During its "Spring Forward" media event, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) announced that it had updated its 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air product lines. The 11-inch model was updated to include Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) new 14-nanometer Broadwell processors. The 13-inch model got the Broadwell update, but also saw a substantial upgrade in storage performance, with the company claiming that storage performance is now doubled.
Although the MacBook Air models still suffer from what I believe is a sub-par display at this point, the internals of the system are still quite competitive, and could potentially serve to offset the weak display. To that end, I think it's worth taking a closer look at how the 13-inch MacBook Air holds up against, say, a comparably priced Dell XPS 13 in the hardware department.
The new specifications
For $1,100, the 13-inch MacBook Air with a 128 gigabyte PCI Express flash drive comes with a Core i5-5250U -- with Intel HD 6000 graphics -- eight gigabytes of LPDDR3 memory, and a 1440-by-900 twisted nematic (TN) display. That same $1,100, spent on a Dell XPS 13 will get you a 256 gigabyte solid-state drive, a Core i5-5200 -- with Intel HD 5500 graphics -- eight gigabytes of DDR3L-RS memory, and a 1920-by-1080 IPS display.
What's interesting here is that, while the Dell machine customer gets a nicer display and more storage, the MacBook Air offers customers some advantages of its own. For example, DDR3L-RS is cheaper and consumes more power than the LPDDR3 used in the MacBook Air, which could impact battery life. Further, the processors inside of the MacBook Air come with Intel's HD 6000 graphics, which is a step up from the HD 5500 graphics.
Finally, according to performance tests run by Engadget, the Dell XPS 13's flash storage delivers read speeds of up to 515 megabytes per second, and write speeds of 455 megabytes per second. According to iFixit (via MacRumors), read speeds on the new refreshed MacBook Air 13-inch's solid state drive came in at 1285.4 megabytes per second, with write speeds at 629.9 megabytes per second.
With the refreshed MacBook Air, the focus continues to be on speed
The low resolution TN panel is a clear negative for Apple's current MacBook Air lineup, but the MacBook Air 13-inch does offer best-in-class processor, graphics, storage, and connectivity performance. Although I've long felt that Apple should upgrade the MacBook Air's display in order to stay competitive, it's clear to me that Apple, in stark contrast to what it did with its newly announced MacBook, continues to prioritize performance with the MacBook Air.
It's likely, then, that Apple may simply have not been able to afford to include a higher resolution IPS panel if it wanted to stay within its required cost structure. And for users willing to pay for higher-resolution displays, the new MacBook and the newly updated 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro are both solid offerings.
From a user experience perspective, this means that the current MacBook Air systems will be quite snappy. And for users who care more about performance and responsiveness than display quality, the MacBook Air should continue to be a solid choice. Given how much share Apple seems to be gaining in the PC market, even against Windows-based systems with higher-quality displays, its customers seem to agree.