Both the MacBook Air 11 inch and 13 inch models come standard with an Intel Core i5 processor. For $100 (13″ model) or $150 (11″ model), there’s an option to upgrade to a faster Intel Core i7 processor.
People are asking “Is the upgrade to a MacBook Air i7 worth it? What’s the i5 vs i7 performance difference?”. This MacBook Air i5 i7 comparison reviews the information needed to decide whether to buy the i5 or i7 MacBook Air.
The short answer on MacBook Air i7 vs i5 is:
- The Core i5 processor is already plenty fast enough for most people.
- i7 upgrade for MacBook Air 13″: The performance gains from upgrading the 13 inch MacBook Air to an i7 be hard to notice – around a 10% speedup. Probably not worth it.
- i7 upgrade for MacBook Air 11″: The i7 upgrade will make a bigger difference for the 11 inch MacBook Air – around 25% faster than the i5. Worth it for some.
- People who would find the upgrade to the i7 worthwhile would be those doing heavy media work, particularly video encoding, or people who are very speed-sensitive.
Read on for if you want to know more. You’ll also find out where you may find a new MacBook Air more cheaply.
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By way of comparison, I want to explain that all the latest MacBook Air models are fast and responsive. I have a late-2010 MacBook Air 11″ which uses a Core 2 Duo processor. This CPU is old technology – it’s at least two generations behind current CPUs. Despite the slow processor and my “performance sensitivity”, my late-2010 Air is still a pleasure to use. The fast response of the solid state disk (SSD) and the basic hardware graphics acceleration make the older Air quite responsive.
The place where I most notice the slower processor in my late-2010 MacBook Air is web browsing. Complex web pages would pop straight up on my 2010 MacBook Pro i7 (also with an SSD). The same web pages could take perhaps two seconds longer on my late-2010 MacBook Air and I can watch the page assemble in the browser.
So the late-2010 MacBook Air model, even though it uses slow two year old processor technology is already very enjoyable to use, even for a performance nut like me. Now consider that the 2011/2012 MacBook Airs can be twice as fast.
The 2011/2012 MacBook Air laptops use cutting edge CPUs, using Intel’s Sandy Bridge design. While these are low power CPUs running at 1.6 to 1.8 GHz speeds, they can burst up to 2.9 GHz, depending on the model.
Apple’s marketing, which we could expect is best case, puts the 2011 / 2012 MacBook Air at up to 2.5 times faster than the late-2010 model. Benchmarks performed by CNET put the new MacBook Air at 1.9 to 3 times faster. Wow!
The other surprising result from CNET’s benchmark numbers is that the new MacBook Air 13″ i5 seems to be the equal of the current MacBook Pro 13″ in terms of media processing. This is very impressive, given the Pro’s CPU runs at a base speed of 2.3 GHz, while the Air’s CPU runs at a base speed of 1.7 GHz. Note that the MacBook Pro (MBP) in this comparison was using a hard disk, not a solid state disk like the Air.
The MacBook Air also beats some old MacBook Pros. Here’s a video showing a MacBook Air i5 beating a 2010 MacBook Pro 15″ Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz:
(Source: BlackPrince310 on YouTube. Thanks BlackPrince!)
The excellent results of the MacBook Air against MacBook Pros led me to look up the GeekBench numbers for my MacBook Pro 15″ i7 2.66GHz dual core, purchased August 2010. It’s the last model MacBook Pro, before the quad core models were released.
Horror. The these tiny little MacBook Air i7 models are benchmarking on par with my top of the line last-model MacBook Pro i7. These new Sandy Bridge ultra low voltage chips have incredible performance. The MacBook Air i7 completely obsoletes my ten month old MacBook Pro – it’s lighter, smaller, cheaper and – 3D graphics aside – just as fast.
What does this all mean? It means all the current MacBook Air models are fast and responsive, including the base models with the i5 processor. Most people will be very pleased with the performance of any of the new MacBook Air models.
The i5 & i7 CPUs in the 2011/2012 MacBook Airs are dual core processors. They can literally perform two separate tasks at the same time, independently and at full speed. It’s like having two people working on two jobs at once – twice as much work can get done.
The i7 processor used to have a unique advantage over the i5 in that it had hyperthreading. Hyperthreading lets a CPU core do some work in parallel. It’s kind of like getting one person to do two jobs at one. Like using one hand to agitate a stir fry, while using the other hand to stir a stew – it’s a limited kind of doing two things at once. When one task gets complex, the parallelism breaks down. Hyperthreading can increase performance up to 30%, but typically the gain is less.
Intel has bequeathed the hyperthreading technology to the i5 processor in the new MacBook Air. With the inclusion of hyperthreading in the i5 CPU, the i7’s historical speed advantage is substantially reduced.
One place where the i7 still trumps the i5 is that the i7 has a larger on-chip cache than the i5 – 4 MB instead of 3 MB. A larger cache can speed up intensive operations like video encoding.
The i7 is also said to have better power management than the i5, but I don’t have this information from a confirmed source. I’d be pleasantly surprised if uses less power than an i5 running at a lower clock speed.
Did you know that both the i5 and i7 processors have a graphics processor built onto the chip? It’s called Intel HD Graphics 3000. It’s fine for 2D graphics, and basic 3D graphics. It will happily drive a very high resolution external display (greater than full HD).
The 3D graphics are only good enough for basic games. If you want fast 3D graphics, for example to play modern games, get a MacBook Pro.
The table below details the base and maximum speeds of the i5 & i7 CPUs used in each of the 2011/2012 MacBook Air models. Cache size is also included.
|Model||CPU||Base GHz||Max GHz||Cache|
|MacBook Air 11″ (Stock)||i5‑2467M||1.6 GHz||2.3 GHz||3 MB|
|MacBook Air 13″ (Stock)||i5‑2557M||1.7 GHz||2.7 GHz||3 MB|
|MacBook Air 11″ or 13″ with i7 CPU upgrade||i7‑2677M||1.8 GHz||2.9 GHz||4 MB|
Notice that the same i7 processor is used for the CPU upgrade in both the 11 and 13 inch models.
As mentioned earlier, the table clearly shows the i5’s have 3MB cache in the processor, while the i7 has 4MB. The larger cache in the i7 can confer a processing speed advantage for certain types of work, e.g. music production, video post-production and large image editing.
If we compare the maximum GHz, in the MacBook Air 11 inch there’s a big gap between the i5 and i7 processors. The gap is 2.3 GHz to 2.9 GHz; the i7 is 26% faster just in terms of raw clock cycles. That’s before we factor in the advantage of a bigger cache and any superiority in the i7’s processing architecture.
Benchmarks comparing the 11″ MacBook Air i7 vs i5 in the wild confirm the difference. Matt Pakes writes:
We have both models of the 2011 11″ MBA here at the office, and early benchmarks (XBench, Geekbench) show that the 1.8 GHz i7 is roughly 25% faster than the 1.6 GHz i5. I haven’t tested the 1.7 GHz i5 from the 13″ MBA.
I can’t speak to the battery life yet, but the increased performance looks like a good value if you’re using it for CPU-intensive tasks.
The gap between the i5 in the 13 inch Air and the i7 upgrade is less pronounced. From the 13 inch i5’s 2.7 GHz max clock speed to the i7’s 2.9 GHz is just a 7.4% difference in raw clock cycles. The i7 architecture and cache would have to deliver big gains to expand this difference enough to make it noticeable. I’m still looking for a benchmark to confirm this in the wild. If you see one, please leave a comment below.
It’s possible that the i7, given its larger cache and potential internal architectural advantages over the i5, could perform significantly better than the i5 for media processing tasks. I haven’t seen any media benchmarks yet showing the i7 streaking ahead of the i5 with the comparable max clock speed.
Note that if you look on i5 or i7 benchmark results on the web to help make your decision, make sure the benchmark specifically compares the Sandy Bridge Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) Intel Core i5 and i7 processors used in the MacBook Airs. Other i5 & i7 models, especially older generations, have different characteristics, so benchmarks comparing them probably won’t tell you much.
Is there any difference in performance between the 13″ MacBook Air i7 and the 11″ MacBook Air i7? Yes, but hard to notice. AnandTech found the 13 inch i7 Mac Air to be about 5% faster than the 11 inch i7 Mac Air for Cinebench.
Cinebench is written to take advantage of multiple processor cores through multithreading of its code. There’s very almost no difference in performance between the 11 or 13 inch Mac Air i7 for single threaded apps. Very few people would notice this small performance difference, which shows only under heavy processing in multithreaded apps.
The 13″ Air is a little faster under heavy multicore load probably because with its larger size it can disperse more heat. The i7 would need to slow down less often to stop from overheating. The difference could be more pronounced between the 11 and 13 inch MacBook Air if you use your Air in warm climates without airconditioning.
Given the performance for the i7 processor is indistinguishable between the 13 inch and 11 inch MacBook Air, people can choose between the two MacBook Air sizes for reasons other than performance. (By the way, there’s some differences between the MacBook Air 11 inch and 13 inch models that aren’t obvious. If you’re interested, see my comparison guide to choose between a MacBook Air 13 or 11 inch.)
Battery tests show similar battery life for the MacBook Air between the Core i5 and i7 processors. In a battery benchmark at AnandTech, looping playing a video in fullscreen, the:
- 11 inch i5 MacBook Air got 1% more battery time (3 minutes)
than the 11 inch i7 MacBook Air, and the
- 13 inch i5 MacBook Air got 9% more battery time (27 minutes)
than the 13 inch i7 MacBook Air.
Jason Snell at Macworld has similar findings on MacBook Air i5 vs i7 battery life as AnandTech. Jason writes:
The increased speed of the build-to-order Core i7 processor option didn’t have a major impact on battery life, either.
There’s at least one case where that the battery life may not be so close. If you’re burning one or two of the CPU cores at 100%, you could use battery more quickly on the i7. This could happen with a badly written Flash banner on a website, for example. It would also happen while encoding video, but your video encode would complete more quickly.
For more info on the Air’s battery life, tips how to double your battery, and keep your MacBook Air cool and quiet, see my article on MacBook Air Battery Life.
If you’re just doing normal tasks like web browsing & word processing, and are not hyper-sensitive to speed I would not buy the i7 upgrade. Stick with the i5.
If you’re buying an 11 inch MacBook Air and you’re doing regular processor intensive work, such as video editing, editing large images with Photoshop or complex music production or you notice & appreciate subtle improvements in speed, pay the $150 to upgrade to the i7. You’ll get a 25%+ speed boost for processor-intensive work.
If you’re buying a 13 inch MacBook Air you’ll probably only see around a 10% speed improvement for processor-intensive work from buying the $100 i7 upgrade. Most people will never notice the difference from the i7, so the upgrade for the 13″ model is probably not worth it. This small performance gain might still be worth it people doing lots of work with media or people who are hypersensitive to speed.
If you’d like to save a bit off your new MacBook Air, but you still want to buy from a trustworthy source, it’s worth checking Amazon’s current prices. Amazon have a lot of buying power, so they can often afford to give a discount. Here are direct links to MacBook Air models & prices at Amazon:
- MacBook Air 11-inch
- MacBook Air 13-inch
Why are no i7 MacBook Air links included above? This is because Amazon sell the i5 models above themselves, and I trust Amazon. There are i7 models listed on Amazon, but these are offered by third party sellers.
Note that if you click a link above and choose to buy your MacBook Air from Amazon: (a) you may save money off your new MacBook Air, and (b) Amazon will pay me a commission. This enables me write more good Mac articles. I hope this is a win for both of us.
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