We can't lie: we were hoping for a Retina MacBook Air last year when Apple rolled out the thinner, faster MacBook Pros with their pixel-packed displays and optical drive-free chassis. The Air, sadly, got left out of that particular party, but when we reviewed it we found a perfectly fine machine. This year, then, would surely be the year of major updates to Apple's venerable thin-and-light machine?
As it turns out, no, it wouldn't be. From the outside, the mid-2013 MacBook Air refresh is again a very minor one indeed, with no new display and (virtually) no exterior modifications. On the inside, though, bigger changes are afoot. New, faster SSDs and a selection of power-sipping Haswell CPUs from Intel have created a device that's all but identical to its predecessor yet is, in many ways, vastly improved. Is this wedge-like, 13-inch paradox worth your $1,099, and can it really live up to Apple's promised 12-hour battery life? Let's find out.%Gallery-190960%
Look and feel
Is the unchanged design the result of priorities being committed elsewhere? Or, is it simply a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"?
What once was a fresh and exciting design has now, it must be said, become rather familiar. That's in part because of the success of the MacBook Air -- we see them popping open on trains and airplanes all the time these days -- but largely this is thanks to Apple not significantly revamping the design for nearly three years, a period over which we've seen radical changes on the PC side of things. Is this the result of priorities being committed elsewhere? Or, is it simply a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"? We'll let the reader decide on that front, and while we tend to lean toward the latter option, the net result is the same: we won't spend an awful lot of time describing this now-familiar machine.
This 13-inch MacBook Air maintains its wedge-shaped profile, a maximum of 0.68 inch thick at the back tapering down to a 0.11-inch terminal edge at the front. It's 12.8 inches wide, 8.9 inches deep and weighs just a hair under three pounds (1.35 kg). These specs were nothing short of amazing a few years back, but today, devices like the Samsung Series 9 and Sony VAIO Pro 13 manage to be even thinner and even lighter.
Though its thin-and-light crown may be long gone, the Air is still a very sleek device, the sort that may leave you peeking in your bag one more time before you leave home to make sure you didn't forget your laptop. It also retains its impressive overall feel, with a very stiff chassis that does not flex and a keyboard tray that can stand up to the most vigorous of typists. There's still just the one color option, the matte, raw-aluminum color that looks clean and lovely out of the box, but, as we've seen, can be scratch-prone.
Ports are exactly the same as last year. On the right, you get a USB 3.0 port flanked by Thunderbolt on one side and an SDXC card reader on the other. Move over to the left and you'll find the MagSafe 2 connector, a second USB 3.0 port and a 3.5mm headphone / mic jack. Look very closely next to that and you'll marvel at the one, single, solitary external difference compared to last year: a second hole in the side for the integrated microphone, intended for active noise cancellation.
And that's it. So, if you're a current Air user who packs a USB hub and Ethernet adapter wherever you go, that won't be changing this year. That said, with the new 802.11ac support, maybe you won't need that Ethernet adapter after all.
Keyboard and trackpad
Neither the keyboard nor the trackpad have changed this year, but that's a good thing. In 2011 the MacBook Air finally received backlit keys with what felt like a slightly springier feel than before, making an already great typing experience even better. That design is retained in 2013, leaving a keyboard that not only has great tactility, but also has a very broad and comfortable layout.
Also broad and comfortable is the glass trackpad, which, along with the keyboard, remains one of our favorites. The sensation of dragging a finger across the matte glass is as good as ever and the responsiveness is perfect for executing all of the many and myriad gestures that OS X has on offer.
Display and sound
It's no Retina, a fact that can be confirmed with a quick glance. Still, this remains a great-looking LCD, making the most of its 1,440 x 900 resolution. Viewing angles are as good as ever and brightness does not disappoint. Color reproduction is spot-on and the LED backlighting is both good for your battery and the environment.
The Air's built-in speakers are capable of getting impressively (and uncomfortably) loud if cranked all the way, so hearing a concall from across a room won't be an issue. Still, it's hardly an ideal machine for music playback, with flat, bass-free renditions of all your favorite music. It'll certainly do in a pinch, but you'll want to make use of that 3.5mm jack (or, indeed, a Bluetooth connection) to enable something with a bit more acoustic range.
Performance and battery life
As usual, we're testing the base-spec 13-inch MacBook Air, the one most consumers are likely to buy. For $1,099 we get a 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor of the Haswell generation, paired with integrated Intel HD 5000 graphics. The graphics themselves are a nice bump up over the previous-generation machine, but the clock speed is a step down. Last year's base Air came with a 1.8GHz CPU, and as you can see in the table below, this machine does indeed test slightly slower.
Last year was a speedy 18 seconds. This year? Cold boot to login screen occurs in just under 12.
But, there is one area where this new machine is significantly faster than before: I/O. This year's Air moves to PCIe storage internally, which means significantly faster speeds in theory. And in practice, as it turns out. The BlackMagic benchmark showed us 433.4 MB/s for writes and 725.4 MB/s for reads, considerably quicker even than the current Retina MacBook Pro. That helps the boot-up time too. Last year was a speedy 18 seconds. This year? Cold boot to login screen occurs in just under 12.
OS X benchmarks
13-inch MacBook Air (mid 2013, 1.3GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 5000)
13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (late 2012, 2.5GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000)
13-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2012, 2.5GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000)
13-inch MacBook Air (mid 2012, 1.8GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000)
13-inch MacBook Air (mid 2011, 1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012, 2.6GHz Core i7)
15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012, 2.3GHz Core i7)
MacBook Pro (early 2011, 2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM, Radeon HD 6750M / Intel Graphics 3000)
340.1 (Radeon) / 157.78 (Intel)
MacBook Pro (early 2010, 2.66GHz Core i7-620M, GeForce GT 330M)
13-inch MacBook Air (late 2010, 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce 320M)
Note: higher scores are better.
If that didn't impress you enough, there's one area where the performance has really gone off the charts, and that's battery life. Apple rates the 2013 edition of the MacBook Air for up to 10 hours of battery life playing video or 12 hours of wireless web surfing. Our standard rundown test, as it happens, also entails playing video and last year's machine managed just over six and a half hours before expiring. We were, then, skeptical that this new edition could manage nearly twice that longevity -- but it actually did better. This year's Air survived 12 hours and 51 minutes on a charge. That's a stunning number from a laptop this thin, achieved with WiFi enabled and without any external batteries.
We've not been able to test the higher-speed Core i7 version of this machine and, while we anticipate that will be slightly more thirsty, it's safe to say the new 13-inch MacBook Air truly is an all-day laptop. We've used it extensively off the charger, on coast-to-coast flights and in nature settings far away from the nearest power plug and, while you can certainly kill the battery quicker if you're doing things like editing photos or video, you'd have to be working very hard to deplete this cell in fewer than six hours.
Fully loaded, you're looking at $1,849.
The base-spec 2013 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $1,099, $100 less than last year. But, as we've just seen, the lower-performance CPU must certainly be taken into consideration here. If you'd like to step up to a 1.7GHz Core i7 processor, you're looking at a $150 premium. Doubling the storage from the default 128GB to 256GB is $200 and, if you want to go all the way up to 512GB, you'll pay another $300. 4GB of RAM is standard, though you can get 8GB for $100 more and, other than the usual bevy of accessories that Apple would love for you to tack on to your purchase (SuperDrive, Thunderbolt display, etc.) those are all the boxes you're able to tick. Fully loaded, you're looking at $1,849.
Of course, you can save $100 by going with the 11-inch MacBook Air. That machine starts at $999 for the 128GB model (up from 64 before) and from there you're looking at the same price increments as on the 13-inch model: $150 for more a better CPU, $200 or $500 for the two increased storage options and $100 for more RAM. Predictably, then, a fully specced model also costs $100 less: $1,749.
To say that the laptop space has shifted in the past 12 months since the 2012 MacBook Air shipped would be a gross understatement. PC makers have invented and reinvented their wares to stay relevant in this incredibly competitive (and shrinking) market, adding touchscreens, removable keyboards, crazy convertible designs and lots of other features -- some needed, some not.
Still, even if you strip away all the tricks, it's clear that the MacBook Air, with only its new Haswell CPU and faster storage, is facing far stiffer competition than ever before. And, that competition will only get better as more machines move up to Intel's latest and greatest. Of those that have already made the shift, the Sony VAIO Pro looks to be the most compelling. At 2.34 pounds, the 13-inch model is lighter than the Air and it's exactly the same 0.68-inch thickness. Promised battery life is 13 hours -- but to get that you'll have to use an additional sheet battery. It does cost a fair bit more, starting at $1,249 for the 13-inch model, but for that you get a full 1080p IPS LCD. We'd guess that many potential Air buyers would spend another $150 to get the same. (We certainly would.)
Another Haswell-having machine is the recently announced Dell XPS 12. We haven't had a chance to test out this year's iteration, but last year's model left us reasonably impressed and, at $1,200 again with a 1080p display, it's even closer in price to the Air.
And then there's Samsung's Series 9. It was one of our favorite Ultrabooks of last year and remains a top contender, standing toe to toe with the previous Air. But, with a presumed Haswell refresh not far off, we can't say we'd be seriously considering this model right now -- unless you find it discounted well below its $1,300 MSRP.
Finally, there's the sibling rivalry with Apple's own Retina MacBook Pro machines. Last year we were quite fond of both the 15-inch and 13-inch varieties and, indeed, both are still powerhouses. But, again, Haswell updates there can't be far away, and so it's hard to recommend either model now. That said, if you're not in a big rush, it wouldn't hurt to wait a month or three. With any luck, Pros with faster I/O and killer battery life are right around the corner.
So, is this a case of a great thing getting even greater, or an aged product getting the bare-minimum upgrade required to keep it relevant? The truth lies somewhere in between, but it goes without saying that the MacBook Air isn't quite the straightforward "buy" that it has been in the past. While I/O performance and battery life definitely set it ahead of the crowd, and its overall design and keyboard / trackpad combo are as good as ever, that middling display resolution is evolving from an excusable omission to a proper handicap.
Still, it's hard to knock the Air for what it is: a very thin laptop with incredible battery life and good performance for a minimum price that puts it ahead of its competition. If you want a portable Mac with a real focus on portability and can live without a Retina display then we'd say this is still the machine to get. But, if you're not tied to the platform or are a stickler for pixel density, it might just be time to look elsewhere.
Darren Murph contributed to this review.