12-inch MacBook full review

When it comes to buying MacBooks, if you don't consider yourself 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 there are enough differences to make it a tough decision.

At WWDC in June 2017, Apple updated the specs of both laptops. However it's important to recognise that the MacBook Air has a 5th-generation Broadwell generation processor from 2015. These chips were speced up to 1.8GHz in 2017 (which was previously a build-to-order option for that Mac), but it's an older processor than the 7th-generation Kaby Lake processors found in the MacBook. 

That's not the only thing in favour of the 12in MacBook - it 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?

However, when it comes to budget, there is a world of difference between the price of the two Macs. The MacBook Air is the cheapest Mac laptop at £949/$999 that's £300/$300 less than the £1,249/$1,299 starting price of the MacBook.

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.

Once you decide which Mac laptop you want to buy, you could click the links below to go straight to Apple's website:

Buy the MacBook here

Buy the MacBook Air here

Read on for more detailed comparisons of Apple's newest lightweight laptops, specs, design and more.

Read: Apple MacBook (2017) review and our Apple MacBook Air (mid 2017) review for more information.


MacBook vs MacBook Air

Design, Dimensions and weight

The MacBook comes in Silver, Gold, Rose Gold and Space Grey. For some the fact that the MacBook is available in the gold or rose gold shades will be reason enough to buy it (we expect that Apple's next update to the MacBook will unify the gold and rose gold options in a new gold shade as has been the case with the recent iPhone and iPad updates).

Others like the more muted silver or grey options - Space Grey is particularly popular with creatives. The MacBook Air comes in just the traditional aluminium 'Silver' finish. 

As for dimensions, where the MacBook Air used to be Apple's slimmest and lightest Mac, this is no longer the case.

  • 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.

There used to be an 11in version of the MacBook Air, but Apple no longer sells that. If you can get your hands on a secondhand 11in MacBook Air you'd be looking at the following dimensions - which are still bigger than the 12in model:

  • The 11in MacBook Air measured 30cm by 19.2cm, and was 0.3-1.7cm thick.

The MacBook is also lighter than the 13in MacBook Air, which weighs 1.35kg. The 12in MacBook is the most portable and lightweight MacBook ever made at 920g. (The 11in MacBook Air used to weigh more 1.08kg).

There's another 13in Mac laptop still to consider - read about how the 13in MacBook Pro compares to the MacBook Air here.

BUYING ADVICE

If it’s the lightest and smallest Mac you are looking for, then get the MacBook. But remember that the MacBook Air would give 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.


Specs 

The MacBook Air offers the following specs:

  • 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (capable of Turbo Boost to 2.9GHz) 
  • 8GB RAM (1600MHz LPDDR3)
  • 128GB or 256GB storage
  • Integrated Intel HD Graphics 6000 graphics card with 3MB shared L3 cache

Build-to-order options include:

  • 512GB storage version for £300/$400 more than the 128GB model, or £150/$200 more than the 256GB
  • 2.2GHz i7 5th generation processor (that can Turbo Boost to 3.2GHz) for an extra £135/$150

The 12in MacBook offers the following specs:

  • 1.2GHz dual-core m3 7th geneartion processor (which can Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz) or...
  • 1.3GHz dual-core i5 7th geneartion processor (which can also Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz)
  • 256GB or 512GB SSD 
  • 8GB RAM (1866MHz LPDDR3 memory)
  • Intel HD Graphics 615 with 4MB L3 cache.

Build-to-order options include:

  • 1.4GHz dual-core 7th generation i7 processor (which can Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz) for £135/$150
  • 16GB RAM for £180/$200

It might look like the MacBook Air offers the best specs, with what appears to be a faster processor (1.8GHz compared to 1.2GHz and 1.3GHz), as well as but a Core i5 as opposed to a Core M at the base model level. However, the processor in the MacBook Air is a few years older and therefore doesn't benefit from all the enhancements in the MacBook processor that would make them faster and more efficient. Notice how the processors in the MacBook are able to Turbo Boost to 3.2GHz compared to the MacBook Air's limitation of 2.2GHz - that should give you an indication of just how different they are.

The graphics in the MacBook are also better: Intel HD Graphics 615 with 4MB L3 cache (and can support up to 3840x2160 pixels at 30Hz on an external display), compared to Intel HD Graphics 6000 graphics card with 3MB shared L3 cache (and support for up to 2560x1600 pixels on an external display). You might be forgiven for thinking 6000 would be better than 615 - but it isn't. It's been around since the beginning of 2015, so it's an older graphics card that will struggle with many of today's more intensive graphics. It can't support as many pixels as the 615, either, if you were thinking of plugging into a second display.

The graphics in the MacBook is still not going to be great if you are wanting to play games or do VR development (if that's you the MacBook Pro would be a better idea) but it does beat the MacBook Air graphics by a long way.

Both the MacBook Air and MacBook offer 8GB RAM as standard, but that RAM isn't equal. The MacBook Air RAM is 1600MHz, while the MacBook RAM is faster - 1866MHz.

The other difference is in terms of the storage you get as standard. The MacBook ships with a 256GB flash drive at the entry-level, while the entry-level MacBook Air offers only 128GB. That might just about be enough for you if you store photos and the like in iCloud, but it could quickly fill up.

BUYING ADVICE

To try and make your MacBook Air a little more powerful, you could spec it up with a 2.2GHz i7 processor (+£135/$150) and 512GB storage (£150/$200). That would bring the price to £1,384/$1,549 - which isn't far off the price of the top of the range MacBook at £1,549/$1,599.

For that reason, if you are looking for the most power for your money it's easy - the MacBook is the one to choose with it's newer Intel processors.

One thing to note - if you are in the UK the MacBook Air looks like a better deal at £165 less (what is going on with those exchange rates!) In that case, a fully speced up MacBook Air could save you some money, but we still would dissuade you from buying one. 

Wondering which Mac to buy? Read our best Mac buying guide


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, Apple 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

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. 


Screen & resolution   

When it comes to the screen, the fact that the MacBook offers a higher-resolution Retina display is a big point in its favour. 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 is the only Apple laptop in the line up without a Retina display.

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, but if you compare it to the MacBook that Retina display is guaranteed to win you over.

MacBook Air vs MacBook screen size

There is one other thing to note about the screens though. While the 12in MacBook wins on screen resolution, the 13in Air (as you'd expect) has the larger screen - though only slightly. 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

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 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. That MacBook screen is going to make your photos really pop too, so if you want to enjoy flicking through your photos then we would recommend Retina.

There are a couple of options still to consider if you are concerned about screen size. If you want a bigger screen you could plug your MacBook 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.

There really is little about the MacBook Air's screen that sells it.


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 MacBook Air (above) has more ports - including the older USB that is no longer available on any other Mac laptop, it's days may be numbered...

The USB-C port on the MacBook (above) can be used for charging or data transfer

BUYING ADVICE

If you have a laptop right now and you use all the ports all the time, for a mouse, keyboard, and display, then you may be put off by the single port on the MacBook. Not surprisingly most people wonder just how they will charge their laptop while using a mouse if they only have one port.

There is another reason why you might want to invest in a MacBook Air - it's a last of it's kind. The MacBook Air is now the only Mac laptop to feature the older USB port, so if you are attached to peripherals that need it, then maybe you can justify the purchase.

However, if you are thinking that you won't be able to plug in older peripherals, or are concerned 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, or even convert to the older USB standard. 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. 


Price 

Price is the big difference between the MacBook Air and the MacBook. If you want to spend as little as possible then the entry-level MacBook Air is £300/$300 cheaper than the entry-level MacBook. That's £1,249/$1,299 compared to £949/$999.

In terms of the best value for money, as we mentioned above, if you were to spec up a MacBook Air with a 2.2GHz i7 processor (+£135/$150) and 512GB storage (£150/$200), that would bring the price to £1,384/$1,549 - which, if you are in the USA isn't far off the price of the top of the range MacBook at £1,549/$1,599 although in the UK it does look like a better deal...

BUYING ADVICE

We'd advise you to spend a little more money will give you a better display, a smaller and lighter laptop, and a newer machine with superior specs.

Just take note that if you are in the UK the MacBook Air looks like a better deal at £165 less than the MacBook (what is going on with those exchange rates!) In the UK a fully speced up MacBook Air could save you some money, but we still would dissuade you from buying one.

If you really need to stick to a lower budget then we'd suggest taking a look at Apple's refurbished store where you might be able to pick up a bargain (for example, there's a Refurbished 13in MacBook Pro for £1,059 there at the moment!

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