MacBook Air gets battery boost from Haswell

The new MacBook Air may look a lot like the old MacBook Air, but the battery life improvement delivered by Intel’s fourth-generation Core processor looks significant.

The updated MacBook Air, which Apple announced at its developer conference this week, may be the best argument yet for Intel’s Haswell chip. The new MacBook Air is exactly like the old one except that it uses Intel’s fourth-generation Core processor. That may not sound too exciting, but if Apple’s estimates are in the ballpark, the change will yield big improvements in battery life.

The MacBook Air was already known for solid battery life. On CNET’s tests, the 11-inch model lasted more than 5 hours and the 13-inch version lasted nearly 7.5 hours. Apple says the updated ones will be good for 9 hours and 12 hours, respectively. Vendor battery life ratings are usually overly optimistic, but it still seems likely that independent tests will show some solid gains here. Apple also said the new MacBook Airs will have up to 30 days of standby time.

Intel made longer battery life a primary goal of Haswell from the start. It was Intel’s first chip family designed from the ground up for the Ultrabook, which is basically the Windows equivalent of the MacBook Air. Apple doesn’t provide detailed specs, but it looks like the new starting configuration includes the Core i5-4250U, which has a base frequency of 1.30GHz and can turbo up to 2.60GHz, and the upgraded version uses the Core i7-4650U with a base frequency of 1.7GHz and a turbo mode up to 3.3GHz. Both of these chips are rated at 15 watts compared to the 17-watt Ivy Bridge processors used in the previous models. The fourth-generation Core processors also have a bunch of new power management features, including additional active power and idle states, which boost battery life.

The performance gains will probably be less compelling. The CPU performance gains over Ivy Bridge are likely to be pretty modest based on the tests results to date. Haswell’s HD 5000 graphics should deliver a sizable boost in 3D graphics performance, which will be nice for casual gaming, but serious gamers will still buy Windows PCs with discrete graphics processors.

There are some other changes, too. The 11-inch MacBook Air now comes with a 128GB solid-state drive for the starting price of $1,000, and either model can be configured with an SSD in capacities up to 512GB. The MacBook Air also has faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Apple announced updated versions of the AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule that also support 802.11ac. Finally, Apple cut the stating price of the 13-inch MacBook Air to $1,100.

There were some rumors that Apple would introduce a Retina display on the MacBook Air, but it stuck with the same resolutions: 1366 by 768 pixels for the 11-inch model and 1440 by 900 pixels on the 13-inch version. Competitors have been introducing higher-resolution displays on Ultrabooks and convertibles. The MacBook Pro also has a Retina display.

As far as the design goes, why mess with a good thing? Companies like Acer, Asus, Lenovo and Samsung have certainly closed the gap a bit with some nice Ultrabook designs , but it is remarkable how well the MacBook Air’s wedge design has stood the test of time. If Haswell delivers the promised battery life, the MacBook Air will continue to be the laptop to beat.