Some things do get better with age. When the first ultra-thin MacBook Air debuted back in 2008, its design blew away all other Windows laptops. But that device cost $1,799 and lasted less than five hours on a charge. Fast-forward six years, and a series of improvements have made the Air the gold standard for ultraportables. The latest 13-inch Air packs a faster Core i5 processor and a battery that lasts longer than 12 hours, all for $999. That's $100 less than the previous version, which means the gold standard is now also the best 13-inch notebook value.
The 13-inch Air looks the same as the last few models, sporting a svelte and elegant unibody aluminum chassis with rounded corners. The machine also feels sturdy. We've used another 13-inch Air for a few years in a row without so much as a dent or worn-down key. Apple's logo glows on the smooth lid, which doesn't pick up fingerprints.
We still like the silver treatment on the Air, but we'd like to see Apple push the aesthetic envelope further, with color options or perhaps different materials. For instance, the Dell XPS 13 has a soft-touch deck that feels comfy on the wrists.
The Air remains very portable. You'll barely notice this system in a backpack. It weighs just under 3 pounds and measures 12.8 x 9 x 0.11-0.68 inches.
By comparison, the Acer Aspire S7 (3 pounds, 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.51 inches) is about the same size and weight, while the XPS 13 (12.4 x 8.1 x 0.7 inches) and HP Spectre 13t (12.8 x 8.7 x 0.59 inches) are narrower but heavier. To be fair, though, all of these Windows machines have touch screens, which the Air lacks.
Ports and Webcam
The 13-inch Air continues to keep ports to a minimum, but at least it includes an SD Card slot on the right side (unlike the 11-inch version). This side of the system also houses USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports. The MagSafe 2 adapter for power, a second USB 3.0 port, headphone jack and two mics line the left side of the Air.
While most Windows PC makers seem to have given up on their webcams, the 720p FaceTime camera on the Air delivers warm colors and crisp detail. Our blue-and-green shirt looked accurate in a self-portrait. The camera did have a tough time dealing with a window behind us (our face was nearly covered in shadow), but it performed well otherwise.
Someday, Apple will be able to pull off a Retina Display on the Air, but for now you'll have to settle for a 1440 x 900-pixel 13-inch panel. (Stepping up to at least full HD would be nice at this point.) On the plus side, the screen is still fairly bright, with wide viewing angles.
When we watched the "Godzilla" trailer, the jungles looked a lush green, and we could make out every wrinkle on Bryan Cranston's horrified face. However, some details, such as the chunks taken out of the Treasure Island hotel, looked a bit soft.
The screen's average brightness of 288 nits outshines the average ultraportable (251 nits) but is not the best in class. The Dell XPS 13, for instance, averaged 356 nits. However, the HP Spectre 13t mustered just 231 nits.
According to our colorimeter, the 13-inch Air produces 63.3 percent of the color gamut (closer to 100 percent is better). The Acer Aspire S7, by contrast, hit 98 percent. The MacBook fared better on the color accuracy test, notching a Delta-E rating of 2.5 (closer to 0 is better). The same Acer scored 6.1 on this test, and the average ultraportable gets an even higher rating of 6.6.
The Air's speakers, which are located beneath the keyboard, got plenty loud when streaming Alex Care's "Too Close." However, the instruments and vocals weren't as distinct as we'd like. The chanting at the beginning of Bastille's "Pompeii" had significant oomph given the Air's slim profile.
On our audio test, the 13-inch Air registered 73 decibels at a distance of 23 inches. That's below the category average of 83dB and behind the Spectre 13t (84dB), but only slightly lower than the Dell XPS 13 (74 dB).
Keyboard and Touchpad
Perfectly spaced and sized for a 13-inch notebook, the MacBook Air's keyboard remains a strength. It provides snappy feedback, allowing for comfortable typing over long stretches. The top of the layout has shortcut keys for brightness, Mission Control, Launchpad, the keyboard backlight, and media and volume controls.
We measured key travel of 1 mm for the MacBook Air, which is a little bit less than we'd like, but that's balanced by an actuation weight of 55 grams (the force required for strokes to register).
Apple's Trackpad makes navigating OS X Mavericks a breeze. Not only does the pad provide pinpoint accuracy and a satisfying click, it also allowed us to smoothly perform gestures like a three-finger swipe-up for activating Mission Control.
The MacBook Air is one of the coolest-running ultraportables we've tested. After streaming a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad registered just 75 degrees. That's 20 degrees below our comfort threshold. The area between the G and H keys hit 80 degrees, while the bottom reached 81 degrees.
Apple now equips the MacBook Air with a 1.5-GHz Core i5 processor, up from 1.3 GHz on the previous model, along with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of PCIe-based flash storage. The result is a system that's fast and responsive -- whether you're editing photos in Pixelmator or opening multiple files at once -- but not superior to its predecessor in all ways.
On Geekbench 3, which measures multi-core performance, the 13-inch Air scored 5,393. That showing beats the category average (4,218), the Dell XPS 13's score of 5,153 and the Acer Aspire S7's 5,101 (both machines have 1.6-GHz Core i5-4200U CPUs and 8GB of RAM). Still, the HP Spectre 13t (same CPU as the Dell and Acer, with 4GB of RAM) reached 6,436.
The Air's flash storage booted OS X Mavericks in a brisk 14 seconds and copied 4.97GB of mixed-media files in 27 seconds. That equals a zippy transfer rate of 190.3 MBps, outpacing both the XPS 13 (145 MBps) and Spectre 13t (159 MBps). However, the last-generation Air scored an even higher 242.4 MBps, and the S7 hit 196 MBps.
Apple's ultraportable certainly made quick work of our OpenOffice spreadsheet test, which involves matching 20,000 names with their corresponding addresses. The newest Air took just 3 minutes and 46 seconds, compared to 5:36 for the previous model. The Spectre 13t, XPS 13 and Aspire S7 all took more than 5 minutes.
Like the last Air, the updated 13-inch model sports Intel HD 5000 graphics, which can handle some mainstream games, and supports up to 2560 x 1600 pixels on an external display.
This GPU delivered smooth frame rates in "World of Warcraft" at native resolution (1440 x 900) and auto settings, hitting 46 fps. This narrowly beats the Dell XPS 13 at its non-native resolution of 1366 x 768 (45 fps), but easily trumps the Spectre 13t (28 fps) and Aspire S7 (36 fps) at the same resolution.
As we expected, the Air couldn't hit a playable frame rate when we turned up the settings and special effects; it registered 28 fps.
To further gauge this system's graphics prowess, we ran the OpenGL portion of the Cinebench benchmark. The 13-inch Air scored 18.47 fps, which is a bit lower than the last model (21 fps).
Apple claims that the 13-inch Air's 54-watt-hour battery can last through 12 hours of wireless Web surfing. The ultraportable exceeded expectations, lasting an absolute epic 12 hours and 20 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test. This test involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi at 100 nits of screen brightness, which in the Air's case was 63 percent.
The Air's runtime destroys most other ultraportables, including the HP Spectre 13t (9:04) and Acer Aspire S7 (6:44), both of which were tested at 40 percent brightness. At 100 nits (25 percent brightness), the Dell XPS 13 came close to Apple's endurance, at 11:26.
The 13-inch MacBook Air runs Apple's OS X 10.9 Mavericks operating system, which debuted last fall. It has a number of useful features, including support for tabs and tags in the Finder, and the ability to respond to emails and iMessages directly from notifications. Additionally, you can now go full screen with apps on the second monitor, an important upgrade. The iCloud keychain in Mavericks can keep your passwords and payment info synced across your MacBook, iPad and iPhone.
In addition to the iLife suite (iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand), this device also offers new Mac users Apple's productivity suite (Pages, Keynote and Numbers) for free. The company also includes its Maps app -- complete with 3D flyovers and the ability to send directions to your iPhone -- and iBooks.
The MacBook Air 13-inch Air offers a modest amount of configuration tweaks. One we'd recommend is stepping up from 128GB of flash storage to 256GB, for $200 more. Other upgrade options include a 1.7 GHz Core i7 CPU for $150 and jumping from 4GB to 8GB of RAM for $100. Various Mini DisplayPort (VGA, HDMI) and Thunderbolt adapters (Ethernet, Firewire) cost $29 each.
What was once a luxury ultraportable has become a bargain. For a reasonable $999, the MacBook Air boasts best-in-class battery life, fast performance and an excellent keyboard and touchpad. Plus, OS X Mavericks is easier to use and less of a hassle than Windows 8 when it comes to security updates. However, the flash storage on this Air isn't as speedy as that on the last model. And while the Air's display is fairly bright, with accurate colors, its relatively low 1400 x 900-pixel resolution feels dated.
Among Windows-powered Ultrabooks, the HP Spectre 13t is our top choice, offering a full-HD touch screen and good endurance for the same price. And if you're willing to splurge, and carry a little more weight, the $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display packs more than 4 million pixels into its display. But if you want the longest-running 13-inch laptop without a bulky external battery, the Air is the best choice.