Today, Apple released new Sandy Bridge MacBook Airs with Thunderbolt ports, backlit keyboards and all-around upped specs. Any MacBook Air you get will, in all likelihood, be the best laptop you’ve ever owned, but how do you know which MacBook Air is right for you?
After nine months of using and loving our last-gen MacBook Airs, we know which one we’d recommend to most people: the 128GB 11-inch MacBook Air with 4GB of RAM. Here’s why.
11-inch or 13-inch Model?
For most people, this is going to be the big question: should you get an 11-inch MacBook Air or get the bigger, more expensive 13-incher? We think that the 11-inch is the best choice for the vast majority of people.
We know, we know: for most people, a 13-inch is the bare minimum laptop display they’d consider. With the MacBook Air, though, the 11-inch model has the same pixel count as the 13-inch white MacBook: 1366 x 768.
By shaving a couple inches off the 13-inch MacBook Air, you still get a 13-inch MacBook’s resolution while dramatically increasing the portability of your laptop: the 11-inch is small enough to slip in many purses or satchels, and even some iPad bags. Even better, there’s no trade-off when it comes to the keyboard or trackpad, which remain identically roomy.
Our personal experience is that since we’ve been using our 11-inch MacBook Airs, the 13-inch models just seem gigantic, with no real benefits except a paltry 20% increase in on-screen real estate. Save yourself $300 and go with the 11-inch Air unless you absolutely must have as much screen real estate as possible.
64GB, 128GB or 256GB SSD?
If you’ve been using another Mac laptop, you’ve probably gotten used to a 320GB or 500GB hard drive by now. By comparison, even the MacBook Air’s roomiest 256GB SSD probably seems cramped.
Look, we won’t lie to you: no matter what MacBook Air you buy, you’re probably going to need to live more frugally on it than you used to in the past. However, the MacBook Air’s strengths aren’t in raw performance for CPU-intensive tasks like gaming, video editing and so on… it’s in being lightning quick at the most common tasks you use your computer for.
Even so, I’ve been living with a 64GB MacBook Air SSD for 9 months, and I won’t lie: occasionally, it’s been a little cramped. Unless you don’t intend on keeping much media on your laptop and instead plan on living in the cloud, 128GB is probably the minimum most people can get by with.
Should you go all the way up to 256GB, though? Unless you’ve got an absolutely enormous iTunes collection that you can’t bare to not have living on your MacBook Air’s SSD, or plan on running multiple OSes side-by-side, we still recommend the 128GB SSD, coupled with an external 2.5-inch USB hard drive. It’s easy enough to store your biggest files on a larger drive, keeping the SSD nice and limber for your most commonly used files.
For more information on why we think you can live on the smallest MacBook Air SSD, and how to make the most of your laptop’s storage, check out our handy how-to on minimizing your storage footprint on the MacBook Air, coming later today.
2GB or 4GB of RAM
Here’s the only section where we are going to recommend spending a few extra bucks over the base model: you want to max out the RAM on your MacBook Air at purchase.
Why? Because the MacBook Air’s slim design means that Apple needed to take the unusual design decision of soldering the RAM directly to the logic board. That means that once you buy a MacBook Air, you can never upgrade the RAM.
When you buy your new Air, then, you need to think a few years down the line. With relatively wimpy CPUs, most of your Air’s blinding speed will come from the benefits of an SSD coupled with the amount of RAM you have available.
Spend an extra $100 and max out your MacBook Air’s RAM to 4GB. You won’t regret it.
There’s a tendency to think that a computer’s processor speed is synonymous with how fast it runs, and while that’s true to a certain extent, the processor is the least aspect of why the MacBook Air feels so fast to use for most computer tasks.
When the last-gen MacBook Air was first released, its 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor
looked woefully underpowered. Even so, when I bought one, I found that the MacBook Air was noticeably faster in most of the most common computer tasks than even my 27-inch iMac… and it’s all because of the SSD.
An SSD allows your computer to launch programs and open and save files without actually spinning a physical disc. The result is that most programs, files and even the OS itself launch virtually instantly. You know the spinning rainbow beachball you’re used to seeing on most Macs once you’ve had them for a few months? Completely gone with the MacBook Air.
The bottom line is that thanks to a relatively underpowered GPU, the MacBook Air is not particularly good at intensive tasks like video editing or gaming… but even the baseline CPU is more than sufficient for all of the other stuff you’ll want to do with your laptop.
In our opinion, it’s just not worth spending more to get a faster processor on the MacBook Air. All the speed is in the SSD, and even if you max out your processor, you’re just not going to be able to max the performance of more video-heavy stuff compared to something like an iMac or MacBook Pro.
One thing Apple is extremely good at is making sure that their entry level product models satisfy the requirements of 90% of users, and the MacBook Air is no exception: the $999 11-inch MacBook Air isn’t just one of the fastest ultraportables out there, but it’s one of the best values in laptops right now. That said, if you’re getting one, the smartest thing you can do is pay an extra $100 to max out the RAM, since you can’t otherwise upgrade it: it might not matter to you now, but a couple years down the line, you’ll probably be glad you did.
Conclusion: 128GB 11-inch MacBook Air With 4GB of RAM.