It's as if someone took a late-model Mini Cooper and placed it on a Tesla. The 2013 MacBook Air 11-inch may look the same as previous generations, but, with Intel's latest Haswell processor, it's more powerful and lasts much longer on a charge than ever before. Better yet, its starting price remains $999. But is a processor upgrade enough to keep the Air ahead of Ultrabooks with higher-res touch screens and more innovative designs?
The Air's iconic wedge aesthetic has become the standard by which all other ultraportables would be judged. But five years after the original Air debuted, it doesn't feel as fresh. We still like the sturdy aluminum unibody construction and clean lines, but the Air isn't as exciting as some Windows 8 machines, especially convertible hybrids with touch.
At 2.4 pounds, the Air is unchanged in weight since last year, and is heavier than the Acer Aspire S7-191 (2.2 pounds) as well as the ultralight VAIO Pro 11, which comes in at 1.9 pounds. Still, these are among the lightest laptops you're going to find.
Measuring 11.8 x 7.6 x 0.11-0.68 inches, the Air is also slightly wider than the Acer S7 (11.2 x 7.7 x 0.5 inches) and the VAIO Pro 11 (11.2 x 7.8 x 0.7 inches). The latter two benefit from much smaller bezels than the Air. The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11S (11.7 x 8 x 0.67 inches, 3 pounds), is closer in size and weight to the Air, but that notebook also flips around backward.
While bright, the Air's display isn't keeping up with the times. Its 11.6-inch screen has a resolution of 1366 x 768, the same as it's been for the last three years. By comparison, the VAIO Pro 11 and Acer S7 both sport 1080p displays. Even the iPad has a higher resolution than the Air. And all three have touch screens, to boot.
Still, the Air makes the most of what it's got. Explosions were highly detailed, bright and vivid, and we could make out the sweat on Channing Tatum's brow while watching the 1080p trailer for "White House Down."
At 281 lux, the Air outshines the ultraportable average of 235 lux, as well as the VAIO Pro 11 (237 lux) and the Acer Aspire S7-191 (147 lux). The Yoga 11, though, has a much brighter 329 lux display.
Interestingly, when we viewed the same image of a tropical bird on both the Yoga 11 and the Air, the Air's display rendered the photo slightly brighter, which enabled us to see more detail in the plumage and on the branch upon which the bird was perched.
It's hard to believe a system this small can produce sound as good as it does. When we played Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop," the Air's speakers, located under the keyboard, were loud enough to fill a small room. Although it was a little on the hollow side, bass, mids and highs were well-represented.
Keyboard and Touchpad
One thing that we're thankful hasn't changed on the Air is its excellent keyboard. All too often, key travel and responsiveness is sacrificed in the name of a thin chassis. Not so with the Air. Typing on the black island-style keys was a pleasure, and we continue to enjoy the bright backlighting. The Mac OS-specific keys above the number row are as useful as always.
The 4.1 x 2.5-inch touchpad on the Air is also top-notch, allowing us to execute and number of multitouch gestures with ease, such as pinch-to-zoom and three- and four-finger swipe. This is another piece of hardware that has been consistently good on Macs for as long as we can remember.
One thing we worry about on thin ultraportables is adequate heat dispersal. Fortunately, that doesn't seem to be a concern on the 11-inch Air. After streaming a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad measured 79 degrees Fahrenheit, the G and H keys were 89 degrees and the middle of the underside was 88 degrees. All are below 95 degrees, the point at which we consider a notebook to be uncomfortable.
On the right side of the Air is a Thunderbolt and a USB 3.0 port; the left side has a second USB 3.0 port, the MagSafe power dock, a headphone jack and two microscopic holes for the dual built-in mics. There's no SD card slot, something we think should be included at this point.
The HD webcam on the Air delivered crisp visuals with accurate colors. We could easily make out the vertical lines in our shirt, and our skin tone was accurate. While we noticed a little graininess, we liked how the camera quickly adjusted its exposure based on the ambient light.
Apple's MacBook Airs are some of the first notebooks to feature Intel's 4th-generation Core processors, otherwise known as Haswell. These chips promise a modest boost in performance, as well as much greater battery life.
The 1.3-GHz Intel Core i5-4250U processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of flash storage combined to give the 11-inch Air a Geekbench score of 6,809, about 900 points higher than average (5,923). The VAIO Pro 11, which also has a 4th-generation 1.6-GHz Intel dual-core Core i5-4200U processor, scored 5,055. Although it has a 3rd-gen 1.7-GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, Acer's Aspire S7 came closer to the Air with a score of 5,821. The Yoga 11S, which has an ultralow-power 3rd-generation 1.5-GHz Intel Core i5-3339Y processor, was only able to muster 3,650.
Booting into OS Mountain Lion took 13 seconds, which is about twice as long as the VAIO Pro 11 took to launch Windows 8. The Acer S7 also took a shorter 8 seconds, as did the Yoga 11S (11 seconds).
The Air's PCIe-based flash memory blazed through our file transfer test. It duplicated 5GB of multimedia files in 23 seconds, a rate of 221 MBps. That's more than twice the category average of 99 MBps, as well as the VAIO PRo 11 (97.9 MBps). The Yoga 11S (141 MBps) and the Acer S7 (196 MBps) come close, but not that close.
The Air took 5 minutes and 50 seconds to match 20,000 names and addresses in OpenOffice. That's about 30 seconds faster than the average and 20 seconds faster than the S7 (6:11), but 30 seconds slower than the VAIO Pro 11 (5:20). The Yoga was more than a minute slower, at 7:24.
Intel also touts the increased graphics capabilities of its newest Haswell chips, and the Air's results bear those claims out. On our "World of Warcraft" test, with the graphics set to Good, and the resolution at 1366 x 768, the Air averaged 48 frames per second, comfortably above the 39 fps average. The VAIO Pro 11, which has a slightly less powerful Intel HD Graphics 4400 chip, managed 30 fps at a resolution of 1280 x 1024. At the same settings as the Air, the Aspire S7 could only manage 28 fps, and the Yoga 11S 30 fps.
Still, this Intel chip has its limitations. When we cranked the effects to the max, the Air dropped to an unplayable 23 fps.
As a result of the new Haswell processor and other efficiencies, Apple claims that the 11-inch Air should get up to 9 hours on a charge. In our testing, this ultraportable just about lived up to that, lasting 8 hours and 53 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness).
That's almost three hours longer than the ultraportable average (6:04), and miles better than most other 11-inch systems. For example, the Lenovo Yoga 11S lasted 5:54, the VAIO Pro 11 lasted 6:23 and the Acer Aspire S7 just 3:51.
When you attach the VAIO Pro 11's $150 external sheet battery, its runtime increases to 14:32, and its weight to 2.5 pounds. The Acer Aspire S7 lasted just 6:41 with its awkward $150 extended battery.
The Air starts at $999. For that price, you get a 1.3-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of flash storage. The $1,199 version has double the storage, 256GB, but otherwise, all the specs are the same.
In addition to packing Intel's latest Haswell processors, the Air also has 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which promises much faster throughput when connected to a compatible wireless router.
Software and Warranty
Currently, the new MacBook Air ships with OS X Mountain Lion, which offers Notification Center, deeper iCloud integration with apps such as Messages and documents in the cloud, and the ability to share content via Facebook and Twitter from multiple apps.
If you want Apple OS X Mavericks, you'll have to wait until the fall. This update will include Maps and iBooks, as well as the ability to create tags for files, making them easier to find, and add tabs in the Finder, which should cut down on clutter. Plus, OS X Mavericks has a number of power-saving technologies up its sleeve, so you should expect even longer battery life.
The excellent iLife suite (iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand) is included with this Air, as well as FaceTime, Mail and the Mac App Store. The App Store stocks a ton of apps and games, which download directly to the iOS-like Launchpad for quick access.
The MacBook Air comes with a limited one-year warranty and an optional three-year Apple Care warranty. Users can choose to have their computer serviced on the phone or in person at the Apple store Genius Bar. Apple's warranty was ranked No. 1 in our Best and Worst Brands Report.
Yes, its design may be getting long in the tooth, but the 11-inch MacBook Air still beats out the competition in the categories that matter. Its performance, aided by Intel's 4th-gen processor, tops that of other 11-inch ultraportables, the keyboard and touchpad remain excellent, and most importantly for an on-the-go notebook, this Air lasts nearly 9 hours on a charge. Similarly priced competitors have touch-screen displays with far higher resolutions -- but for now, Apple's MacBook Air still trumps them all where it counts the most.