So you want to buy an Apple MacBook Air, but you don’t know which MacBook Air to choose — don’t worry, I get asked this question all the time. The best MacBook Air for you — or for a gift — is easy to find when you ignore most of the tech specs and focus on what you want to do with your new MacBook Air in 2016.
To make the right choice, let’s get to the heart of the matter and review the things that really matter, starting with screen size — and don’t worry, we’ll cover the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display, too.
MacBook Air 11 vs 13?
The MacBook Air comes in two basic sizes, the 11-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Air. The 11-incher is pretty small. Unless you travel a lot and like to go light, you will appreciate the 13-inch size better for web browsing, email, real work, and definitely for photos and videos. For family or teenager homework use, trust me: get the bigger screen. The space is worth it.
The weight difference between the two is negligible — little more than half a pound — and the 13-inch MacBook Air weighs just 2.96 pounds. Plenty light, and they are both just 0.68 inches high when closed. Besides, the extra battery life that you get with the 13-inch model (12 hours of web use vs 9 hours) gives you real all-day action.
Wild Card: The 12-inch MacBook with Retina Display
Apple’s newer-generation MacBook boasts a 12-inch Retina display screen. Overall, the new MacBook is slightly smaller and slightly lighter and has a slightly larger screen. It has just a single USB-3 port for power that will work with adapters and hubs to attach to displays and external storage. The only reason to get the new MacBook is if you want an ultraportable MacBook with a Retina display. At $1299, the new MacBook costs $400 more than the base model 11-inch MacBook Air.
Of course, the 12-inch MacBook is gorgeous and comes in Space Gray, Silver, or Gold. It has the new Force Touch trackpad that can sense the force behind your taps (which is cool but doesn’t yet have any important applications). On the downside, the new processor doesn’t appear to be any leap forward in computing power, but you do get 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage in the new MacBook.
Recommendation: Get the new MacBook if you a) want an ultraportable Mac with an updated design, or b) want the gorgeous super-sharp Retina screen in a small form factor. [Check out my dedicated MacBook review if you want to learn more.]
What about the MacBook Air price?
The 11-inch MacBook Air with 128GB of flash storage typically goes for $899 while the 13-inch MacBook Air with 128GB goes for $999 — just $100 more, making the screen size and battery life benefits worth the extra cost. You will simply earn that back in productivity as you use your Mac.
Of course, the retail numbers are Apple’s, used here for general comparison purposes. If you’re a smart shopper, some online retailers often offer MacBooks at competitive rates — check out the 11-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Air at B&H — but not always. Other retailers will occasionally drop prices on previous generation stock, but finding those prices for what Mac you want is all about luck for being in the right place at the right time. My recommendation is to figure which MacBook meets your needs first rather than taking advantage of a special sale. Why? You will use your MacBook for 2 or 3 years so choosing the right MacBook for you is more important than saving a few dollars.
The real choice you have comes down to your budget and how that relates to how you intend to use your MacBook Air. First, if price is not an issue, go directly to Apple.com and customize by upgrading the processor, the memory, and the storage. You’ll increase the cost by hundreds of dollars, but you’ll get a small boost in performance and flexibility.
For most of us, though, a $200 difference in price — and corresponding features — means something real, even over a couple of years. In this case, the question is: Should you pay Apple’s list price of $1,199 to get a 13-inch MacBook Air with 256GB of flash storage instead of $999 for 128GB?
With the MacBook Air, this is a tough question because what you buy now is essentially what you’ll have in 2 or 3 years — the flash drives in the newest MacBook Airs may or may not be upgradeable through third-party SSD upgrades (though some MacBook Airs can be upgraded to a bigger SSD). And memory is essentially impossible to upgrade. Fortunately, the memory is less of an issue because OS X Yosemite does a nifty job of managing memory by compressing memory to allocate more when you need it for an app. For most people, 4GB of memory is fine. If you use complicated programs for serious video or photo editing, upgrade the memory at Apple.com and get a custom MacBook Air — or better yet, pick a heavier-but-more-powerful MacBook Pro, which is typically the smarter choice for budding filmmakers.
Is 128GB of storage enough in 2016?
If you take a lot of photographs and video and you want to store those photos and video directly on your MacBook Air, go with 256GB.
Don’t like the extra cost? You still have options if you choose the 128GB MacBook Air: If you’re willing to spend $100-200 on an external hard drive — even a portable one — you can get far more storage at a reasonable price. The downside either means you are packing a hard drive around . . . or you leave it at home. Personally, I prefer to have on-board storage. That said, you can get a small 128GB “thumb drive” for about $55 (try the 128GB SanDisk Cruzer USB Flash Drive) and you can find plenty of 32GB USB thumb drives for around $20. This means you can dump movies and photos onto these cheaper drives and still keep them in your bag.
But external storage means you have to pay attention. It’s not as simple. And backing up your important photos, videos, and documents isn’t as easy when it’s scattered around. For basic backups, you can use online storage, but it means you’ll pay by the month or year, but you can set it all up to be automatic. Still, it’s generally less expensive and faster to backup to an external hard drive.
All-in-all, your biggest choice with the MacBook Air comes back to screen size because the processor specs are nearly identical. Oh, need one more benefit of the 13-inch MacBook Air? It has a built-in SDXC card slot so you can slip your SD camera storage card right in without any cables. And this SDXC card slot, it turns out, can be quite handy as a slim method for adding storage to your MacBook. All you have to do is slip in a tiny flash-based drive in the shape of a camera memory card. If you’re interested in this option, check out the Transcend JetDrive Lite or the TarDisk Pear system.
Consider the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display
If you think you’re going to need more horsepower and storage than you can cost-effectively fit into a MacBook Air, step up into a MacBook Pro — the bang for your buck in the 13-inch MacBook Pro is astounding — starting at $1299 you get a super-sharp Retina display, faster processors, and a built-in HDMI out slot all packed into 3.46 pounds of lightness. In addition, the new early 2015 model includes Apple’s new Force Touch trackpad.
Choose Your MacBook:
- 11.6-inch MacBook Air . . . at Amazon . . . or at B&H
- 12-inch MacBook with Retina display. . . at Amazon . . . or at B&H
- 13.3-inch MacBook Air . . . at Amazon . . . or at B&H
- 13.3-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display . . . at Amazon . . . or at B&H
- 15.4-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display . . . at Amazon . . . or at B&H
Note: The “early 2015” models have been updated with faster storage and a slightly better graphics processor. The updates are nice, but frankly, most people won’t notice much of a difference.