New MacBook Air: Haswell ups the game (review)

Summary:The major upgrade in the recently announced MacBook Air is the Intel Haswell processor. This processor with its faster graphics makes the Air one of the best laptops ever produced.

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Apple unveiled the new MacBook Air a few days ago and, while similar to the previous generation, it has two significant upgrades under the hood. The new Intel Haswell processor with its much-improved graphics is significant enough, but paired with new SSD technology it is enough to get me to open my wallet and buy one.

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My purchase decision was aided by the fact that the new laptop was shipping immediately. Companies competing with Apple should take note that new gadgets should ship right after the product unveiling to take advantage of the excitement. I've been using the new MacBook Air heavily since it arrived and it's the best laptop I've ever used.

Hardware specs as reviewed:

  • CPU: Intel Core i5 Haswell, 1.3GHz (Turbo boost up to 2.6GHz)
  • Graphics/display: Integrated Intel HD5000, 11.6-inch display, 1366x768 (2560 by 1600 pixels on external display)
  • Memory: 4GB, 1600Mhz LPDDR3
  • Storage: 256GB
  • Ports: 2-USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, audio out, dual microphones
  • Camera: 720p Facetime camera
  • Connectivity: Wi-fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, 802.11 ac, Bluetooth 4.0
  • Battery: 39WHr, 9 hours 
  • Height: 0.11-0.68 inch (0.3-1.7 cm)
  • Width: 11.8 inches (30 cm)
  • Depth: 7.56 inches (19.2 cm)
  • Weight: 2.38 pounds (1.08 kg)

The MacBook Air has always been known for its thin form and light weight. The new model carries on that tradition and it's very similar to the previous generation. The aluminum construction is very strong and yet as light (or lighter) than the iPad with a keyboard case.

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The 11.6-inch display is not a Retina Display, and while I wish it were, it is nice and bright. I can see a marked difference when side-by-side with the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, but it's still a good display. While the 1366x768 resolution is low by today's standards, the MacBook Air can drive an external monitor up to 2560x1600.

Some tasks perform even faster on the MacBook Air than on the latest MacBook Pro, especially graphics-intensive functions.

The fast memory in the Air (1600MHz) pitches in to keep the system performance hopping along. It works with the SSD storage with its upgraded speed to make a noticeable difference in everyday use. These fast components work together with the Intel Haswell processor with its fast graphics to provide overall performance on par with, and at times exceeding, the performance of the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. That is impressive, considering the Pro has a Core i5 (non-Haswell) processor running twice as fast as the Air (2.6GHz vs 1.3GHz).

I have always considered the performance of my MacBook Pro with Retina Display to be quite good, and it's surprising to find the overall performance of the MacBook Air to be as good as the Pro. Some tasks perform even faster on the Air than on the MacBook Pro, especially graphics-intensive functions.

I have tested opening a number of heavy web sites on both the Air and the Pro side-by-side, and the Air always beats the Pro. The Intel HD5000 graphics are much faster than the HD4000 used in previous MacBooks, as Apple stated at the unveiling of the Air. The Air also resumes from sleep in a second; the system is fully running before the lid is open.

Apple claims battery life of 9 hours for the new Air, and so far that seems accurate. Apple's quoted battery life on its devices is usually accurate, and this seems to be no exception.

Conclusion

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In the short time I've had the MacBook Air, it has become clear to me that Apple has created the new standard for laptops. The hardware is the most portable on the market, and the components work together to make the Air an outstanding performer for the price. Providing that performance with 9-hour battery life is a stunning achievement.

There are cheaper laptops on the market but the Air provides outstanding value for the $1,199 price as reviewed. The value is so high because there is nothing I would change about the Air.

Apple has upgraded the MacBook Air in the best way possible. It has significantly improved three critical components to yield the best performance: memory speed, SSD speed, and graphics speed. It's done that while keeping the 11-inch model's price the same as the previous generation, and while knocking $100 off the price of the 13-inch model.

I currently own a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, HP Envy x2, Samsung Chromebook, and the MacBook Air. If I had to give up all of them but one, I would keep the MacBook Air without hesitation.

See also:

Designed by Apple

Topics: Laptops, Apple, Mobility, Reviews

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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