A while ago Intel decided to revolutionize the market and set some high standards for a new breed of laptops: ultrabooks. Only a few years later, we now have plenty of such ultrabooks on the market, some better than others (my favorite options are detailed in this post), but all of them built around pretty much the same ideas: stylish and sleek looking, portable, fast and long-lasting computers.
However, before these ultrabooks were even born, there were already several thin, light and fast computers in stores. Among them, there was Apple’s Macbook Air.
Preceding ultrabooks by a couple of years, the Macbook Airs are even today the most popular premium ultra-portables and in some countries (like the US for instance) account for more sales than all ultrabooks taken together. There are plenty of reasons why people like these Apple ultraportables, and we’ll talk about them in this post.
This post compares the Macbook Air to the popular ultrabooks at the middle of 2015, so you’ll know exactly what to expect from each category and which will give you a better deal for the money. These posts where I’m comparing it to the Asus Zenbook family or Samsung ATIV Book 9 series might also come in handy.
Ultrabooks vs MacBook Air – design and build quality
The Macbook Air is a clamshell computer, or in other words a classicly styled laptop with two joined parts: one that includes the hardware, battery, keyboard, ports on the bottom, and another one with the screen on top. Ultrabooks on the other hand are available in a much wider range of form-factors, both clamshells and all sorts of 2-in-1s. In fact, more and more 2-in-1s are being launched each year, as Intel and the OEMs are pushing it strongly. This post lists the best 2-in-1 convertibles available in stores these days, so you might want to check it out.
Design wise, the MBA has remained pretty much unchanged since its launch, with its silver unibody aluminum case. It’s sturdy and looks good, but with ultrabooks you’ll get more approaches and aesthetic lines to choose from, more types of materials (carbon fiber, magnesium, shatterproof glass, plastic) and colors. That was expected, as manufacturers try to push their own products in front of the crowd and aesthetics do have a major impact in potential buyers.
That aside, you can choose between an 11 inch and a 13 inch version of the Macbook Air. The 13 inch model is about 0.7 inch thick and weighs close to 3 pounds, while the 11 inch MBA is slightly smaller and tips the scales at 2.4 pounds. These numbers were amazing a few yeas ago and they’re not that shabby today either, but there are plenty of more compact and lighter ultrabooks to choose from now. Apple have their own modern supermodel of course, the 12-inch Macbook, but that’s a low-power device meant for simple basic tasks, and not a powerful ultraportable like the Macbook Air.
Make sure you read reviews before settling on any specific model though, some of the lightest ultrabooks might not be strong enough to withstand the daily hassle. Older examples like the Sony Vaio Pro 13 or the Toshiba Portege Z930/Z935 come to mind here, but there are some newer units that are not as toughly built as the Macbooks.
Of course, there are some specifics that could be added here. For instance, the hinges on the MBA are smartly designed, strong and yet smooth enough to lift the screen with a single hand, while the lower-body remains bolted to the desk. On the other hand, the screen on the MBA only leans back to about 150 degrees, while with some ultrabooks you get screens that can go back perfectly flat, or more in case of some 2-in-1s. This is a one particular detail I find extremely useful when laying on the couch with the laptop on my knees.
Long story short, the MBA might not be as compact or as light as some of the ultrabooks out there, but is portable enough, and more importantly, is sturdy and solid built, which are traits you’d expect from a road-warrior, a computer you’re probably want to grab along to school, offices or wherever you might travel. Ultrabooks on the other hand are available in a much wider range of forms and sizes, and many can stand next to the MBA when it comes to looks and build quality.
So this chapter ends in a tie.
Keyboards and trackpads
I type for a living and a great keyboard is a must on my laptop.
The Macbook Airs feature a chiclet backlit keyboard with square, rubbery, black keys (they create a nice contrast with the silver body). They offer fairly good feedback for this class of computers (thin and light) and while their travel is somewhat shallow, you can definitely get used to the experience. Keep in mind that the layout is different than what you’re getting on Windows laptops, since Macs use a different set of functional keys.
The Macbook Airs also feature a large and accurate clickpad, one that smoothly reacts to swipes, taps and gestures. And truth is, while I’ve tested countless ultraportables in the last years, I’ve yet to find one that offers the same constant and consistent experience offered by these Apple clickpads. But we’ll talk about that in a bit.
Most ultrabooks feature chiclet keyboards as well, but with a multitude of layouts, colors and implementations. The typing experience has gotten better on the more recent launches and on some units it can rival with what the MBA offers. And some, especially the business ultrabooks, might even be superior, having taller keys with longer strokes.
It’s not fair to generalize and say certain manufactures offer better keyboards than others, but from my personal experience, I’d look at Lenovos, Dells and HPs if I’d need a Windows ultraportable for typing. There are of course exceptions.
With trackpads, things are a bit different. Most ultrabooks feature spacious clickpads these days, but very few manage to offer a smooth and complete experience. A mix of hardware (stiff surface, poor finishing) and especially software (jumpy, inaccurate) factors are to blame for that, but as a buyer, I don’t really care about what’s causing these issues, I just want them gone, I just want a smooth and reliable trackpad, which I’m not getting with the vast majority of ultrabooks.
Even so, there are certain features you’re only going to find on Windows ultraportables, like mechanical click buttons or TrackPoints, which might not sound like much, but just give them a try and you’ll see…
The screens – where the MBA suffers
The latest version of the 13-inch MBA sports a reduced-glare display with a 1440 x 900 px TN panel, while on the 11 incher there’s a 1366 x 768 px TN panel. And these are pretty crappy by today’s standards.
Most ultrabooks offer high-density displays, IPS panels and even touchscreens and we’re only finding similar screens to the ones on the MBAs on the most affordable Windows ultra-portables of the moment.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the Air’s screen isn’t atrocious, but when compared to the modern panels on pretty much all premium ultrabooks available right now, it can’t compete. The viewing angles, contrast, sharpness or color accuracy are lackluster. Which is a pity and is in fact the single major quirk of this otherwise great line.
I was expecting Retina displays on this year’s MacBook Air, but Apple decided otherwise. You do get much better displays on the new Macbook and the Macbook Pros though.
Hardware, software and performances
The latest Macbook Air and ultrabook generations are motorized by fairly similar Intel Broadwell hardware platforms, with options for Intel Core i5 and i7 processors for the MBA, and also some entry-level Core i3s on ultrabooks. The platforms can take up to 8-12 GB of RAM and various forms of storage, but SSDs are a given on both the Air and the premium ultrabooks.
It’s worth adding that the 2014 MacBook Airs do offer some higher frequency processors than most other ultrabooks (28W Broadwell U lines, as opposed to the 15W Broadwell U series on ultrabooks), bundled with Intel HD 6000 graphics, which are somewhat more capable than the Intel HD 5500 chip bundled with most Broadwell ULV lines.
The MBAs also step in front of the crowd with fast PCIe SSDs, but you’ll find snappy storage options on ultrabooks as well, including RAID solutions. What you’re not getting on the MacBook Air, but can be found on some ultrabooks is discrete graphics, that’s going to come in handy for video editing or gaming. Also, RAM is limited to only 8 GB on the Macbooks, while some similar sized ultrabooks can get 12 GB or even 16.
The Macbook Air is quite difficult to upgrade yourself, if that’s something you might want to do. Forst of all, the RAM is soldered and cannot be upgraded in any way, but the SSDs can. However, Apple do not use the standard M.2 PCIe slots on their units, but a proprietary form-factor, which makes compatible SSDs extremely expensive and quite difficult to find. You’ll still end up cheaper buying them yourselves than from Apple.
Now, to be fair, most of the premium ultrabooks aren’t prone to upgrades either, as they come with soldered RAM and onyl the SSDs acan be swapped, but at least the WIndows OEMs use standardized M.2 or mSATA slots in their machines. Some of the mid-range options allow to upgrade the RAM as well, while some of the business models leave room for other tweaks as well.
Of course, ultrabooks run Windows, while on the AIR you’re getting Mac OS. Each comes with its own ecosystem of apps and software, but at the end of the day, you should be fine with either of them, as long as you’re not planning on running specialized software (games for instance work better on Windows, while some apps work only on Mac OS X or only on Windows). So it’s wise to choose the right OS for you based on the programs you’re going to use.
The battery life
Here’s where the MBA outmatches most of the available ultrabooks, and there are two main reasons for that: a bigger battery and better software/hardware optimization than on the alternatives.
The 2015 MacBook Air 13 offers up to 13 hours of everyday real-life use, while the 11 inch model can go for about 9. Those aren’t just numbers taken from a book, not, that’s how long the laptops will last with daily activities (light browsing, 1080p looping, text editing, etc). If you’re going to multitask between many programs at once, those numbers will drop, but even so, the Macbook Airs will have little trouble in outmatching most ultrabooks.
With Broadwell ultrabooks you’re getting anywhere between 6 to 9 hours on a charge, which is not bad at all, but not quite up there next to the Airs. Yes, there are some models that announce 15+ hours of use on a charge, like the Dell XPS 13 2015, but in practice they can’t deliver more than 10.
There are some exceptions, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X250 for instance, but those Windows laptops that actually can outlast the Macbook Airs relly on very big batteries, which add up to the device’s weight and even protrude on their backs in some cases. On top of that, some 13 inch ultrabooks support extended slice batteries.
The other tiny details
There are some other aspects worth mentioning. Connectivity options, for instance. The latest Macbook Air supports Bluetooth and Wi-Fi 802.11ac wireless, offers USB 3.0 ports, a card-reader and ThunderBolt connectors and while these might require adapters, are enough for everything you might want to connect.
With ultrabooks, you could get a larger set of connectivity options and ports, but features tend to vary from model to model. Most of them offer Wireless and Bluetooth, but some bundle NFC and cellular modems as well. Besides that, on some ultrabooks you can get full-size VGA and HDMI video outputs and even an Ethernet port, which aren’t available on the Airs. the HDMI ports is nice to have, since most of us already have an HDMI cable connected to out TV or monitor anyway, but the ThunderBolt port is actually more capable. As for VGA and LAN, unless you’re in a tight business environment, I doubt you’ll ever use them much.
So overall the MacBook Air offers a good array of ports and connectivity options, but you can get more choices on some of the available ultrabooks, which the average user might not need though.
When it comes to speakers, the MBA isn’t spectacular, but it’s fairly loud and the sound coming out of it good enough for some movies and Youtube clips. The HD Facetime Webcam and the dual microphones however do a good job in video calls and occasional Hangouts. With ultrabooks, there’s variety once more. Some offer great speakers (like the Zenbooks or the XPSes), some not that much, and at the same time, some pack some mediocre cameras, while some of the hybrids pack even rear-facing main shooters.
All these lead to a very important aspect: how much do these laptops cost?
The latest 13.3 inch Macbook Air starts at $999, for a Broadwell Core i5 processor with Intel HD 6000 graphics, 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB PCIe SSD. And you can actually find it discounted online. The 11 inch MacBook Air starts at $899 for a similar configuration, and once again some webstores actually list it cheaper.
Premium Haswell ultrabooks on the other hand start anywhere between $800 to $1400 these days, for similar configuration to the ones mentioned above (somewhat slower CPUs and graphics though are bundled on most base ultrabooks). In most cases they include a better display or even a touchscreen. Some of the best such machines are detailed in this other post. As for the 11.6 inch ultrabooks, well, you can read all about them in this post.
Of course, you ca find ultrabooks that sell for between $500 and $1000 in stores as well, but those are not exactly direct competitors for the MBA, or they are older generation versions, with Intel Ivy Bridge or Haswell hardware.
Bottom point, the Macbook Airs are price wise pretty much on pair with their rival high-end ultrabooks these days. Upgrades are expensive on the Airs though, so if you want a high-tier configuration you’ll probabvly find it cheaper on a Windows ultraportable, but the base model is definitely aggressive priced.
Still, I personally wouldn’t buy the base Macbook Air. Go for at least a RAM upgrade, as the amount of memory cannot be latter improved and if you buy a model with only 4 GB of RAM you’ll probably end up regretting it further down the road.
OK, let’s draw the line. The Macbook Airs are still great buys in 2015.
If you’re after an 11-incher, you’ll hardly find anything similar, since most Windows OEMs are ignoring this segment. You’ll still struggle with the screen though, so if the budget allows, the 12-inch Macbook could be a good alternative. In fact, unless you aim for the base MBA 11, it’s only $100 more expensive.
The 13-inch MBA has plenty of competitors though. Many of them are smaller and lighter, many offer touchscreens and convertible form-factors or better IO. The Macbook Air has two Aces down its sleeve though: the powerful hardware and the long battery life. Both can be matched by a small number of ultrabooks, but those are either very expensive, or not as sleek and beautiful as the MBA. In other words, those might not be the right choices for you.
The screen though, the screen kills the MBA 13 and leaves a wide gap for Windows devices like the Dell XPS 13, the Asus Zenbook UX303LA/LN, the HP Spectre x360 or the Acer Aspire S7-393, to name just a few of the premium 13-inchers.
So at the end of the day, the latest MacBook Air is still an excellent device and for many, it might be the perfect ultra-portable, unless a good display, a touchscreen, dedicated graphics or Windows are a must in your book. If that’s the case, my list of the best ultrabooks of the moment is the place for your to start your search. Or some of the reviews and comparisons here on the site.
Either way, there’s no clear winner in this Apple Macbook Air vs Ultrabooks fight, it’s up to you to pick the device that fits best within your requirements, budget and taste. Find the balance between these aspects and you’ll end up satisfied with your choice.