It's pretty clear that the 13-inch Macbook Air is the best overall laptop for most people, in the minds of many reviewers
Apple lowered the price on both the high-end Macbook Air and the 13" Macbook Pro With Retina Display. The cheaper Retina MBP is now a slightly more tantalizing step-up, but as we explain below in the update, the Air is still our pick.)
The Air is best for most people, but I'm not going to BS you: Other Windows-only laptops are running hardware with better specs, in some cases.
(Do you want a laptop designed to run Windows exclusively? We have a whole separate post for that.)
Unlike when it first debuted, the Macbook Air does not come close to having the best specs in every regard, according to Mark Spoonauer of Laptop Magazine, who is one of my favorite laptop reviewers out there. But his experience–his publication tests nearly 130 laptops a year, from the cheap to the expensive–finds that there are lighter, faster, better sounding, cheaper and higher resolution ultra books out there. More on those specifics later. What is most telling is that, ultimately, he still chooses the Air as his favorite ultrabook over all comers.
(What's an ultrabook? It's basically a term for a Macbook Air clone, and there are nearly 100 of them that also have thin designs and just enough oomph to get most computing done. There are big powerful notebooks, budget notebooks and all around notebooks, but ultra books are the slim yet still fairly powerful kind that I think work for most people.)
His reason for choosing the Air over these other laptops is that, in general, many of these machines give up too much in order to be class-leading in other regards.
The Macbook Air is balanced. It has a lack of outstanding flaws, great performance and battery life, the latest chips and ports and most importantly, an unbeatable keyboard and trackpad––something that other companies are still struggling to produce. It also has that amazingly solid unibody aluminum body. Chances are, you'll be okay with this one. And not only because of the machine itself.
I also recommend the Macbook Air because I know people will be satisfied with the computer's operating system, which comes bloat free and is prone to being unshakably stable. And, when it's needed, Apple's legendary service is there, with retail stores all over the place that double as repair centers. JD Powers backs up my claim: Apple computer owners are satisfied. (Some might say smug, but that's another issue.) The Macbook Air benefits from the legacy of a company that has decided to be thorough and mindful.
If you have the last generation Air, you don't need to even think about upgrading to the new one. The new Air, released in June 2012, received Intel's new Ivy Bridge chips, which run a little bit faster and more efficiently than the older chips but aren't hugely different. The processors available are a 1.7GHz Core i5 chip all the way up to a 2.0GHz Core i7 chip that can go "turbo" to 3.2GHz. It has a new maximum amount of RAM equal to 8GB (up from 4GB) and between 64GB and 512GB of solid state storage. It can be configured with an 11 or 13 inch screen, with an acceptable 1366×768 or 1440×900 pixel display. It also has USB 3.0 (ten times faster than USB 2.0), Bluetooth 4.0 and the Thunderbolt connection, which is still fairly unique to Macs. The Thunderbolt connection can be used, with adapters, for various things like video out and the not-included Ethernet and Firewire ports. This is more than enough power for all duties that don't involve the words "Video" "Photo" used in conjunction with the word "Editor". It's also $100 less than the last generation Macbook Air.
Enough talk about specs–you can look up the rest if you want.
Here's what the pro reviewers, who look at nearly all the new notebooks, are saying about the Macbook Airs.
Engadget's Dana Wollman says, " the Air remains the ultraportable to beat."
CNet's Scott Stein says the bottom line is, "…lowered prices continue to make it the go-to mainstream recommendation for any MacBook owner-to-be." He added, "Want a MacBook that's truly portable? This is it. Want a back-to-school MacBook? This is the one."
Gizmodo's Kyle Wagner echoes our assessment saying, "there is literally nothing subpar about it. Performance, keyboard, trackpad, battery life, transfers—all of them are are either the best or ahead of the curve. There is no part of using this computer that is not pleasant."
I asked Mark Spoonauer, why the Macbook Air is still his top pick. He said, "The MacBook Air remains our favorite ultraportable laptop because it provides the best combination of high-quality industrial design, easy to use software, performance, and endurance. The touchpad on the Air is especially great because it’s smooth and seamless. You just don’t have to think about it. With some Ultrabooks their clickpads are too sensitive, stiff, wonky or all of the above."
One of his editors, Michael Prospero, who reviewed the new Air, said, "The 13-inch MacBook Air remains our favorite ultraportable notebook. In addition to best-in-class ergonomics, loud speakers and a svelte profile, you now get faster performance and much longer battery life than the Ultrabook competition for $100 less than before…Nevertheless, the MacBook Air is still the one to beat." They gave it an editor's choice.
What about the 13-inch Retina Macbook Pro?
Now that Apple has reduced the low-end 13-inch Retina Macbook Pro's price by $200, it becomes an even more attractive step-up model at $1500 (just $100 more than the high-end Air, and equal if you spring for the Air's $100 RAM upgrade to 8GB, which you probably should). Stepping up to the Retina Macbook Pro gets you a stunning 2560×1600 high-res display, slightly faster processor, dual Thunderbolt ports, and an HDMI port. It's a great machine: Laptop Mag and PCMag both gave it Editors' Choice awards. But at the end of the day, the Air is still our choice for most people.
Consider this: The low-end $1500 Retina Pro only comes with a 128GB SSD. To match our recommended Macbook Air spec (256GB SSD, 8MB RAM), you have to go for the Pro's $200 SSD upgrade to 256GB, since the only way to upgrade either machine's soldered-on storage is through Apple at the time of purchase. And at that point you'd be crazy to not select the top-end Pro build, which also bumps you from a 2.5 GHz to 2.6 on the processor for the same $200 add-on.
In the end, you're buying a machine that's $200 more expensive and more than half a pound heavier than a similarly equipped Air, but it still only has a dual-core CPU and the same Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics. Despite the faster processor, the Pro only ends up being about 10 percent faster than the Air (which CNET concurs). That's certainly significant, but not enough for most people to notice. What you will notice is that it's over 20% heavier than the Air.
And if you choose to keep prices equal and go with the 128GB SSD Pro, you should be aware that 128GB will fill up fast. Even if you rely heavily on cloud storage, if you buy the 128GB Pro, you're probably going to need an external drive for a big music library or video collection.
As a $200 buy-up, the 13-inch Retina Pro is probably a good value for graphic designers and power users on the go, but if you truly need more power than the Air, you should be looking at the 15-inch Retina Pro: You get more screen real estate, a much faster quad-core CPU, discrete graphics, and can have up to 16GB of RAM. The 13-inch Retina Macbook Pro tops out at 8GB.
For the savings of $200 and a half-pound of carry weight, the high-end Macbook Air remains our pick in terms of value.
The Experts Agree
Mark Spoonauer, Laptop Mag: "For everyday use, Apple's $1,199 13-inch MacBook Air continues to be our top pick. It's not as powerful and its display seems almost ho-hum compared to the latest Pro, but it offers longer battery life in a slimmer and lighter design."
Dan Ackerman, CNet: "I'd still call the 15-inch Retina Pro the best all-around MacBook in Apple's current roster, and the 13-inch Air the most practical for on-the-go lifestyles. That puts this model [13-inch Retina Pro] just behind those in the complex calculation of value, practicality, and features, but still miles ahead of most other 13-inch laptops."
The Macbook Air is not perfect–other notebooks beat it in some departments. For those who go both ways, or actively prefer Windows machines, we have a separate Best Ultrabook category.
If the Macbook Air has a flaw, besides that its display does not keep up with the Asus Zenbook Prime and some other Windows ultrabooks, it's that its memory and storage are not easy to swap out, according to iFixit.
Anyhow, that's the low down on a laptop these days. Get an Air unless you need more power, and in that case, consider the 15-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display. I like the 13-inch step up model that comes with 256GB of SSD storage, upgraded to 8GB of RAM for $1600 but the lower model will do you right, too–I just recommend 8GB of RAM if you tend to have a lot of windows open at once (10 programs or more than 20 tabs in a browser.) If you're considering going for the SSD upgrade to 512GB, think twice. It's very expensive and will add $500 to your check out price, which is dangerously close to the cost of a 15-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display.
If you really hate Macs, the Lenovo X1 Carbon is the Windows-only ultrabook for you, in its touch or (cheaper) non-touch editions. If you're dead-set on a laptop/tablet hybrid, get the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13.
My philosophy is that the right computer for you is the one that you won't wince at because of either high price or low performance, and for me, the Macbook Air 13 is the one.