Which MacBook Air To Buy? Get The 128GB 11-Inch Model With 4GB of RAM. Here’s Why


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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.

Which Processor

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

  • Micah Jon Warn

    new Sandy Bridge MacBook Airs??? Sure they are not Core i5 andCore i7

  • Bob Whipple

    I think the screen real estate of the 13″ Air is actually mare than 30% larger than the 11″.

  • imajoebob

    A 13″ model has a “paltry 20%” bigger screen?  Like the next line up on the eye chart is only a paltry 20% larger? That’s a HUGE difference in size.  It may not add extra pixels. but what it adds in clarity and usability is immense.  Just the reduced eye strain and fatigue make the larger screen a better choice.  If you’re choosing an MBA as your primary computer, you HAVE to choose the 13″ model.  At just 100 bucks more than your meager recommended 11″ model, THAT’S a no-brainer.

  • brownlee

    Those are Sandy Bridge chips.

  • Sharon LePage Plante

    is it worth taking the 11 inch up to the i7?

  • jleetj

    Native resolution for the 13″ is 1440 x 900.

  • Proto732

    The 13 inch gives you the SD card slot, so you could supplement your storage by another 64gigs.
    The 11 inch does not have an SD card slot.
    – So if you were on the fence between 128gig SSD and 256gig SSD, the SD card slot might fill the gap.

    Native screen resolution on the 13 is 1440 x 900.  
    Native screen resolution on the 11 is 1366 x 768

    13 inch has 384 megs of video RAM
    11 inch has 256 megs of video RAM

    Battery time on the 13 inch is 7 hours
    Battery time on the 11 inch is 5 hours

    I think the 13″, with 128SSD, and Core i7 1.8 would be the perfect choice, however, currently you can’t configure that combination with the Core i7.  You can get it with the 256 SSD, but not the 128.  Odd since the 11″ has a 128SSD + Core i7 option.

  • iprofnet

    It does state that they are i5 and i7 on the apple website

  • iprofnet

    What’s more, the 11 in 128, with 4GB is $1199, the base model is $999, you could upgrade the base $999 model up to 4GB for only $90 more.  I was confused by the article, just a bit, b/c it seems that for only $100 more, one could get the 128GB, 11in, when in reality it is $200 more than the base model.

  • velosport

    But the low-end spec is still 64GB for the SSD. You seem to imply that one should stick to the base model and only bump the RAM to 4GB. This would *not* be a 128GB 11″ w/ 4GB – it would be a 64GB 11″ w/ 4GB. 

    I mention this mainly because I was planning on buying the base model, but was hoping the rumors about 4GB being standard on ALL models would be true. As it turns out, bumping the base to 4GB gets you within $100 of the 128GB model…and kind of makes it seem silly *not* to just get the 128GB (which is stock with 4GB) and be done with it.

  • Tim Murray

    Battery life is what pushed me to order the 13″.  SD card slot is a nice thing to have as well.

  • MacGoo

    You got your pixel count argument wrong (the 13 inch has a slightly higher pixel count – 1,296,00 vs 1,049,088 for the 11) but the posit can still be saved: The 11-incher has a slightly higher pixel density, at 135.09 ppi, vs the 13-incher’s 127.68. 

  • TylerHoj

    I’d still get the 13” I think this is more of an opinion piece, had you owned the 13” Air this probably would have been a totally different review. Plus I don’t have a purse and my iPad 2 is in my iPad 2 bag. 

  • Wayne_Luke

    I’d go with the 13″ already. I have an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard already. So if I got a Macbook Air, it would be something with more space. They should really make a top-end 15″ model though.

  • rockarollr

    I can see Apple’s NEXT update to the MacBook Air now:

    Now with 4GB memory standard across ALL models!  Available with 128GB and 256GB SSD options on all models! They will drop the 11″ 2GB RAM, 64GB SSD low end model altogether and give each machine a slight processor bump.

    They wanted to maintain their profit margin on the low end 11″ MacBook Air while keeping the price at $999 this time around. Thus, the skimping on the RAM and the SSD. They have discontinued the legacy white MacBook and the low end Air is now the entry-level MacBook.  Apple always leaves themselves a path to make next year’s upgrade seem
    compelling enough to plunk the cash down on yet again. It has been their business plan for quite some time now. This is also
    known as planned obsolescence. It’s the one thing about Apple that I do not care for much.

    It’s all about maintaining that huge profit margin for themselves.

    (Disclaimer: This is coming from an Apple customer for many years, currently using all Apple equipment including a desktop, notebook, tablet and phone.)

  • rockarollr

    They will, eventually. It’ll be when the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air become virtually indistinguishable from each other. They will consolidate the product lines and give it a new name. It’s coming soon enough.

  • dagamer34

    You don’t buy the Air for it’s performance and it shouldn’t be used as a primary laptop either.

  • imajoebob

    Exactly.  And the 13″, with better screen and graphics is only 100 bucks more.  WHY buy the 11″?

  • imajoebob

    There are more holes in this recommendation than Eric Schmidt’s critique of Apple’s patent suit Read the rest of this post »

    Really. Brownlee, just give it up before you further embarrass yourself.

  • Dave Stephens

    Good analysis – A few points: the 11 inch DOES have USB inputs to put SD card readers of any size in, but more importantly, the Thunderbolt port can give you TERABYTES of storage at speeds faster than most non-SSD internal drives… Plus I believe you can hook up multiple types of tech, like monitors and hard drives simultaneously..

  • Neal Xiong

    by spending $100 more (buying the 13″ one), you get:
    1. larger screen
    2. SD card slot
    3. extra 2 hours of battery life
    but surely you lost some portability. I prefer the 13″ one.

  • David Rutan

    I’ve had the opportunity to use the 13″ for a while and I ended up purchasing the 11″ several months back. It’s interesting how only a few inches seems to make such a big difference in portability.
    Another example of this is between the 13″ MBPro and the 15″, or the 15″ and the 17″.  The few inches difference makes a big impact on the portability of the system.

    If you’re moving your system around a lot, I’d recommend the 11″, it is a gorgeous computer and extraordinarily portable.

  • David Rutan

    I was going back and forth about that as well.  As the article and dagamer mentioned, it’s probably not worth the cost.

    Since my air is my primary laptop, if I were to replace it with the current gen.. I’m not sure if I would splurge and get the i7. If they offer it in the ultimate config at the Apple Store, maybe.. otherwise probably not worth having to CTO it and wait while it’s assembled.

  • Starman_Andromeda

    Let’s look at the size biz a bit more.  The 13″ MBA is 13.3″ and the so-called 11″ is actually 11.6″ or rounding, a 12″!!  The difference is only 1.7″.  OTOH, what matters is the difference in *area*, not screen diagonal.

    I  cannot find the screen dimensions, but I can find the overall laptop dimensions, which should give us an approximation.The 13.3″ dimensions are Width: 12.8 inches (32.5 cm)Depth: 8.94 inches (22.7 cm)That’s 114.432 square inches.The 11.6″ dims areWidth: 11.8 inches (30 cm)
    Depth: 7.56 inches (19.2 cm)That’s a 89.208 sq. in.So, we’re looking at roughly 114/90 or 1.28 x larger, or roughly 28%.
    So, the 20% may be correct.  I think people need to look at this in the store.  We were, years ago, going to buy a 12″ iBook, but picked the 14″ because the screen was so much more readable.  Unsure what will happen with these two (bigger screen, but bigger resolution, too).  

    Almost all the other specs, though, say go for the 13″.

  • Akemai

    guys, macbook air’s advantage is the palmrest is flush with the table surface, but 13” would provide you a flusher sensation, due to larger palmrest and thus reducing palm fatigue. When time comes you need to make good use of your MBA’s keyboard for typing and SERIOUS working, 13” definitely makes much better sense than 11”, and it’s why 13” users are so much more satisfied than 11” users. The bigger screen would exhaust your eyes less, and it WILL make sense after at least an hour of working, and for sure the 11” incher will be put away if you have both to choose from. The 13” and groundbreakingly thin tapered form are still considered portable, not a far second from the 11”-er. 

    Specs-wise, 128GB should be the baseline, rather than 64GB, which Apple should be ashamed for putting such hard decisions on customers. The memory card slot will help out in case you run out of drive spaces, and it only is offered on 13” inch model, which is unfortunate. Although everyone holds onto his own taste and opinion, probably you should sometimes listen to people who have owned both of the sizes and people who have been Apple veterans, whose opinions can be valuable. 

  • ricardoo

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