New MacBook Air: Haswell ups the game (review)

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.

Open front
Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

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.

Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

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.

Open side
Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

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.


In hand
Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

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

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  • Swutching from MacBook Pro

    I ordered a 13" Air (Core i7 and 8GB RAM upgrade) yesterday. Should be in by the middle of next week. Looking forward tonthe performance boost.

  • I totally agree

    "Companies competing with Apple should take note that new gadgets should ship right after the product unveiling to take advantage of the excitement."

    Which is why I ordered the new mac pro that had pricing announced and was available for immediate purchasing.

    Oh wait. None of that is true. The new mac pro is vaporware.
    • No need to diss apple for that one.

      Apple products are usually released in a lot of markets soon after they are announced. They do this far better than the competition.

      I don't like buying stale products. I don't like buying Apple products either, because I think the value doesn't justify their cost, but they definitely are much better at letting the customer buy a product than other PC vendors are.
    • Oh hey, you found one example

      You must be proud of yourself.
      Michael Alan Goff
    • May A Mockingbird Peck At A Boil On Your Head For The Rest Of Your Life

      Do you ever add anything non-sardonic to these conversations?

      Apple covered it in the presentation by pointing out it isn't common for them to announce something with such a large lead time. You know why Apple did this. It has been a very long time since the last MacPro and Apple wants to reassure content creators. Perhaps the board design is not quite as off the shelf as Apple detractors claim when they say Apple just uses PC parts.

      If indeed Steve Jobs is in hell as your icon intimates, hopefully, when you kick off, it will be his pitchfork that will shred your ass during the initiation ceremony. In the meantime, pull it together and see if you can manage to avoid writing another sniveling, sarcastic snark by posting things ZDNET readers would find useful.
    • lol

      And then reality sets in.

      When this does ship Lenovo will probably have a Haswell Carbon X1 with a superior keyboard, OS and touch.
      • LOL at you...

        NonZealot is discussing the MacPro, which uses Xeon CPUs.

        The MBA is available today.
    • Apple said it was

      a preview and told you when it was going to be released (fall).

      Most everyone is correct here. Unlike the Surface announcement in LA....then no hardware for many months, most Apple products are either available that day or with in 2 weeks.

      Todd is just upset that Apple has already sold more of these new Airs than all surface products to date.
    • toddbottom, why not ask why it lacks touch interface?

      I'm in a mixed marriage. My wife loves Apple and I am Android and Windows 8, having given up on Linux as an indie hobby and not worthy of all the time it takes to wade through the anarchy when I need to do the simplest things.

      If you agree with me that the lack of touchscreen interface makes this new MacBook obsolete, that's one thing. However, if you disagree, this new device is an amazing machine. If you are part of the Apple universe and don't agree with me about the lack of a touchscreen, this is an excellent choice if you want an upgrade. Why rain on anyone's parade?
  • As for the mba, I will not be buying one.

    Screen too small, too slow, too heavy, too bulky, too thick, not portable.

    The mba is a fridge toaster. It is a flying car that neither flies nor drives. It is a hybrid that isn't the fastest nor the most portable (which makes it terrible according to your past reviews of anything not apple). It is full of compromises. Everyone would be better off buying a lighter tablet (clearly not an ipad since you've just admitted those are ~2.5 lbs) and a faster laptop or desktop. At least if we were to use Kendrick logic from past reviews.

    But James would tell us that consistency is highly overrated.

    And thanks for finally giving us an idea of just how heavy and bulky your ipad setup has been all this time. Wow, your tablet weighed in at nearly 2.5 pounds. That's brutal.
    • Please tell us...

      Which larger, faster, lighter, less bulky, more portable laptop you use?
      • Reading comprehension

        First, nowhere in the post does he mention a device that's larger, faster, lighter, less bulky, more portable all in one device.

        Second, sarcasm. If you've ever used a detachable, you are aware that they are the future of ultrabook-type devices. Some reviewers tried to undersell them as hybrids that can do neither, either due to false Apple brand loyality or for other reasons...
        • Thanks for explaining his thinking...

          I should get a tablet (presumably the Surface RT that he claims is perfect) that's smaller and less powerful (not to mention has less battery life) AND a laptop that's bulkier, heavier and has even less battery life.

          That makes sense.
        • Hi Sacr

          The irony is that I'm pretty sure some idiot is going to sarcastically write the equivalent of what I was seriously told by the apple community when I got my Surface:

          You shouldn't get a Surface because it is bulkier than an ipad (lie) and slower than a macbook. Instead you should get an ipad (which is bulkier and far less capable) and a macbook (which is bulkier, heavier, and has less battery life).

          Like danbi did.

          Because that makes sense.

          Watch, I bet some apple idiot will write something like that.
          • Ah, NonZealot...

            thanks for mentioning battery life.

            The MBA has over twice the battery life of a Surface Pro, and some 30% more than your beloved Surface RT.

            I'm sure someone will claim that battery life in a mobile device isn't important. In fact, I'm sure you will.
          • Battery Life

            I was going to say the same thing. Wow, the surface pro with its pathetic battery life. A total complete showstopper issue. Even with a decent LG 42 Wh unit. The battery is rated for 7.4 V and 5676 mAh and it still only barely gets four hours of battery life. Really MS? You could not do any better then that on power management? They really needed to hit the 5.5 or 6 hour mark at a bare minimum.

            toddbottom3, you have to give Apple some credit on this one. First to come out with haswell and intel 5000 graphics. First with a system with the faster SSD. With the 11" air at 1.08 kg you call this bulky? To get something that portable your looking at the Samsung ativ 9 (series 9) which costs around 1300 for starters. The only think the air lacks is the higher resolution screen. The Samsung will get maybe 6 hours tops. The 11" air another 3 hours. I like Hi resolution like everyone else but for the first time I see Apples price points very competitive. To get something this powerful you have to get a Sony Pro 13 with a slice battery and its going to cost 1600 dollars. Suddenly, the air 11 at 999 dollars provides more value then anything the PC side has to offer. That might change and hopefully it does. I am a PC guy and have never bought anything Apple but at some point, i can't ignore value when I see it. So it does not have touch. Really does not matter when you have a touch pad that truly works with tons of gestures. Only the new reported Samsung Ativ book 9 has a reported touch pad that is mac like. But there again, the Samy is base priced 30 percent higher.
            Trent Larson
          • Surface (RAM)

            Half of the 32GB of RAM in the Surface is consumed by Windows. Wow, what a deal. Plus regular Windows apps work like crap with touch.
        • Reading comprehension...

          "Everyone would be better off buying a lighter tablet (clearly not an ipad since you've just admitted those are ~2.5 lbs) and a faster laptop or desktop."

          Anyone who's read his posts under the many different names he's used understands that he's incredibly pedantic. When he suggests we buy a laptop, that's what he means.

          Since the MBA is too small, too heavy, too slow, too bulky, not portable, which laptop is he recommending?

          Is he telling us to buy a heavier, bulkier, less portable laptop? If so, what's the point? Isn't portability the whole point of a laptop?

          I'm afraid, Sacr, you've fallen into the trap of trying to understand someone with an irrational, obsessive hatred.
    • Poor Toddy

      it must really grate on his nerves that no less than PCMag...whom he loves to cite...has made the new MB Air an Editors' Choice and said

      "This isn’t a low-powered slate tablet that gives up computing performance in exchange for battery life. With the latest MacBook Air 13-inch, you have a fully functional ultraportable laptop with extremely long battery life, as it should be. If you need to do real work on a plane, train, or out in the field, get a MacBook Air 13-inch."

      Ouch....for "real work" get a MacBook! That must really wonder Toddy has his knickers in a twist. I guess that's the really brutal thing here.
      • Stings?

        "Ouch....for "real work" get a MacBook!"

        So it is true then, ipads can't be used for real work?

        Care to reconsider this one?

        If mobility isn't important to you, get the mba although I would recommend something better, even the mbp if you don't care about mobility. There is no good use for the mba. This isn't anti apple since I'm saying the mbp is better.

        If you do care about mobility, the mba isn't for you. At nearly 2.5 lbs, is far too heavy and bulky to be portable. After all, if the lighter and thinner Surface is to bulky to be portable (something we were told time and time again by the apple community, including James) then the mba is unusable.

        I did have to laugh today when I read that James is dumping his Chromebook. The guy is a joke.