The MacBook Air has been one of Apple’s most popular, most enduring laptop designs, but that wasn’t always the case. When the first version of the laptop was released back in 2008, you had to pay too high a price for its thinness and lightness. And I’m not just talking about the literal price of the thing, either, although its $1,799 starting price was steep by any standard.
No, the main problems were that its anemic port selection made it annoying to use with the accessories of the day, while the available processors and hard drives made for a really slow, frustrating computer. It was way thinner and lighter than anything else you could get at the time, but most of the compromises weren’t worth it.
You could levy most of the same complaints at the 2015 version of the Retina Macbook, the Air’s spiritual successor; its problems weren’t quite as bad, but they were basically the same ones. It only had one port, and that port was a brand-new one that demanded the use of docks and dongles. And its underpowered processor made it feel like a three- or four-year-old MacBook Air rather than a brand-new computer. To these, it added a super-shallow keyboard that you could get accustomed to but never really enjoy.
Two years later, hardware improvements and the passage of time have made me more enthusiastic about the MacBook’s virtues and less bothered by its trade-offs. I still wish Apple would drop the price a couple hundred dollars and put the MacBook Air out of its misery, but even at $1,299 the MacBook has become a respectable mainstream laptop.
On the outside, not much has changed about the MacBook’s design. It’s still a two-pound slip of a laptop with a 12-inch 2304×1440 screen. It’s still made primarily of aluminum, which Apple will sell you in space gray, silver, gold, and rose gold finishes (the MacBook Pro still only comes in space gray and silver). The 2017 is not the lightest full-fledged laptop you can buy, but, at this screen size, it’s still one of the lightest. You’d be hard pressed to tell it from the 2015 or the 2016 versions.
What has changed on the 2017 MacBook, then? The only thing worth noting is the keyboard. First, it picks up little glyphs on the “control” and “option” keys, the same ones that appeared on some classic Mac keyboards and continue to be used in keyboard shortcuts throughout the OS. It’s a small change, but one that Apple feels strongly enough about that it has also tweaked its wireless Magic Keyboards and the MacBook Pro keyboards to include them.
But more importantly, Apple’s low-travel butterfly switch keyboard has been upgraded with the new second-generation switches first introduced in the MacBook Pros last year. The keys still have the same amount of physical travel as before—Apple keeps both the keyboard and the trackpad shallow to get the MacBook to its desired level of thickness without shrinking the battery too much—but the perceived travel is noticeably improved.
I won’t say that the difference is night and day, and neither will I say that everyone who hated the old keyboard will automatically love the new one. But I’ll say that going back to the first-gen version after using the second-gen version feels like trying to type on a pizza box with a keyboard drawn on it. For those who hated the 2015 MacBook’s keyboard, this one may be able to get you into “tolerable” territory. For those of you who could tolerate the first-gen keyboard, the second-gen version is almost comfortable. I’ve been using the 2016 MacBook Pro as my daily driver since October, and I’ve got no major complaints about key travel anymore. I like having the same keyboard in a slimmer laptop.
The other stuff that needed some getting used to back in 2015 just doesn’t bother me as much now. I’ve long since gotten used to using a Force Touch trackpad instead of a regular clicking trackpad, and even if I never really use the Force Touch interaction for anything in particular, I do appreciate the quieter clicks and the fact that “clicking” feels the same on the trackpad no matter where you press.
I’m also much further along in my transition to USB-C. I have plenty of dongles and cables, and I bought a decent set of Bluetooth headphones in anticipation of retiring my iPhone 6S for whatever Apple announces in September. I still think Apple could fit a second USB-C port in on the other side if it really wanted, and I’d prefer Thunderbolt 3 to USB-C if Apple can ever make some room on the MacBook’s tiny logic board (maybe we’ll see it after Intel integrates Thunderbolt into some of its chipsets). But living a one-ported lifestyle doesn’t feel quite as restricting as it did a couple of years ago, at least if you use your laptop mostly as a laptop and not as a desktop replacement.
Performance is the other area where the 2017 MacBook gets a big boost. Across most of the lineup, the transition from 2015’s Skylake architecture to 2016 and 2017’s Kaby Lake chips hasn’t been a huge deal. You get better support for encoding and decoding certain kinds of 4K video streams, something that will come home to roost for Mac users with High Sierra later this year. But most of the performance increases come from small boosts in clock speed.
But for the Y-series Core m3 and Core i5/i7 chips that the thin, fanless MacBook uses, those clock-speed increases are much more significant. In 2016, the base MacBook came with a 900MHz Core m3-6Y30 CPU with a 2.2GHz Turbo Boost speed. The 2017 version’s Core m3-7Y32 can boost all the way up to 3.0GHz, a huge change with a noticeable effect on performance.
The boost is nearly as significant for the mid-tier and high-end CPU options. The 2016 MacBook’s Core m5 and Core m7 options could Turbo Boost to 2.7 and 3.1GHz, respectively, while the 2017 version’s Core i5 and i7 go up to 3.2 and 3.6GHz. Of all the new Kaby Lake Macs, the MacBook benefits the most (the typical clock speed increase is closer to 200MHz).
In the charts below, the Core m3 version of the 2017 MacBook goes up against the Core m5 version of the 2016 MacBook (Apple picks the laptops it sends us, so we don’t always get equivalent configurations from year to year). And most of the time, the 2017 MacBook not only wins, but it does so by a significant margin. It’s still slower than the 13-inch MacBook Pros, but the gap isn’t that big, and, at this point, its performance should easily be able to match a modern MacBook Air’s.
You can see some areas where thermal limits are still going to affect the MacBook’s performance overall. In the Cinebench tests, which run longer and are more punishing than the Geekbench test, CPU throttling brings the 2017 MacBook down to roughly the same level as the 2016 MacBook. The MacBook isn’t the best fit for people with truly CPU-intensive workloads. But for everyday usage, things feel nice and responsive in a way that wasn’t always true of the original Retina MacBook.
Graphics and GPU compute performance, likewise, is mostly a wash. Scores are comparable across the board. UI performance and animations are generally fluid even when using the laptop in 1440×900 mode (the default is still 1280×800 mode). Things can still get choppy, though, if you connect an external display, especially if it’s a 4K display, which the MacBook can still drive at 60Hz over DisplayPort. High Sierra’s Metal 2 API and the work Apple has done to accelerate more of the UI with Metal may make things feel smoother in the autumn, but older MacBooks will benefit from this work, too.
One other nice improvement doesn’t show up in the benchmark numbers, too—for $200, Apple can now give your MacBook a 16GB RAM upgrade. This will do as much or maybe even more than the speed increase to make the MacBook more palatable for a wider range of people, though it does make the MacBook Pro’s 16GB RAM ceiling look even worse by comparison.
The storage interface in the new MacBooks doesn’t change—it still uses two lanes of PCI Express 3.0, compared to four lanes in the MacBook Pros and the new iMacs. Speed is up a little, but not a lot. The limiting factor is still the size of the MacBook’s logic board, which just can’t fit that many flash memory chips; the fastest SSDs depend on being able to make multiple reads from and writes to multiple chips at once.
Listing image by Andrew Cunningham