|SPECS AT A GLANCE: 13-INCH 2013 APPLE MACBOOK AIR|
|SCREEN||1440×900 at 13.3" (128 PPI)|
|OS||OS X 10.8.4 "Mountain Lion"|
|CPU||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U (Turbo up to 2.6GHz)|
|RAM||8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3 (non-upgradeable)|
|GPU||Intel HD Graphics 5000 (integrated)|
|HDD||128GB solid-state drive|
|NETWORKING||802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0|
|PORTS||2x USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, card reader, headphones|
|SIZE||12.8" × 8.94" × 0.68" (325 mm × 227 mm × 17 mm)|
|WEIGHT||2.96 lbs (1.35 kg)|
|PRICE AS REVIEWED||$1,199.99|
|OTHER PERKS||Webcam, backlit keyboard, dual integrated mics|
While many PC makers introduce new or tweaked laptop designs just about every year, Apple tends to stick with the same design for a few years before changing everything all at once to reflect changes in internal hardware (the move from HDDs to SSDs, for example) and evolving design tastes (the move across the lineup to aluminum unibody chassis). 2013's MacBook Air retains the same basic design that the laptops have used since their late-2010 rebirth, when Apple refined the design of the existing 13-inch Air and introduced the 11-inch model.
Set the brand-new Airs on a table next to last year's models and it's unlikely anyone could tell the difference. Even changes to the speeds of the I/O ports, like what happened in 2011 with the addition of Thunderbolt and in 2012 with the addition of USB 3.0, aren't here to convince would-be upgrades. Everything that's new about the 2013 Air is hidden away inside the laptop. While no one thing will convince 2011 or 2012 Air users to upgrade, the year-to-year improvements are still impressive when taken as a whole.
For the bulk of this review, we'll be comparing the entry-level 13-inch 2013 MacBook Air to the equivalent 2012 MacBook Air. Both laptops' 4GB of RAM have been upgraded to 8GB of RAM—$100 is a bit steep for this sort of upgrade, but since the MacBook Air's RAM is soldered to the motherboard, this is an upgrade most of you will probably want to make. The 11-inch MacBook Air shares all of the same internal specs as the 13-inch model (with the exception of the battery), so most of the observations here will also apply to the smaller model.
This also serves as our first hands-on look at Intel's new Haswell CPUs, the new integrated Intel HD 5000 GPU, and 802.11ac (aka Gigabit Wi-Fi), so it will be a bit more benchmark-heavy than some of our other laptop reviews. We'll leave no stone unturned, because many of the upgraded technologies in this year's Air will be making it out to most other Ultrabooks as the year rolls on.
Body and build quality; ports and screen
The short version: There's nothing to see here. Everything is the same as last year except for the dual-mic pinholes on the laptop's left side. They are of dubious benefit to audio and dictation quality.
The long version: As we said, there's not much to distinguish the shell of the 2013 Air from previous models. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It still has the same tapered aluminum chassis, the same 0.68-inch thickness (at the back, which is the thickest point), and the same 2.96 pounds (2.38 pounds for the 11-inch model) as last year. The sole physical change to last year's model is the two pinholes on the laptop's left-hand side to accommodate the dual microphones.
These two microphones are supposed to reduce noise compared to the single-mic setup in previous models, and to test this out we did the same thing we did when we reviewed the 2012 iMac: we set the new model and the old model side-by-side and talked to them. First, we recorded some audio in Audacity to check volume and noise levels, and then we used OS X 10.8's dictation feature to read this paragraph aloud and turn it into text (note that we didn't read any punctuation aloud as we dictated to the computers).
The results aren't quite as drastic as they were in the 2012 iMac. The audio recording on the 2013 model was, in general, a bit quieter than the 2012 model. You could hear less background noise, but my voice also wasn't as loud. Both had fairly significant issues with dictation using the built-in microphone, indenting twice when they shouldn't have and just generally misinterpreting words. The 2013 may have been slightly more accurate, but it still misses a whole bunch. You'll still want a good headset for talking to your Mac.
The port selection and layout are the same as last year: MagSafe 2, one USB 3.0 port, and a headphone jack on the left; one USB 3.0 port and one Thunderbolt port on the right (plus an SD card slot with the 13-inch model).
The screens are also the same as in previous models—the 11.6-inch model has a 1366×768 (136 PPI) display, while the 13.3-inch has a 1440×900 (128 PPI) display. Those hoping for Retina displays in this year's Airs will be disappointed by this refresh. While Haswell's battery life and graphics improvements would likely make a Retina screen possible in this form factor (competitors like Toshibaare already fitting high-res screens into similar products), Apple instead opted to keep the display (and chassis) the same to pump up battery life and graphics performance at the panel's native resolution.
The screen's quality is still pretty good. Colors are bright and horizontal viewing angles are acceptable, but vertical viewing angles aren't fantastic. The colors shift if you view the screen from above. The display isn't bad, and I certainly notice "Retina"-level pixel densities more on small screens like phones and tablets than I do in laptops. Still, it's worth noting that some of the PC makers are shipping Ultrabooks in this price bracket with higher resolution IPS panels with better viewing angles.
Another potential sticking point for some buyers may be the Air's continued lack of a touchscreen. However, Apple's desktop operating system is not exactly finger-friendly, so there wouldn't be much of a point unless you intend to buy the Air just to run Windows 8 on it. For its part, Apple seems content to let the large, accurate multitouch trackpad handle all of the gesture support in OS X. It works just as well as ever.
Even the laptop's heat and fan noise is mostly unchanged from the prior year's model. The MacBook Air's fan is normally near-silent, but it can ramp up to a dull whine when the laptop is under load. The laptop really only gets hot when it's under heavy load, and then it's mostly in the corner near the MagSafe 2 connector (around where the CPU is located on the logic board).
The CPU: Haswell breaks even
The short version: Performance remains mostly unchanged from last year's model despite lower apparent clock speeds. Some tasks will be slightly faster, some will be slightly slower—it's pretty much a wash.
The long version: The base CPU that comes with the new MacBook Air is a 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U paired with an integrated Intel HD 5000 GPU. This is a full 27.8 percent drop in base clock speed from the 1.8GHz Core i5-3427U that came in last year's 13-inch base model, but the story is more complicated than that.
First, a Haswell CPU can get more work done than an Ivy Bridge CPU running at the same clock speed—AnandTech's thorough Haswell review says the gains can be up to 20 percent depending on the task. Second, Intel's Turbo Boost speeds on these CPUs are quite aggressive. Both of the i5-4250U's core can scale up to 2.3GHz simultaneously, while single-threaded tasks can go all the way up to 2.6GHz (a neat doubling of the base clock speed). This is still lower than the 2.8GHz max turbo in last year's model, but the two are close enough that Haswell's improved instructions-per-clock should outrun it slightly.
What all of this means is that most of the time the CPU in these new Airs isn't really an upgrade over last year's model. Our synthetic benchmarks back this up. In Geekbench and Cinebench, the Ivy Bridge CPU in last year's model slightly edges out the Haswell CPU in the new Air. We've also included some numbers from last year's Retina MacBook Pros to show how much CPU power going Pro continues to get you.
In the grand scheme, CPU performance in the Air hasn't moved forward much since 2011. There's a limit to what kind of performance you can get out of something this size, and both Intel and Apple have been prioritizing graphics performance over CPU performance in their ultraportable offerings for the past couple of years. Between the 2012 and 2013 Airs, the newer laptop falls behind just a bit in the Cinebench multi-core test and trades blows with the previous model in Geekbench, but the differences are small enough that they won't be noticeable to most.
To dig into real-world performance a little more, we fired up Final Cut Pro to export some video. First, we exported 15 seconds of 1080p video to see whether Turbo Boost would make up for the Haswell chip's low base clock speed for short bursts of activity. Then, we exported five and 10 minutes of 1080p video to see whether performance fell for sustained periods of activity. All tests were run three times and then averaged. The videos were exported to the same external USB 3.0 hard drive to make sure the 2013 model's faster SSD didn't influence the results. The laptops were both left alone for a few minutes between runs to cool down.
While exporting video, the 2013 Air surprisingly edges out the 2012 model despite its slight clock speed deficiency. The improvements aren't awe-inspiring, nor are they guaranteed to be there for all tasks—but they're a bit better than you might expect comparing a 1.3GHz CPU to last year's 1.8GHz model.
At any rate, the CPU in the new Air isn't a slam-dunk upgrade compared to the previous year's model. It shouldn't really be a significant step down either. If you need something faster, a 1.7GHz Core i7-4650U is available as a $150 upgrade option for all models.
The GPU: Less of a performance leap, more of a performance hop
The short version: The Intel HD 5000 GPU is better in most games than the HD 4000, but it's still nowhere near a modern discrete GPU. While Intel's GPUs tout compatibility with 4K displays as one of their selling points, the Air still doesn't fully support them.
The long version: Haswell's CPUs can ship with any one of several different integrated GPUs. The best of these (the Iris Pro 5200) roughly doubles the 3D performance of Ivy Bridge's Intel HD 4000 in most games, while the least of them (the HD 4200, 4400, and 4600) edge out the older GPU by a relatively inconsequential amount. Two others, the Iris 5100 and Intel HD 5000, fall somewhere in between those two extremes. The HD 5000 is what we're looking at here.
If you we're expecting a performance jump like the one between the 2011 and 2012 Airs, you're going to be disappointed. The HD 5000 GPU is consistently quicker than the outgoing HD 4000, but it's the kind of upgrade that will make playable games run a bit more smoothly. It will not make previously unplayable games into playable ones. The Cinebench benchmark doesn't even measure a huge difference between the two (and both are much slower than the midrange GeForce GT 650M in the 15-inch MacBook Pros).
We also tried out these laptops in Unigine's Heaven and Valley benchmarks to further evaluate OS X graphics performance. Here, the gap between the HD 4000 and the HD 5000 is a bit wider (the HD 3000 in the 2011 Air returned some anomalous scores on these tests, so it doesn't make an appearance on these charts).
To dig a little deeper into the differences in GPU performance, we needed more games, and that meant installing a 64-bit copy of Windows 8. In this test, the HD 5000 proves to be a consistently better performer than the HD 4000, and it handles older and lighter games at the panel's resolution of 1440×900 without breaking a sweat. As Bioshock Infinite shows, though, newer and more graphically intensive games won't be playable unless you turn the settings down. In many cases, we're looking at pretty small performance boosts.
For each of the following tests, we used most of the drivers that Apple provides for the 2012 and 2013 MacBook Airs, respectively. We did, however, install the latest graphics driver from Intel (version 184.108.40.206.3165), which supports both the HD 4000 and HD 5000.
Let's also talk about external display support. While Haswell's GPUs theoretically feature support for DisplayPort 1.2 and, thus, 4K displays, the Air's Thunderbolt controller is holding it back here. The 2013 Air uses the same DSL3510L Thunderbolt controller included in the 2012 model, so while the laptops should be able to connect to up to two daisy-chained external displays, they only support DisplayPort 1.1. DisplayPort 1.2 over Thunderbolt requires one of the new Thunderbolt 2 controllers, and those aren't due until later this year.Most of the time, performance is up. In Bioshock Infinite, the average frame rate is higher on the HD 5000. In Minecraft, the minimum and maximum frame rates are both higher, though the average remains even. And in Portal 2, performance is up across the board (if only by a few frames per second). The moral of the story is that the HD 5000 is typically faster than the HD 4000 (and I would expect this performance delta to increase as the drivers are optimized), but it doesn't put the 2013 MacBook Air in a whole new league of graphics performance.
More generally, Windows 8 runs well on the 2013 MacBook Air. Apple already has a specialized Boot Camp driver package for the new laptops ready to go. We didn't spend much time in the operating system except to install it, update it, and run our various tests on it. Aside from a slightly-too-sensitive touchpad, it did all of those things ably and without much of a fuss. The other major system components (the auto-brightness sensor and all of the function keys among them) gave us no particular trouble, and the MacBook Air continues to be a decent Windows laptop if you like Apple's hardware but don't care much for its software.
The SSD: Surpassing SATA Speeds
The short version: Apple's SSDs (and their interfaces) continue to push the performance envelope, resulting in a nice upgrade from last year's already fast storage.
The long version: The 2010 MacBook Airs were the first Macs to push solid-state storage as the default option. This was in part because speedy storage helped to compensate for the laptops' (relatively) weak processors and kept general system performance feeling snappy. In the 2012 model, the laptops moved away from SATA II-based SSDs toward the much faster SATA III standard, taking performance from a theoretical 3Gbps to 6Gbps.
The great thing about modern SATA drives is that they already push the limits of SATA III. So to accommodate the faster drives, Apple has moved to a faster connector: the drive 2013 MacBook Air uses two of the chipset's PCI Express 2.0 lanes to boost theoretical performance to 8Gbps. As in previous MacBooks, Apple uses its own proprietary drive connector here (preventing drive-swapping with other PCs), and it's also different from the one they used last year (preventing swapping with previous MacBook Airs). Those looking to perform after-market upgrades will need to wait on the likes of OWC to manufacture new drives with the new connector.
Between the new drives and the new storage interface, this year's Airs get a respectable storage speed bump over last year's. This plays out in the Quickbench synthetic tests, in our own file copy tests, and in boot time.
The Quickbench extended test shows us what idealized maximum file transfer speeds look like, and the 128GB drive in our 2013 Air beats all comers (including the drive in last year's Retina MacBook Pro, which uses the SATA III interface). The improvements over the SATA II SSD in the 2011 Air are particularly impressive—the write speeds are nearly doubled and the read speeds are nearly tripled.
Those with larger drives could potentially see higher write speeds than are possible with the 128GB disks (I'll once again point you to AnandTech for proof). When more NAND chips are available, SSD controllers can write data to more chips at once, thus boosting speeds (a process known as "interleaving"). Spreading data out over different physical sections of a drive would slow down read speeds in a mechanical hard drive, but solid-state storage doesn't really care where data is stored since there are no moving parts to worry about.
Now for some real-world tests. The 2013 Air consistently boots just a little faster than the 2012 model, but you'd need to have a stopwatch out to notice the difference. Local file copies, on the other hand, are much improved—what took nearly a minute and a half to copy on the 2012 Air took around 50 seconds on the 2012 Air. Opening applications and switching between them on the Air was also nice and snappy, though it didn't feel drastically different from last year's model.
Note that your scores may differ from ours a bit. Apple sources SSDs for the 2012 MacBook Airs from several different manufacturers, and while performance doesn't differ wildly between drives there is some variance depending on the drive you happen to get. Our 2012 Air has a 128GB SSD from Toshiba, while the 2013 Air has a Samsung drive.
In any case, you'll be getting much faster storage in this year's model than in last year's. Depending on the Air that you buy, you may also be getting more of it: the entry-level, $999 11-inch Air has finally discarded its 64GB SSD in favor of a more sensible 128GB model. 256GB and 512GB drives are also available in the high-end 11-inch and 13-inch SKUs.
The wireless: Gigabit Wi-Fi, with caveats (for now)
The short version: 802.11ac is a great upgrade over 802.11n (especially the 2.4GHz varieties), with a couple of caveats. First, your router must also be 802.11ac-capable. Second, OS X currently has some issues that limit the speed of some common file transfer protocols.
The long version: Continuing the parade of incremental improvements, the 2013 MacBook Air is Apple’s first computer to ship with the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, called “Gigabit Wi-Fi” by some for the 1.3Gbps theoretical transfer speeds enabled by the most common implementation of the spec. This isn’t the implementation that Apple is using here, though. A little more explanation is required.
Our own Jon Brodkin has written a number of pieces about how 802.11ac works, but to recap: to achieve the 1.3Gbps speeds called for by the specification, 802.11ac-equipped devices must use multiple transmit and receive antennas. Each pair of antennas supports two-way data transfers at theoretical speeds of up to 433Mbps, and many devices will use a total of six antennas to enable the full speed of 1.3Gbps (three antennas each to send and receive data from the router).
This multiple-in, multiple-out (MIMO) antenna system is already common in 802.11n devices like last year's MacBook Air, where in 5Ghz-capable devices each pair of antennas supports transfer speeds of 150Mbps. The 2012 MacBook Air sports four antennas for a maximum theoretical transfer speed of 300Mbps, and since it has the same number of antennas, the 2013 Air bumps this to 866Mbps.
OS X will fudge this number a bit to make the new MacBook Air look faster than it is. Connect to an 802.11ac-based router like the new Airport Extreme Base Station, and it will gladly report a link speed of 1Gbps despite that being a full 144Mbps higher than the actual connection speed. (Hey, 866Mbps rounds up, right?) Holding down the Option key and clicking the Wi-Fi icon in the menu bar reveals the actual link speed of 867Mbps (or 108.36 megabytes per second).
there are some odd issues holding 802.11ac back in OS X. It's common for actual network transfer speeds (both wired and wireless) to fall short of their theoretical maximums, but OS X file transfers across 802.11ac weren't improving over 802.11n to the degree that we expected. Perform the same tests on both MacBooks while running Windows, and things become even more puzzling.
Monday's article describes one possible explanation from AnandTech's Anand Shimpi, who ran into the same issues we did in his review—that it's an issue related to TCP window sizing. That's still possible, though the responses in the discussion thread for that article were enough to assure me that, really, it could be caused by just about anything. It seems to be related specifically to Apple's AFP and SMB implementations, but more than that we can't really say at this point. Copying the same files over the older, simpler, and less secure FTP protocol demonstrates that OS X is clearly capable of faster transfer speeds.
One other networking deficiency in the new MacBook Air is the continued lack of any sort of integrated cellular option. It is, of course, possible to tether the laptop to a tablet or smartphone. But given that Apple tends to adopt new Wi-Fi technologies early relative to other hardware makers, it's a bit disappointing to see them lagging behind here.
It's worth noting that while some early buyers have reported having sporadic issues with Wi-Fi connectivity, we've had no such trouble with our laptop in the week that we've been using it. These kinds of issues aren't entirely unheard of in new Macs, and the new 802.11ac adapter adds an extra variable to the equation, but it seems to us to be a software issue rather than a hardware one. The issues should be fixable via software update, but we'll keep an eye on the situation as it develops
The short version: The stories are true! Under light-to-medium usage, the 2013 MacBook Air is in fact capable of 12 hours or more of battery life. For heavy usage, these sky-high numbers will drop a bit, but you'll still get more runtime than in the 2012 Air.
The long version: There are three big things that are going to increase the 2013 Air's battery life. The first two should get you more runtime no matter what you're doing: first, we've got some lower-power components. The Haswell CPU and chipset have a TDP of just 15W, where the Ivy Bridge CPU and its separate chipset had a combined TDP of about 20W. Apple has also switched to using LPDDR3 instead of last year's DDR3L, which uses a 1.2V operating voltage (down from 1.35V) and more low-power standby states than the other types of DDR3 without decreasing speed relative to last year's model. Second, the 7150 mAh battery in the new Air is just a bit larger than last year's 6700 mAh version.
The third big change, also Haswell-related, is the CPU's new "active idle" power state and the related technologies that allow it to switch between wake and sleep states more quickly. These gains are some of the biggest that the new Air promises, but remember that they're predicated on a certain type of workload. If your computer spends a lot of time idle in between short bouts of activity, you'll see big increases. If you're constantly pegging the CPU by editing photos or exporting movies, you'll still see gains, but they'll be less stratospheric.
To improve the consistency and thoroughness of our battery life testing, I've been working on some automated scripts that will perform a set of tasks repeatedly until the battery is entirely drained. This is the first review in which we'll actually be using these scripts, but eventually I hope to develop similar tools for us to use across all of our reviews.
I ran two tests on both the 2013 and 2012 MacBook Airs with the screen brightness set to 50 percent and the keyboard backlight disabled. The first opens five webpages in Safari at the rate of one every 20 seconds, closes the window, and then starts over again while an MP3 is looped. This replicates a light-to-medium workload in which browsing, opening and closing apps, and occasional media consumption are the main activities. This is the kind of workload that Haswell really shines in. The 2012 Air lasted for five hours and 52 minutes under this workload, while the 2013 Air boosted this to nine hours and 48 minutes. Perform the same test without the looped MP3, and the 2012 Air lasts for seven hours 51 minutes while the 2013 Air goes for an amazing 11 hours and 49 minutes.
To take Haswell's new idle states out of the equation, we ran a second test that pegs both CPU cores at 100 percent utilization until the battery dies, preventing them from ever dropping into any kind of standby. Under this brutal, absolute-worst-case-scenario test, the 2012 Air lasted for two hours and 30 minutes while the 2013 Air boosted this to three hours and 36 minutes. Eventually I'd like to develop a more realistic test for "heavy" users, but for now the takeaway is that you get a nice battery life increase from the 2013 Air no matter what you're using it for.
No longer ahead of the curve, but still one of our favorite laptops
The MacBook Air is no longer the trendsetter it once was. Many, many PCs in the last year or two have been remade in the 2010 model's image, adding their own innovations on top of low-voltage CPUs and solid-state storage. Almost three years later, there are still some areas where the Air shines—the build quality, the keyboard, and the trackpad to name three—even as its display and physical dimensions have fallen a bit behind.
After the huge performance upgrades in both the 2011 and 2012 MacBook Airs (the 2011 model jumped forward two CPU architectures at once, and the 2012 model increased GPU speed by as much 100 percent depending on the game), it's hard not to come away a little disappointed by the performance of the Haswell model. CPU performance stays about the same, and GPU performance budges forward by a measurable but unexciting amount. 802.11ac Wi-Fi delivers a more drastic performance increase, but only if the rest of your networking hardware is up to snuff (and even if it is, OS X is going to be a bottleneck until the OS is patched to better handle the faster standard).
That said, for particularly mobile users, all of this is forgivable in light of the battery life improvements that Haswell enables. For especially light users, meeting or beating Apple's ambitious 12 hour figure should be quite possible. Even the very heaviest of users can expect a couple of extra hours out of the new model relative to the old ones. The performance gains may be underwhelming, the lack of a Retina display may be disappointing, but all things considered, Apple has probably chosen to focus its attention on the thing that the largest number of people will actually notice and appreciate.
The Air still represents a good value for the money, given that similar PCs usually don't cost much less (and often cost more, as the Kirabook's $1600 starting price will attest). Owners of 2010 and 2011-model Airs who are looking to upgrade will see big boosts to GPU and storage performance, respectable boosts to CPU performance, and amazing boosts to battery life. If you bought an Air last year, though, don't upgrade unless battery life is the single most important thing to you in a notebook.
- Amazing battery life
- Great build quality, keyboard, and trackpad
- Good CPU and GPU performance for the size, if not too far ahead of last year's Airs
- Speedy storage
- More storage in the $999 11-inch model, lower price for the $1,099 13-inch model
- No SD card slot in the 11-inch model
- The screen is still decent, but it has been surpassed in resolution and quality by several other similarly priced Ultrabooks
- OS X issues prevent 802.11ac from living up to its potential. We suspect this issue is fixable in software and will update the review accordingly if it is