2018 MacBook Air v. 2018 MacBook Pro 15: An Academic's Perspective

nartycrem

macrumors newbie
Original poster
Nov 7, 2018
23
21
I've been lurking around the forums for a while now, and finally bit the bullet and bought a 2018 MacBook Air (MBA) even though I already own a 15 in 2018 MacBook Pro (MBP; i7, 16 gb, 256 gb SSD). Most reviews put the MBA to the test by trying to edit 4k video, or by using Photoshop. The MBA isn't designed for that type of work, and while it's an index of how capable a machine is, I think that many people are interested in how it performs as a daily driver for the average Joe who isn't trying to edit graphics. So, I'll be writing from a student's perspective (and an academic perspective, too, since I conduct research in social science and teach some classes of my own at the university), even though I'm a content creator as well.

My MacBook Air: 8 GB / 256 GB SSD / Silver
Serial No: Starts with FVF


Why I bought a MBA 2018 even though I have a MBP 2018: Battery Life
The MBP 2018 is a beast, and because of it, the battery life is, well, terrible. It was simply unacceptable for me to have to grab the charger after 3.5 hours of web browsing (5-7 tabs), typing up a paper in Word, reading 5-7 PDFs on 50% brightness, no backlit keyboard. Before you ask, yes, I turned off high performance graphics. Yes, I am using Safari. Battery life quickly dropped to 3 hours once I opened up a virtual machine to run statistical software (SPSS, R).

The MBA's battery life is a dream. I've attached a screenshot of the typical battery life I get (the time on battery includes 4 hours on standby). I know some people only report 6-7 hours of use, but that is not my experience. The key, I think, is how bright you use your display. I routinely keep my display at 5-6 notches from the lowest setting on the MBA. With the same workflow as above (and 2 statistical programs open today, running data sets with 3000 cases and hundreds of variables), 10 Safari tabs, Google Keep, OneNote, PowerPoint, and 5-7 PDFS in Adobe Reader, my battery went from 100% to 80% in 3.5 hours. Keep in mind that I was pushing this machine hard with a virtual machine open and two statistical programs, running data for 3.5 hours straight. I consider this exceptional battery life. Then, it went on standby for 4 hours in my backpack. I opened it up again at night kept it running for another 3 hours with 5-7 Safari tabs, Google Keep, OneNote, and Adobe, and I am at 41%. Activity Monitor says I still have another 5 hours to go. Amazing.


Okay, what about the display? Doesn't the MBA have an inferior display?
You are probably wondering about the display. Yes, it is more "washed out" compared to the MBP. Yes, it is dimmer, but I use my MBP at 50% brightness anyway, so it doesn't matter to me. (In fact, the max brightness on the MBA is too bright for my eyes, even in a super bright room). But do I notice the dimness or "washed out" look? No. Do I feel like the text isn't as sharp on the MBA? No, because I don't use both my MacBooks at the same time, so I don't notice that the MBA's display is "inferior."

Performance. What is a weak 7W Y-series chip doing in a $1200+ computer?
Okay, so here is where I have to say that the MBA is better than you think. People trash talk this chip all the time because it's "so underpowered" and "not even a U series chip." You may think I'm stupid for buying this overpriced and underpowered machine. Fine, I'm the one who has to live with my decision. Some who trash talk this chip have never even used this computer on a day-to-day basis, and make assumptions about it based on how it looks on paper, or based on what others are saying on this forum. I, too, was skeptical about its performance, coming from a six-core i7. But numbers don't always translate into real world performance, depending on the tasks that you do.

I really do think the Y-series chip provides a great balance of performance and battery consumption for the average Joe's day-to-day use. Keep in mind this is a custom chip that has single-core benchmarks that are similar to that of the 13 in non-touch bar MBP. I experienced no hiccups in my typical workflow (see above). It had no problem booting up a virtual machine, and crunched data like a champ in Mplus and SPSS, while having all the other stuff open (Safari, Word, PowerPoint, Adobe). Several other graduate students in my class also have the MBA, and have no issues with lag when running statistical models, typing up papers, reading PDFS, etc. In my day-to-day student and academic tasks, I cannot tell the difference between my $2350 MBP and my $1399 MBA. In fact, I have to say that my Surface Book 2 (i5-7300U, 8gb, 256 SSD) runs noticeably slower than my MBA. Not a fair comparison since it runs Windows 10, but I'm just saying--I'd pick the MBA over the Surface Book 2 any day.

Portability. This goes without saying: the greatest advantage of the MBA is its size and weight. Sure I can lift weights and wield a 15 inch MBP, but the portability can't be beat, especially when it has superior battery life and has enough power for my needs.

Keyboard. Okay, so my 15 inch MBP has a broken keyboard--I bought it in August 2018, and the keyboard issues started appearing (repeating e's) December 2018. To the Genius Bar it goes. Only time will tell whether the MBA 2018 suffers the same fate.

Trackpad. It's hard to describe, but the MBA trackpad seems more "clicky" than the MBP, even though I have both on the same setting. It's more solid, enjoyable, and satisfying in my opinion, than the MBP's trackpad.

Okay, I think that's it for now. I will say that everyone's usage varies, and I've read a range of experiences on this forum--some cannot stand the display, others say the MBA lags, or the battery life is less than ideal. But for me, the MBA delivered what Apple intended the MBA to be--a portable device with EXCELLENT battery life. I would highly recommend this device to students and academics. Yeah, it's crazy expensive, and not as iconic as it used to be, but it delivers on its promises. Let me know if I can answer any of your questions.
 

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mj_

macrumors 6502a
May 18, 2017
594
300
Austin, TX
Thank you for this review. I, too, always have to laugh at the "pros" who attempt judge a 12" MacBook or a MacBook Air by its capabilities to encode two simultaneous 4K streams in real-time while playing Fortnite on an external 5K display while running Cinebench R15. I got through grad school with a seemingly underpowered 12" iBook G4 (granted, it was brand-new but every self-proclaimed pro-user sneered at its meager 256 MB of RAM and slow G4 processor). These reviews are absolutely ridiculous. I have a "massively underpowered" 12" MacBook by those standards and absolutely love this thing. Obviously I don't use it to compile a giant software suite while performing in-depth analysis of deep-learning neural networks expecting instant results but instead for what it was designed for: everyday productivity, office, and internet tasks as well as media consumption.

Keyboard. Okay, so my 15 inch MBP has a broken keyboard--I bought it in August 2018, and the keyboard issues started appearing (repeating e's) December 2018. To the Genius Bar it goes. Only time will tell whether the MBA 2018 suffers the same fate.
Interesting observation: on the 2016 and 2017 generation keyboards it seemed to affect random keys. I've had my 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard fail three times, and it were different keys on these separate occasions. On the contrary, the 2018 generation always seems to lose the e key first...

 
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nartycrem

macrumors newbie
Original poster
Nov 7, 2018
23
21
Thank you for this review. I, too, always have to laugh at the "pros" who attempt judge a 12" MacBook or a MacBook Air by its capabilities to encode two simultaneous 4K streams in real-time while playing Fortnite on an external 5K display while running Cinebench R15. I got through grad school with a seemingly underpowered 12" iBook G4 (granted, it was brand-new but every self-proclaimed pro-user sneered at its meager 256 MB of RAM and slow G4 processor). These reviews are absolutely ridiculous. I have a "massively underpowered" 12" MacBook by those standards and absolutely love this thing. Obviously I don't use it to compile a giant software suite while performing in-depth analysis of deep-learning neural networks expecting instant results but instead for what it was designed for: everyday productivity, office, and internet tasks as well as media consumption.
Yep, and I suspect most people who pick up a MBA or MB are like you and me: students, or people who need a computer for daily tasks. Why recommend a computer with more power than one needs? The power remains underused, and you have to sacrifice battery life for that. Also, how many people actually edit 4k video, or process huge batches of images in Photoshop? Those who need that power know what kind of computer they need--it's not a MBA, and the MBA should not be treated as such. I also find it interesting how many people recommend the 13 inch MBP base non-touch bar over the MBA, even though in the real world, it has half the battery life of the MBA, has very similar single-core benchmarks, no notable differences in performance on daily tasks, and costs $100 more. The only "advantage" is the brighter screen, but it comes at the cost of battery life. I had a 2017 13 inch MBP base model, and I really can't tell the difference between that, the MBA, and the 2018 MBP on day-to-day tasks.

In my opinion, advice from those who have not spent extensive time with a device should be taken with a grain of salt. Simply unboxing it, running benchmarks, and playing Fortnite is not what Apple intended for the MBA to do in the real world.
 
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MacPoulet

macrumors regular
Dec 11, 2012
213
18
Canada
Great post, and most of what you said is why I went with a MacBook just recently. I prioritized the weight savings and portability over everything else, so it was a good fit for me. That, and I got the discontinued gold colour on clearance.

But for an academic (I'm a uni instructor in a media production program), it's great. I do think the 2018 Pro's screen makes it a strong contender if you're doing design and video work though.
 
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Patcell

macrumors 6502
Aug 8, 2016
433
182
Bergen County, NJ
Fantastic review. I actually just picked up a 2018 MBA yesterday to see if it will fulfill my needs. I also have a 2017 15" MBP that is way overkill for what I am usually doing on my computer. The 15" is not comfortable for use on my lap and I am obsessive about using it on a clean surface because the fans are alway running, so I worry about dust. I love that the Air so portable; I am typing this sitting comfortably on my couch. And it it absolutely fantastic to me that in normal day-to-day use, the fan in the MacBook Air is completely off. It is too early for me to comment on the battery life, but I am hoping that my experience is similar to yours. The battery in my Pro is okay, but far from great.

My only gripe so far (in less than 24 hours) is the MBA is a bit laggy while connected to my Dell 4K monitor. The computer may still be indexing and such, so I'll have to wait to judge it in this respect.
 
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nartycrem

macrumors newbie
Original poster
Nov 7, 2018
23
21
Fantastic review. I actually just picked up a 2018 MBA yesterday to see if it will fulfill my needs. I also have a 2017 15" MBP that is way overkill for what I am usually doing on my computer. The 15" is not comfortable for use on my lap and I am obsessive about using it on a clean surface because the fans are alway running, so I worry about dust. I love that the Air so portable; I am typing this sitting comfortably on my couch. And it it absolutely fantastic to me that in normal day-to-day use, the fan in the MacBook Air is completely off. It is too early for me to comment on the battery life, but I am hoping that my experience is similar to yours. The battery in my Pro is okay, but far from great.

My only gripe so far (in less than 24 hours) is the MBA is a bit laggy while connected to my Dell 4K monitor. The computer may still be indexing and such, so I'll have to wait to judge it in this respect.
Good to hear you're having a good experience so far. I think the lag when connected to your monitor might have something to do with the Intel 617 graphics... maybe it's not powerful enough to power a 4k display.
 

Patcell

macrumors 6502
Aug 8, 2016
433
182
Bergen County, NJ
Good to hear you're having a good experience so far. I think the lag when connected to your monitor might have something to do with the Intel 617 graphics... maybe it's not powerful enough to power a 4k display.
That was my thought as well. I know it was indexing my very large photo library via iCloud while I tested it with my monitor, so I’m hoping that it will be a bit better once things calm down so to speak. I was surprised to see on Apple’s support page that the 2018 Air supports a 5K display at 60hz... that can’t be a smooth experience. So far I am really enjoying this little machine though... I think it may just replace my 2017 15” Pro.
 

nartycrem

macrumors newbie
Original poster
Nov 7, 2018
23
21
That was my thought as well. I know it was indexing my very large photo library via iCloud while I tested it with my monitor, so I’m hoping that it will be a bit better once things calm down so to speak. I was surprised to see on Apple’s support page that the 2018 Air supports a 5K display at 60hz... that can’t be a smooth experience. So far I am really enjoying this little machine though... I think it may just replace my 2017 15” Pro.
Hm...supports a 5k display but only if you also use an external GPU? Haha.

I just sent my 2018 MBP 15 in for repair due to the repeating e key... I have not missed it at all.