Low End Mac’s Compleat* Guide to the MacBook Air

When Steve Jobs debuted the MacBook Air on January 15, 2008 at the San Francisco Macworld conference, he famously demonstrated its thinness by pulling one out of a manila envelope. He claimed it was the thinnest laptop in the world.

Macbook Air envelope

It came out of an envelope!

The Early 2008 MacBook Air

At the time, though, thinness didn’t come cheap – the 13″ MacBook Air (model A1237) base price was US$1,799, which got you a 3 pound laptop powered by a special smaller, more battery-friendly version of Intel’s Core 2 Duo Merom – a 1.6 GHz model custom made by Intel for Apple. Standard storage was an 80 GB 4200-rpm hard drive. A 64 GB SSD was available as an added-cost ($999!) option; this was the first time Apple offered an SSD drive option. 2 GB of memory was built-in – with no other RAM options available.

With the default CPU and hard drive, this was the slowest performer in Apple’s 2008 product line. Geekbench results put it in the same ballpark as the Early 2006 1.83 GHz Mac mini with the original Core Duo CPU. You could order a faster 1.8 GHz processor and the SSD option to improve performance – and boost the price to US$3,098.

Notable at the time was what wasn’t included: Unlike most laptops of the day, there was no optical drive; users needing to install software from a DVD disc were encouraged to either purchase Apple’s SuperDrive connecting via USB or to share the optical drive on another Mac across a WiFi network.

Also missing were multiple USB ports. You got one. Enjoy it.

Need more than 2 GB of memory? Tough.

Want wired Ethernet? Buy a USB dongle.

Need FireWire? Sorry.

Need more than 64 or 80 GB of built-in storage? Then this isn’t for you.

It’s Not a Netbook

Unlike popular and affordable ultra-portable Windows or Linux netbooks of the day, the MacBook Air included a reasonable screen resolution – 1280 x 800 pixels (the same resolution found on MacBooks of the day) – and a full-sized keyboard and trackpad in a sleek aluminum case.

At release time, the original Air was praised for its thinness, low weight, and full-sized keyboard and trackpad, but reviewers were concerned by its limited configuration options, relatively slow performance, non-replaceable battery, and by the flip-down door covering the audio jack and USB and micro-DVI ports – the door kept some plugs from fitting properly into the ports. Having just one USB port required juggling at times – if you needed to connect to an ethernet network and a USB printer at the same time, you would need a USB hub.

That original MacBook Air model was controversial – but PC manufacturers rushed to release competing models, generically referred to as ultrabooks. Intel happily sold them the shrunk-down CPU it had developed for Apple.

Curious but True

Like other computers of the era, Apple shipped the original MacBook Air with a set of DVD discs for reinstalling the operating system (OS X 10.5.1 Leopard) and more. But the Air lacked an optical drive. The discs, however, included a Remote Disc utility in both Mac and Windows versions that was designed to be used on another computer; Apple’s Bonjour networking would allow the Air to read the remote data disc. The Air was even able to boot from the remote disc to reinstall OS X (slowly).

The Early 2008 MacBook Air has a drive connector unique among Macs. Other World Computing sells 64 GB and 128 GB SSDs for this model at much nicer prices than Apple charged for them back in 2008.

Late 2008 MacBook Air

That original model stayed in production from January through October 2008; the Late 2008 model (A1304) offered improved performance even though it used the same CPU models by speeding up the data bus and graphics chipset, including a larger cache, and switching from PATA to SATA for its hard drive or SSD. In benchmarks, it scored 10-20% better than the original.

Geekbench 3, 32-bit multi-core results

  • 1.6 GHz Early 2008, 1183
  • 1.8 GHz Early 2008, 1283
  • 1.6 GHz Late 2008, 1453 – 23% faster than 1.6 GHz Early 2008
  • 1.86 GHz Late 2008, 1416 – other Geekbench tests have a higher score than the 1.6 GHz Late 2008 model

The micro-DVI port of the original model was replaced with a mini DisplayPort, allowing it to drive higher resolution external displays.

A 128 GB SSD was available as an option, offering twice the storage at a lower price ($699) than the original model, bringing the price of an Air tricked out with the faster CPU and SSD to $2,499.

Other World Computing offers 60, 120, 240, and 480 GB SSD upgrades for this model.

Mid 2009 MacBook Air

That model was replaced in turn in June 2009. The Mid 2009 MacBook Air (A1304) offered 1.86 and 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo CPUs and a choice of either a 120 GB hard drive or a 128 GB SSD. Price was reduced on both the base and high-end model, ranging from $1,499 to $1,799.

Geekbench 3, 32-bit multi-core results

  • 1.6 GHz Late 2008, 1453
  • 1.86 GHz Late 2008, 1416
  • 1.83 GHz Mid 2009, unknown
  • 2.13 GHz Mid 2009, 1859

Geekbench 4, 64-bit multi-core results

  • 1.6 GHz Late 2008, 1772
  • 1.86 GHz Late 2008, 1972
  • 1.83 GHz Mid 2009, unknown
  • 2.13 GHz Mid 2009, 2217

Other World Computing offers 60, 120, 240, and 480 GB SSD upgrades for this model.

Late 2010 MacBook Air: SSD Only

October 2010 brought bigger changes. While still sporting a 13″ screen, the Late 2010 MacBook Air (A1369) got a redesigned case design – one that continues to be in use (with only minor modifications) in 2018, perhaps the longest Apple has kept any single design in production. It kept the same Core 2 Duo CPU models used in the previous incarnation, but Apple dropped the traditional hard drive – from now on, all MacBook Airs would come with solid state storage – 128 or 256 GB options. 2 GB RAM was standard, but for the first time users could opt for 4 GB at the time of purchase. Again, RAM could not be upgraded after purchase.

Screen resolution got a boost to 1440 x 900 pixels, powered by an Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor. Connectivity was improved with two USB 2 ports along with an SD memory card slot. Battery life was rated at 7 hours (from the original model’s 5 hours) and maximum battery cycles had jumped to 1000 from the original 300. Pricing dropped again, starting at $1,299, with the larger SSD adding $300 to the cost.

One More Thing: An Even Smaller MacBook Air

Apple was phasing out its relatively affordable polycarbonate white $999 MacBook – what proved to be the final version was released in May 2010, staying in production through July 2011. Along with the new 13″ MacBook Air, October 2010 saw Apple’s release on a different $999 model – the first 11″ MacBook Air (A1370). Like it’s bigger sibling, the smaller Air’s design remained – without major modification – through the rest of this product’s lifespan.

Smaller and lighter than the 13″ Air, this first iteration of the 11″ Air came with somewhat slower Core 2 Duo processors: 1.4 or 1.6 GHz options; the $999 base model shipped with a 64 GB SSD; $200 more boosted that to 128 GB. (A 256 GB SSD was also available). Like the larger model, it could be ordered with either 2 or 4 GB of RAM – again, this was not upgradeable after purchase.

Like the 13″ model, the smaller Air included a pair of USB 2 ports and a GeForce 320M graphics card. Unlike the larger model, it lacked an SD memory card slot and had a lower screen resolution: 1366 x 768 pixels.

Geekbench 4, 64-bit multi-core results

  • 1.4 GHz 11″ Late 2010, 1628
  • 1.6 GHz 11″ Late 2010, 1749
  • 1.83 GHz 13″ Late 2010, 2192
  • 2.13 GHz Mid 2009, 2217
  • 2.13 GHz 13″ Late 2010, unknown

Mid 2011 MacBook Air: Intel Core i Doubles Processing Power

The July 2011 13″ and 11″ models kept the same model numbers but replaced the Core 2 Duo CPUs with Intel’s new Core i5 and i7 Sandy Bridge CPUs; a 1.7 GHz i5 or 1.8 GHz i7 in the 13″ Air, while the 11″ model offered a 1.6 GHz i5 or 1.8 GHz i7. With the new Core i CPUs, these models more than doubled the processing power of their immediate predecessors!

In both models, the Mini DisplayPort was replaced with Thunderbolt ports – visually identical, but much more capable – allowing, for instance, faster Ethernet dongles that didn’t need to take up a USB port.

And these remained the standard MacBook Air designs for the rest of the product’s run, with relatively modest improvements.

Geekbench 4, 64-bit multi-core results

  • 1.4 GHz 11″ Late 2010, 1628
  • 1.6 GHz 11″ Late 2010, 1749
  • 1.83 GHz 13″ Late 2010, 2192
  • 1.6 GHz Core i5 11″ Mid 2011, 3788
  • 1.7 GHz Core i5 13″ Mid 2011, 4366
  • 1.8 GHz Core i7 13″ Mid 2011, 4696
  • 1.8 GHz Core i7 11″ Mid 2011, 4788

Mid 2012 MacBook Air

The June 2012 update brought Ivy Bridge generation CPUs to the MacBook Air – for the 13″ (A1466), 1.8 GHz Core i5 or 2.0 GHz Core i7. The 11″ (A 1465) came with a 1.7 GHz i5 or 2.0 GHz i7. The slowest Mid 2012 model was more powerful than the fastest Mid 2011 MacBook Air.

Both models could be ordered with 8 GB of RAM, a first for the MacBook Air product line, and a 512 GB SSD.

For the first time, the MacBook Airs included faster USB 3 ports.

Geekbench 4, 64-bit multi-core results

  • 1.6 GHz Core i5 11″ Mid 2011, 3788
  • 1.7 GHz Core i5 13″ Mid 2011, 4366
  • 1.8 GHz Core i7 13″ Mid 2011, 4696
  • 1.8 GHz Core i7 11″ Mid 2011, 4788
  • 1.7 GHz Core i5 11″ Mid 2011, 4803
  • 1.8 GHz Core i5 13″ Mid 2012, 5008
  • 2.0 GHz Core i7 13″ Mid 2012, 5785
  • 2.0 GHz Core i7 11″ Mid 2012, 5898

Mid 2013 MacBook Air: Dramatic Battery Life Improvements

For the Mid 2013 MacBook Air, Intel’s Haswell chipset promised dramatic battery life improvements over previous generations – Apple promised up to 12 hours of battery life on the 13″ model (still A1466) and up to 9 hours on the 11″ (still A1465), due to its smaller battery. Both models sported CPUs that appeared to run slower than the previous generation: 1.3 GHz Core i5 or 1.7 GHz Core i7 on both the 13″ and 11″ models – these slower base speeds were touted as battery-saving features; these CPUs feature Turbo Boost, allowing them to run at nearly double their rated speed.

Geekbench 4, 64-bit multi-core results

  • 1.7 GHz Core i5 11″ Mid 2011, 4803
  • 1.3 GHz Core i5 13″ Mid 2013, 4937
  • 1.8 GHz Core i5 13″ Mid 2012, 5008
  • 1.3 GHz Core i5 11″ Mid 2013, 5012
  • 2.0 GHz Core i7 13″ Mid 2012, 5785
  • 2.0 GHz Core i7 11″ Mid 2012, 5898
  • 1.7 GHz Core i7 13″ Mid 2013, 6227
  • 1.7 GHz Core i7 11″ Mid 2013, 6328

Early 2014 MacBook Air

Released in April 2014, the Early 2014 MacBook Air still used Haswell generation chips; 1.4 GHz i5 or 1.7 GHz i7 on both models. The base price of the 13″ model dropped to $999, while the 11″ model started at $899.

Early 2015 MacBook Air

In March 2015, Apple introduced the Early 2015 MacBook Air using Intel’s Broadwell generation CPUs: 1.6 GHz Core i5 or 2.2 GHz Core i7 on the 13″. Updated Intel HD Graphics 6000 chipsets, faster Thunderbolt 2 connectors. This was the final version of the 11″ MacBook Air – production of that model ended in October 2016.

Mid 2017 MacBook Air

As of June 2017, the 13″ Mid 2017 MacBook Air became the only model available. It still uses Broadwell CPUs, either a 1.8 GHz Core i5 or a 2.2 GHz Core i7.

Geekbench 4, 64-bit multi-core results

This list only includes 13″ models from 2014 through 2017. Geekbench does not have sufficient results to report on all processor options.

  • 1.4 GHz Core i5 Early 2014, 5145
  • 1.6 GHz Core i5 Early 2015, 5585
  • 1.8 GHz Core i5 Mid 2017, 6170
  • 2.2 GHz Core i7 Early 2015, 6893

Overview

The MacBook Air started life just over 10 years ago more as a high-priced proof of concept than as a model aimed at mass acceptance: Apple wanted to demonstrate that it could make a thin, light laptop, showing what that era’s netbook could be if it wasn’t designed to be ultra-cheap along with ultra-light. The compromises – together with the high price – relegated the original MacBook Air to a niche market.

The 2010 redesign gave us a form factor that is still being used in the current 13″ MacBook Air and bypassed several of the limitations of the original model. More significantly, it rethought the Air’s price point – from now on, the MacBook Air – and especially the 11″ model – became Apple’s entry-level portable computer, moving from luxury model to (relatively) affordable.

The Mid 2013 models were perhaps MacBook Air’s peak – Intel’s Haswell generation chipset produced a big jump in battery life, with the 13″ model promising up to 12 hours on a charge compared to 7 hours in the 2012 model. And in a laptop designed to be taken places, that made a big difference in usability, making it a laptop that could last a whole day and was light enough to want to take around with you.

Models since then have seen only modest improvements. In particular, Apple hasn’t changed screen resolution since 2010. When the Retina-screen 12″ MacBook was released in April 2015, its 12″ screen and single USB-C port was reminiscent of the original MacBook Air. Its base price was higher ($1,299) than either the 11″ or 13″ Airs, and both of those models remained in Apple’s product line, offering options for customers whose budgets stopped at US$1000.

Apple has stopped selling the 11″ Air – the 13″ model remains for sale, but with minimal upgrades and – in particular – a screen resolution that was good in 2010 but is now a bit of an embarrassment. Continued sales are a testament to the quality and value of its now 8-year old design, but I wonder how much longer it will remain in production?

* No, it isn’t a typo. Compleat is a legitimate, albeit archaic, spelling for complete. As Kenneth G. Wilson says in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English: “This obsolete spelling of the adjective complete suggests an air of antiquity that seems to please some of those who name things….” We find that fitting for Low End Mac’s guides to “obsolete” hardware and software.

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