Apple 13-inch MacBook Air review

Apple 13-inch MacBook Air review

Summary: The 2013 13-inch MacBook Air has enough internal improvements to make it one of the most desirable ultraportable notebooks on the market. It may lack an ultra-high-resolution display and touchscreen functionality, but there's little else to fault it.

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TOPICS: Laptops, Apple, Reviews
77
  • Editors' rating:
    8.5
  • User rating:
    5.9
  • RRP:
    £940.83

Pros

  • Superb industrial design
  • Exemplary build quality
  • 4th-Generation Core (Haswell) CPU
  • Improved HD 5000 GPU
  • Excellent battery life
  • Fast 256GB SSD
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi

Cons

  • Moderate pixel-density display
  • No touchscreen functionality
  • Price mounts as options are added

Apple's MacBook Air has been upgraded, not only with Intel's latest 4th-Generation Core (Haswell) processor and its improved integrated graphics, but also with faster flash storage and next-generation 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The 22nm Haswell-architecture processor, in particular, is designed from the ground up to be power-frugal, which helps Apple squeeze what it claims is 'all day' battery life from the new MacBook Air range — 9 hours on the 11-inch model and 12 hours on the 13-inch model reviewed here.

These improvements, allied to the MacBook Air's elegant and functional industrial design, make this arguably the best non-touchscreen ultraportable you can buy. Our review unit, with 256GB of SSD storage, costs £1,129 (inc. VAT, or £940.83 ex. VAT).

Design
The MacBook Air's slimline unibody chassis is familiar enough, but it's always useful, as a reviewer, to be reacquainted with the latest model — if only to recalibrate the critical faculties when it comes to evaluating excellence in industrial design and construction.

apple-mba-2
Apple's 2013 MacBook Air looks the same as the previous model, but includes significant CPU, GPU, SSD and Wi-Fi improvements, which contribute to better performance and better battery life. (Image: Apple)

Many other notebook manufacturers have, to put it politely, been 'influenced' by Apple's MacBook Air — notably Google with its Chromebook Pixel. Although, in our opinion, the 1.35kg (2.96lb) 13.3in. MacBook Air beats the 1.52kg (3.35lb) 12.85in. Chromebook Pixel on design and ergonomics, one area where Google's notebook has an edge is the screen, which is a high-resolution (2,560 x 1,700 pixels, 239ppi) touchscreen. The MacBook Air's glossy 1,440-by-900-pixel display is perfectly adequate, but it has a considerably lower pixel density (128ppi) — and, of course, lacks the Chromebook Pixel's touchscreen functionality. A 227ppi Retina display, as seen on the current MacBook Pro, would be nice.

The MacBook Air's screen may lack touch capability, but its large glass touchpad goes a long way to compensating for this. With inertial scrolling, pinch, rotate, swipe, three- and four-finger swipes, double-tap and drag functionality, you can do an awful lot with this touchpad, which is easily the most responsive we've used.

The island-style 79-key backlit keyboard is also very comfortable to type on. It has 12 half-height function keys above the number row, flanked by dedicated Esc and power keys, plus a dedicated cluster of 'inverted-T' cursor keys in the bottom right corner.

The MacBook Air is not overburdened with ports and slots, but it does sport two USB 3.0 ports, one on each side, and a Thunderbolt port on the right-hand side. The latter can daisychain up to six Thunderbolt peripherals and also supports MiniDisplayPort devices (and, via an adapter, VGA, DVI and HDMI monitors too). If you need wired Ethernet, it's available via Thunderbolt or USB adapters, both cables costing £25 (inc. VAT); a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire adapter is also available at the same price.

The left-hand side also carries the excellent MagSafe 2 power connector (take note, Microsoft Surface), a headphone jack and a dual microphone array; there's also an SD card reader on the right-hand side (this is absent on the 11-inch model).

Features
The 13-inch MacBook Air is powered by a dual-core (4-thread) Intel Core i5-4250U running at 1.3GHz (up to 2.6GHz in Turbo Boost mode). Graphics are handled by the improved CPU-integrated HD Graphics 5000. It has 4GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 RAM and a PCI Express 256GB solid-state drive. Optional improvements include a Core i7-4650U processor for an extra £130, 8GB of RAM for another £80 and a 512GB SSD for £240 more. Tick all those boxes and you're looking at a pricey (but desirable) £1,579 (inc. VAT) notebook.

Another improvement in the 2013 MacBook Air is support for next-generation 802.11ac Wi-Fi via the latest (Broadcom-driven) Airport Extreme module. This dual-band (2.4GHz/5GHz) adapter also supports 802.11a/b/g/n modes and incorporates Bluetooth 4.0. Because we also had a 2TB Airport Time Capsule, a combination of 4-port (3xGbE LAN, 1xGbE WAN) 802.11ac router and 2TB NAS, we could set up a 5GHz network to test the 3-stream, 80MHz-channel (1.3Gbps line rate) 802.11ac operation (see below).

Performance & battery life
To gauge the CPU and GPU performance of the 1.3GHz Core i5-4250U-powered MacBook Air, we ran Maxon's synthetic Cinebench 11.5 test. For reference, we compared the results to those from Eurocom's recently reviewed high-spec Haswell notebook, the Racer 3.0, which runs a 2.7GHz Core i7-4800MQ processor and Nvidia's discrete GeForce GTX 780M GPU:

mab-13-cinebench

Although the MacBook Air is no match for the appropriately-named Racer, it's no slouch either. Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is with Microsoft's Surface Pro, which is powered by a previous-generation combo of 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U processor and Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU. The CPU scores are identical at 2.41 points, but the MacBook Air's upgraded HD Graphics 5000 GPU gives it the edge in the OpenGL test with 23.67 frames per second compared to the Surface Pro's 15.63.

Disk performance from the MacBook Air's 256GB PCIe SSD is excellent, Xbench reporting write speeds of up to 575MB/s and read speeds of up to 406MB/s; the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test recorded 670MB/s for writes and 727MB/s for reads. Among other things, this translates into a fast boot time: we logged the average time from power on to the Mac OS X desktop at about 13 seconds.

We also used Xbench's disk test to examine the MacBook Air's 802.11ac Wi-Fi performance, specifying the 2TB hard disk in the Airport Time Capsule 802.11ac router/NAS as the target. Within the ZDNet/CBS Interactive office, which is a fairly noisy RF environment, the average throughput reported by Xbench for 256KB transfers remained around 200Mbps for up to 25 metres, before dropping off to around 20Mbps at 50m:

mba-13-ac-2

Impressive as the 2013 MacBook Air's CPU, GPU, SSD and Wi-Fi improvements are, the best news is about battery life. Apple claims up to 12 hours of wireless web browsing for the 13in. MacBook Air, which we tested by measuring the system's power consumption under various conditions (idling and running a workload, with different screen brightness settings) using a Voltcraft VC940 Plus watt meter. Dividing the resulting wattages into the battery's 54 watt-hour (Wh) rating gives an estimated battery life figure (Wh/W=h):

mba-13-battery
Idle = system idling at the Mac OS X desktop with Wi-Fi on; Load = running the GeekBench benchmark; 25%, 50%, 100% = screen brightness settings.

Our results suggest that, with a middling screen brightness setting and the system dividing its time between idling and being fully loaded, you can indeed expect to achieve Apple's claimed 12 hours, which justifies its billing of 'all day battery life'. Thanks to the Haswell architecture's improved power management features, the system also moves in and out of sleep mode impressively quickly too.

Conclusion
Although it looks much the same as the 2012 model on the outside, the 2013 13-inch MacBook Air has enough internal improvements to make it one of the most desirable ultraportable notebooks on the market — if not the most desirable. It may lack an ultra-high-resolution display and touch functionality, but there's little else to fault it.

Specifications

General
Dimensions (W x H x D) 32.5 x 1.7 x 22.7 cm
Weight 1.35 kg
OS & software
Operating system Mac OS X 10.8.4
Chipset & memory
RAM installed 4096 MB
RAM capacity 8 GB
Video
VGA (analogue) via optional adapter
Video out Thunderbolt/MiniDisplayPort (DVI and HDMI via optional adapters)
GPU Intel HD Graphics 5000
GPU type integrated
Display
Display technology LED-backlit TFT (glossy)
Display size 13.3 in
Native resolution 1440x900 pixels
Connections
USB 2 x USB 3.0
FireWire (IEEE 1394) via optional adapter
Flash card SD
Thunderbolt 1
Networking
Ethernet controller via optional (USB or Thunderbolt) adapter
Wireless
Wi-Fi 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.0
Input
Pointing devices multi-touch glass touchpad
Keyboard backlit, 79-key island-style
Camera
Main camera front
Main camera resolution 1.3 megapixels
Audio
Audio connectors headphone
Speakers stereo
Microphone dual array
Miscellaneous
Accessories AC adapter
Battery
Battery technology Li-polymer
Estimated battery life (mfr) 12 h
Removable battery No
Processor & memory
Clock speed 1.3 GHz
Processor manufacturer Intel
Processor model Core i5-4250U
Solid-state drive
Interface PCI Express
Capacity 256 GB
Expand

Prices

Price
Price AUD 1449
Price GBP 941
Price USD 1299

Topics: Laptops, Apple, Reviews

About

Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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Talkback

77 comments
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  • IMHO,....

    9.0

    "No touchscreen functionality" belongs in the "Pros" column.
    Userama
    • why does it belong in the pro column?!

      I'd buy one if it was high res and touch screen!
      jkwr
      • Ergonomics.

        After about five minutes of sticking your arm out to touch the screen to do basic tasks, everyone is going to say: "well, this sucks." and never touch the screen again.
        baggins_z
        • Poor James Kendrick and his gorilla arms

          1.0

          Fascinating how James has his arms outstretched for hours at a time on his ipad laptop (that's what it is when he has his keyboard attached) yet he never lists this as a huge negative.

          So is James lying or are you?
          toddbottom3
          • Straw man Toddy....

            Presumably when James uses his iPad with keyboard attached for hours as you indicate he spends the vast majority of that time typing and seldom reaches out to use the screen...which kind of proves the point that a touchscreen is pretty irrelevant. In a laptop scenario a good trackpad makes far more ergonomic sense than a touchscreen for the very gorilla arm reason mentioned. Having both seems rather redundant in a laptop as most use cases would be more easily and conveniently performed with the trackpad.

            So...with due respect...neither is lying...As the majority of readers will recognize, you're just applying your usual hater spin.
            UGottaBKidding
          • Then baggins is lying

            1.0

            baggins : "After about five minutes of sticking your arm out to touch the screen"

            So you are saying that people DON'T leave their arms hanging out in mid air? Huh.

            "Having both seems rather redundant in a laptop as most use cases would be more easily and conveniently performed with the trackpad."

            Which is why the Surface is so much better than the ipad. You said it yourself : having a trackpad is a major convenience.
            toddbottom3
          • Sure Toddy....If you're using it as a laptop!

            Having a trackpad is a convenience (not a major one....such as a keyboard) on an iPad if you're using it as a laptop. If you're using it as an iPad....then...not so much.

            If you're using touch for five minutes at a time for some function as indicated by Baggins then gorilla arms would apply...if you're using touch intermittently while typing (a la James K) then, not so much.

            But you knew that...you're just being coy and cute in an effort to try to imply something that really isn't so.
            UGottaBKidding
          • Thinking in black and white

            1.0

            there are other laptops out there that has the same functional track pad as the MacBook Air PLUS they have the benefit of a touch screen. Using one method does not exclude you from using another. Can you grab and drag ten items with ten fingers at the SAME TIME with a trackpad? In some music Apps, I can adjust 6 slider bars simultaneously to hear my results. Can you pinch to zoom or expand two photos with both hands and drag it around at the SAME TIME with a trackpad? Can you play a virtual piano using ten fingers on a trackpad?
            Nathane Grave
          • Re: other laptops out there that has the same functional track pad

            Name one.
            danbi
          • I apologize. I assumed a certain level of

            intelligence that is apparently not there. So let downgrade the language to a more elementary level for your benefit.

            After about five minutes of having to lift up, then put down, then lift up then put down your arm to performa basic computer functions, you are going to say: "well, this sucks." and never touch the screen again.

            I just checked the above sentences and they are written at a third-grade level, so you should be able to understand them, now.
            baggins_z
          • I guess it's you that requires to 'raise' your intelligence...

            Having 'touch' on a laptop only enhances the experience, not diminishes it. If you are so bent up on not using 'touch', so stay behind in 2000's and use the trackpad. If you can't see the validity of other people's argument that how touch helps them, then you have a problem with comprehension/cognizance part of your brain. Unless of course you are a 'fruitard', then you have a problem of a different kind i.e. if Apple designed it, then its always the users fault if anything wrong with design or usability...

            Now, if you say touch is irrelevant for MacBook 'coz Mac OS don't support it yet, then that's a different argument. You can still load Win 8 and use it though.
            msunda
      • Touch Screen Laptops Are A Gimmick

        3.0

        Listen, Reaching your hand up and over the keyboard to the screen which is a about a 5 to 12 inch reach depending on where you rest your hands, compared to mouse or trackpad with a 2" movement to do the same things, I don't get it, Sounds like Microsoft marketing magic by designing the OS touch centric and telling you that you need to spend extra on touch screen to do everything is working on some people, don't be so gullible.
        cheydaddy
    • Absolutely!!

      I agree. Dirty, smeary screens are not all that much fun. I had one on my desk, and when people came by to discuss projects, it wasn't unusual for them to reach and touch. After about a week, the screen was disgusting.

      Not to mention, in OS X there is no need to use a touchscreen. Apple's touchpads are incredible.
      notinkeys
      • Yep

        6.0

        The touchpad on a Macbook works like a touchscreen, with multi-touch gestures, just without the constant screen cleaning.

        I am hoping someday sensors like Kinect will displace full-on touch gesturing. I get tired of cleaning screens.
        Mac_PC_FenceSitter
    • Neither a pro or a con.

      10.0

      OS X and applications designed for OS X are not designed for low precision pointing (i.e. poking tiny buttons with fat fingers on a touch screen). Windows 7 and earlier were designed similarly, this is one of the reasons early Microsoft tablet convertibles were such a dismal failure. The reviewer never would have claimed that a Windows 7 laptop without a touch screen was a "con".

      Windows 8 and iOS on the other hand are designed for low precision pointing.

      The touch screen criteria is only appropriate for laptops that are designed to run Windows 8, why the reviewer applied this criteria to laptop designed for OS X is a mystery*.

      *Perhaps the reviewer meant it is a con if you intend to run Windows 8 on this laptop designed for OS X, but then he should have made that explicit.
      YaBaby
  • What is there to review?

    Seriously? This is the previous Mac Book Air with a new processor and a different interface for the SSD. Other than that what's to say?
    ye
    • The battery is also bigger

      So there's that.
      Michael Alan Goff
      • But is it removable yet?

        5.0

        The bane of most Apple products...you have to take it in to the store to get the battery replaced.
        Techboy_z
        • Still not removable

          Those things are becoming more and more scarce as time goes on.
          Michael Alan Goff
        • u dont own one obviously.

          10.0

          Techboy_z has no clue
          JamieC336