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Apple MacBook Air (2017) review: An old friend shows its age

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The Good The MacBook Air remains the least expensive MacBook, and has finally received a minor spec upgrade. Battery life is excellent, and performance for everyday tasks remains smooth. It's the only MacBook left with standard USB ports or a MagSafe connection.

The Bad The design feels dated, with a thick bezel around a low-resolution screen. Windows laptops in the same price range offer newer components, higher-res screens and lighter, slimmer bodies.

The Bottom Line The MacBook Air lives to fight another day, thanks to its mainstream price and long battery life, but this classic laptop is definitely in its twilight.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 9

Editors' note, Oct. 31, 2018: Apple has announced a new version of the MacBook Air, which starts at $1,199 (£1,199, AU$1,849) and features a Retina display, Touch ID and USB-C ports. The version reviewed below remains on sale, for now, and still starts at $999 (£949, AU$1,499). The original review, published on Aug. 17, 2017, follows.


Apple's MacBook Air is as close to iconic as a piece of consumer technology gets. It's the single laptop model you're most likely to see everywhere, from college campuses to airports to coffee shops and even offices. And it's been that way for a very long time.

That's the problem. Not counting an incremental spec bump in mid-2017, this is still internally almost the same MacBook Air as the last refresh in 2015, and externally, it's had basically the same design since 2010 (when the original 2008 design got an overhaul). In technology terms, that's roughly forever.

apple-macbook-air-2017-21
Sarah Tew/CNET

But it's also a testament to what a strong product the Air was in its heyday. To have a laptop that looks and feels the same as it did for so many years while still a maintaining a loyal following, that's a rare achievement. The MacBook Air is no longer the best-for-almost-everyone device it once was, but it's the least expensive way (by far) to get MacOS on a laptop, so there's certainly still a place for it. Note that the Air we tested had a Core i7 CPU and 256GB SSD upgrade, for a total of $1,349, £1,234 or AU$2,039. The Air still starts at $999, £949 and AU$1,499, and can be found for even less online.  

SYSTEM NAME

Price as reviewed $1,349, £1,234 or AU$2,039 (starts at $999, £949 or AU$1,499)
Display size/resolution 13-inch, 1,440x900-pixel display
CPU 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-5650U
Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 6000
Storage 256GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless; Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system MacOS 10.12.6 Sierra

Still kicking

And a lot about the MacBook Air still works. As a long-time Air user, but also someone who hasn't spent a lot of time on one over the last few years, firing up the 2017 version felt like visiting an old friend.

There's the just-right size of the 13-inch screen, still the best balance between viewability and portability; the rock-solid aluminum body, which can stand up to years of abuse; and the chunky island-style keyboard, itself now extinct across the rest of the MacBook line, replaced by super-shallow butterfly keys that lack this level of tactile feedback.

apple-macbook-air-2017-16
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Air also scores points for being the last MacBook with a good, old-fashioned USB-A port. You know, the kind that every mouse, memory key and other accessory you own fits into. The MacBook Pro and the 12-inch MacBook have both gone all-in on USB-C, which is forward-looking to be sure, but a limiting frustration for many.

Picking it up, I was reminded of another reason I loved this particular laptop line for so long: the MagSafe power connection. The plug, which automatically pulls away from the body when you yank the cord or trip over it, remains one of the most brilliant bits of consumer PC engineering ever. 

apple-macbook-air-2017-12
Sarah Tew/CNET

It's since been replaced by USB-C power connections, which are handy for sharing data, power, video and other connections through the same port, but not nearly as flexible. That classic MagSafe has rescued many, many laptops from a grim fate over the years, and that's just the ones I've personally almost killed. 

Feeling its age

But using a MacBook Air, even a brand new one, in 2017 feels like getting stuck in a bit of a time warp. The processor is years out of date compared to newer slim laptops -- even though the big update for 2017 is a slight base CPU uptick, from a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 to a 1.8GHz one, or in our case, an optional 2.2GHz Core i7. All are from the same fifth generation of those chips, while Intel is about to announce details of the upcoming eighth-generation Core CPUs.

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