Amazingly long battery life; Fast performance; Comfortable keyboard and touchpad; Sturdy yet slim design; Runs cool
Relatively low-res display; Somewhat slower flash than last version
A faster processor, even longer battery life and a lower price solidify the 13-inch MacBook Air as the best ultraportable laptop value.
Editors' Note: Apple has announced a new 2015 version of the 13-inch MacBook Air that features a 5th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, improved graphics and Thunderbolt 2 connectivity. Plus, Apple promises that the new flash storage is up to twice as fast. We recommend buying the latest version of this notebook.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
|CPU||1.5-GHz Intel Core i5|
|Operating System||OS X 10.9 (Mavericks)|
|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|
|Optical Drive Speed|
|Graphics Card||Intel HD 5000 graphics|
|Touchpad Size||4.1 x 3 inches|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Thunderbolt|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Headphone|
|Card Slots||2-1 card reader|
|Size||12.8 x 9 x 0.11-0.68 inches|