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.