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 2017.
To make the right choice, let’s get to the heart of the matter and review the things that really matter — and don’t worry, we’ll cover the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display, too.
Should you consider the 12-inch MacBook?
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 compelling reason to get the new MacBook is if you want an ultraportable MacBook with a Retina display. At $1299, the new MacBook costs $300 more than the base model 13-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 while the entry-level MacBook Air has only 128GB of storage.
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 13-inch MacBook Air with 128GB goes for $999 — and for $200 more you can get the 256GB version. The rest of the specs are the same. In this case, you really just need to know if 128GB is enough storage for you.
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 13-inch MacBook Air at B&H.
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 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 does a nifty job of managing memory by compressing memory to allocate more when you need it for an app. For most people, 8GB of memory is fine. If you use complicated programs for serious video or photo editing, you should be choosing a MacBook Pro anyway.
Is 128GB of storage enough in 2017?
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 a 13-inch MacBook Air 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 is now about how much built-in storage you want. One nice benefit of the MacBook Air over the MacBook is the built-in SDXC card slot. In the Air, 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 the previous generation 13-inch MacBook Pro. The bang for your buck in the 13-inch MacBook Pro is great — 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. Not bad. If you can afford $1499 or so, go with the new 13-inch MacBook Pro that does not have the new Touch Bar and Touch ID. (Both the Touch Bar and Touch ID aren’t particularly necessary or worth the premium price right now, so the non-Touch Bar version is the better deal for most people.)
Choose Your MacBook:
- 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 (previous generation) . . . at Amazon . . . or at B&H
- 13.3-inch MacBook Pro (latest generation) . . . at Amazon . . . or at B&H