Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (2013) Review

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Editor's Choice

Pros: Very long battery life; Faster flash memory; Improved graphics performance; Excellent keyboard and touchpad; Relatively loud speakers; Great webcam

Cons: Lower-res screen than competition; Fan can get noisy when playing games; Competing ultraportables are lighter

Verdict: The MacBook Air 13-inch is the longest-lasting ultraportable notebook -- without a bulky extra battery -- at a more affordable price, making the best 13-inch laptop even better.

The new MacBook Air 13-inch costs $100 less than its predecessor, but it promises so much more. Thanks to Intel's new Haswell chip, Apple says to expect up to 5 hours more battery life inside the same svelte aluminum design. The look and display stay the same -- sorry, no Retina sweetness here -- but the new Air ($1,099) does boast faster flash memory, beefier graphics and the latest and greatest 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Find out if Apple's update is still the best in its class.

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Design

At this point, the MacBook Air is a modern classic. We still love the sturdy aluminum unibody chassis, the swooping curves and the generously sized front lip for opening the lid. However, the overall look is almost too familiar now. Those hoping for a different color, different materials or an even more compact and lighter chassis will have to wait for at least another generation of Air.

Just like before, the left side of the MacBook Air houses the MagSafe 2 power connector, USB 3.0 port and headphone jack, along with dual mics. The Thunderbolt port, second USB 3.0 port and SD Card Slot line the right side.

 

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Weighing 3 pounds and measuring 12.8 x 9 x 0.11 to 0.68 inches, the MacBook Air is still fairly thin and light, but other 13-inch systems are even sleeker. For instance, the carbon fiber Sony VAIO Pro 13 weighs 2.4 pounds and measures 12.7 x 8.5 x 0.5-0.68 inches. The Acer Aspire S7 (12.7 x 8.8 x 0.46 inches, 2.8 pounds) and the Samsung ATIV Book 9 (12.4 x 8.6 x 0.51) are also shorter, narrower and lighter.

Display

Perhaps to save battery life or keep the cost down, the 13-inch MacBook Air continues to feature a 1440 x 900-pixel resolution display. Meanwhile, other ultraportables sport full HD (1920 x 1080-pixel) screens or even higher resolutions, such as the $1,599 Toshiba Kirabook (2560 x 1440 pixels). Apple has its own Retina 13-incher in the MacBook Pro (2560 x 1600), but it starts at $1,499.

Despite this resolution gap, we continue to enjoy the Air's screen because it delivers superior contrast, wide viewing angles and vibrant colors. When watching the "Man of Steel" trailer, Russell Crowe's skin tone looked warm, and we could easily make out the folds in his ornate jacket. And, unlike other Ultrabooks we've tested, details didn't get lost in darker scenes.

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The Air's average brightness of 263 lux (according to our light meter) is better than the ultraportable average (231 lux). Apple's notebook also beats the Sony VAIO Pro 13 (237 lux) and Acer Aspire S7 (215 lux). On the other hand, both the ATIV Book 9 and (284) and Kirabook (281) are brighter than the Air.

Audio

Just like the previous version, the MacBook Air's speakers reside underneath the keyboard, producing rich and loud audio. The somber piano in the "Man of Steel" trailer was piercing. We also played Rihanna's "Stay," and her breathy vocals resonated even across our hotel room. The driving guitar in Bad Religion's "Social Suicide" balanced well with Greg Graffin's gravelly voice, though the drums got a bit lost.

Keyboard and Touchpad

While many Ultrabook makers continue to struggle with their keyboards, Apple's remains the gold standard. The Air's spacious layout provides excellent travel and a snappy feel. We also appreciate the dedicated action keys in the top row for adjusting the screen brightness, volume Launchpad and Mission Control. You can also adjust the key backlight strength; we love that each key is individually backlit.

Speaking of gold standards, the Air's large 4.1 x 3-inch glass trackpad runs circles around most Windows machines. Two-finger scrolling is silky smooth, and navigating the desktop just feels natural. Swiping up with three fingers to activate Mission Control also worked flawlessly. Palm rejection was once again a nonissue on the 13-inch Air; the cursor never moved while we were typing. Both one- and two-finger clicks registered accurately every time.

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Webcam

The FaceTime HD camera inside the 13-inch Air is one of the few webcams that offers good video quality in a variety of lighting conditions. When recording some footage in a dimly lit hotel room using Photo Booth, the clip exhibited some grain but overall offered a good combination of color accuracy and smooth playback. The audio also sounded clear. If you like to video chat, whether it's through FaceTime or Skype, you'll be pleased with this webcam.

Heat

After streaming a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the Air's touchpad measured 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the G and H keys were 85 degrees, and the middle of the underside was 86 degrees. All are well below 95 degrees, which is what we consider uncomfortable. 

We then flew around the Dethecus realm in "World of Warcraft" for 15 minutes, and retested the temperature. The touchpad stayed the same, at 77 degrees, but the G and H keys rose to 90 degrees, and the middle of the underside was 94 degrees. That's not bad, but the area on the bottom near the power plug rose to 100 degrees.

Performance

Apple packed the latest MacBook Air with a 1.3-GHz Intel Haswell ULT processor, 4GB of RAM and new flash storage (based on PCI Express). Although the clock speed is ostensibly slower versus its predecessor (1.8 GHz), Haswell can get more work done per clock cycle. Plus, the new Air promises 45 percent faster flash memory and 40 percent greater graphics performance via the new Intel HD 5000 GPU.

The new Air makes a good first impression by booting into OS X Mountain Lion in just 10 seconds, or a couple seconds faster than the older Air. The latest Air also wakes from sleep about 2 seconds faster, which means you can get back to work immediately upon lifting the lid.

More impressive, the new flash storage breezed through our file copy test, duplicating 4.9GB worth of multimedia files in just 21 seconds. That equals a transfer rate of 242.4 MBps, compared with 159 Mbps for the last Air. The new also Air beats the Samsung ATIV Book 9 (154 MBps) and Kirabook (221 MBps). However, the Acer Aspire S7's dual SSDs (318 MBps) and the VAIO Pro 13's own PCIe flash memory (392 MBps) trump this Air.

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On Geekbench, which measures overall performance, the 13-inch Air notched a score of 6,769. This mark comfortably beats the ultraportable category average (5,970) and is slightly ahead of the last Air (6,539). The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display scored a comparable 6,760. Still, some Windows 8 notebooks are faster. The Dell XPS 13 (6,822) and Aspire S7 (6,824) both finished slightly ahead of the Air, though the VAIO Pro 13 (5,507) and ATIV Book 9 (5,187) trailed Apple's notebook.

We also ran the CPU portion of the Cinebench test. On this benchmark, the Air scored 2.3 points, slightly better than the VAIO Pro 13 and the category average (both 2 points). The Kirabook scored a higher 3 points, but it also has a faster 2-GHz Core i7 CPU.

To test the Air's real-world performance, we matched 20,000 names and addresses using OpenOffice. On this test, the notebook took 5 minutes and 36 seconds, which beats the older Air by more than a minute (6:42) and the category average of 6:26. However, many of the above Windows 8 Ultrabooks we've tested recently took less than 5:15.

Graphics

As one of the first ultraportable laptops to feature Intel HD 5000 graphics, the 13-inch MacBook Air promises up to 40 percent better performance than its predecessor. The results speak for themselves.

On the OpenGL portion of the Cinebench test, the newer Air registered 21 frames per second, more than doubling the last Air's score of 10 fps. The average ultraportable gets 15 fps, and the VAIO Pro 13 (12 fps) and Kirabook (17 fps) couldn't match the Air's graphics prowess.

The new Air can even get its game on. We fired up "World of Warcraft" and first did a fly-through using a resolution of 1300 x 812 pixels, the closest resolution we could find to the 1366 x 768 pixels we use on Windows machines. In this mode, the Air averaged a smooth 44.6 fps with the settings on Good and a not-quite-playable 27.2 fps with the settings on max.

By comparison, the VAIO Pro 13 got 30 fps on 1280 x 1024 and the ATIV Book 9 and XPS 13 both notched 33 fps at 1366 x 768 on auto-detect.

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When we bumped up the resolution to the Air's native 1440 x 900, it still held its own, delivering 42 fps with the settings on good. Just don't max out the settings in this mode, as the machine mustered only 26 fps.

Battery Life

One of the chief benefits of Intel's new Haswell architecture is longer battery life, and Apple squeezes every last drop out of this chip. When we ran the Laptop Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi) on our home Wi-Fi connection, the Air lasted 10 hours and 53 minutes. In our office, where we typically test notebooks, the Air lasted even longer, 11 hours and 40 minutes. That's just 20 minutes shy of Apple's claim, and more than double the ultraportable average of 5:56.

Other lightweight 13-inch notebooks don't even come close to the Air's endurance. For instance, the XPS 13, ATIV Book 9 and Acer Aspire S7 all last less than 6 hours. You need to add an awkward slice battery to the Acer to get 9:17. The VAIO Pro 13's standard battery (7:20) also falls behind the Air, but its sheet battery bumps the runtime to 14:38.

To push the Air even further we ran our battery test on 100 percent brightness. The notebook lasted 6 hours and 29 minutes, which is still more than a half hour longer than other ultraportables we evaluate at 40 percent brightness. That's impressive.

Software

The new MacBook Air 13-inch ships with OS X Mountain Lion, which offers a handy 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.

This fall, Apple will ship OS X Mavericks, offering Maps and iBooks, as well as welcome features for power users. You'll be able to create tags for files, making them easier to find, as well as enjoy tabs in the Finder to 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 useful apps and games, which download directly to the iOS-like Launchpad for quick access.

 

MORE: Five Reasons Why iTunes Radio Might Beat Spotify and Pandora

 

The MacBook Air comes with a limited one-year warranty and an optional 3-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.

Configuration Options

Apple keeps things simple with configuration options for the Air. The entry-level model now starts at $1,099, $100 less than the previous version. For that price, you get a 1.3-GHz Core i5 Haswell CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of flash storage. Stepping up to 256GB of storage is a reasonable $1,299.

Those looking for more speed can upgrade to a faster 1.7-GHz Core i7 processor ($150) and/or 8GB of RAM ($100). Apple also sells a wide range of mini DisplayPort adapters for connecting to Ethernet, VGA, DVI and more.

Verdict

The MacBook Air 13-inch is a marathon runner of a notebook, offering all-day battery life in a design that's just as sleek and ergonomically perfect as before. For $1,099, you also get blazing fast flash memory and much improved graphics performance. The only thing missing is a sharper display, although the Air's screen is still as bright and colorful as before.

Among 13-inch ultraportable Windows 8 laptops, there are lighter and even sleeker options with touch screens (such as the Acer Aspire S7 and Sony VAIO Pro 13), but their standard batteries don't last nearly as long on a charge. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a superior screen -- and will likely see a bump to a Haswell CPU before too long -- but that system starts at a steeper $1,499 and is a bit heavier. Overall, the 13-inch MacBook Air remains the best ultraportable value on the market.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 1.3-GHz Intel Core i5-4250U
Operating System OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 8GB
Hard Drive Size 128GB
Hard Drive Speed n/a
Hard Drive Type Flash
Secondary Hard Drive Size
Secondary Hard Drive Speed
Secondary Hard Drive Type
Display Size 13.3
Native Resolution 1440x900
Optical Drive None
Optical Drive Speed n/a
Graphics Card Intel HD Graphics 5000
Video Memory 128MB
Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n/ac
Wi-Fi Model
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.0
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 4.1 x 3-inches
Ports (excluding USB) USB 3.0
Ports (excluding USB) Thunderbolt
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
USB Ports 2
Card Slots 2-1 card reader
Warranty/Support
Size 12.8 x 9 x 0.11 - 0.68 inches
Weight 3 pounds
Company Website http://www.apple.com