13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) full review

Our 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review discusses the changes Apple has made to its portable laptop line-up (such as enhanced specs and performance) and the things Apple has decided to keep the same (such as physical design). We'll also cover UK pricing and availability, and briefly consider whether this strikes us a value-for-money upgrade. Now we have spent some time with review samples, we have expanded our original preview into a full review and verdict. Now includes change to RAM allocation with 2016 update.

Apple's MacBook line of laptops has been updated. As well as introducing an entirely new model - the super-slimline 12-inch MacBook - Apple has added significant upgrades to its 13-inch MacBook Pro (but not the 15-inch Pro: that's unchanged) and to both the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs. In this review we're looking at the updated 13-inch MacBook Air; you can read our review of the 2015 11in MacBook Air here.

(Several months later, Apple updated the 15in MacBook Pro. Read our review of the 2015 15in MacBook Pro here and our New 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display specs and UK pricing story)

Read more Apple MacBook laptop reviews and read our Which Mac Buying Guide

Plus why not read our MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro comparison review and read our comparison review of the MacBook Air and the MacBook. And if you're open to the idea of Air-style laptops from other companies, check our roundup of the best alternatives to the MacBook Air.

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: Introduction

Little has changed in the design of the Apple MacBook Air, launched in its current form in late 2010 with its sharper wedge-shaped unibody case, and now refreshed into its new Early 2015 form this spring.

There are still two screen sizes from which to choose, 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch, and following the example set by the last generation, the MacBook Air specification in every other aspect is identical between models.

But wait, is it really? In fact this time around there is an important internal difference that puts clear space between the two sizes of Air models in performance terms. In short, the 13-inch notebook has a flash drive that is three times faster than the best the Windows world can deliver. The 11-inch meanwhile remains only 50 percent faster than Windows laptops, more on this below.

Let's focus first on where they overlap. All MacBook Air notebooks are based on the same platform taking identical processor, graphics, memory and wireless adaptors. They also share the same port and connector layout, namely two USB 3.0, one each side; MagSafe 2 power connector; 3.5 mm headset jack; and SDXC card slot.

In addition, all MacBook Air (Early 2015) models now feature Thunderbolt 2, a single port here specified to 20 Gb/s in place of the original standard’s 2x 10 Gb/s.

The processor du jour is from the fifth-generation of the Intel Core i5 series – codenamed Broadwell – which comprises what the chip maker calls a ‘tick’ update. That is, a shrink of the microarchitecture from the 22 nm of the preceding Haswell and Ivy Bridge series, to the new record-breaking die size of 14 nm.

As standard 2015’s MacBook Air series takes a 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5-5250U dual-core processor, able to automatically overclock to 2.7 GHz on demand through Intel Turbo Boost technology. Optionally you can configure any model with a 2.2 GHz Intel Core i7-5650U (3.2 GHz Turbo) dual-core processor, for an additional £130. More on the processor below.

Memory is the same as last season, with 4 GB DDR3 RAM clocked at 1600 MHz, configurable at time of purchase only to 8 GB, for an extra £80. Note that Apple has maintained the same low-power memory chips, even though Broadwell processors can take advantage of slightly faster 1867 MHz memory – an opportunity that has already been taken with the Early 2015 refresh of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. We would guess the 1600 MHz memory was preserved for the Air for reasons of budget, both financial and battery economy.

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: storage

When it comes to storage, we find a remarkable breakthrough in storage technology. The MacBook Air was the first mainstream notebook computer to take advantage of a more direct PCI Express attachment for its solid-state flash drive with the Mid-2013 model; the MacBook Pro with Retina display didn’t catch up until its refresh later that year in October 2013.

That first PCIe-attached flash drives broke records for their incredible sequential transfer speeds, no longer held back by the constriction of the ageing Serial ATA Revision 3.0 interface. PCIe-attached flash drives allowed speeds to jump from around 500 MB/s under SATA to greater than 750 MB/s. That 50 percent improvement was the biggest lift in storage performance since the hard disk became sidelined in favour of solid-state storage.

For the 13-inch MacBook Air, Apple has provided the same upgrade as the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, by doubling the number of PCIe data lanes from two to four. In our tests this allowed a two-fold increase in maximum sequential read speed over the last version, with a top speed now exceeding 1500 MB/s.

For small file transfers, we measured 4 kB random reads and writes at 36 and 87 MB/s; and using data sized from 4 kB to 1024 kB we saw incredibly high averaged figures of 450 and 503 MB/s.

Highest sequential write speeds approached 700 MB/s, averaging 685 MB/s for 2-10 MB data, while sequential read speeds averaged 1512 MB/s.

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: processor performance & speed

The speed of the processor in the MacBook Air range (all MacBook Airs share the same processor as standard) has been bumped from 1.4 to 1.6GHz: not a huge improvement, but potentially more significant than the MacBook Pro's increase from 2.4 to 2.6GHz because in lower-specced machines processing power is more likely to become the performance bottleneck. As in the new Pro, these are Intel's new fifth-gen Broadwell chips so they should be more power-efficient too - although it's hard to get too excited about Apple managing to keep battery life at the same (admittedly excellent) level rather than improving it.

We tested the standard issue MacBook Air with its 1.6 GHz Core i5 processor. As an indication of raw processor and memory speed, the Geekbench 3 benchmark test scored the 13-inch MacBook Air with 2912 points in single-core mode, and 5821 points multi-core. That puts it 4.9 and 7.8 percent faster than the outgoing Mid-2014 model with its 1.4 GHz Haswell-generation processor (2777 and 5400 points).

In Cinebench 11.5 the new Air scored 1.18 and 2.80 points for single- and multi-core mode operation, putting it 4.4 and 8.9 percent ahead of 2014’s standard MacBook Air. But it was Cinebench 15 that showed a higher return on the Broadwell dividend, moving from 97 to 110 points single-core; and from 239 to 260 points for both cores. That’s a 13.4 and 8.8 percent improvements respectively for the two modes of operation.

Any increase in performance is likely from the small uplift in processor clock frequency though, rather than optimisations to the processor pipeline, for instance, as we’d experience in a ‘tock’ update in Intel’s leapfrogging design cycle.

In fact, with the change from 1.4 to 1.6 GHz in baseline processor clock, we have a 14.3 percent increase in cycles per second – but benchmark score increases ranged only from 4.4 to 13.4 percent. Remember, the process shrink of Broadwell is more about reducing wasted heat by increasing processor efficiency.

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: graphics

This year’s MacBook Air gains an Intel HD Graphics 6000 integrated GPU, replacing last year's HD Graphics 5000. The stronger graphics setup lead us to expect this year's Airs to be better gaming machines, indeed, according to iFixit's calculations, we expected 20 to 25 percent better gaming performance than the Intel HD Graphics 5000. Now we have spent some time with a review sample we are able to confirm our own findings - it wasn't as impressive as we had hoped.

The Intel HD Graphics 6000 in the 2015 MacBook Air is an integrated GPU, piggybacked on the Core i5 -5250U main processor. This has a 50 percent higher baseline clock speed (300 MHz versus the 200 MHz of HD Graphics 5000); and a fractionally lower peak clock of 950 MHz, when compared to the 1000 GHz of the last chip. Execution units have also been increased in the ‘6000 graphics, up to 48 from last year’s 40.

As it turns out, we didn’t see much difference in graphics performance from the previous model, when running our usual Mac action game tests. Using the Batman: Arkham City benchmark test, both last year’s and the new 2015 MacBook Air averaged 29 frames per second (1280 x 800, Medium detail); and 24 fps when set to High detail.

In the Tomb Raider 2013 game, at the same resolution and with Normal detail selected, the 2014 Air averaged 22 fps while the 2015 Air played at 21 fps. Moving up to the laptop’s native resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels, at Normal detail the new MacBook Air averaged 18 fps against 19 fps for last year’s model.

So not only is there no net improvement apparent here with the new graphics chipset, but we see a tiny loss in gaming performance. It’s possible that the performance shortfall in the Early 2015 model may be a result of the different operating system – 10.10 Yosemite now against last year’s better optimised 10.9 Mavericks. Or Apple may be applying new GPU power-saving schemes to reduce heat and battery drain.

Turning to other graphics benchmarks, Unigine Heaven returned effectively the same results between machines (19.3 fps for 2014; 19.9 fps for 2015, at 1280 x 800, Medium), while the OpenGL tests in Cinebench did show a small benefit for the new MacBook Air. In Cinebench 11.5, framerate moved up from 23.5 to 25.8 fps, while Cinebench 15 returned the only appreciable change in framerate, a notable jump from 18.8 fps to 26.3 fps.

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: Display/screen

The Airs still aren't Retina-class: like the mid-2014 13-inch MacBook Air, the early-2015 Air has a 13.3-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen display with a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels and a pixel density of roughly 128ppi (pixels per inch).

That's pretty low on the sharpness scale by today's standards (for comparison, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro has a pixel density of 227ppi), and those who are used to Retina or better displays may find the Air a touch fuzzy, although it certainly isn't a bad screen. We do think Apple will add a Retina display option to the Air line-up at some point in the near future, but we don't get that upgrade here.

New 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review

Here's what you need to know about the 13in display on the 2015 MacBook Air:

The 13.3-inch LCD screen of the MacBook Air has the same core specification listed as the last few models – a 1440 x 900 pixel display with gloss surface, based on twisted-nematic (TN) technology.

This type of screen has poor off-axis viewability and restricted colour gamut, but is chosen for its low cost and reduced power requirement when compared to the higher-performance IPS technology used on iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro with Retina display.

We didn’t have the Mid-2014 model of MacBook Air to compare alongside to spot any subjective visual differences, but from memory the new Air screen did not look conspicuously any better or worse.

We ran some basic tests to see if its lab measurements had changed, and discovered a reduced contrast ratio of 400:1, compared to the decent 680:1 contrast ratio that we measured for the Mid-2014 version of the 13-inch MacBook Air.

Colour gamut was also reported with a lower figure, now 41 percent sRGB and 31 percent AdobeRGB, where last year’s Air measured at 63 and 47 percent respectively. Colour accuracy was reported as better though, with an average Delta E figure of 5.88 that’s below the 8.39 Delta E of last year’s model.

The differences could be explained by the use of a display from a different manufacturer, rather than a general decline in component quality – like most manufacturers, Apple will source from different OEM suppliers, each of whose product may differ slightly in specification and performance. This particular model featured a LP133WP1-TJA7 display made by LG, although we don’t have on file the type used in the Mid-2014 sample we last tested.

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: Battery life

Battery economy is where the new 14 nm-based processor should really pay its way, although our video rundown test did showed little difference here.

Our cross-platform laptop battery test uses a looped MPEG-4 film, played over Wi-Fi from a NAS drive, with screen set to 120 cd/m^2. The Mid-2014 MacBook Air survived for 12 hr 38 min in this test, but the Early 2015 counterpart played for 12 hr 49 min.

Exceeding 12 hours remains a laudable achievement, a battery runtime that comfortably exceeds almost every notebook computer on sale today, although we were anticipating even more – especially after the nearly doubling of battery life we experienced with the Broadwell-powered MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Early 2015).

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: Design

It would be easy to dismiss the MacBook Air update because of the lack of change in this most visible of departments. The early-2015 Air has the same chassis as the previous generation, with the same (extremely high) build quality and the same (stunning) looks.

The Air doesn't even get the one physical change we got in the updated 13-inch Pro, the Force Touch haptic touchpad. The keyboard is unchanged too. (The Air doesn't get the new butterfly-mechanism keys that appear in the new 12-inch MacBook, although it's too early to say whether that's something to mourn or celebrate; some early reviewers have complained about a lack of tactile feedback on the butterfly keys, saying it's almost like using a touchscreen.)

New 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review

Read next: Here's why it doesn't matter that the MacBook is expensive, underpowered and only has one port

New 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) preview: Specs

Let's compare the base specs of the early-2015 13-inch Air with those of last summer's equivalent (you can pay for a higher configuration in areas marked with a *), and you can see where the improvements lie.

Base spec of early-2015 13-inch Air (priced at £849):

  • 1.6GHz* dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB* shared L3 cache
  • 8GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 RAM (previously 4GB* - see below)
  • 128GB* PCIe-based flash storage
  • 13.3-inch, 1440 x 900-pixel display
  • Intel HD Graphics 6000
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible); Bluetooth 4.0
  • Ports: 2 x USB 3; 1 x Thunderbolt 2; 1 x SDXC card slot; 1 x 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 54-watt-hour battery: Up to 12 hours wireless web browsing (claimed)

Update, spring 2016: As part of its 2016 update to the MacBook line, Apple now sells the 13-inch MacBook Air with 8GB RAM as standard at the same price; this was previously an optional upgrade.


  • Height: 0.3-1.7cm
  • Width: 32.5cm
  • Depth: 22.7cm
  • Height: 1.35kg

Base spec of mid-2014 13-inch Air (was priced at £849):

  • 1.4GHz* dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB* shared L3 cache
  • 4GB* of 1600MHz LPDDR3 RAM
  • 128GB* PCIe-based flash storage
  • 13.3-inch, 1440 x 900-pixel display
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible); Bluetooth 4.0
  • Ports: 2 x USB 3; 1 x Thunderbolt; 1 x SDXC card slot; 1 x 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 54-watt-hour battery: Up to 12 hours wireless web browsing (claimed)


  • Height: 0.3-1.7cm
  • Width: 32.5cm
  • Depth: 22.7cm
  • Weight: 1.35kg

In other words, the only differences are a newer, faster processor chip (from Intel's fifth-generation Broadwell line); a new, more powerful graphics setup; and the addition of Thunderbolt 2 rather than Thunderbolt. And although it isn't apparent from the specs, Apple says the flash storage is up to twice as quick.

New 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: UK launch date/availability

The latest batch of MacBook Air laptops is here right now, available to order from Apple's website, Apple Stores or Apple resellers. And we don't think availability is an issue you need to consider: we haven't heard any reports of stock shortages (although, since the 13-inch Air is perhaps the joint-least exciting of the new products announced on 9 March, that's not a tremendous surprise).

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review: UK price

The 13-inch MacBook Air is available in two starting configurations, differing only in the amount of flash storage. We list these two options below, and link to a page where you can view their details (and buy them, if you wish) on the Apple online store. You can further customise your choice of laptop by selecting the option closest to what you want and then selecting additional storage (or whatever) in the next page.

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) configuration 1: 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB shared L3 cache; 4GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 RAM; 128GB PCIe-based flash storage. Price: £849. View on Apple Store

13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) configuration 1: 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB shared L3 cache; 4GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 RAM; 256GB PCIe-based flash storage. Price: £999. View on Apple Store


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