacBook Air.

MacBook Air 11-inch: RAM

You can increase RAM from the standard 4GB to 8GB for £80. Like last year’s model, RAM is not user upgradable, so if you think you might need more than 4GB, be sure to order your MacBook Air with the additional memory. Read our advice on whether you should get 4GB or 8GB RAM for your Mac.

READ:

11in MacBook Air: Graphics performance

Intel’s integrated graphics processor is improving with each generation, and even though the new models use the same integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 as the 2013 MacBook Air, running, we believe, at the same clock speeds (200-1000 MHz) we continue to be impressed by the improved graphics performance compared to the previous generation.

There’s no material difference in the Early 2014 revised MacBook Air, this graphics engine is capable of some usable gameplay when kept at modest detail settings. We had usable results at 1280 x 720 resolution and Medium detail in various action games.

These graphics processors dip into the system RAM for their memory, accessing 256MB of the machine’s 4GB as standard. Since the RAM spec has unchanged we wouldn’t expect much gain in graphics performance for the Early 2014 model.

While the MacBook Air isn't an obvious choice for 3D rendering work, benchmark numbers are useful as a guide to GPU performance. We used Cinebench 11.5 and 15 benchmark software to test graphics performance. 

The 11.5 and 13 versions of Cinebench returned framerates of 22.2 and 18.5 frames per second (fps) respectively.

Unigine Heaven saw an average framerate of 18.5 fps at the screen’s native 1366 x 768-pixel resolution, dipping to a worst-case minima of 6.8 fps.

In Macworld US's graphics tests the new 13in MacBook Air scored higher than last year's model, and in the Unigine Heaven and Valley GPU benchmark tests the 11in MacBook Air actually scored higher than the new 13in model with higher capacity storage.

With Tomb Raider (2013) now available for OS X, we ran its built-in benchmark test using screen-native and High settings, where it played at an average framerate of 27.0 fps. Dropping slightly to 1280 x 720 and Medium didn’t elicit much benefit, rising slightly to 28.7 fps. And with a minimum dip at just 14.7 fps we would suggest the graphics performance of the Early 2014 MacBook Air is insufficient to play this game well.

Batman: Arkham City came off little better, able to average 28 fps at both Medium and High detail settings and screen-native resolution, albeit dropping to just 1 and 4 fps minima, respectively. To get closer to a playable game we’d suggest trying it at 1280 x 800 and Medium settings, where we saw it average 31 fps and with a 13 fps minimum.

The graphics engine in the 2014 MacBook Air is capable of some usable gameplay when kept at modest detail settings.

11in MacBook Air: Ports 2014

Both the 11in and 13in MacBook Air models have same number and types of connections: two USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt port (not Thunderbolt 2), a MagSafe 2 power port, and an audio in/out combo jack.

However, only the 13in model offers an SDXD card for quickly reading the memory card from your camera. If you are a keen photographer this may be a reason to opt for the bigger model, although you could plug in a SD card reader of your own.

There’s no DVD drive on either model, so you may want to invest in a separate Apple USB SuperDrive for £65. Read about some alternatives to the SuperDrive here.

11in MacBook Air: Battery life

Inside the 11in MacBook Air is a 38 Wh lithium-polymer battery, the same energy capacity as last year’s model. The longer battery life that the Haswell processor made possible in the 2013 MacBook Air models continues unabated. Apple claims that the 11-inch MacBook Air offers up to 9 hours of battery life, the same as the 2013 model.

Apple claims the 13in MacBook Air offers battery life that will last a full working day, the same 12-hours Apple boasted for the 13in MacBook Air last year, so if battery life is what's more important to you this may be a better choice.

While the battery claims for general use haven't changed from last year, Apple claims that iTunes movie playback times increase to 9 hours on the 11-inch MacBook Air, which is an additional two hours of playback time compared to last year's MacBook Air models, according to the company's tests. iTunes play back on the 13in model is now 12 hours, according to Apple.

To test battery life we used our standard looped-video rundown test to see how long the 11in MacBook Air would run on one full charge.  The test video was MPEG-4 encoded, played in QuickTime X over Wi-Fi from a NAS drive on the local network. The display was set to 120 cd/m2.

In total the laptop sustained 10 hours 11 min of playback before expiring. That’s an impressive figure, if a little shorter than the 13-inch model’s endurance, now capable of greater than 12.5 hours in the same test. If you really need to break the 12-hour barrier in the same kind of usage, you’ll need to trade up to the 13-inch model with its larger internal battery.

In Macworld US's tests (which involved looping a movie file in iTunes at 200 CD/m2 brightness with Wi-Fi off and the keyboard dimmed) the new 11in MacBook Air achieved 9 hours and 39 minutes of battery life, compared to the 9 hours 19 minutes on last year's model. For comparison, the 13in model achieved - 12 hours and 13 minutes of battery life, compared to the 11 hours 50 minutes on last year's model.

We had wondered whether OS X Mavericks would allow Apple to boast a longer batter life – Mavericks launched after the new MacBook Airs were introduced last year and Apple boasted that Mavericks could improve battery life.

11in MacBook Air benchmarks 2014: speed tests

We tested the £749 11in MacBook Air (with 128GB storage) using Macworld's Speedmark 9 performance benchmark suite.  We also tested the 13in model with 256GB storage and compared both new models to 11in and 13in models of last year's MacBook Air. 

The faster processor certainly helped, in some tests, but we were disappointed that the new MacBook Air didn't perform quite as well in some of our speedtests as last year's models, more on that in the section below.

But, in the following tests the newer models outperformed the 2013 versions, although often by only a few seconds.

The new 11in MacBook Air performed better than the last generation in tests such as Photoshop, iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, Handbrake, Cinebench CPU test, MathematicaMark 9, Aperture, and PCMark 8’s Office application test running on a virtual machine in Parallels.

In the majority of cases the new 13in MacBook Air with 256GB storage beat the new 11in 128GB model, but in the Photoshop and Cinebench CPU tests both models returned the same score, and in the MathematicaMark 9, Parallels PCMark 8 Office, and Unigine Heaven and Valley GPU benchmark tests the 11in MacBook Air actually scored higher than the new 13in model with higher capacity storage.

Both new models were beat by the 2013 13in model in the Cinebench R15 test. 

11in MacBook Air benchmarks: storage performance tests

It seems that it's the flash storage in these new models that is letting them down, however. Our storage performance tests showed the flash storage in these new systems to be slower than last year’s.

Our storage performance tests showed the new flash storage was slow enough to drag down the overall Speedmark score of these new models, despite the faster processors found in this year's models.

For example, copying 6GB of files and folders took 28 seconds on the 2013 11-inch MacBook Air, and 53.9 seconds on this year’s 11-inch model. We should note that the 11in MacBook Air from 2013 that we were testing had 256GB of storage and lower capacity solid-state storage drives are often slower performers. However, when we compared the 128GB 11in MacBook Air from 2014 with the 128GB 13in MacBook Air from 2013 we also found this year's model to be slower.

Compressing a 6GB folder took 146.2 seconds longer on the new MacBook Air and Unzipping took 83.6 seconds longer on the 2014 model when compared to last year’s 11-inch MacBook Air.  

Even with a simplified 6GB data set, the 2014 11-inch MacBook Air was still the slowest in our copy, compress and uncompress tests; it was 35 percent slower than the 2013 13-inch 128GB MacBook Air when copying files, and 53 percent slower when uncompressing the files. Zipping the files was just 3 percent slower though.

We ran Blackmagic Design's Disk Speed Test, which showed the flash storage in the new models running slower than the same capacities in the previous generation. The 2014 MacBook Air with 128GB SSD averaged 306 MBps while writing and 620 MBps while reading, while the 2013 MacBook Air with 128GB of flash storage averaged 445 MBps while writing data and 725 MBps while reading.

The 2014 MacBook with 256GB SSD averaged 520 MBps writing and 676 MBps reading, compared to the same capacity model last year which averaged 687 MBps writing and 725 MBps reading.

Running Disk Utility indicated that the four drives in the models we were testing were different, two from Samsung, one from Toshiba and one from SanDisk. Perhaps Apple compromised on the SSD in order to keep the price down.

Read our MacBook Air benchmark report by Andrew Harrison and the benchmark report over at Macworld US.
 

OUR VERDICT

With its lower price the 2014 11in MacBook Air is a great purchase. If you want the lightest laptop available there is no need to sacrifice power - the 11in MacBook Air is just as good as the 13in model. Unfortunately due to differences in OEM provides in some cases the flash storage may be slower than it is in other MacBook Air models. If you can get a discounted 11in 2013 MacBook Air from the Apple refurb store, it is still be worth considering as an alternative to the 2014 Mac Air model.

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