Apple MacBook Air (2018) vs Apple 12in MacBook (2017) 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, light and capable machines with a lot in common, but which one would suit you best?

First an important note: in this article we are talking about the 2018 MacBook Air, not the still-on-sale 2015 model (which had a minor update in 2017). Don’t be foolish, don’t buy that machine.

Until Apple launched a completely new MacBook Air in October 2018 we were happy to recommend the MacBook as a much better alternative than the ageing Air. But all that changed with the new MacBook Air in October 2018 (read our review of the 2018 MacBook Air here). Now there is a cheaper and more powerful Mac laptop available that is only a fraction bigger and heavier. The question of which MacBook is best has been turned on its head.

Which MacBook to buy

Price

The MacBook Air, despite being larger and more powerful than the MacBook, costs £50/$100 less than the alternative machine.

The entry level 2018 MacBook Air costs £1,199/$1,199 and you get a 1.6GHz dual-core processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz) and 128GHz storage.

In comparison the MacBook starts at £1,249/$1,299 and you get a 1.2GHz dual-core processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.0GHz) and 256GHz storage.

You’ll notice that the MacBook does at least give you more storage for your money. The MacBook Air with 256GB storage costs £1,399/$1,399 (that’s an extra £200/$200 for 128GB storage).

MacBook Air vs MacBook

So the best deal here really depends on what it more important to you. Do you want the most storage for your money, or do you want the most powerful machine you can get for the least amount of money?

We’d opt for the latter given that it’s possible to store the majority of your data in iCloud, making the size of your SSD (which people will inevitably refer to as a hard drive) irrelevant. With options such as iCloud Photos, Apple Music (£9.99/$9.99 a month) or iTunes Match (£21.99/$25 a year), and iCloud Drive (which costs from 79p/99c a month for 50GB). Read about iCloud pricing here).

We manage perfectly well with a 128GB MacBook Pro and an iCloud subscription. You could opt for 200GB iCloud storage for £2.49/$2.99 a month, which is £29.88/$35.88 a year so its going to be a while before it’s costs you the same as paying £200/$200 for the extra 128GB would have.

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

Design and dimensions

It used to be that only the MacBook came in a choice of finishes - Silver, Gold and Space Grey (there was also a Rose Gold option, but Apple has discontinued that model).

As of October 2018 the MacBook Air also comes in the same Silver, Gold and Space Grey finishes. However, the two Gold options are not the same - the MacBook Air gold is more brassy, while the gold finish on the MacBook is a little lighter. It’s likely to be a matter of personal choice which you prefer. We prefer the MacBook gold option, although in all honesty our favourite was Rose Gold RIP.

MacBook Air vs MacBook 12in

Now the only standout feature in favour of the 12in MacBook is the fact that it’s smaller and lighter than the once “light as air” MacBook Air. But since the Air’s redesign, the difference is a lot less than it was. Here’s how the two machines compare:

  • MacBook Air 2018: 30.41 x 21.24 x 0.41-1.56cm, 1.25kg
  • MacBook 2017: 28.05 x 19.65 x 0.35-1.31cm, 0.92kg

MacBook Air vs MacBook dimensions

That approximate 2cm of extra width and length might make a difference to you if your bag is particularly small. And if you really don’t want to lug around something that weighs more than a kilogram, then the MacBook is most likely the best option for you. But this difference is minimal to be completely honest. It’s unlikely that you will feel weighed down by the MacBook Air any more than if you had a book in your bag - remember those?

As a point of comparison, the older MacBook Air was 32.5 x 22.7 x 0.3-1.7cm (1.35kg) so the new design is considerably smaller. 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 and you'd be looking at the following dimensions - which are still bigger than the 12in model at 30 x 19.2 x 0.3-1.7cm and not that far off the 2018 MacBook Air. The image below shows the old and new MacBook Air side-by-side.

Old and New MacBook Air

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

Screen

The big difference used to be the screen, with the old MacBook Air stuck in the dark ages with out a Retina display. However, that was rectified in October 2018 with the launch of the new model. Now both the MacBook and MacBook Air have Retina displays, just like all the other screen-equipped Macs (bar the entry-level iMac).

MacBook Air vs MacBook screens

However, while the screens are essentially the same in terms of pixel count, the obvious difference here is that one measures 13.3in diagonally (yes, it’s actually bigger than 13in) and the other 12in. This means you get more screen and more pixels. As you can see from the below there is no other difference between the two screens

  • MacBook Air: 13.3in Retina display, LED-backlit with IPS technology, 2560x1600 native resolution at 227 pixels per inch, 16:10 aspect ratio
  • MacBook: 12in Retina display, LED-backlit with IPS technology, 2304x1440 resolution at 226 pixels per inch, 16:10 aspect ratio

However, there is a difference in terms of the screens you can plug into your Mac laptop.

The MacBook Air can support one external display with 5120x2880 resolution at up to 60Hz or two external displays with 4096x2304 resolution at up to 60Hz Native DisplayPort output. That matches the 13in MacBook Pro.

The MacBook can only support up to 4096x2304 resolution at 60Hz on one external display.

So if being able to plug in a decent display (or two) matters to you, the MacBook Air is your best option here. If you need to plug in up to four extra displays then you’ll need to take a look at the 15in MacBook Pro (reviewed here).

Specs 

As we mentioned above, the MacBook Air costs slightly less, but is a more powerful machine than the MacBook - at least the current version is, we expect Apple to update the MacBook in the spring or summer of 2019 - read more about the new MacBook here.

Here’s how the specs compare:

  MacBook Air MacBook
Display 13.3in Retina display 12in Retina display
Resolution 2560x1600 at 227 ppi 2304x1440 at 226 ppi
Colours Silver, Space Grey, Gold Silver, Space Grey, Gold
Dimensions 30.41 x 21.24 x 0.41-1.56cm 28.05 x 19.65 x 0.35-1.31cm
Weight 1.25kg 0.92kg
Processor 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz. No additional BTO options 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core m3, Turbo Boost up to 3.0GHz, or 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz. Configurable to 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz
Storage 128GB or 256GB PCIe-based SSD, configurable to 512GB or 1.5TB SSD 256GB PCIe-based onboard SSD or 512GB PCIe-based onboard SSD
RAM 8GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory, configurable to 16GB of memory 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory, configurable to 16GB of memory
Graphics Intel UHD Graphics 617 (supports one external display with 5120x2880 resolution at up to 60Hz or two external displays with 4096x2304 resolution at up to 60Hz Native DisplayPort output)
Support for Thunderbolt 3–enabled external graphics processors (eGPUs)
Intel HD Graphics 615 (supports full native resolution on the built-in display and up to 4096x2304 resolution at 60Hz on an external display)
Ports Two Thunderbolt 3/USB‑C ports (Thunderbolt 3 is 40Gbps and USB‑C 3.1 offers 10 Gbps, both use the same port) One USB-C (not Thunderbolt 3) 
Camera 720p FaceTime HD camera 480p FaceTime camera
Audio Stereo speakers, three microphones, 3.5mm headphone jack Stereo speakers, dual microphones, 3.5mm headphone jack
Keyboard Full size keyboard, ambient light sensor, Force Touch trackpad, Integrated Touch ID sensor Full size keyboard, ambient light sensor, Force Touch trackpad
Battery life
Up to 12 hours wireless web, 13 hours iTunes (50.3‑watt‑hour lithium‑polymer battery) Up to 10 hours wireless web, 12 hours iTunes (41.4-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery)
Price From £1,199/$1,199 From £1,249/$1,299
Buy from Apple
Buy Buy
Best deals Best MacBook Air deals Best MacBook deals

How the MacBooks compare

Assessing the specs above, these are the main points of comparison:

  • Both machines have 8GB RAM as standard but the RAM is faster in the MacBook Air. 2133MHz compared to 1866MHz. (The RAM in the old MacBook Air was just 1600MHz).
  • There are no additional build-to-order processor options for the MacBook Air, the 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 is the only option. But that’s still likely to be superior, or at least comparable to the build-to-order 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz.
  • You can get a 1.5TB SSD in the MacBook Air if you really need that much storage.
  • The graphics card in the Air supports more secondary screens with more pixels. The Air can also use an eGPU. (Read about how to use an eGPU with your Mac here,)
  • The Air has three microphones to the 12in MacBook’s two.
  • The Air has an integrated Touch ID sensor.
  • The Air has an HD FaceTime camera.
  • The Air has better battery life.

MacBook ports

As you can see, there is very little positive to say about the MacBook in comparison, other than that you get more storage as standard, as we mentioned earlier.

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

Battery life  

We mentioned this above, but it’s a significant factor for many. When it comes to laptops battery life is probably more important than the weight because if you have to cart around a power brick too the lightest option might not turn out to be as light as you thought.

In the case of the MacBook versus MacBook Air this is certainly the case. The MacBook weighs less but the battery life is less as well. This is likely to be because the MacBook Air has enough space to house a bigger battery. But it’s not just that - the MacBook Air offers the best battery life of any Apple laptop.

That said, 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. So, the MacBook offers up to 10 hours wireless web surfing compared to the Air’s 12 hours, but it’s a technical marvel that it can manage that.

Verdict

There are many reasons to choose the MacBook Air over the MacBook right now. First, it costs less. Actually, it’s not that much less - £50/$100. You get more storage with the MacBook, but we think the MacBook Air is still a better deal, even though you only get 128GB (compared to 256GB in the MacBook) because you can just pay monthly for extra iCloud storage and still pay less over time. (200GB iCloud storage is just £2.49/$2.99 a month which is a much better deal we think than the extra £200 Apple charges for the extra storage up front).

When it comes to size, there isn't a huge difference. If you want the smallest and lightest Mac then the MacBook is the one. But the Air is now smaller and lighter than it was, and the difference is no longer humungous enough to make the MacBook a must have. There’s only around 2cm difference. And while the MacBook is lighter the Air isn’t going to weigh you down.

The screen on the Air is better and bigger - the 2018 Air has a Retina display as does the MacBook, the big difference is that the screen is bigger, and that extra inch makes a difference. If you are planning to plug your Mac laptop into a second screen note that there are lots more options for the Air - which can support two extra displays while the MacBook can only support one extra display. Plus the Air can support a 5k display (5120x2880 resolution), which the MacBook can’t do.

If all that's not reason enough, the Air is simply a more powerful Mac. 1.6GHz dual-core i5 compared to 1.2GHz dual-core m3 at the entry level. There are extra build to order options on the MacBook, but these still don’t beat the standard MacBook Air options. Also, the RAM is faster - 2133MHz compared to 1866MHz.

There is so much more that the Air has going for it in comparison to the MacBook that right now it has almost made the MacBook obsolite. We're just waiting to see what Apple will do to improve the MacBook in the next update to that model.

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