MacBook Air 2012 Review: Still The Best Laptop For Regular People

Like last year's update, the 2012 MacBook Air is entirely in the guts. The 2011 bump into present-day usability was enough to make it one of our best gadgets of the year. This year's update is more of the same, which is actually a good thing.

What Is It?

A super-thin, super-fast laptop with the guts to handle just about anything you'd need.

Why Does It Matter

This is the laptop by which all others are judged. The MacBook Air has been so successful that Apple ended the vanilla MacBook line and Air-ified the MacBook Pro. Ultrabooks are improving at a tremendous rate — and many are really wonderful — but the MacBook Air is still the standard-bearer.

Who Is It For

Probably you. Previous MacBook Airs have been capable everyday computing machines. Now, with an Ivy Bridge processor, more people can use a MacBook Air as a primary computer. Improved graphics enhance video games, and more RAM aids heavy-duty multitasking.

Design

Honed, refined and trademarked, the MacBook Air's unibody wedge design is as beautiful now as ever.

Using It

Using the MacBook Air is as pure a laptop computing experience as you're going to get. Its keyboard and trackpad are the best and smoothest out there, and the upgraded RAM capacity (finally) puts an end to any hiccups, slowdowns and unresponsiveness.

The Best Part

You can actually play video games now. Yeah, yeah, that was supposed to be a fundamental pillar of last year's model, and it did manage to run some games well enough. But really good performance was limited to years-old legacy releases, such as Call of Duty 4. On a maxed-out i7 Sandy Bridge MacBook Air from 2011, Diablo III ran OK at the very lowest settings, but it slowed at a crawl under the stress of multiplayer gameplay. With the new MacBook Air's Ivy Bridge processor, the game runs on medium-high settings flawlessly. That's true for all ultrabook-class machines running with Ivy Bridge chips, but it's still a massive improvement across one generation.

Tragic Flaw

The lack of ports. The MacBook Air has two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and a Thunderbolt port. It's fine, but more than two USB ports would have been nice. MicroHDMI and miniVGA are absent, but they're not really missed. An SD card slot on the 11-inch model really needs to happen at some point.

Test Notes

  • Predictably, the MacBook Air runs much hotter than similarly specced ultrabooks.
  • Gaming peripherals (Razer) had some driver issues, but that's more of a Mac OS X issue.
  • Trackpad scrolling and gesture performance are so much better on the MacBook Air compared to other ultrabooks that the comparison doesn't seem fair. The only other trackpad that approaches the one on the MacBook Air right now is in this year's Samsung Chromebook.
  • Real-world test: The speakers are loud enough to be heard clearly across a large room over a noisy air conditioner.

Should You Buy This?

Yes. The price range on the MacBook Air starts at $1099 and runs up to $2499 with all the optional hardware upgrades. Our review unit was $1799 as configured, which is in line with the best ultrabooks. Other laptop manufacturers have built on the gains they made in last year's round of ultrabooks — some of this generation's are pretty outstanding — but the king is still the king. There is no major innovation here. Nothing flashy like Surface. It's just the best, most complete laptop for the general public.

MacBook Air specs (as reviewed)

Processor: 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 17W dual-core Ivy Bridge Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4000 512MB (integrated) RAM: 8GB (4GB x 4GB); non-upgradeable Storage: 256GB SSD Display: 13.5-inch 1440x900 Ports: Thunderbolt (compatible with Mini DisplayPort), 2x USB 3.0, SD Card Slot, MagSafe 2.0 Dimensions: Height: 0.11-0.68 inches (0.3-1.7cm); Width: 12.8 inches (32.5cm); Depth: 8.94 inches (22.7cm) Weight: 1.35kg


Comments

    "Predictably, the MacBook Air runs much hotter than similarly specced ultrabooks."
    Why is this predictable? Seems a strange comment to me. Also, how does its performance compare to the updated Asus Zenbooks? Because my Zenbook outperforms the previous Air, by virtue of its significantly faster SSD. Now that Asus have addressed the only criticisms of it, as well as updating the system to Ivy Bridge and increasing screen res beyond the Air's, I can't see how an Air is better than it is. The Zenbook looks better, too.

      This year's Air got an SSD speed boost - I think from memory Anandtech's review said it was a stack quicker than the Zenbook.

      I also thought he said that the Zenbook's SSD was disappointing speed wise, but that might not be right.

      Mac runs OSX, Ultrabooks run Windows. What's your point. If you are a Mac user the MacBook Air is the best option for most people. Most people that want to buy Apple is for the OS not the hardware. So Ultabooks with Windows is not an option.

        Any computer can run any OS you like and Macs are specifically made to run Windows. I doubt most sheeple even think about the OS. After all, most of us buy a computer to run applications and the OS simply facilitates that, some better than others. Still, even if we take your assertion on board, "regular people" mostly use Windows, which means the title of the article is still incorrect (which was my point).

        This is a laptop review not OS review. Plenty of people want windows but the hardware hasn't been up yo scratch. Its starting to get that way. I would choose the Zenbook over the Macbook Air. If the zenbook didn't exist I'd choose the Mac.

          This is precisely the sort of comment that annoys the bejeesus out of me. Its the same hardware. EXACTLY the same hardware, sourced from the same suppliers. The big difference with a lot of it is that it is engineered with Windows in mind so it often works better with it than with MacOS.

      Yes but the Zenbook Prime (UX21/31A) has a much slower SSD now, resulting in it being out performed by the Macbook Air.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    Gizmodo loves anything apple.

      Correction: Gizmodo loves technology.

        So true, they gave the galaxy S3 a 4 star and this a 4.5?? lol ridiculous.

          Are you nerds actually just going to get over all this one day?

      FFS you guys sound like Sheldon and Leonard arguing

    It's new so it's gonna be good. We all have to wait till all the other manufacturers release their new line of ultra books then we can compare. I love the air but it's too expensive when you max out the options.

    "Still The Best Laptop For Regular People" - What an absurd conclusion. "Most people" don't need MBA/ultrabook level of portability, nor do they need MBA/ultrabook level of computing power. They certainly don't need to spend this amount of money on a laptop.

    In my experience "most people" use laptops for email, web browsing and media storage/playback, and only occasionaly take them out of their house. Also, "most people" would prefer a larger screen on their laptop given their typical uses.

    The base model Macbook Air is still priced significantly above low-end and mid-range laptops, which would be perfectly adequate for the average user. For basic portable computing, a tablet is a decent substitute.

      Perfectly adequate isn't what people. People want perfectly portable, with perfect multitouch and perfect boot times.

        And you know this how? In any event, I bet my Zenbook with Win8 boots up way quicker than any MacBook, Air or otherwise.

        "Perfect boot times"?

        Well I want a Ferrari, but unsurprisingly I can't justify the expense when a normal car will do the job for a fraction of the cost.

        My point was that the post title "Best Laptop for Regular People" is ridiculous, because regular people don't spend that kind of money on PCs, nor do they place a great deal of importance on portability, battery life or boot times. In my experience, storage space, screen size and low purchase price are far more important factors to the average user.

        Of course, if you're a road warrior (such as, say, a tech journalist) then performance, battery life and portability become a lot more important.

    This is wrong. If any of the Ultrabooks costs $1799, they would have out performed Macbook Air. Because price is directly related to what is inside and outside of any device. 1799, is not even a price for Ultrabook for me or many others. Simply, unnecessary waste of money for a laptop that we wanna use just 3 years. Why 3 years, because the technology will be outdated in three years and I don't wanna use an outdated device like many others. We need to consider price when we compare any laptops!

      Speak for yourself. I bought a $3000 Vaio last year and replaced it after just 9 months with my Zenbook, which cost $1230. At that price, I've decided I will update every year from now on, so as soon as the groovy new laptop/tablet combo thingmies hit the shelves after Win8 is released, I'll be updating again. That means I'll have an 11 month old Zenbook up on eBay come October.

      As for technology being outdated in 3 years, I still have my 4 year old Dell M4400 and I reckon it would suit 99% of users for a good while yet. Realistically, the iPad put a marker in the sand for the point when someone finally realised that our computers were far more powerful than most of us need them to be.

    It's more like the best laptop for regular people who want to pay double what it's worth because it looks shiney.

      regular people care about how things look, I know thats difficult for you to understand..

        Oh I know, but there's also regular people who are not quite so blind as well.

        So you're willing to pay twice the price so you get something that looks nice? That's pretty scary.

          'Scary' people buy designer forniture/clothes for 10 times the price of something that looks just average all the time.

    +1. Normal people need $400 pc with office and a web browser.

      +1 - The title says it all, "regular people" dont need a pc this powerful, gamers might, hipsters might and people that like to buy over priced hardware might too.

      Absolutely agree. I help friends and family choose new laptops all the time - there's no way in hell any of them were prepared to fork out ~$1500 for a Mac of any sort. $600 will get you a basic laptop that will do the job for 95% of users, and $1000 will get you a very nice machine.

      Incidentally, Microsoft knows that they have to compete agressively on price, and Surface RT is aimed directly at the "normal person" market. It's portable like an iPad, but can still download photos from your digital camera and connect to a flash drive without workarounds. It has Office pre-loaded, it has a convenient hardware keyboard and trackpad, and still gets long battery life and has a touchscreen for casual gaming. In short, it's pretty much perfectly designed to replace the average user's laptop with a cheaper, funkier alternative.

      Provided that Surface ends up being well priced and executed, I can see myself recommending that people with relatively modest computing needs consider a Surface RT as an alternative to a normal laptop.

    I dont get why anyone would recommend this over a zenbook prime?

    The only advantage the MBA has over it is you can potentially get 8gig of ram if your willing to pay and you get a better trackpad.

    Under "the best part" of the review you dont mention anything that makes the air stand out from the pack of other ivy bridge ultrabooks.

    Plus who seriously gets an ultrabook with a HD4000 to play intensive games?

    I'd love to see a comparison of the Air against the Asus Zenbook Prime. Those are the two I'm tossing up between, and the Prime wins in one of the most important areas - screen. Spec wise it's comparible, but right now the price is a bit high.

      +1. I can't get past the Prime's 1080p screen, especially on the 11in model. Perfect for full HD movie rips, not so good for font size...

      What's the best quote you've got? I got mine 2 weeks after it hit the shelves last year and JB dropped their pants without me having to do anything. I got it for $1350 (then I got my GST back at the airport a few days later), which was $350 less than RRP.

      Usually you can get significant discounts on anything thats not apple. Its another plus to the Zenbook.

      Its not officially released in Aus yet as far as I know. The importers are charging whatever they like as they know that its looking to be the best ultrabook for the year (until the touch versions are released)

    after 11th june12 there is only one macbook, i.e macbook pro with retina display, which is $2199 unrepairable eye-candy,
    no one wants to buy a mac without retina display (even if you go to the apple website and select mac, you will see a huge advertisement of macbook pro retina display not macbook air12 or pro12 !!!) and not every maclover cant afford $2199
    apple could upgrade all the mac's with retina display, but they did not! a real nasty marketing strategy !!! shame.
    (sorry for my bad english)

    Can't do your tax on one... or use chrome.

    Without Windows that is ;)

    Has anyone heard of abstraction?

    Take what you like and discard what you don't. All I care about is how good the Mac Book Air is. Can it be my choice when I plan to buy an ultra book. That's it.

    Whether it's better than other ultra books is for me to figure out. Whether it's for regular users or not. Whether I am a regular user or not. I don't care.

    Why get so offended with an article that someone has taken time to write. It is their opinion and if you don't agree, you can "discard" it.

    Yeah don't buy much of that article. Stick with the best product rather then just buying the next apple re-release

    Just don't you use them for a conference they have a issue with the VGA out adapter. I had issues with the last model but this one no good for anyone that does presentation

    Just don't you use them for a conference they have a issue with the VGA out adapter. I had issues with the last model but this one no good for anyone that does presentation

    I recently upgraded my home computer - while researching and playing at the Sydney Apple store I almost stepped into the world of Apple as the Air and Mac Book Pro just worked so well. I enjoyed playing with them. As an OS for usablity the Mac's just work and I could see myself using one in a heart beat. However, the cost is a factor plain and simple. In the end I spent less than half of the $2,499 for the Mac Pro I would want to get for gaming and got another desktop PC with mid range graphics, SSD and HDD i5 Ivy Bridge CPU.
    If however a pile of cash fell from the sky (say about $1,799) I wouldn't hesitate in buying an Air just to try it out and see what it was like for work and a little play...
    Thanks for the review I agree with most of it (in the short time I got to play with one) and would be lining up to get one if it wasn't for these pesky other bills and life stuff!
    Cheers

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