MacBook Air vs MacBook (2017)
When it comes to buying MacBooks, if you aren't a Pro user then you have a compelling decision to make between the 13in MacBook Air and the 12in MacBook. Both are slim, capable machines but with enough differences to make it a tough decision.
At WWDC in June 2017, Apple updated the specs of both laptops. The new MacBook has Intel's 7th-gen Kaby Lake processors, but the MacBook Air still runs the Broadwell generation.
The 12in MacBook is both smaller and lighter than the once “light as air” MacBook Air, which begs the question: which is the best lightweight laptop from Apple?
In this article we will weigh up the pros and cons for both models, and look at the best upgrade options, and some alternatives that might suit your needs better.
Read on for more detailed comparisons of Apple's newest lightweight laptops, specs, design and more.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Design, Dimensions and weight
The MacBook comes in Silver, Gold, Rose Gold and Space Grey, just like the iPhone. Judging by the popularity of the Rose Gold iPhone, for some the fact that the MacBook is now in that hue will be reason enough to buy it. However, if you’d prefer a more muted colour the silver or grey options may appeal. Alternatively, the MacBook Air comes in just the traditional silver/aluminium.
The 12in MacBook measures 28.05cm by 19.65cm, and is 0.35-1.31cm thick.
The 13in MacBook Air measures 32.5m by 22.7cm and is 0.3-1.7cm thick.
Apple no longer sells the 11in MacBook Air.
The MacBook is lighter than the 13in MacBook Air, which weighs 1.35kg. The 12in MacBook is undoubtedly the most portable and lightweight MacBook ever made at 920g.
BUYING ADVICE: Design, Dimensions and weight
If it’s the lightest and smallest Mac you are looking for, then get the MacBook. Just remember that the MacBook Air still gives you a bigger screen.
When it comes to design, only the MacBook offers you a selection of colour choices and that may be a big part of the buying decision for some. If you aren’t keen on Rose Gold or Gold then there is the choice of Space Grey or Silver – but if it’s Silver you are going for, perhaps the Air will fulfil your needs.
It may seem an obvious choice at this point, but there are a number of other factors involved in the decision, including the specs of the machine, the ports and other features on offer, read on to find out more.
There is also the significant difference in price, with the MacBook Air starting at £949 ($999) and the MacBook starting at £1,249 ($1,299). That’s £300/$300 more, so does the MacBook justify its higher price? Read on.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Specs comparison
The MacBook Air offers a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (capable of Turbo Boost to 3.2GHz) and comes with 8GB RAM and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 6000 graphics card. You'll have to pay £150 ($200) extra for 256GB compared to 128GB though. Or there's a 512GB storage version (available in the custom build options), which costs £300 ($400) more than the 128GB model or £150 ($200) more than the 256GB.
The most you can pay for an Air – if you can opt to upgrade at point of purchase to a faster i7 processor and up to 512GB SSD – is £1,384.
The 12in MacBook ships in two configurations. The entry-level model costs £1,249 ($1,299) and features a 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor, which can Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz. The other costs £300 ($300) more and offers a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, which can Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz. Both MacBooks offer 8GB RAM and Intel HD Graphics 615.
The MacBook Air (above) is bigger and heavier than the MacBook, but only very slightly, and has more ports
BUYING ADVICE: Specs comparison
On the face of it the MacBook Air offers the best specs, with a faster processor, not just clock speed, but a Core i5 as opposed to a Core M at the base model level. Both offer 8GB RAM as standard. The main big difference is the fact that the MacBook ships with a 256GB flash drive, while the entry-level MacBook Air offers only 128GB.
If it's specs you want for your money, then the MacBook Air is still better value. You'll get an i5 processor and 8GB RAM for £300 ($300) less than an m3 MacBook. If you only want 128GB storage, you can add an i7 processor for £135 ($150) and still spend nearly £200 ($150) less than the base MacBook.
However with 7th-gen processors, the MacBook has more advanced processing power than the MacBook Air, which is still on 5th generation Broadwell chips.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Processor comparison
Regarding that processor difference. How does the Core M stand up to the Core i5?
The Core M is Intel’s newer generation of processors that run so cool that they can be fanless. Being fanless means that the computer in which they feature can be thinner and smaller than ever. That M in Core M stands for mobile, though, and these are processors destined for tablets and hybrid laptops, so don’t expect anything like the power of the Core i5.
We'll have to wait till we get our hands on the machines for full benchmarks, but it's still safe to stay the MacBook Air is the better performer. That's not to say the 12in MacBook is a complete slouch; we have the 2016 version and rarely experience lag in everyday tasks, and the new 2017 model will be even quicker with the new Kaby Lake processor.
However the full i5 processor rather than a mobile version in the MacBook Air is still more capable but hasn't benefitted from a Kaby Lake update - it's still on Broadwell.
BUYING ADVICE: Processor comparison
While the MacBook Air processor is faster than the MacBook in terms of clock speed there is some question of how big a difference that will make in real world testing. You don't want to edit video on the Core m3 MacBook, for example.
If it’s a powerful laptop you are looking for you probably need to consider something other than the MacBook Air or MacBook. The MacBook Pro, which comes in 13in or 15in versions, offers a faster processor and when you consider the 13in models, there isn’t a big leap in price from the MacBook Air to the MacBook Pro.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Battery life
Apple went out of its way to fill every empty space in the MacBook with battery. The company describes how it used “every millimetre of space inside the slim MacBook enclosure.” Apple explains on its website how: “Traditional rectangular batteries leave unused space when placed in a curved enclosure, so we created a new type of battery technology that allowed for an innovative terraced battery cell, custom shaped to fit the specific contours of the enclosure.”
As a result Apple has eked out 35 per cent more battery cell capacity than would have been possible without the innovation. Batteries actually sit on top of each other, as you can see in the below illustration.
Apple claims the MacBook will offer a battery life of up to 10 hours.
The 13in MacBook Air has more space in the chassis for battery - enough for 12 hours of battery life, it claims. The Air is certainly capable of even more than that from our experience, and is one of the industry leaders.
Apple's MacBook batteries are layered in every available space
BUYING ADVICE: Battery life
If you want to buy either of these computers and battery life is important to you, you will get more juice out of the MacBook Air. It's the kind of machine you can leave the house with without the charger.
Confidence in the MacBook is slightly lower, though the latest generation will give more battery than previously. 10 hours is still impressive, but the results are less consistent.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Screen & resolution
The biggest difference is the fact that the MacBook offers a higher-resolution Retina display. That display is LED-backlit display with IPS technology, and offers a 2304x1440 resolution at 226 pixels per inch, as well as support for millions of colours, and a 16:10 aspect ratio.
The MacBook Air, on the other hand, offers 1440x900 resolution at the same 16:10 aspect ratio.
The MacBook Air has attracted criticism for the quality of its screen, which is unfair because in day-to-day use it is still very good. It just doesn't use a Retina display, as the 12in MacBook does. The MacBook Air is the only Apple laptop in the line up without one.
MacBook Air vs MacBook screen size comparison: While the 12in MacBook wins on screen resolution, the 13in Air (as you'd expect) has the slightly larger screen. Measuring actual usable display size, the MacBook Air’s screen is 28.9mm wide and 18mm tall. The MacBook’s screen is 25.9mm wide and 16.1mm tall. In the photo above (courtesy of Macworld's Roman Loyola) the Air's screen looks much larger than the MacBook's, but the dinkier laptop has a smaller bezel around it.
BUYING ADVICE: Screen & resolution
The MacBook offers the superior display in terms of resolution. It is a Retina display, whereas the MacBook Air's isn't. If it’s a good quality screen you need then the MacBook Air probably won’t cut the mustard, though it's by no means grainy. Put them side by side and you'll definite notice the difference though.
If you like to watch films on your laptop you may be thinking that the MacBook Air would be better simply because there's an extra inch of screen – but the quality of the display is not as great in comparison so you probably wouldn’t benefit all that much.
There are a couple of options if you are concerned about screen quality. Either plug your MacBook Air into an external screen when you are sat at your desk, or opt for the MacBook Pro with Retina display – at £1,249 ($1,299) the 13in entry-level Pro model is the exact same price as the 12in MacBook and much higher specced.
It's not that the MacBook Air has a bad screen - but the MacBook's is better, if smaller.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Graphics
While the MacBook's display is undoubtedly better than the Air's, what about graphics power – particularly important if you are a gamer.
The MacBook sports the Intel HD Graphics 615 and supports dual display and video mirroring. It can support up to 3840x2160 pixels at 30Hz on an external display.
The MacBook Air offers superior graphics with the Intel HD Graphics 6000 and supports dual display and video mirroring. It can support up to 2560x1600 pixels on an external display, less than the MacBook. The MacBook Air does offer Thunderbolt digital video output however.
We've yet to test the latest MacBook Air, but we have tested previous generations extensively. When we ran the Batman: Arkham City benchmark test, the 2014 and 2015 MacBook Air models both averaged 29 frames per second in medium detail; and 24 fps in High detail.
We haven't yet tested the latest MacBook's graphics, so we can’t comment on how good they are. However, like the Air, it seems unlikely that the graphics in the MacBook would be suitable for advanced game play, despite the spec bumps.
BUYING ADVICE: Graphics
Both of these Macs have inferior graphics cards compared to the MacBook Pro, so if good graphics capabilities are necessary for you, you should consider opting for the MacBook Pro instead.
However, of the two, the performance gap is getting smaller and the MacBook is nearly on a par with the MacBook Air. We hope to confirm this soon in testing.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Capacity
This is one area where the entry level MacBook Air lets itself down in comparison to the MacBook. The £949 ($999) MacBook Air ships with 128GB storage, while the entry-level MacBook ships with twice the storage, 256GB, although it costs £1,249 ($1,299). That's some difference.
For a better comparison, the £1,099 ($1,199) MacBook Air ships with the same 256GB, but is still £150 ($100) less than the 12in MacBook with the same storage.
If you are looking for the most storage possible, the cheapest you can get a 512GB MacBook for is £1,549 ($1,599). To get that much storage in your MacBook Air you need to turn to the build-to-order options. To upgrade the base 128GB MacBook Air to a 512GB drive costs an extra £300 ($400), bringing the price to £1,249 ($1,399). That’s £300 ($200) less than the 512GB MacBook.
BUYING ADVICE: Capacity
It's good that the base MacBook comes with 256GB where the MacBook Air only has 128GB, but the difference of £300 ($300) is a lot to justify if you're concerned about storage. Instead, you could opt for the MacBook Air specced up to 256GB for £1,099 ($1,199).
In terms of storage, the MacBook Air represents better value.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Ports and input
The most obvious difference between the MacBook and MacBook Air is the lack of ports on the former. The MacBook (in)famously features only one USB-C port and a headphone port. There isn’t even a Magsafe port for charging as that is done through the USB-C, which also supports USB 3.1 Gen 1 (up to 5 Gbps), Native DisplayPort 1.2 video output, VGA output using USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter (sold separately for £69/$69), and HDMI video output using USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter (sold separately for £69/$69).
The USB-C port may support a lot of peripherals, with the necessary adaptor, but there is still only the one USB-C port available - and for many that will not be enough.
The 13in MacBook Air features two USB-3 ports (5Gbps), one Thunderbolt 2 port (up to 20 Gbps), and a MagSafe 2 power port. You also get a SDXD card slot for transferring the photos taken on your camera.
The MacBook Air has Bluetooth 4.0, whereas the MacBook has version 4.2.
One thing that the MacBook features that the MacBook Air doesn’t is the Force Touch trackpad. This trackpad (which also features on the MacBook Pro) is sensitive to varying degrees of touch pressure: you can set it to respond to harder/deeper presses to activate different features. It also provides what is known as haptic feedback, a tangible, tactile response that in theory allows you to 'feel' what you are interacting with, which means that you feel like you are pressing the trackpad in when actually the pad isn’t moving at all.
The USB-C port on the MacBook can be used for charging or data transfer
BUYING ADVICE: Ports and input
If you have a laptop right now and you use all the ports all the time then you may not be able to cope with only one port on the MacBook. However, if your concern is that you won’t be able to use your external mouse or plug in a hard drive while charging your Mac you may be worrying unnecessarily.
Adapters are available that will extend the port so that you can plug in more than one thing at a time. The question is whether the tradeoff in ports is enough to justify the smaller, thinner design of the MacBook. And whether you really like the Force Touch trackpad; try one in store.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Price
This the big difference between the MacBook Air and the MacBook. The entry level MacBook price starts at £1,249 ($1,299) while the entry level MacBook Air is £300 ($300) cheaper at £949 ($999). The difference in price might be acceptable if the MacBook was more powerful, but you are not paying that extra £300 for a more powerful machine.
What you get for the extra money is a better display and a smaller and lighter laptop. While we think the display on the MacBook Air would benefit from improvement, we think £300 ($300) is a high price to pay for what is essentially a better screen. And at the end of the day you could just plug your MacBook Air into an external display which would likely cost you less than that (and you’d have the necessary port to do so).
That said, the money for the MacBook gets you a better looking, lighter piece of tech.
BUYING ADVICE: Price
If you are looking for a cheap Mac option then the MacBook is simply not for you right now. It is one of the most expensive Mac laptops as well as being the least powerful. This is a laptop for those who are looking for a status symbol to write their emails and presentations on. If money is no object and you have a penchant for gold then by all means buy a MacBook, but if you just want the cheapest Mac laptop the MacBook Air is a better deal.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Build to order options
You can get the MacBook with either 256GB or 512GB with build to order specs - a more power i5 or i7 processor and/or up to 16GB RAM.
There are build-to-order options on the MacBook Air, which gives you a lot more flexibility to design the Mac that best suits your needs. Moving to a Core i7 from i5 will cost you £135 ($150).
You can also upgrade the Air to 256GB for £150 ($200) or 512GB for £300 ($400).
BUYING ADVICE: Build to order options
For now we’d recommend that if it’s a light laptop you are after you stick with the MacBook Air, upgrading it at point of sale to include the extra RAM and if you can afford it, the faster processor.
For now it’s clear that the MacBook Air offers the better deal in terms of specs, presuming that you are looking for a light laptop – if weight isn’t an issue then there are even better options in the MacBook Pro range.
The MacBook is, for now at least, priced higher than many would think a lower specced machine should be. But the price does not reflect the specs of the MacBook, the price reflects the new technologies that have gone into the first generation of this newly resurrected Mac. Like the MacBook Air - which when it launched cost a lot more than the other Mac laptops, but eventually came down in price to be the entry-level Mac it is today - the MacBook price will come down over time. Eventually it may even replace the MacBook Air.
There will, no doubt, be some people who can’t wait to own the MacBook, just as there were some who rushed out to buy that first generation MacBook Air. If you are one of them then we are sure you will enjoy the new machine. But if you’d prefer to wait for the next generation nobody will blame you.