Apple has a real crowd-pleaser on its hands with the long-overdue return of the MacBook Air. With modern processors and a new retina screen, plus a redesigned unibody and Touch ID, it’s definitely gathering some interest from fans of the original.
But what about the MacBook, the oddly in-between redesign that goes without an adjective? Introduced in 2015, this teeny-tiny 12-inch laptop was ostensibly the successor to the original Air, re-using the name of the old plastic entry-level Mac laptops for a sleek unibody design powered by Intel’s low-power Core M series. Apple still sells the 12-inch MacBook despite going more than a year without a hardware upgrade. But why?
Let’s look at this from a purely technical perspective, and specifically at the entry models in both the MacBook and MacBook Air lines. Here are the specs for both. Note that, despite being a year older, the smaller MacBook is still $100 more expensive.
As you can see, the only real advantage that the smaller MacBook has is a larger base SSD. That’s arguably offset by the MacBook Air’s new Touch ID feature, but those that really want more storage can upgrade to a 256GB M.2 for a hefty two hundred bucks. Even then, you’re getting a bigger, better screen, a much faster processor, better battery life, an extra USB-C/Thunderbolt port, and a more comfy keyboard, plus TouchID, for a hundred bucks more. It seems that, at just below or just above the current entry price, the Air beats the smaller MacBook in every way.
Let’s say you have the budget for a better Mac, but don’t want the bulk of one of the larger MacBook Pros or the questionable utility of that Touchbar. Here are a couple of upgraded MacBooks, both Air and non-Air, weighing in around the $1800 mark, boosting several key specs.
Again, fairly similar on paper. The MacBook gets access to an i7 processor, but it’s last year’s model, and with a slower standard clock and an identical “turbo boost” speed to the new MacBook Air’s upgraded Core i5. For fifty bucks more, you get all the advantages of the refreshed MacBook Air design, plus double the storage. The smaller MacBook can’t be configured with anything bigger than that 256GB drive, while the Air can fit a capacious 1.5TB SSD inside… if you’re willing to pay an extra grand.
Who’s the MacBook For Now?
So where does this leave the 12-inch MacBook? True, it’s smaller than the new MacBook Air, as it was smaller than the original 14-inch Air. It’s a hair thinner at only .51 inches, about an inch more narrow and half an inch shorter in terms of depth. Amusingly, it’s about three-quarters of a pound lighter than the MacBook Air, meaning that Apple’s new “Air” laptop is only the second-lightest in its lineup.
But this is, almost literally, splitting hairs. Both the MacBook and the MacBook Air are so tiny that making a decision based on which one is even tinier seems less than wise. And in the case of the base model, it’s less than frugal, too. That’s an odd position since the “MacBook” started out as the less premium option beloved by undergrad students and those new to Apple’s expensive ecosystem.
To be blunt, buying a MacBook over a MacBook Air right now is a poor choice. Unless you absolutely must have that extra inch or extra pound, there’s no reason not to go for the newer design.
What Happens Next?
The revival of the Air name, even if it never technically went away, is telling. In an alternate universe we might have had the same trio of Mac laptops we do now, with the names re-arranged: the MacBook Pro at the high end with the most robust hardware options, the new MacBook Air more simply called the “MacBook” to line up with the original plastic models as an entry option, and the current MacBook labeled the Air as a machine that compromises a few of Apple’s finer design points for ultimate portability.
But we don’t. The Air was revived in a flashy New York City event, with barely a mention of the MacBook that’s not even three years old. And the Air keeps its original moniker, despite being marginally bigger and heavier than the MacBook. What gives?
I think it’s fair to estimate that the 12-inch MacBook introduced in 2015 is not long for this world. It was greeted with trepidation upon its introduction, with reviewers praising the tiny dimensions and bright screen, but less happy with a single expansion port and an uncomfortable keyboard. Many Apple fans either opted for the more expensive Pro models or just hung on to their aging MacBook Airs for a while longer, longing for the Retina upgrade that Apple delivered today.
So the new MacBook Air gets all the fresh hardware while the MacBook has to make do with 2017 specs, and the new machine is cheaper or comparably priced while more or less completely replacing the niche the smaller design fills. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the 12-inch MacBook disappear from Apple’s online and retail stores after the remaining stock sells out, late this year or early in 2019.
What then? Apple would seem to be filling pretty much all of its needs with a mid-range Air and high-end Pro. Apple could redesign the MacBook yet again, delivering a sub-$1000 Apple laptop. And they could use one, or at least cash-strapped Apple fans could. The older MacBook Air design, sans Retina display and with a three-year-old processor, is currently the only Mac laptop under a grand. One dollar under, to be precise.
But something tells me that in the age of $1500 iPhones, Apple’s not going to worry about the lower part of the laptop market too much. If you want an Apple computer for less than the average mortgage payment, they probably want you to buy an iPad instead. Then you can make the same “what’s a computer?” joke every tech journalist made on Twitter yesterday.