Although there’s a lot of strong laptop competition out there — in all shapes, sizes and prices —the MacBook Air 13-inch is everything a great notebook should be. That’s because Apple offers a near-perfect combination of design, comfort, performance and endurance. It’s also now priced at a quite reasonable $999.
The 13-inch MacBook Air also makes a great gift, especially if the person on your list already owns an iPhone. The new hand-off feature in OS X Yosemite makes it easy to make and receive calls right from your Mac.
Here’s why Apple’s ultraportable is hands-down the best laptop for your money.
Plenty of laptop makers have tried to copy the aluminum unibody design of the MacBook Air, but none has quite matched Apple’s combination of strong build quality and portability. I’ve never heard so much as a creak or pop when opening or closing the lid on my Air — or even when picking the light, 3-pound system up by the top half of the clamshell. No one beats Apple’s build quality.
The reason I prefer the 13-inch Air to the 11-inch model — other than the extra screen real estate — is that the larger version offers an SD card slot on the right. This is an important amenity for people who like to transfer photos from their cameras. Otherwise , you’ll find two USB 3.0 ports and a Thunderbolt port for higher-speed peripherals. (I’m still waiting for more of those.)
The MacBook Air’s 1400 x 900-pixel screen isn’t nearly as sharp as some Windows-powered Ultrabooks — or Apple’s own 13-inch inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (2560 x 1600p) — but it’s quite bright and offers wide viewing angles. I’ve spent plenty of time working outdoors with this notebook without any issues.
It’s not easy to squeeze a comfortable keyboard into a laptop with a 0.68-inch profile, but Apple continues to outclass the competition. The layout is spacious and evenly backlit, and it’s extremely easy to type on for extended periods. There’s not even a hint of flex here. I also appreciate the shortcut key for Mission Control, which makes it easy to see all of your open apps at once.
The Air’s touchpad continues to be second to none. Whether I’m scrolling with two fingers, pinching to zoom or just selecting text, the trackpad on this laptop is smooth and seamless. I also use the Notification Center gesture quite a bit; you just swipe in from the right edge with two fingers to see all your alerts. The click action feels solid, and Windows converts can click down with two fingers to generate a right-click-like response.
Whether you’re on a cross-country flight, running from meeting to meeting or have a day full of classes, the 13-inch MacBook Air has all the staying power you need — and then some. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi (at 100 nits of screen brightness), the Air lasted an epic 12 hours and 20 minutes. The average ultraportable lasts about 8 hours.
We have tested other laptops with even more endurance, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad T440s (14:36) and X240 (20:28), but getting that runtime requires a bulky secondary battery.
For the $999 starting price, the MacBook Air 13-inch packs a 1.4-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of zippy flash storage. This combination of components adds up to a system that’s always ready to do my bidding. I just flip the lid, and I can get right back to work within a couple of seconds. Many Windows systems stutter when resuming from sleep.
This is one lean and mean productivity powerhouse. For example, on our OpenOffice test, in which the system matches 20,000 names and addresses, the Air took a mere 3 minutes and 46 seconds. Competing notebooks from Acer, Dell and HP all took 5 minutes on the same tests.
I don’t make many video calls (or take selfies), but it’s nice to know that the Air’s FaceTime camera delivers a better picture than most Windows laptops. Expect warm and accurate colors without the typical fuzziness that plagues other systems’ webcams. It’s also easy to chat with friends and colleagues over FaceTime if they have an iPhone or iPad.
If you’re anxious about dropping Windows for OS X, I can tell you that switching is easier than you think. In fact, the Mac desktop environment feels more intuitive in some ways than Windows 8’s split personalities. I especially like Spotlight Search for finding anything I need (complete with handy previews) and interactive notifications, so I can respond to messages without leaving the app I’m using.
OS X has gotten even better with Yosemite, especially for those who own iOS devices. For example, you can start an email on your iPhone or iPad, and then pick up right where you left off on the Mac. You can even text and make calls from the Air. Apple also finally offers a better cloud storage solution with iCloud Drive, though I’ll probably keep using Dropbox.
There are plenty of great alternatives to the MacBook Air, including Windows 8 models with built-in touch screens. For instance, the HP Spectre 13 Ultrabook (also $999) sports a sharper QHD screen and a unique ultrawide touchpad. However, that notebook’s battery lasted 3 hours less on a charge. If you’re looking for a business-focused laptop, the Lenovo ThinkPad T440s is another excellent choice; starting at $949, it boasts a sturdy design, best-in-class keyboard and fantastic battery life.
Don’t have a grand to spend? You’ll find plenty of compelling Windows notebooks for less than $500. Those with very simple computing needs may gravitate toward Chromebooks, such as the 13-inch Toshiba Chromebook, which costs just $269. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to live with limited offline functionality and much fewer apps than Mac and Windows systems.
Ultimately, the MacBook Air’s biggest competition is the MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display. Although it costs $300 more, the Pro delivers a richer and higher-resolution screen and more horsepower, courtesy of a faster 2.4-GHz Core i5 processor. However, the MacBook Pro is also heavier and thicker, and while its 9.5 hours of battery life is fantastic, it’s still a few hours behind the Air.
Thanks to its stellar design, superior touchpad, swift performance and all-day battery life, the 13-inch MacBook Air is the best all-around laptop money can buy.