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.

  • Editors' rating:
    8.5
  • User rating:
    0.0
  • RRP:
    USD $1,299.00
    GBP £940.83
    AUD $1,449.00

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.

Topics: Laptops, Apple, Reviews

About

Hello, I'm the Reviews Editor at ZDNet UK. My experience with computers started at London's Imperial College, where I studied Zoology and then Environmental Technology. This was sufficiently long ago (mid-1970s) that Fortran, IBM punched-card machines and mainframes were involved, followed by green-screen terminals and eventually the pers... Full Bio

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