MacBook Air vs. (mythical) Retina MacBook Air: Should you buy now or wait?

MacBook Air vs. Retina MacBook Air: Should you buy now or wait?

The new, less expensive MacBook Air is tempting. But is Apple planning to release a Retina MacBook Air, and if so, should you wait?

Apple refreshed the MacBook Air this week, bumping processor speeds modestly and dropping the price $100. Meanwhile, rumors abound that Apple is working on a new laptop model, possibly a MacBook Air with Retina display. Is now the right time to buy a MacBook Air, or should you wait to see what shakes out of the Apple tree?

From the outset, I want to make it clear — right now there is no Retina MacBook Air. There are rumors that one is on the way, but rumors are often wrong, and that may not be what Apple plans to do at all. But it's a question I've been hearing a lot since the new MacBook Air models debuted on Tuesday, so I thought I'd take a crack at answering it.

The updated MacBook Air gets a 100 MHz faster processor, but other than that, the hardware remains untouched — graphics, RAM and storage are all the same as before; the outward appearance of the MacBook Air is identical to its predecessor, and in all other respects it's the same device as it was.

That includes the display. The 11-inch MacBook Air sports a 1366 x 768 pixel display, while the 13-inch bumps the resolution up to 1440 x 900. That's the same resolution that's been around for a while.

The case for higher resolution

Meanwhile, many Apple customers in the market for a new laptop have flocked to the MacBook Pro with Retina display. The 13-inch model sports an astonishing native resolution of 2560 x 1600 — and in fairness, that's way too small to read anything. The highest scaled resolution is 1680 x 1050, still a damn sight better than the 13-inch MacBook Air.

But resolution only tells part of the story. The Retina MacBook Pros also renders text very smoothly, making it easier to read text at smaller point sizes, and produce beautiful imagery with clarity and depth unmatched by anything on the MacBook Air. Putting them side by side and looking at the same image is especially telling — the MacBook Pro with Retina Display just looks a lot better.

So it's reasonable to want a MacBook Air with Retina display. Why hasn't Apple done it? Battery life comes into play - the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro has a 71.8 watt-hour battery, almost one-third more capacity than the 13-inch MacBook Air. Yet the Retina MacBook Pro's battery life is estimated at only 9 hours, compared to 12 for the MacBook Air. The additional power needed to drive the higher resolution display is a big reason for that.

The MacBook Air fits an important part of the Mac ecosystem. It's Apple's most lightweight laptop, and it works the longest per charge of any MacBook. The MacBook Air is a solid performer despite its lightweight CPU, thanks to a streamlined architecture with features like PCI Express (PCIe)-based flash storage and Intel HD 5000 graphics. But it really can't compete with the Retina MacBook Pro for heavy-duty use.

Putting the clues together

I don't have any particular insight if Apple is indeed working on a MacBook Air with Retina display, but it makes sense to me that that's the direction we're headed. Retina displays are now ubiquitous across the iOS line, and the "standard" MacBook Pro sans Retina display seems destined for the dustbin. That leaves the MacBook Air the odd man out.

If we accept as an inevitability that the Retina MacBook Air is on the way, the question is, when? The fact that Apple has just refreshed the MacBook Air may be a subtle clue. It seems unlikely, only a month before Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), that Apple would have another MacBook Air introduction.

Intel's roadmap for its own processors may give us another clue. Intel's 2014 chip, code-named Broadwell, is behind schedule. It was originally expected to be released in the second calendar quarter of 2014, which would dovetail with WWDC and be a good opportunity for Apple to showcase a new product featuring the chip. But Broadwell's release has been pushed back to the second half of 2014.

A key feature of the Broadwell processor is a big boost in graphics performance, key for any sort of Mac working with a Retina graphics display, especially one that might be working at lower clock speeds to conserve power. If the mythical MacBook Air with Retina display is dependent on Broadwell, Apple will probably have to push its release to later this year.

Buy now or wait?

I'm asked regularly if now is the right time to buy something or if you should wait until the next refresh, and my answer doesn't waver: Buy a Mac when the need arises, and accept as part of the transaction that it'll be superseded by a newer model with better specs before too long.

I'm also of the mind that it's not always a good idea to be on the bleeding edge with new products from Apple. The first Retina MacBook Pros were marred by a burn-in or ghosting problem with the screen, for example. It may be worth waiting to find out how good the new laptop is before investing in one.

Bottom line: If you can wait, wait. You'll always be rewarded with the newest, shiniest product. If you can't, then pony up your cash and be happy with what you get. Life's too short for buyer's guilt.

Are you planning to get a new MacBook Air or are you going to wait to see what else Apple has up its sleeve this year? Sound off in the comments.

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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There are 17 comments. Add yours.

Solamar says:

Good walkthrough Peter.. In the end, I've always seen the MBA as a travelers laptop. Someone on the move who values portability and battery over horsepower. If rMBA cannot deliver on both; I really don't think it's time for it then.. We know Apple will release it when it's ready.. Frustrating for some, but it's best they stick to the path.

My mom loves her MBA we picked up for her last Christmas... :)

SteveW928 says:

And, IMO, it's more of a want than a need. The MBA is already at a much higher dpi than what most people are used to on the desktop. You also don't typically hold a MBA a few inches from your eyes, like you might a phone or even maybe an iPad. No doubt, those with sharp eyes will see a difference, but the question is one of necessity, and especially in light of trade-offs.

I'm fine with a retina anything, I just don't want to give up performance, size, or battery-life to get it. Once the technology develops such that you can make an even trade from the previous generation, then it makes sense to make the jump.

DrewBear says:

Clearance and refurb prices on 2013 MBAirs are fantastic. I picked up one even though I don't need a laptop right now. My plan is to pass it on to a nephew or niece when the Retina MBAir does arrive. The youngsters have stated flat out that retina isn't a big deal for them. They were happy with 1st gen iPads and are happy with current MBAirs. I'm willing to sacrifice some battery life for Retina.

iTz_Fate says:

How much was your air refurbed ?

Sent from the iMore App

verpeiler089 says:

Don't be lazy and just check it out yourself...

durfmobile says:

I still don't see apple making a rMBA. You basically outlined as to why in this article. If you need HP & hi-res, get the rMBP and deal with that battery & thickness. If you need long battery life and thinness, deal with lesser graphics/performance.

Asking this question is a question of the past: do you need the horse power & expandability of a desktop, or do you wait for a laptop that is as powerful as a desktop and has stellar battery life? Sure, the differences between them is becoming less, but there will never be a laptop as powerful as he most powerful desktop. The differences between rMBP & MBA with fizzle, but unless they specifically only make one model, it's nice to know you have the choice, and now, at $100 less.

MikhailT says:

Apple will be making rMBA, that's without any doubts. The question is when and how quickly the fabs can ramp the production to fit the demands. MBA is Apple's hottest seller, so even if the panels are ready sometime this year, they have to wait months to get enough panels.

Competitors are already coming out with better screens (IGZO IPS panels) than MBA's TN panels.

The IGZO panels uses up much less battery than the previous IPS technology, so it is possible to fit a Retina panel without consuming too much power. It's not yet available on the rMBP either. Apple have only adopted some of the IGZO features on the latest iPad Airs. One can guess Apple would adopt IGZO across all MBPs within a year or two and MBA as well.

Sharp is already working on a second-generation IGZO panels that reduces the power consumption even further.

durfmobile says:

I'm sure it will happen eventually, just unlikely for the next rev, IMO. It's their best selling laptop bc it's the cheapest. Adding retina would bump the cost. Also, it's not just the panel tech, but the gpu needs to be able to push all those pixels efficiently, that takes more energy. Taxing a lesser gpu is not as energy efficient as a more powerful one on cruise control. Not to mention the freezing.

Not that I doubt you, but can you provide any examples of these competitors? Yoga 2, 13" is only getting 6.5 hours (3,200 x 1,800 IPS). Sure, there are many different factors.

I just think Apple wants battery life and thinness to be the selling points for the MBA, and power and display for the rMBP. Just my opinion based on observation.

Also, there would be too little difference between the MBA and rMBP. Look back at the iBook and PowerBook, the MacBook and MacBookPro. There was a clear difference. There also needs to be that separation in price, to accomplish that, sacrifices must be made.

So, I ask, if retina is that important, why not buy a 13" rMBP? You look at the screen the entire time you use it, but you're unlikely to need 12 hours of battery every single time you use it. Sure it costs more, but you'll be more happy with the screen and performance. Until the rMBA comes out!

MikhailT says:

> I'm sure it will happen eventually, just unlikely for the next rev, IMO.

I agree but that's not what you said. You said: "I still don't see apple making a rMBA." as in they would never make it.

> Also, it's not just the panel tech, but the gpu needs to be able to push all those pixels efficiently, that takes more energy. Taxing a lesser gpu is not as energy efficient as a more powerful one on cruise control. Not to mention the freezing.

It's also about Apple's implementation via software. The GPU Is taxed because it has to process twice the *native* resolution and then downscale to fit the native resolution. That's essentially why iPads have a long battery life driving the same type of Retina IPS panel on a much weaker GPU. They do not have to scale up and down. If they did, it'd halve the battery life.

> Yoga 2, 13" is only getting 6.5 hours (3,200 x 1,800 IPS). Sure, there are many different factors.

Asus Zenbook UX301 and Samsung ATIV book 9: http://www.laptopmag.com/reviews/laptops/asus-zenbook-ux301.aspx

"During the Laptop Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the ASUS Zenbook UX301 lasted 7 hours and 54 minutes, beating the 6:30 category average. The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus notched 8:06, while the Acer Aspire S7 clocked in at 8:53. The MacBook Pro was the last notebook standing, with an impressive runtime of 9:31, though its beefier chassis has room for a larger battery."

Sony's Vaio 13's doing 15 hours on 1080p IPS screen: http://m.trustedreviews.com/sony-vaio-duo-13-hybrid_Laptop_review_perfor...

Sony probably will likely upgrade to the newer LTPS panels soon that'll increase the resolution without increasing power consumption too much, confirmed by JDI.

> I just think Apple wants battery life and thinness to be the selling points for the MBA, and power and display for the rMBP. Just my opinion based on observation.

I agree but remember the competitors pushing to replicate the MBA and every year, they're getting closer and closer. Intel's upcoming 14nm Broadswell is already projected to be 30% more efficient and that's with a more powerful IGP. Panel technologies are being quickly improved as they're reacting to the demands, Sharp's working on second-gen iGZO, JDI on LTPS panels for bigger screens (they're handling 4-5" screens with 440PPI+).

> Also, there would be too little difference between the MBA and rMBP. Look back at the iBook and PowerBook, the MacBook and MacBookPro. There was a clear difference. There also needs to be that separation in price, to accomplish that, sacrifices must be made.

Yes, I agree, Apple will likely have to beef up the rMBP as well. Before the price drop on MBA, 13" MBA was 1099$ and 13" rMBP at 1299$, 200$ difference? There's a good chance that Apple will kill the current 13" classic MBP and drop 13" rMBP down to $1199 later this year.

Now, Apple will have to bump the spec on 13" rMBP in order to set it apart from MBA. Default to 8GB/256GB, possible build in nVidia's upcoming super efficient mobile chips. That'll justify the 200$ difference.

I'd suspect if Apple wants to simplify it, they may just go 12" MBA, 13" rMBP and 15" rMBP while killing everything else.

Sam Zakara says:

No. It's their best selling laptop because of the portability factor.

Sax_Derp says:

What about that Razor Blade running Hacintosh ?

Posted via the Android iMore App!

durfmobile says:

The new Razer Blade 14" is touch screen with "retina" right? More like a rMBP alternative. What's the battery life? I have a 2013 17". Great hardware, crap software.

cardfan says:

If I needed one I'd get a retina screen. Not only is the resolution much better but the colors are more accurate. The MBA is garbage in that department.

If you need to buy one? Here's a rule of thumb. Don't pay new prices for older products. The newest MBAs are hardly improved from last year. Get a refurb if you want one. For example, if a tech product cost 1000 last October, then you're foolish to pay a 1000 for it right now. Likewise paying 199 for an iPhone 5S right now would be foolish. If you can't get at least 70 dollars off an iPad right now, you're paying too much.

Rodrigo Alves de Brito says:

I must say that retina gadgets are really awesome. I used to have a Mac mini with a regular monitor with HD resolution, but the wasn't all that good. As I liked the OS X experience, I wanted to invest on a MacBook, but was undecided whether to pick a Pro (the retina one hadn't been released yet) or an Air. The resolution of the Air, compared to the Pro, is much better, at least in my opinion. So I picked the mid-2013 Air, and don't regret a thing. I love the battery of this thing! I can use and use it, and I never have to worry about recharging. For the screen, that is fine to me; I can read and see everything very well, so don't really need such retina display. But I understand this feeling of wanting a Retina MacBook Air, and by taking into account what Peter just said, it makes sense that Apple will soon or later launch a Retina Air. Otherwise it will soon become the ugly duckling of MacBook family.

cgs101 says:

Will wait for a MacBook Air with Retina or "upgrade" to a MacBook Pro with Retina when that line is refreshed... Whatever comes first !

Sent from the iMore App

Nathan Bael says:

I would only buy the MacBook Air if I were looking at the 11.6" version. If you go to a store and lay the retina 13 on top of the Air 13, you will see that the retina has a smaller footprint and only gains a small amount in thickness. For me, the ultra-portable options are 11.6" Air followed by 13" Retina. Thoughts?

Jerry Vettrus says:

There isn't much difference between the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air, and I couldn't wait any longer, I bought the New Macbook Pro with Retina, and love it. I have been a PC person for a long time and just converted over to Apple. Can't wait for OS Yosemite and the feature of continuity between all the devices.