Apple MacBook Air 13in (mid-2017) review: has Apple changed enough to stay on top?

Is the 2017 MacBook Air enough of an upgrade to justify itself?

Price
£790
  • Thin and light construction; incredible battery life
  • Screen is underwhelming

Let's not beat around the bush: the Apple MacBook Air was and still is one of the most lightweight, powerful notebooks around, offering that beautiful Apple style and functionality. It was first released more than ten years ago and although at the time many didn't think it was possible to integrate the same features into a super-slim laptop as the company packed into its desktops and other laptops, they were soon proven wrong.

A decade on and the MacBook Air is still a firm favourite. The exterior hasn't changed much as all, with a super-slim aluminium casing. But the internals really have changed with the times and that definitely comes with a warm welcome.

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Design and build

We're glad Apple hasn't changed the design of the MacBook Air too much. Although it could be considered a plain Jane by some (because it doesn't come with the same colour selection as the more expensive and bulkier MacBooks), the silver aluminium casing really is fine. It looks good, feels good when you run your hand over it and who doesn't love than ultra-thin style?

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2017's MacBook Air is just as slimline as its predecessors, with a profile of just 17mm at its thickest point. It's also still incredibly lightweight at just 1.35kg and that's with a whole lot of power packed in under the hood.

The backlit keyboard, which hasn't been given the "butterfly" switches treatment given to the new 12in MacBook Retina, has excellent tactile feedback although is perhaps just a little rattly, but the keypress 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 macOS Sierra 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.

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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 29, or a bit cheaper 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% 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

As you might expect from what is now effectively the entry-level device for the MacBook range, the Air doesn't have the top-of-the-line specifications featured in the MacBook Pro or new MacBooks. For example, it still has a fifth-generation 'Broadwell' line dual-core Intel Core i5-5250U chip, whereas the newer notebooks have Intel's seventh-generation 'Kaby Lake' CPUs. You can upgrade the Core i5 chip to a Core i7, though.

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It runs at a base clock speed of 1.8GHz up from 2015's 1.6GHz and you can also use Turbo Boost, a new feature from Apple that effectively allows you to overclock the processor while still running at a safe temperature. The device comes with 8GB RAM and 128GB or 256GB storage as standard. If you need an extra oomph, though and you have 150 going spare you can upgrade this to 512GB.

Operating system

At the time of writing, the 13in MacBook Air runs macOS Sierra out of the box. This is likely to change towards the end of September, however, when Apple finally releases macOS High Sierra.

High Sierra was demoed at WWDC 2017 but is still currently in beta testing. You can read more about what to expect from the new operating system here, but for the time being, let's dig into macOS Sierra.

Sierra was released in June 2016, with Apple ditching the 'OS X' moniker at the same time. It brought Siri, Apple's virtual assistant, into the dock and allowed the software to perform complex file queries in natural language.

You can also use your Apple Watch (assuming you have one) to unlock your computer and there's also support for Apple Pay as well as a Universal Clipboard function, which works across Apple devices.

For full details of macOS Sierra's specs, click here.

Conclusions

The 2017 upgrades to the MacBook Air are minor, so if you're looking for Apple to completely overhaul this device you may be a little disappointed. While the rest of the recipe is great, we're still underwhelmed by the screen and it's an area that could definitely do with a bit of attention.

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This is concerning since the MacBook Pro continues to improve: the cheapest model with a Retina Display is 1,249 and has a more powerful processor. This may push some buyers to go for the Pro, although it is 300g heavier than the Air and the battery life is slightly shorter.

Update: Apple also boosted the 13in Air configuration to 8GB of RAM as standard. This is a very welcome, although long overdue, addition. It is enough to keep the Air ticking over, but we would love to see a bigger update with new Skylake processors, Thunderbolt 3 and a higher quality screen.

Verdict

Performance and storage upgrades keep the already superb MacBook Air ticking over, but the iffy quality screen is starting to hold it back

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Processor: Intel Core i5-5250U 1.6GHZ

GPU: Intel HD Graphics 6000 

Memory: 8GB LPDDR3 SDRAM

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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

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