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Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) review: Apple's most affordable MacBook

Other parts of the design are worth leaving alone, and that includes the keyboard and touchpad (which Apple calls a trackpad). While you don't get the newer Force Touch trackpad found in both the 12-inch MacBook or the 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro, you'll hardly notice the difference. We have yet to find a touchpad that comes close to this for multitouch gestures, although we strongly suggest going into the Preferences menu and turning on all of the tapping options for further ease of use.

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The island-style keyboard is the same as seen on the last several generations of MacBook (with the exception of the shallower new keyboard on that 12-inch MacBook). Other laptops have matched, but not surpassed, the backlit Apple keyboard, and it's still great for long-form typing.

One area where the MacBook Air could use a serious refresh is in the display. The resolution is capped at 1,440x900, while even mid-priced Windows laptops now default to the HD standard of 1,920x1,080. Premium laptops at or around the price of the Air have also been moving past standard HD into even higher resolutions, all the way up to full 4K displays. And, as the MacBook Pro and 12-inch MacBook both have what Apple calls Retina displays, Apple is clearly comfortable with better-than-HD screens, although the Air feels left out of that trend.


Ports and connections

Video Thunderbolt 2/mini-DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphon/mic jack
Data 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

Connections and performance

When it first launched in 2008, the MacBook Air was roundly criticized for having only a single USB port. Since then, Apple has backed off a bit from this enforced minimalism, and the current Air has a pair of USB 3.0 ports, Thunderbolt 2 (which doubles as a mini-DisplayPort out, which -- with adapters -- works with HDMI or VGA), and an SD card slot. Interestingly, the new super-slim 12-inch MacBook is the new one-port laptop, with just a single USB-C port for everything, including power. But if history is any guide, future versions of that system will find a way to slip a few more ports in.

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The jump from last year's fourth-gen Intel CPUs to the fifth-gen Intel Core i5-5250U won't make a big difference in terms of application performance, especially for the mainstream tasks most MacBook Airs are used for. In everyday use -- Web surfing, social media, HD video playback -- any of the past few generations is more than powerful enough. This system came in just behind the more-powerful 2015 MacBook Pro in our multitasking test, although last year's Air (and indeed, most of the OS X Mavericks systems we've tested) are especially fast in our iTunes test, versus the systems with the current OS X Yosemite version of the operating system.

The real reason the we're maintaining our generally positive recommendation for the 2015 version of the MacBook Air is that while the design and features remain the same year after year, the battery life continues to improve. That's thanks to a combination of new Intel processors that improve with every generation, as well as Apple's ability to maximize battery life from its laptops.

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The 2013 13-inch Air ran for 14 hours and 25 minutes in our video playback battery drain test, while the 2014 version added to that, running for 16:26 on the same test. For 2015, we're up to 1,080 minutes, or 18 full hours. Even on a secondary test streaming non-stop HD video from the internet, which is a challenge for any laptop, the system ran for 10:08. This is truly an all-day laptop, even under the most strenuous of workloads.

Conclusion

While the MacBook Air no longer turns head like it once did, this remains a solid machine for work and play, and a staple of pretty much every airplane, coffee shop and conference room we've been in over the past few years.

Some parts of the body are feeling ever more out of date when compared to the sharpest new laptop designs, especially the lower-res display and its thick screen bezel. Some forward-looking features, from NFC chips to touchscreens to USB-C, are nowhere to be found. But balancing this out is the steady drumbeat of improved battery life, which gets a decent boost for 2015.

Of the current MacBook lineup, the Pro is now the most practical, with a higher-res screen, powerful performance, and a design that's still highly portable. The 12-inch MacBook is fun and flashy, but the shorter battery life, less muscular CPU power and limited ports mean it's for a much narrower audience. That said, while it's not the automatic first choice it once was, the Air is still good enough for almost every mainstream task, and its lower price means it's likely to remain the most popular MacBook.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
303
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
370
Dell XPS 13 (non-touch, 2015)
428
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
465
HP Spectre x360
475
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014)
478

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

HP Spectre x360 13t
235
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014)
253
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
261
Dell XPS 13 (non-touch, 2015)
263
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
268
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
307

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Apple iTunes encoding test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014)
76
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
99
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
107
Dell XPS 13 (non-touch, 2015)
112
HP Spectre x360 13t
113
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
130

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
1080
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014)
986
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
946
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
747
Dell XPS 13 (non-touch, 2015)
726
HP Spectre x360 13t
720

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System Configurations

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) Apple OS X 10.10.2 Yosemite; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6000; 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) Apple OS X 10.10.2 Yosemite; 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6100; 128GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (non-touch, 2015) Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2000MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 128GB SSD
HP Spectre x360 13t Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) Apple OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks ; 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-4260U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1536MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) Apple OS X 10.10.2 Yosemite ; 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y31; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1536MB Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD

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