Technologizer

Review: Long Live the New MacBook Air

The one big new thing in Apple's new portables is a doozy: far better battery life.

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If you could name one feature–and only one feature–that would make your next computer more useful, what would you choose?

Everybody’s entitled to his or her own opinion, of course. I know what mine would be: much better battery life. The sort of battery life that might let me go out for the day and work as much as I pleased, without even having to hunt for a wall outlet.

I’ve craved that for as long as I’ve used laptops. It’s one  reason why I’ve lately been using my iPad, with its reliable 10 hours on a charge, more than any Mac or Windows PC.

It’s also why I’ve been salivating over Intel’s newest processors in ways I can’t remember salivating over processors in…well, maybe ever. Code-named “Haswell” and officially known as the fourth-generation Core processor family, these chips are capable, Intel says, of doubling battery life while retaining strong performance. No previous PC processor line has ever claimed anything like that sort of great leap forward in power efficiency.

Haswell is a big, big deal, and it’s the major reason why Apple’s newest MacBook Airs are a big deal. Announced during Apple’s news-packed WWDC 2013 keynote, they’re the first Apple portables with Intel’s new processors; among the first from any hardware maker, actually, since Intel only announced Haswell one week before WWDC began.

In terms of industrial design and major features, the new Airs, in their aluminum unibody cases, are nearly indistinguishable from their predecessors stretching back to the versions that Apple introduced in October 2010. That’s not a criticism: The original 13″ and 11″ models set out to be pleasing, general-purpose portable computers that happen to be unusually thin, light and fast, and succeeded so well that they inspired an entire class of Windows notebook, the Ultrabook.

The most interesting new Ultrabooks, such as Sony’s notebook/tablet VAIO Duo hybrid, are hardly MacBook Air knockoffs, but the Airs remain the defining modern lightweight laptops. (The 13″ model weighs in at 2.96 pounds, the 11″ one at 2.38 pounds.) And they run OS X Mountain Lion, a first-rate computer operating system that doesn’t suffer from the what-am-I identity crisis that Windows 8 (and the upcoming Windows 8.1) are still working through.

With both the new 13″ and 11″ versions, Apple gives you a bit more for your money than you got in previous Airs. The company loaned me the most basic 13″ version for review, with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage; it starts at $1099, $100 less than its predecessor. The 11-incher still begins at $999, but now sports 128GB of solid-state storage, double the previous amount. By Windows standards, they’re big-ticket systems, but no more so than the high-end thin-and-light models that they compete with most directly, such as Samsung’s Series 9 machines and Sony’s VAIO Pros. (Metal cases, generous amounts of solid-state storage, backlit keyboards, roomy touchpads and other deluxe features don’t come cheap from anyone.)

Normally, battery performance is something you discuss, briefly and dutifully, towards the end of a notebook review. With the new MacBook Airs, however, it’s the logical place to start. Rather than promising anything terribly specific, Apple, like all computer manufacturers, quotes battery life in “up to” numbers — figures which are, in theory, optimistic but not misleading. The 13″ model now offers “up to” 12 hours on a charge (up from seven for its predecessor). Its 11″ little brother, with tighter internal quarters for the battery, offers “up to” nine hours (up from five).

As always, what you see will vary based on the tasks you’re asking the computer to perform. But with both models, the relative improvement may be even better than the above numbers suggest. With the last-generation MacBook Airs, Apple ran its tests with the screen set to 50 percent brightness. Now it cranks brightness up to 75 percent–putting meaningfully more stress on the battery–and the new models still claim life that’s hours longer than the old ones.

How’d the 13″ model fare when I tried it? Well, I didn’t do the sort of lab-conditions testing that would provide a solid sense of how its battery is likely to hold up for a typical user. Instead, I just used the machine for my normal everyday regimen of work and play–online research, writing articles such as this one, image editing, streaming video and audio–and kept one eyeball on the battery gauge. I got around eight to ten hours before it flirted with zero percent.

That’s less than Apple’s “up to” rating of twelve hours, as I expected, but at least double what I manage with my own MacBook Air, which is now two generations old. In fact, it’s better than the life I’ve gotten from any notebook equipped with a standard battery.

And my computing habits may be particularly battery-draining. A number of tech sites performed more methodical tests, and while their results vary, they’re all impressive, and all show longer endurance than I got:

Apple’s AC adapter–a pocketable square with wings that let you wrap up the cable and a MagSafe connector that prevents your computer from tumbling to the floor if the cord gets yanked–has always been exemplary evidence of the care the company puts into details that most hardware makers sleepwalk through. But as much as I like it, I’m even more smitten with the idea of leaving the house without bothering to take it along. For the first time, that’s a viable proposition.

I didn’t try to benchmark the new 13″ Air’s speed, but I will say this: In the week I’ve spent with the system, I’ve never found myself drumming my fingers and wishing it would do something faster than it did. The 1.3-GHz fourth-generation Core processor, with built-in Intel 5000 graphics, obviously deserves plenty of credit for that. But as with previous Air models, the general briskness also comes from the use of solid-state storage rather than a conventional hard drive, eliminating the need to wait while data is written to and from a rotating disk. The new models use more advanced flash chips, which Apple says are up to 45 percent faster than the ones in past versions; when I opened the lid, OS X Mountain Lion snapped out of slumber almost as instantly as iOS does on an iPad or iPhone.

As long as we’re talking about speedier specs, Apple has also upgraded the Airs’ Wi-Fi. They now support the latest version of the 802.11ac technology, promising up to three times the speed and better range, so you can wander further from your home network’s router without the signal conking out. It should be a boon–especially for streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu–but you only get the new benefits if your MacBook Air is connecting to a new 802.11ac router, rather than one based on the current standard, 802.11n. You probably don’t have an 802.11ac router yet, but when you do, your Air will be ready. (Apple also announced its own such router, the tiny new $199 Airport Extreme tower, at WWDC.)

One more new feature: Both Airs now have dual microphones, something they borrow from Apple’s higher-end MacBook Pro models. The twin mikes help suppress background noise in apps such as Skype and Apple’s own FaceTime, and also serve as a handy-dandy means of telling whether a given Air is one of the new models: If it is, it sports two tiny holes on its left edge rather than one cluster of pinholes.

You won’t, however, be able to spot a new MacBook Air by examining its display. They’re unchanged, sporting the same resolutions that date back to the second-generation 13″ MacBook Air (1440-by-900) and first-generation 11″ Air (1366-by-768), which Apple released in 2010. Back then, those qualified as high-resolution screens. But the pixel game has changed. Last year, the company released its first MacBook Pro with a Retina screen. This year, Ultrabooks such as Sony’s newest VAIOs and Toshiba’s KIRABook pack far more resolution than the Airs.

It’s not that Apple’s new machines are laggards: They still have bright, good-looking screens with higher resolutions than a goodly percentage of the Windows competition. But they’re no longer leaders.

Me, I can live without Retina, a feature which would probably have resulted in lower battery life and higher prices. But I do hope I live to see the day when Apple outfits a MacBook Air with LTE broadband, a capability it offers as an affordable option for the full-size iPad and iPad Mini but has never built into any laptop.

Most of the other quibbles you might have with these computers are held over from the previous versions, and most stem from their whisper-thin cases, which taper off to .11″ at their skinniest point. As with other portable Macs, the RAM and storage are sealed in and non-upgradable. There’s a Thunderbolt port for various sorts of connections, including hookups to multiple display types, but no built-in HDMI for easy TV hookups. The 11″ model doesn’t even have an SD slot for camera memory cards, otherwise about as standard as a feature can get.

If any of these issues are deal-breakers for you, you probably weren’t tempted by the Airs in the first place. But for anyone who’s willing to lose some features to travel light, these new models show how much a single improvement can boost a computer’s appeal. These were already excellent ultraportable notebooks; now they’re excellent ultraportable notebooks that push battery life to new, productivity-changing heights.

26 comments
ShawnAdams
ShawnAdams

You go right ahead and be the Apple fan boy you are, but i frakin refuse to EVER pay the ridiculous premium Apple charges for there products.  1 THOUSAND dollars for a freekin 11" laptop...who uses an 11" laptop??  Unless your a munchkin or sub 4 foot tall with 5th graders hands good luck with that.  The resolution of these laptops is weak, and i hate to say it if it wasn't for the new Intel Haswell processors this thing would be a complete bust.  I think i will wait just a few months until the ASUS and HP ultrabooks come out with the same processors, same internals, better graphics and display for nearly half of what Apple charges thank you.

zippinglou
zippinglou

@ShawnAdams I bet you´d say the same about a BMW 3 Series and go ahead and rather buy a Ford.

The new MacBook Air are amazingly beautiful, well designed, and work great. They come with OS 10 - The best OS in the market and soon will get a boost to Maverick. No one else can match the Apple - USA design. If you want to buy Chinese crap, go ahead.

kyledempster7
kyledempster7

@ShawnAdams I don't mean to enter a disagreement but I think you should re-read your post. It comes of as very vitriolic.

MickeyCashen
MickeyCashen

"The 11-incher still begins at $999, but now sports 128GB of solid-state storage, double the previous amount. By Windows standards, they’re big-ticket systems, but no more so than the high-end thin-and-light models that they compete with most directly..."

My 17.3" HP Pavilion g7 with 600GB hard drive, quad-core processor, 6 GB RAM, 500 MB Graphics RAM, DVD burner, and all the typical bells and whistles was $399 refurbished (essentially new: passed back through the assembly line).  It's not that heavy.  11"?  that's so 80's!

kyledempster7
kyledempster7

I got the 13" Air with 8GB RAM and the 1.7GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7. I'm running it with Wi-fi, screen brightness at 50% and minimal programs and my battery estimation is 8:36 hours. 

Does this sound normal? I'm thinking that the Core i7 might be a bit more of a drain but I'm not sure. This is my first Macbook so I don't even have a good, personal benchmark. 

ohmygoddard
ohmygoddard

@kyledempster7 Did you try disabling flash withe the ClickToFlash or ClickToPlugin? I disabled flash, and my battery life doubled. Checkout the extensions for safari and let me know what you get! I ordered the same machine a few days ago.

Thanks!

TanmayLololAnaisPradhan
TanmayLololAnaisPradhan

Ano, Mr. Fanboi, how is the resolution better than a good chunk of comparable Windows machines ??? From which year - 2006 ??? 

Lol, the resolution is pretty much bargain bin machine resolution. Air price range windows machines have at least 1680 *1050 and that is the worst. On average they have 1080p screens (1920*1080)

And the OS is better than Windows 8 ? For what purpose exactly ? Far as I can tell they are both pretty much do everything you could ask, and Windows has always had wider application compatibility (because of their early dominance).

So Resolution and OS are not advantages over comparable windows machines. On top of that you admit that the form factor is the same, when all competing windows machines are getting slimmer. Air is not the slimmest. Its not even in the top 10 slimmest machines in its range.

What's left ? Processor, GPU, RAM, SSD are all going to be things that competitors have as well.

All that is different is as you say 'detail to design' like the detachable power cords. But other companies have their own design features like tablet/laptop hybrids etc, which are a much bigger deal than detachable power cords.

So on what basis should we buy this laggard machine, when most of its peers are better (if not much much much better) ?

gx4bbx3
gx4bbx3 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

@TanmayLololAnaisPradhan I never feel the need to use the touchscreen on my Windows 8 laptop. Ever. Except oh, when the touchpad driver stops working and the gestures to bring on the Charms bar and such don't work.

There are many advantages that OS X (especially with Mavericks) has over Windows (and vice versa). It's preference, though I think OS X software is far superior to Windows software (with the exception of games).

For the price, you're getting reliable hardware and great support (walk in the Apple Store and get it replaced easily).

Why do you care so much if this gets a good review? Is every reviewer who is lauding the new Air biased or something? McCracken even mentions the flaws of the machine. But people have different priorities. I would love the battery life provided by this, and I love Apple's support so I'd consider getting the 2013 Air. But you can get something else. Is it just hard to comprehend that people may like Apple products and it's NOT because of the logo? Sheesh.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@gx4bbx3 @TanmayLololAnaisPradhan You're right gx, it's a preference. I work with Windows 7 all day long, but I much prefer my iMac at home. Tanmay is just the kind of guy who thinks everyone should agree with him. It's best just to ignore him and hope he goes away.

lovism
lovism

@mtngoatjoe @gx4bbx3 @TanmayLololAnaisPradhan yeah, lets just ignore this Tanmay dude. Let him shout into thin air. I use both windows and macs, i love both, and I nvr see the need to idiotically berate one side for no reason other than because i hate it. 

TanmayLololAnaisPradhan
TanmayLololAnaisPradhan

200$ for a router !!??!!? Apple sure knows how to milk em.

SpicyQwin
SpicyQwin like.author.displayName 1 Like

@TanmayLololAnaisPradhan Here comes the machater. You are no better than Apple fanboi you know, just the same type. LOL


I use windows at work and mac at home. Guess what? My Windows crash so many times I lost count on. My mac? Only crash three times in three year I have it. It's all about preference and you're the fine example on how windows hater like to insult Applefanboi based on the preference, as in you are holier than everyone else.

Of course Windows machine is so much cheaper, but I'd rather spend more dime in machine that works (aka. no crash in the middle of important work)

ChrisRussell_21
ChrisRussell_21 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Im starting University this year and im looking to buy a new laptop, is it worth spending the money on a MacBook Air and should it last me four years?

zippinglou
zippinglou

@ChrisRussell_21 Listen, The new Air is far ahead of anything out there today. With Maverick coming out soon, it will be untouchable for years. Yes, it is worth the investment. You are going to love surfing the web with the new 802.11ac - The OS is reliable. I´ve never had a crash. No viruses. All the software that matters is available for it. Office, Word, PPT, etc. runs even better on it that on a PC. You have the best customer service available. get Apple Care and you are covered for the entire College years pretty much!

Enjoy it man, and don´t listen to the haters... most get paid to come here and rant! 

dotdotdot
dotdotdot

@zippinglou @ChrisRussell_21 I am thinking of getting an Air 13" too in September (or later) since I'll be starting at the university here too. Only thing stoping me is that 5years ago I bought an iMac 21" (don't really know the name... the first one with the dark grey body and black backside?) and later on I got an iPad (about 1,5yrs ago).

question is if I will still need it for statistics, spreadsheets, ..... anyone experience there? Thanks!

one1engineer
one1engineer

@zippinglou @ChrisRussell_21  

Three excellent ultrabooks have been announced recently and will be available this summer:
Asus Infinity, Acer S7, and Samsung Book 9+.
All three have everything the new MBA has, look beautiful, and have a great high resolution screen. 

If you're going to college and need a laptop for the next 4 years, you don't want to get stuck with a low resolution screen when everyone else around you will enjoy hi-def.

rhonaldmoses
rhonaldmoses

@ChrisRussell_21 As someone uses Windows (at work), Mac (Roaming), Linux (Desktop, at home); Since Linux doesn't come pre-installed with any hardware (don't bring me DELL, System76 which is restricted to certain countries); let's rule em out. The rest is windows and mac. Well, Mac software and hardware is tailored for each other and so they perform tad better compared to Windows. Also the slick design, etc makes it perfect for Lots of roaming. As a student you will find it more valuable compared to Windows or Linux. However, I'd suggest if you have any other desktop at home (very old ones), just install Linux and use it for fun.

rhonaldmoses
rhonaldmoses

@ChrisRussell_21and don't spend much for Office apps right from the start. Play around Free & Open Source softwares like Libreoffice (Document, Spreadsheet, Presentation), Firefox/Chrome, etc before spending on productive applications.


Check this site for some ideas: http://opensourcemac.org/

eldersignin
eldersignin like.author.displayName 1 Like

@ChrisRussell_21  The answer is yes.   I have 3 Apple laptops (going back 9 years and they all run well.   I would get the applecare and that gives you 3 years of service and tech support free.   

You will find that as time passes, Apple will continue to integrate services and features and improvements to the computer. And with iWork, you will have pretty much full Windows word and excel compatibility.  Trust me, I use it all the time.  

Enjoy your new machine. 

ZainiChia
ZainiChia like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Hi there! I'm a uni student too; and have been using my macbook air for almost two years now (mine's the 2011 version, which has exactly the same design as this but less powerful of course). And it's really, really great as a laptop for a student. The weight, the battery, the super fast ssd's are really really useful features.