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Apple Macbook Air MD231ll/A 13.3-inch Laptop (OLD VERSION)
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Date First Available
June 11, 2012
Warranty & Support
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Product Warranty: For warranty information about this product, please click here
I purchased both the newly updated 13" MacBook Air and the updated 13" MacBook Pro the day they were announced at WWDC and released for sale in June 2012. After using the two machines side-by-side for a couple weeks now, I can say that the MacBook Air offers superior performance in virtually every respect to such a degree that I've pretty much stopped using my brand new MacBook Pro. Of course the Air (which I got factory upgraded to the 2.0 GHz i7 processor and 8GB of RAM) is lighter, slimmer, and sleeker than the Pro, and yes, it does have a much higher resolution display, but I was surprised just how much faster the MacBook Air is compared to the Pro is despite the Air's slower CPU clock speed. The SSD hard drive on the MacBook Air makes an enormous difference in everything from casual web browsing to video editing.
Speed and Performance: Advantage MacBook Air
Apart from the hard drives and port configurations, the technology inside the machines is virtually identical in both the newly refreshed MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Both Pros and Airs come with either i5 or i7 Intel "Ivy Bridge" processors, Intel HD Graphics 4000, USB 3.0, and lightning-fast Thunderbolt ports. While the MacBook Air models are at a disadvantage to the MacBook Pro models in terms of CPU clock speeds, any performance disadvantage from the processor speed is more than made up for by the lightning fast performance of the Air's SSD hard drive, which Apple markets as "Flash" storage. In everyday tasks from gaming to web browsing to watching Flash movies and editing video, the MacBook Air is faster significantly faster in virtually every task. The Air boots up in less than 12 seconds while the Pro takes upwards of one minute.
Screen: Advantage MacBook Air
Once you get used to the super high resolution 1440 x 900 LED display on the MacBook Air, the 1280 x 800 back-lit LED display on the MacBook Pro looks downright grainy and primitive. Simply put, once you get used to a higher resolution display, the 1280 x 800 display on the 13" MacBook Pro just isn't acceptable. Even for simple tasks like email or word processing where you wouldn't think the resolution would matter, the graphics look grainy and pixelated, which just isn't acceptable for a pro-level laptop in 2012.
Upgradability: Advantage MacBook Pro
One major difference that's important to consider between the Air and the Pro is that the Pro is more flexible and adaptable in terms of upgradability. With only a screw driver and about 10 minutes of your time, you can add more memory to the Pro, replace the hard drive, and even add a second hard drive in place of the optical disc drive. The Air, on the other hand, is stuck in the configuration you purchase it in except that you can opt to replace the SSD "Flash" hard drive with a higher capacity drive. However, both the Air and Pro have USB 3.0 (which is five times faster than USB 2.0 and backward compatible) and Thunderbolt (which is ten times faster than USB 2.0), I see no reason to replace the Air's hard drive any time soon given how cheap external hard drives are and how fast the connection has become.
Design, Weight, Portability, Battery Life, and Form Factor: Advantage MacBook Air
The MacBook Air is the most beautiful computer ever produced by man. The aluminum case is impeccably designed, almost tailored to accommodate the necessary internal components, while maintaining practical ergonomics. It's an incredibly thin, svelte, sexy little notebook. The aluminum case seems sturdy and durable, and its mechanics are very similar to the time-test unibody construction of the MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is a bit of a dinosaur in its bulky circa 2006 unibody. The Pro is heavier than a half gallon of milk at 4.5 lbs, while the MacBook Air weighs in at less than 2.9 lbs. Battery life is roughly even on both machines at anywhere from 4 to 7 hours depending on workload and settings.
Summary Judgement: Buy the MacBook Air
Simply put, the guts of the two machines are basically the same, but the Air's SSD hard drive gives it a tremendously significant boost in performance. Sadly, the MacBook Pro's 5400-rpm hard drive leaves the machine unable to capitalize on the newest, most expensive Intel "Ivy Bridge" i5 and i7 processors that you're paying a $300 premium for in the newly updated Pros. If you are going to buy a Pro, invest the extra money and get it upgraded with a SSD hard drive and get an extra external hard drive if you need additional cheap storage space for multimedia files. When you also consider the superior display, lighter weight, increased portability, and lower price of the MacBook Air, it's hard to find a reason to justify purchasing the current 13" MacBook Pro, which to me looks like a dinosaur rapidly headed for extinction.
Specs on the models compared:
13" MacBook Air (mid 2012) factory upgraded to the 2.0 GHz dual core i7 processor and factory upgraded to 8 GB RAM (1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM) with standard 256 GB SSD ("Flash") hard drive
13" MacBook Pro (mid 2012) with 2.9 GHz dual core i7 processor, 8 GB RAM (1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM), and 750GB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm Both feature Intel HD 4000 Graphics, 3.0 USB, Thunderbolt, 802.11n, etc.
UPDATES: 1/6/13 - 3 months in, and still going strong. Picked up Applecare about a month in (you can buy it at any point before the included warranty expires). Cost me ~$200 (you can use student discount at Apple stores) for 3 years of support. All the Mac people I know swear by Applecare, and it seems like a pretty good thing to have just in case. Battery life is still a solid 5-7hrs. if not more, depending on my usage. As expected, watching HD movies or playing games does kill the battery life. Bought this neoprene sleeve since it looked solid, was inexpensive, and had good reviews. Definitely recommend a case/sleeve of some kind to avoid scratching up the shell.
Preface: I own a computer I built myself and have been continuously tinkering with and upgrading since 2007. This is my "primary" computer, and I virtually never use my Macbook while at home as a result. Prior to this purchase, the only Apple product I've owned is an iPod Touch from 2010. This is the perspective of a long-time Windows user with access to a computer of considerable horsepower. If you want to hear from someone who spends >90% of their computer time on this Macbook, I'm not your guy. However, I can still talk about the properties that make it strong for my demands of a portable, secondary computer for use whenever I'm not at home. I'll be breaking this review down into the criteria I needed my next laptop to satisfy, and where the Macbook Air fell in relation to the competitors.
One-Sentence Review: The 2012 Macbook Air is not head-and-shoulders above the competition (it's not even the best in any one category) but it's so great at everything that it's hard to say no to.
1. Portability: Both the 11" and 13" model have set the standard for the portable "ultrabook", and competition from Asus, Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, HP, and anyone else has used these laptops' dimensions as the benchmark. This 13" model weighs in at a svelte 2.9lbs., but in 2012 that's not really saying much. Look up the ultrabook offerings from the above companies and you'll see they're all within +/-0.1lbs. It's no doubt a lightweight and portable design, but I can't hand this one to Apple given how close everyone else is.
Verdict: Draw for the Macbook, since everyone has the same dimensions and weight.
2. Design & Build Quality: This used to be Apple's home court. The unibody aluminum shell of the Macbook Air was a league apart from the plastics of certain competitors. However, Samsung's Series 9 and Asus' Zenbook Prime give the Macbook Air a serious run for its money. To its credit, Apple is one of the few manufacturers who grace their ultrabooks with a super-large trackpad (which is superior to any PC laptop trackpad I've ever used) and backlit keyboard. The frame is sturdy, the lid doesn't creak or sway, and there's very little flex in the body.
Verdict: Other guys look nice, but I have to give this to Apple on the back of the keyboard and oversized trackpad.
3. Battery Life: I have yet to run my Macbook from full to empty, but I have used it for long stretches and (assuming the battery meter is accurate) can make a reasonable assessment of battery life. While browsing the web, writing a Word document, and listening to music, with screen at half-brightness, I was going for about 3.5hrs when I hit the 50% mark. A reasonable estimate places total battery life at 6.5-7hrs., which is right in Apple's factory estimate of 7. I bet you could squeeze an easy 9hrs. out of this by turning Wi-Fi and Bluetooth off and dimming the screen some. Regardless, I'm usually not away from an outlet for more than a few hours anyway, so this is a nice cushion to have. Also worth noting that the Sleep function seems to be extremely battery-efficient. 24hrs. of sleep resulted in only a 1% loss of battery life, and the Macbook instantly took me to the login screen when I hit the spacebar.
Verdict: Extremely respectable battery life and fantastic sleep efficiency.
4. Screen Quality: This is in my opinion the laptop's weakest category. The Macbook Airs use TN panels, with resolutions of 1366x768 for the 11" and 1440x900 for the 13". For the unacquainted, TN panels are the bottom shelf of LCD panels in terms of color quality. The aforementioned Zenbook Prime absolutely kills the competition with a 1080p (1920x1080) IPS panel (IPS is the top-shelf panel), and even the Series 9 has a respectable 1600x900 PLS (mid-range panel) display. This fall Apple introduced a Retina 13" Macbook Pro with an insane 2560x1600 display, but did not similarly update the Macbook Air. It may happen next year, but for now you're stuck with a low-end display. This is not to say it is objectively bad (it's not), but the competition does leave this laptop feeling somewhat inadequate.
Verdict: The Macbook Air's TN panel just cannot compare to the IPS and PLS panels on other ultrabooks.
5. Software: I had a passing familiarity with Mac OS X, and thought it to be a generally snappy, good-looking, but not well-supported OS. That last point is mostly untrue, as I have virtually everything I use on my desktop (MS Office, Spotify, Chrome, VLC Player, Steam(!), Dropbox) running natively on OS X without any issues. There's a bit of a learning curve, but I found it a genuine joy to acquaint myself with Mountain Lion's "Mission Control" feature. This allows you to create multiple desktops with independent docks and applications, effectively allowing you to segregate your computer for work and play. Many of Mountain Lion's features, as well as Safari, are well-integrated with multi-touch gestures on the trackpad, so executing commands through the trackpad is wonderfully simple. I miss the comfort of Windows only slightly, to be honest.
Verdict: OS X is a very well-designed OS for anyone who isn't strictly tied to Windows.
6. Value: Value is awkward and highly subjective. You have to make your own goals before any purchase, and evaluate which alternative offers the best chance of fulfilling that goal. As a first-year medical student with a very competent primary computer, my goals were to have a reliable, portable, and decently powerful laptop for bringing around with me to class, the library, lab, and anywhere else that wasn't my apartment. Ideally this would be a 4-year computer, lasting me the entirety of medical school. $1100 is a lot of money to spend on a laptop, so I had to be sure of what I picked. In the end I went with this because of the literally dozens of classmates and friends who have had the same Macbook (Pro/Air/whatever) for years without a hiccup or slowdown. I feel this is due in part to Apple's willingness to make its OS as backwards-compatible as possible, which means you get a non-bloated OS that's designed to work as well on yesteryear's technology as tomorrow's.
If you've made it this far, thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope you found this useful. I would add a final caveat about potential improvements to the 2013 Macbook Air, but honestly don't give it much thought. There's always one more thing coming around the corner, and if you need a laptop now just get this one. Like I said, it's not the best at anything (except the trackpad maybe) but it's great at everything and should last you for years.