When Apple redesigned the MacBook Air in 2010, it created one of the best machines to ever carry its Mac label. That new laptop was a revelation: extremely thin and light, like the original Air, yet also powerful enough for most tasks and equipped with a long-lasting battery. For years, the MacBook Air has been a standard-bearer, the role model for every Windows ultrabook, but 2015 has not been so kind to its leadership position. Apple introduced the new 12-inch MacBook and updated the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, both directly competing with the Air, and for those not umbilically attached to OS X, Dell’s XPS 13 offered a compelling Windows alternative. And this week there’s the looming threat of the iPad Pro on the horizon. Has Apple forsaken what was once its best PC?
Until this year, I wondered why anyone would buy the MacBook Pro, a laptop I considered to be a fatter, slightly more powerful version of the Air. Its battery didn’t last as long, it was thicker and heavier, and it was more expensive. After reviewing the 2015 MacBook Pro with Retina display, however, I’m asking myself why I am still stuck with the Air. The difference between the two machines is as simple as it is compelling: the display. Apple’s Pro laptop just embarrasses its Air sibling when the two are set side by side. The Pro has more than three times the resolution, much wider viewing angles, and better contrast and color reproduction. The new MacBook also has an IPS display with Retina-class resolution and it also looks light years better than the Air.
Apple is not a company that can be accused of doing things thoughtlessly, and the decision to leave the Air’s display at the lower quality and resolution must be taken as a deliberate one. In other words, Apple is comfortable with keeping the Air as a technological straggler in its lineup. That leaves us with a choice of two most likely scenarios: either the Air is destined for a future overhaul and its first redesign in five years or it has no future at all. There’s not enough room in Apple’s lineup for a MacBook, a MacBook Air, and a MacBook Pro — the MacBook is Apple’s ultraportable machine of the future and the MacBook Pro is the do-it-all laptop of today. The MacBook Air’s position seems tenuous already, and if the alleged iPad Pro does indeed materialize, then we may as well bid adieu to the Air entirely. The iPad Pro is expected to be a 12.9-inch device with optional keyboard and stylus accessories and the ability to run two full apps side by side. Sure, it will be based on iOS instead of OS X, but there are plenty of good iPad apps to replace the basic productivity tools of Apple’s desktop software. My usual MacBook Air workload involves writing, photo editing, communicating with colleagues, and keeping track of happenings on Twitter and YouTube. The presumed iPad Pro would handle the vast majority of these tasks with aplomb, and it would do it with a better-looking touchscreen display and potentially even thinner profile. Looking at Apple’s lineup with the iPad Pro included is like gazing out on a siege surrounding the MacBook Air. If a super-thin laptop is your top priority, get the new MacBook. If power and versatility are more important, get the MacBook Pro, which is only marginally heavier than the MacBook Air while giving you so much more. And if you want to have a touchscreen on your mobile PC, try out the iPad Pro. There’s just no clear-cut case for why the MacBook Air should exist, at least in its present state, in among all this internal competition from Apple itself. The Air rose to prominence by offering the perfect balance between a bunch of competing priorities, but now its multipurpose nature is acting against it, as it feels compromised from whatever perspective a potential buyer might approach it.
The Intel-fueled ultrabook movement came in the immediate wake of the 2010 MacBook Air, and for years it was simply a case of Windows PC makers trying to catch up with Apple’s paragon of laptop versatility. Uncompetitive battery life and unreliable touchpads were the bane of Windows laptops for a long time, however this year’s Dell XPS 13 is the harbinger of a much-improved class of competition. It has the build and display quality of a truly modern machine, and it’s not hampered by the old issues that held Windows back. With the new Skylake processors from Intel, many others should be joining Dell in providing highly attractive alternatives to Apple’s old reliable MacBook Air.
If Apple wanted to ward off the threat of Windows laptops, it would have meaningfully upgraded the MacBook Air by now. If it had wanted to keep its current product lineup, it would have given the Air a reason to exist alongside its other MacBooks. But what Apple wants is signaled most lucidly by the imminent arrival of the iPad Pro. There will be MacBooks and a MacBook Pro, there will be a set of mainstream iPads and an iPad Pro. It’s a clean, simple lineup with clear delineation between every product. As revolutionary as it once was, the MacBook Air just doesn't fit in Apple's future.