Name: MacBook Air (2013 edition)
Review Model Specifications: Click here for full specs
Price: From £849
The best just got better, as Apple’s MacBook Air notebook gets updated with the latest Intel processors, double the storage and double the battery life. But is the low-resolution screen now dragging the package down? Read our full review to find out!
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 2013 edition of Apple’s 11-inch MacBook Air was identical to its 2012 predecessor. And from an industrial design standpoint, you’d be almost correct. Aside from an additional microphone embedded in the left hand side to aid noise cancellation during Skype and FaceTime video calls, it’s the exact same chassis design as last year’s.And that’s no bad thing. The 11-inch MacBook Air remains the pinnacle of portable notebook design, featuring a gorgeous aluminium unibody construction, measuring just 1.7cm thick at its chunkiest point and a startling 0.3cm at its tapered, wedge-like front edge. Weighing just 1.08kg, it’s incredible lightweight, making it supremely comfortable for carrying around all day long, and just about the most attractive laptop on the market. Even with the design now a few years old, it’s still a staggering achievement.
The left edge of the laptop houses a USB 3.0 port, a 3.5mm headphone socket, the afore-mentioned dual mic array and the magnetic MagSafe 2 charging connection, which handily detaches harmlessly should you accidentally yank or trip over the cable. The right edge houses a further USB 3.0 port and the super-fast Thunderbolt port. It’s not exactly an extensive array of ports (you’ll need to jump up to the 13-inch model to get an SD card slot, and neither supports a wired Ethernet internet connection without an adaptor) but it’s still remarkable that it can all fit in at all given the slight frame they sit within.For the real changes then, you’re going to have to delve under the hood, where Apple have made a number of significant improvements to the internal components.
Our review model was an entry-level machine, equipped with a fourth generation (Haswell) 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz), 4GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM and 128GB of SSD storage space. These specs can be configured at purchase up to a 1.7GHz Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz), 8GB of RAM and 256GB or 512GB SSD storage sizes, with pricing rising respectively. Keep in mind that, unlike Apple’s MacBook Pro models, the MacBook Air cannot be upgraded after purchase, so make sure that you get exactly what you need right away. For instance, though bigger than last year’s paltry 64GB entry-level storage, 128GB still isn’t much space at your disposal (even if you do make judicious use of cloud storage services), so definitely consider stumping up the cash for a bigger SSD configuration.
Looking firstly at the processor, you’d again be forgiven for thinking there’s been no progression here. In fact, considering last year’s entry level Ivy Bridge i5 processor was clocked at 1.8GHz, you’d think it was in fact a step backwards. You’d be wrong; with the same max Turbo Boost clock speeds, our Geekbench 2 benchmark saw the 2013 edition hit a score of 6703, compared to last year’s managing 5,801.
If that doesn’t sound like a massive jump, it’s because the Intel Haswell chipsets’ real trump card lies in energy efficiency. Drawing far less power than previous generations, it allows the MacBook Air 2013 model to manage 9 hours of standard usage and 8 hours of constant movie playback by Apple’s estimations. And they’re not far off the mark it would seem. With a full battery charge, I managed roughly 8 hours away from the mains with brightness settings just below the maximum levels and putting the processor under heavy Photoshop and streaming loads. That’s incredible, and depending on your usage, you could easily squeeze a couple more hours out of the battery. That’s effectively doubling the battery life over last years model.
The Haswell chipset also sports the improved Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics, which will offer a slight boost to gamers, though not the 3D graphics performance a dedicated GPU would deliver. You’ll need to stump up for a MacBook Pro to get those benefits, though the Intel 5000 HD improvements do mean the MacBook Air can now support 4K external monitors, naturally leading to speculation that Apple have one in the works.
SSD speeds are also improved. Though the average user may not notice the difference, the use of a PCIe connection for the drive instead of last year’s SATA connection almost doubles read and write speeds over the 2012 model. You can expect to hit read speeds upwards of 700MBps and write speeds of 453MBps. Those jumping from a HDD equipped laptop will quickly note the benefits, with the machine booting up near instantly and apps loading much faster also.
The last notable improvement is the addition of an 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection. Without access to an 802.11ac router during the test I was unable to verify just how fast the new standard is, but positive reports suggest that both download speeds and wireless stability and range are markedly improved.
Apple’s reputation for kitting out their laptops with superb keyboards and trackpads continues here. Well spaced, backlit Chiclet keys are popped in here, with a lovely balance and tension to the bounciness of the keys. You can type at length comfortably with this machine, despite its small size and low profile. Likewise, that trackpad is as good as it gets – smooth and accurate, and registering multi-touch gestures without a stutter.
If there’s one weak spot now in the MacBook Air’s otherwise-solid design, it lies with its screen. In many ways, it’s a rod that Apple have built for their own back; taken on its own, the 11-inch MacBook Air’s screen is fine, offering high brightness levels and accurate colours in spite of its lowly 1366 x 768 resolution. It certainly won’t hinder your enjoyment of the laptop. But place the MacBook Air against a Retina Display equipped MacBook Pro or iPad, and there’s a marked difference. The MacBook Air just can’t compete with the vibrancy or contrast levels of the Retina Macs, let alone their ridiculous sharpness. Of course, popping a Retina Display in the MacBook Air would have a detrimental effect on the laptop’s stellar battery life, but with rival Windows ultrabooks of similar size now regularly rolling out Full HD screens, it’s the one gap in the MacBook Air’s futuristic design. Considering the new MacBook Air is capable of hooking up to 2560 x 1600 resolution external monitors, the power’s definitely there to support a Retina Display.
In terms of software, the 2013 MacBook Air comes with OS X Mountain Lion pre-installed. It’s set to be superseded by OS X Mavericks a little later this year, but its still a top-notch OS that makes use of incredibly intuitive multi-touch gestures, features Apple’s integrated iCloud cloud storage service, has a useful notifications centre for accessing Twitter, Facebook and email updates and plenty of other nifty things. We’ve written about it extensively in the past and love it, and you can get a great overview of what’s on offer by clicking here.
Mac OS X also comes with a generous suite of pre-installed applications that are all incredibly useful. Standards like Calendar, Contacts and the Reminders programs sit alongside Garageband (a powerful home studio music recording tool), iMovie (an intuitive video editing app), FaceTime (letting you make free video calls to other Apple users – be they on Macs of iOS mobile devices), Messages (for instant messaging fellow OS X and iOS users) and iPhoto (an excellent image editing and photo library management app). You’ve got everything you need to get going on your machine right out of the box, while the Mac App Store is on hand to grab other applications from, and iTunes ready to manage and purchase music and video files. It’s a great package.
Though there’s not enough here to entice a 2012 MacBook Air owner to double-dip for this year’s model, the 11-inch 2013 MacBook Air is clearly the superior model, and still more than a match for the best the ultrabook PC market has to offer. Popping in a number of significant upgrades, not least of which is remarkable battery performance, it’s still the portable notebook to beat. However, if Apple wants to keep the MacBook Air ahead of the game, it’s got to look at equipping the machine with a more striking display; in this age of Retina resolutions and UHD TVs, it’s the only weakness in this otherwise-formidable notebook.
By Gerald Lynch | June 20th, 2013