Apple MacBook Air 13in (early 2015) review: has Apple changed enough to stay on top?

Is the 2015 MacBook Air enough of an upgrade to justify itself?

4
Price 
£834
ex VAT
Pros 
Thin and light construction; incredible battery life
Cons 
Screen is underwhelming
Verdict 
Performance and storage upgrades keep the already superb MacBook Air ticking over, but the iffy quality screen is starting to hold it back

Apple's MacBook Air is one of the most lusted-after notebooks on the planet, and with good reason. It's got excellent performance wrapped up in a very attractive package.

The style of the early 2015 MacBook hasn't changed much from previous iterations, but it doesn't particularly need to - Apple's hit on a willing formula.

Instead, the company has focused on beefing up the internals, with upgrades to the MacBook Air's processor, connectivity and storage.

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Latest news

07/12/2015: Thinner MacBook Air computers could be unveiled at next year's Worldwide Developers Conference, according to Taiwan's Economic Daily News. This could see the Macs launch in the third quarter of 2016. 

The thinner computers will be fully redesigned inside in order to slim down. The new design could spell the end of the 11-inch MacBook Air with only the 13- and 15-inch modelsbeig offered to customers.

16/07/2015: One of the major feathers in the 2015 Macbook Air's cap is the upgrade to Intel's latest Broadwell processors. However, it may about to be overtaken. 

Broadwell chips aren't yet a standard feature in many PCs, but Intel has already moved on to Skylake, which is set to debut in August at Gamescom 2015. For all the details of Broadwell's forthcoming successor, check out our round-up of all the details.

Design and build

It's hard not to like the familiar MacBook Air design that's remained mostly unchanged for the last few years. The aluminium shell remains as attractive as ever, with the chassis retaining the same impressively thin dimensions as last year's model. It's just 17mm tall at its thickest point and weighs 1.35kg, which is extremely impressive considering its internal specifications.

The backlit keyboard, which hasn't been received the "butterfly" switches treatment given to the new 12in MacBook Retina, has excellent tactile feedback although is perhaps just a little rattly, but the key press action is nonetheless pleasing and there's enough travel to make it comfortable to type on for long periods.

The touchpad works exceptionally well, with no Windows-based laptop able to match the precise feel of Apple's design. Taps and clicks are effortless while gestures such as two-fingered scrolling, back and forward browser commands and two-fingered "right-clicks" are reliable, accurate and instantaneous. It makes navigating the OS X Yosemite operating system incredibly easy.

Connectivity and Thunderbolt 2

There are two USB3 ports - one on the left and one on the right - as well as a 3.5mm headset jack, an SDXC card reader and a Thunderbolt 2 port. This is the first notable upgrade to the MacBook Air, which was previously equipped with a Thunderbolt connector.

The difference between the two is purely a speed upgrade: connected devices now have 20Gbps of bandwidth to play with instead of 10Gbps. The peripherals you can connect are the same: high-speed storage (such as RAID arrays) and high-resolution monitors (with Thunderbolt or DisplayPort inputs), but with this new, improved performance, huge files such as ultra-HD/4K video will be easier to handle when streaming to your MacBook Air and simultaneously writing it to another drive. Up to six devices can be connected over Thunderbolt (using an external hub) simultaneously.

Thunderbolt 2 will be of particular importance to business that use external storage for large files, such as media companies and firms with reams of data on external hard disc that needs to be sifted through at high speed.

Elsewhere, you still get 802.11ac wi-fi connectivity, great for connecting to the latest networks with better coverage and higher speeds than 802.11n. There's no gigabit ethernet connector but you can buy a Thunderbolt to gigabit ethernet connector direct from Apple for £25 or a USB3 to gigabit ethernet connector for £17 elsewhere on the web.

Screen

We were disappointed to see that Apple hasn't boosted the resolution of the Air's 13.3in screen. The 1,440 x 900-pixel resolution is still perfectly usable and items on screen look reasonably sharp, but they lack the detail and crispness you get on higher quality displays such as those in use on the MacBook Pro and Dell XPS 13.

Colour coverage remains an issue, with just 70 per cent of the sRGB gamut served by the TFT panel. This lack of colour performance is offset slightly by a very bright backlight and matt screen that makes this laptop suitable for use outside and in bright office conditions. Viewing angles are sub-par, though, particularly when adjusting the screen vertically. It would have been nice to have a higher quality or higher resolution panel in the Air, and at this price it's starting to look a little bit lacklustre.

Performance, storage and battery life

The second change to the MacBook Air can be found in the choice of processor, which is now a fifth-generation "Broadwell" line dual-core Intel Core i5-5250U chip. It runs at a base clock speed of 1.6GHz - up from last year's 1.4GHz, boosting to 2.7GHz when demand requires it and temperatures allow. It's a speedy processor for simple tasks such as checking email and web browsing, and there will rarely come a point where you're twiddling your thumbs waiting for media-heavy web pages to load.

More complex tasks such as video and photo editing are possible, too, although due to the lack of four cores, some tasks will take longer and you will notice slowdown when doing more than two activities at a time. Our model came with 4GB of LPDDR3 SDRAM that can't be replaced once purchased, but you can configure your Air during the checkout phase when buying it. If you're going to be doing multimedia tasks on the MacBook Air, this would be a sound choice as 4GB might not be enough.

During light usage, the MacBook Air runs practically silently and with little to no increase in heat. When you push it hard with multimedia activities such as editing photographs, things heat up a little and the fans whir, but it's still about as quiet as you could possibly expect from a laptop this thin and light.

The final notable upgrade from last year's Air is higher performance PCI-E-based flash storage. Our review model came equipped with 256GB of storage, but there are versions with 128GB and 512GB, too. We measured performance using the Black Magic SSD benchmark, where the Air's storage was rated for 1200Mbps write speeds and 1400Mbps read speeds.

The one hour increase in battery life courtesy of the new Broadwell Intel processor is small compared to the jump in previous MacBook Airs made possible by the switch from Ivy Bridge to Haswell-class processors, but that leap was extraordinary in how dramatic it was. Nonetheless, battery life was very lengthy at 21 hours and 25 minutes in our light usage test and a shorter, but still impressive 11 hours and 17 minutes in our more demanding YouTube playback test.

OS X Yosemite

Apple's Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite operating system remains easy to use and particularly handy if you have an iPhone thanks to the ability to make and receive phone calls and text messages from your desktop. Icons are big and bright, searching for items has never been easier and the selection of quality apps available from the App Store is growing all the time. If you need to run Windows applications, Boot Camp lets you partition your Air's SSD so you can install Windows as long as you have a licence for it.

Conclusions

The upgrades made to the MacBook Air this year are minor, meaning that those looking for an overhaul will be disappointed. While the rest of the recipe is great, we're still underwhelmed by the screen and this is an area that really needs attention.

It's particularly concerning as the MacBook Pro continues to improve: the cheapest model with a Retina Display is £999 and has a more powerful processor. The only thing to choose between them now is weight (the Pro is 300g heavier, which is significant) and battery life, which is slightly shorter on the Pro.

Update: Apple has now boosted the default 13in Air configuration to 8GB of RAM as standard. This is a very welcome, if long overdue addition. This is enough to keep the storied Air ticking over, but we'd still like to see a meatier update with new Skylake processors, Thunderbolt 3 and a higher quality screen. 

Specifications 

Processor: Intel Core i5-5250U 1.6GHZ

GPU: Intel HD Graphics 6000 

Memory: 8GB LPDDR3 SDRAM

Storage: 256GB SSD 

Connectivity: Dual-band 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 

Ports: 2 x USB 3, Thunderbolt, SDXC Card slot, 3.5mm headset jack 

Dimensions: (WxDxH): 325mm x 227mm x 170mm 

Weight: 1.35kg