The 15-inch MacBook Air just nails it
Vast battery life, zippy performance, and rich speakers make an impressive package
Desktop Tourism When I speak to laptop-makers about their wares, they often admit that the benchmark in their field is the MacBook Air. Ever since its 2008 debut, Apple's minimalist portable has been the standard others aspire to match, despite changing little from the formula of a gently tapering aluminum clamshell with screens of between 11 and 13 inches.
But in 2023 Apple made big changes: this year's MacBook Air (MBA) has a more squared-off design, and a larger 15″ model.
Desktop Tourism couldn't resist taking one for a trip.
You may not be able to, either.
For starters, battery life is beyond impressive. I hooked the machine up to Wi-Fi, prevented it from shutting down its screen or sleeping, then left YouTube running until the battery gave up … 17 hours and 20 minutes later. Across a day of use at a conference, which involved plenty of non-stop use punctuated by shutdowns for meals and moving between meetings, I used half the battery's capacity in eight-and-a-half hours.
Apple includes a power supply that delivers 35 watts, but also offers a 70-watt unit. I'm unsure if including the 35W unit is a sign of Apple's confidence that a lesser charger will not disappoint, or a cynical ploy to secure a second sale. The 35-watt unit is pleasingly small (40 x 97 x 97 mm) and light (170g) and offers a pair of USB-C ports. It's no hassle to carry, unlike so many other laptop chargers. The Air's pair of USB-C ports can accept power input, but Apple ships the machine with a USB-C-to-MagSafe cable.
That long battery life is attributable to Apple's M2 silicon, which for the first time saw the Cupertino fruit cart dare to try a 15-inch screen in the Air.
Long battery life did not come at the expense of speed: the machine ploughed through Desktop Tourism's chore of downscaling a five-minute, 4K video to HD in two minutes and twelve seconds – a little slower than Core i7 and i9 machines we've tested. But the MacBook Air delivered that number while running (accidentally) on its battery and then did it again a little faster on mains power. The same chore in a Windows for Arm VM running under the Apple-silicon-native version of VMware Fusion required 10:39. That's a little swifter than some Intel-powered machines we've tested (albeit under different conditions as we usually test an Ubuntu guest on a Windows host). The lure of an all-Arm test with client OSes was hard to resist – Ubuntu desktop isn't yet a formal thing on Arm.
Apple won't mind being behind on Cinebench, as it doesn't think its own silicon lends itself to apples-to-oranges comparisons with PCs built around a collection of third-party products.
Jobsian reality distortion effects aside, the MacBook Air just feels fast. Twenty-four gigabytes of Hynix LPDDR5 memory can't hurt – nor would the eight-core M2 (which also packs a 10-core GPU) and a two-terabyte SSD. You pay for that power: the machine I tested sells for $2,499/£2,599.
Desktop Tourism's first hour with a new machine usually involves lots of simultaneous downloads and software installations. PCs routinely protest during that part of our appraisal process, with whirring fans the main symptom.
The MBA doesn't have fans and didn't run noticeably hotter during periods of peak exertion.
My ears were therefore uninterrupted as they enjoyed the sounds of the MacBook's speakers. The laptop's stereo picks out distinct left and right channels and does a fine job on the bass register. The sad passing of Shane MacGowan means I've been revisiting his oeuvre, and the Air's speakers do a fine job on his gravelly snarls, while the mandolins and tin whistles employed by MacGowan's bands pop brightly.
Apple has made the mistake of placing the headphone jack at the machine's rear. Two USB-C ports means the machine looks sleek, but that look is quickly besmirched when I reached for a dongle to connect my extensive collection of USB-A-equipped peripherals or connect to the wired network that is my preference.
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The keyboard is placed centrally with around three centimeters separating its last keys from the laptop's edge – a gap that feels like wasted space even if I could find nothing negative to say about Apple's input device. The trackpad is large and responsive. The 15.3-inch, 2880×1864 screen sparkled, but I found its mid-range brightness settings a little disappointing.
I've not used a Mac daily for years, and macOS felt a little frustrating as the navigation elements on windows are too small. As a Desktop Tourist, I found myself using Command-Tab to find files instead of the more appropriate macOS keypress that's long since left my muscle memory.
But overall, the 2023 MacBook Air is a delight. It's been a long time since I strode into a conference venue without any anxiety about the availability of a power point.
The chorus of Shane MacGowan's St John of Gods repeats the phrase "F yez all." Apple would never be so crude, but as I spent pleasant days on the MacBook Air while revisiting MacGowan's legacy, I felt those words could comfortably be applied to laptop-makers that claim they've matched the 15″ MacBook Air. ®