six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This week's sponsor

Six Colors Membership - Help support us by becoming a member and get access to a members-only podcast, newsletter, and community.

By Jason Snell

The case for (and against) the MacBook Air

Last week I wrote about the best Mac laptop to buy for a student, based on the fact that I’m often asked by friends to recommend a laptop for their kids who are off to college or high school or just need something of their own instead of completely taking over the family computer (or one of their parents’ laptops).

I got a lot of feedback asking me why I hadn’t recommended the MacBook Air, which remains Apple’s most affordable laptop at $999. And they make a good point. The MacBook Air has long been a huge seller and is a light, capable laptop at a great price.

So I searched my feelings about why I didn’t recommend the MacBook Air, and what I found is a nagging, unpleasant feeling about the fact that the MacBook Air isn’t Apple’s latest and greatest, but a holdover from a past era that’s only hanging around because it’s cheap. While I was quick to recommend searching Apple’s refurbished Mac page, I was really pointing toward refurbished versions of the current MacBook and MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar) models, not the Air.

So here are the facts about the MacBook Air: It was basically last updated two years ago—a “refresh” this June brought an imperceptibly faster processor, but it’s still part of Intel’s fifth-generation “Broadwell” series, two full generations behind the processors in the MacBook and MacBook Pro. That’s not great in terms of envisioning how the Air will fare in three or four years—even a “new” Air bought today is really two years out of date, and in four years it’ll be six years out of date. The Air will age more rapidly, in the sense of becoming more incompatible with software and accessories, than the MacBook or MacBook Pro.

Then again: That processor is perfectly capable of doing all but the most challenging work. I have used my 2015-vintage 11-inch MacBook Air to write countless articles, edit graphics in Photoshop, and edit podcasts with a half-dozen tracks of uncompressed audio. I might not want to edit video on a MacBook Air, but beyond that, I feel like I could do about anything.

Then there’s the screen. When it comes to sharp-eyed teenagers who are used to streaming videos on Netflix and YouTube, I think the Air’s screen is actually its biggest liability. Its 13-inch screen is only 1440 by 900 pixels, so forget watching video at HD resolution. If the student in question is going to use their laptop to watch video—and I can’t speak for every teenager, but my daughter uses her laptop as her personal television all the time—they will absolutely be disappointed with the screen on the Air.

One of the Air’s assets is that it doesn’t mess around with these newfangled USB-C ports. It’s standard USB-A all the way, plus a Thunderbolt port, SD card reader, and a MagSafe power connector to avoid power-cord accidents. Today the MacBook Air requires fewer adapters and dongles than Apple’s other laptops. That’s an asset, but in three or four years it will probably be a liability, assuming that we are in the middle of a transition to USB-C. Still, for a student laptop, maybe it won’t matter.

Finally, there’s the keyboard: I’m a fan. Your student’s mileage may vary. Some people seem to really love the keyboards on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, which offer more stable keycaps but much less key travel than on the Air. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words on the MacBook Air keyboard and I still love it. It’s my favorite laptop keyboard, bar none. I’m a bit dubious that a teenager is going to care that much about keyboard design, but if yours does, it’s worth finding out if the MacBook Air’s keyboard might end up being an advantage. It’s probably the last computer Apple will ever make with that keyboard.

So is the MacBook Air the right computer to buy a student? I’m going to stand by my previous suggestions, but of course, budget is a huge factor. If you can find a deal on a used or refurbished modern MacBook or MacBook Pro, it might be a better long-term deal than buying an Air, because they’re built with the latest and greatest tech, not stuff that’s already a couple of years out of date. But the fact is, unless your student really cares about watching HD video (and doesn’t have a different device to use to watch that) or editing video, even the $999 MacBook Air will provide enough power to do almost anything they throw at it.

Or to put it a little more succinctly: The MacBook Air is a classic, in every sense of the word. It’s old—but it’s also great.

[If you appreciate articles like this one, help us continue doing Six Colors (and get some fun benefits) by becoming a Six Colors subscriber.]