MacBook Air vs MacBook comparison
Apple introduced new MacBook Airs and a completely new MacBook with a Retina display on 9 March 2015. This new MacBook came as a bit of a surprise because everyone thought that it was the MacBook Air that would be getting the retina display, while Apple instead resurrected the old MacBook and redesigned it with a smaller, thinner case, and made it available in iPhone-like gold, silver and space grey finishes. Read our New 12-inch MacBook (early 2015) hands-on review.
The new 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.
Note: before you get started, you may like to watch our video reviews of the two lightweight Apple laptops. First up is our video review of the 12-inch MacBook:
And here's our video review of the 2015 MacBook Air:
Read on for more detailed comparisons of Apple's newest lightweight laptops, specs, design and more.
Updated 15 June 2016 with general updates.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Design, Dimensions and weight
The MacBook comes in Silver, Gold and Space Grey, just like the iPhone. Judging by the popularity of the gold iPhone, for some the fact that the MacBook comes in Gold 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 the traditional aluminium.
While the MacBook might sound like it should be bigger, with its 12in display, however, length wise it is smaller by almost 2cm. You may notice that the width of the 11in Air is slightly less, but it’s only 45mm different, less than half a cm, and unlikely to make a big difference to how easily you can fit the Mac laptop in your bag.
The 12in MacBook measures 28.05cm by 19.65cm, and is 0.35-1.31cm thick.
The 11in MacBook Air measures 30cm by 19.2cm, and is 0.3-1.7cm thick. There is also a 13in variant of the MacBook Air that measures 32.5m by 22.7cm and shares the same thickness.
At its thinnest point the MacBook Air is also very slightly slimmer, but given the fact that the MacBook starts of thinner than the MacBook Air, to most people the latter will feel like the thinnest Mac.
The MacBook is also lighter than the 11in MacBook Air at 0.92kg, rather than 1.08kg. That’s 160g difference, about the weight of a large Apple (as in the fruit!) The 13in MacBook Air weighs 1.35kg.
BUYING ADVICE: Design, Dimensions and weight
If it’s the lightest and smallest Mac you are looking for the MacBook wins over the 11in MacBook Air, and still gives you a bigger screen. It’s also lighter than the MacBook Air.
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 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 £749 and the MacBook starting at £1,049, that’s a staggering £300 more, does the MacBook justify its higher price? That’s the question we aim to answer below.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Specs comparison
The 11in MacBook Air actually shares the specs of its bigger sibling the 13in MacBook Air, so in that case you aren't opting for a lower-powered Mac in order to get a smaller computer.
The 11in model offers a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (capable of Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz) and comes with 4GB RAM and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 6000 graphics card. The cheapest MacBook Air ships with 128GB flash storage, while the other 11in model offers 256GB flash storage for an additional £150.
The 12in MacBook ships in two configurations. One features a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor, which can Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz, the other costs £250 more and offers a 1.2 dual-core Intel Core m5 processor, which can Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz. Both MacBooks offer 8GB RAM and Intel HD Graphics 515.
The MacBook Air (above) is bigger and heavier than the MacBook, but only very slightly
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. However, the MacBook ships with 8GB RAM as standard while the MacBook Air only offers 4GB, unless you upgrade to 8GB RAM (which costs an extra £80). The final big difference is the fact that the MacBook ships with a 256GB flash drive, while the entry-level MacBook Air offers only 128GB.
So to compare like for like you could purchase a 11in MacBook Air with 256GB storage and upgrade to 8GB RAM, an option that would cost you £979. Or you could purchase a similarly speced MacBook (although with a slower processor) for £1,049. That’s £70 difference.
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 new generation of processors that run so cool that they can be fanless. And 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.
That said, something surprising has come out of early testing of an equivalent processor. According to T-Gapp the new MacBook processor could be just as fast as the i5 in the MacBook Air.
According to that site (aka Two Guys and a Podcast), Geekbench 3 results for the new MacBook processor suggest that it could be the “best integration of Intel’s new Core M-Y571 processor to-date”. The Geekbench results are for the 1.2GHz MacBook and it scored 2831 for single-core and 5567 at dual-core. In their tests the updated 13-inch MacBook Air, with its 1.6GHz processor, scored only 3% more than the MacBook. We are currently running tests on the MacBook Air and will add our Geekbench results when we have them.
We tested the 1.6GHz processor in the MacBook Air by running the Geekbench 3 benchmark test and the MacBook Air scored 2912 points in single-core mode, and 5821 points multi-core. To compare, the 2014 model with its 1.4 GHz Haswell-generation processor achieved 2777 and 5400 points in the same tests. When we can report the MacBook benchmarks we will.
BUYING ADVICE: Processor comparison
While the MacBook Air processor appears to be faster than the MacBook in terms of clock speed (1.6GHz compared to 1.1GHz or 1.2GHz) there is some question of how big a difference that will make in real world testing.
It 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. Read: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review: 13in Mac laptop battle.
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 this illustration.
Apple claims the MacBook will offer a battery life of up to 9 hours web surfing and 10 hours iTunes viewing.
The 11in MacBook Air offers exactly the same: 9 hours battery life for web surfing and 10 hours for film watching on iTunes, according to Apple.
The new more power efficient processor in the MacBook Air should allow for better battery life, but when we ran tests on the 13in model we found that there was little difference between the 2014 and 2015 models. The 2014 MacBook Air ran for 12hr 38min while the 2015 counterpart played for 12hr 49min in our tests. We are currently running tests on the 11in model.
Apple's MacBook batteries are layered in every available space
BUYING ADVICE: Battery life
Both laptops offer the same battery life, according to Apple. If you want more battery life you could look at the 13in MacBook Air, which is able to offer up to 12 hours between charges.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Screen & resolution
The biggest difference is the fact that the MacBook offers a 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 1366x768 (native) resolution at 16:9 aspect ratio.
The MacBook Air has attracted criticism for the quality of its screen, and the fact that the 16:9 aspect ratio means that the screen depth is much shallower – this matters to you if you want to see the maximum number of lines of a document on your laptop screen. Although it may suit those who watch widescreen movies as the 16:9 aspect ratio is suited to that kind of use.
And there is also the fact that the 12in display is by definition, bigger than the 11in display. The bezel around the edge is smaller, too, so you get more screen without having a bigger laptop.
BUYING ADVICE: Screen & resolution
The MacBook offers the superior display, both in terms of screen size and resolution. If it’s a good quality screen you need then the MacBook Air probably won’t cut the mustard. If you like to watch films on your laptop you may be thinking that the MacBook Air would be better with its 16:9 aspect ratio – but the quality of the display is poor 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 £999 the 13in entry-level model is still cheaper than the MacBook.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Graphics
The MacBook sports the Intel HD Graphics 515 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: 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 have tested the graphics card in the Air and found it was no better than the previous year's model. 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 MacBook 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 game play.
BUYING ADVICE: Graphics
Both of these Macs have inferior graphics cards compared to the Retina MacBook Pro, so if good graphics capabilities are necessary for you, you should consider opting for the MacBook Pro instead.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Capacity
This is one area where the entry level MacBook Air lets itself down in comparison to the MacBook. The £749 MacBook Air ships with 128GB storage, while the entry level MacBook ships with twice the storage, 256GB, although it costs £1,049.
For a better comparison, the £899 MacBook Air ships with 256GB, that’s £150 less.
If you are looking for the most storage possible, there is also the £1,299 MacBook with a 512GB SSD. To get that much storage in your MacBook Air you need to turn to the build to order options. To upgrade the 256GB MacBook Air to a 512GB drive costs an extra £240, bringing the price to £1,139. That’s £160 less than the 512GB MacBook.
Interestingly the storage in the 11in MacBook Air is not as good as the storage in the 13in MacBook Air. The 13-inch MacBook Air features a flash drive that is three times faster than the best the Windows world can deliver. Unfortunately, the 11-inch remains only 50 percent faster than Windows laptops.
BUYING ADVICE: Capacity
If you want the most storage for the least amount of money, save £160 and upgrade your 11in MacBook Air to a 512GB drive. You could even opt for the 13in MacBook Air with 512GB storage and still save money – that machine would cost £60 less than the MacBook at £1,239.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Ports
The most obvious difference between the MacBook and MacBook Air is the lack of ports on the former. The MacBook (in)famously features only a USB-C port and a headphone port. There isn’t even a Magsafe port for charging as charging 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) and HDMI video output using USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter (sold separately). The USB-C 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.
As for the MacBook Air, the 11in model features two USB 3 ports (5Gbps), one Thunderbolt 2 port (up to 20 Gbps), and a MagSafe 2 power port. If you were to opt for the 13in MacBook Air you would also get a SDXD card slot for trasfering the photos taken on your camera.
Both Mac laptops offer 802.11ac WiFi networking and Bluetooth 4.0.
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 or taptic 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
BUYING ADVICE: Ports
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. We also think it is likely that adaptors will be 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.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Price
This the big difference between the MacBook Air and the MacBook. The entry level MacBook price starts at £1,049 while the entry level MacBook Air is £300 cheaper at £749. 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 £300 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 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 £300 (and you’d have the necessary port to do so).
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 11in MacBook Air is a better deal.
MacBook Air vs MacBook: Build to order options
One last thing to mention: Currently there are no build to order options for the MacBook – although it is rumoured that by the time it launches there will be a 1.3GHz processor option at the time of purchase.
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. For example, as we mentioned earlier, you can add 8GB RAM to your MacBook Air for an extra £80, 512GB flash storage will cost you an extra £240, and you can upgrade your processor to a 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 chip for £130. With these updates the best build to order 11in MacBook Air would cost £1,349. Sure that’s more than the MacBook, but it would be a far better specced machine, and not a whole lot heavier.
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.