Apple's MacBook Air has kinda been the ultimate ultrabook since before Intel trademarked Ultrabook. The 2013 Air keeps the oft-praised body of last year's Air, but with Intel's next-gen Haswell processor stuck inside. The result? Battery life and performance to absolutely die for.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" certainly seems to be Apple's design philosophy here. The Air design has largely remained unchanged in the past coupla years, and for good reason: the aluminium body is thin, light, and timelessly classy. The chassis doesn't give any flex at all when you're aggressively pounding on the (excellent) keyboard, and it tapers down to a pleasingly thin front edge.
However, the design still keeps the same flaws as before: the bezel round the screen is still pretty wide and clunky; would it be impossible to squeeze a 14-inch screen in there? And while we're talking about the screen, there's the same 1440x900 panel stuck in there, much to the disappointment of everyone who wanted a Retina MacBook Air.
Personally, I think 1440x900 is a good enough resolution on a small screen, and certainly worth the improved battery life that a lower-res screen affords you. Still, it's always nice to have choice, and given that people often shop on specs rather than what they actually need, it's easy to see people getting all hot and bothered about a 1080p screen, and giving the MacBook Air a miss.
One area in which things are still very much broke is connectivity. The Air is rocking two USB 3.0 ports (both fully powered and capable of charging a smartphone or tablet, by the way), a Thunderbolt port, obligatory headphone jack, and an SD card slot. That's it. No HDMI out, no Ethernet, and oh-ha-ha you wanted VGA? Jog on and buy a £30 adapter, says Apple. Given that you're shelling out at least a grand for a 13-inch Air, it stings to be over-charged for basic adaptors, especially when companies like Asus and Toshiba are giving them out for free with their ultrabooks.
Better battery life and graphical performance is the promise of Intel's new Haswell processor, and in this case, it seems to deliver. To maximise the potency of Haswell, Apple has underclocked the processor, to 1.3Ghz on the i5 model and 1.7Ghz on the i7. As a result, the Air isn't blazingly fast, but it'll more than keep up with the current gen ultrabooks in calculation-heavy processes.
Yes, that's right: it'll only keep up. Although that might sound like a disctinct lack of innovation on Apple's part, it's a pretty decent feat with an underclocked processor. More than that, the Air is still powerful enough to do almost everything you can ask of it. The configuration we tested, i5 with 8GB of RAM (which is the one you should buy, by the way), has enough grunt to be your everyday computer, provided you don't do any hardcore video editing or gaming on it.
Graphical performance is pretty decent, but maybe not as good as it could've been. Much has been said (most of it in rather breathless tones) about the graphical performance of Intel's next-gen Iris graphics. Sadly, Apple chose not to include them with the Air: Iris graphics are Intel HD 5100, and the Air's only got 5000. Still, that's a bump up from the HD 4000 of Ivy Bridge, and certainly enough to run less-demanding games like Portal 2 at fairly high frame rates. Ditto, playing back multiple 1080p videos while editing stuff in Photoshop (c'mon, everyone's gotta have their hobbies) is as smooth as Jony Ive's freshly-polished noggin.
Another internal specs bump Apple raved about was the move to PCIe storage internally. Basically, the internal storage (128, 256 or 512 GB of it, depending on the fatness of your wallet) is a fair bit faster than it used to be. Our tests with the BlackMagic benchmark returned results of 440Mbps write and 720Mbps read, considerably faster than previous MacBook Airs or even the Retina MacBook Pro.
That translates into faster boot-up, about 12 seconds from cold, versus the 20 or so seconds that older versions took. Resuming from sleep happens faster than you can open the lid.
The battery. The battery makes this Air what it is, and that is properly ridiculous. On a video run-down test: -- streaming Nyan Cat over Wi-Fi, with brightness on 80 per cent -- the Air lasted 13 hours 6 minutes. Thirteen hours and six frigging minutes. That's well over double the six-hour life of this generation's ultrabooks, more than the most stamina-happy tablets, and way more than any smartphone.
In day-to-day usage, it's equally good. Unplugged and working pretty hard -- with Photoshop, Chrome, and a bevy of background services like TweetDeck and Outlook running, not to mention streaming audio over Bluetooth -- the Air lasted between seven and eight hours, and up to 10 if we turned the brightness down and Bluetooth off. That's simply stunning.
That lack of ports. I'd love to plug my Air into the office Ethernet and my spare monitor, but my bank account is already weeping after parting with over a grand of hard-earned cash, so for the moment I'm making do with the flaky office Wi-Fi.
One solution to look at are Thunderbolt docks, which tend to offer extra USB ports, Ethernet and video output all from the one Thunderbolt port, but the only ones on sale cost around £250, and that's a helluva lot of money to spend on an accessory.
The Wi-Fi signal seems to struggle a little when the Air's put down on a desk. It's not massive, but it can make the difference between having one bar of internet and staring at your failed-to-upload-GIFs in frustration. It's almost certainly a result of the antenna being in that plastic strip along the bottom of the screen, which is then shielded a little when the Air's down flat on a desk. Not sure what to do about it other than switch to using my Ethern--oh, wait.
- The keyboard is completely unchanged, which is awesome news. As a longtime Windows fan, Apple keyboards have been the only thing I've ever really admired on MacBooks -- and I've even got a wired Apple keyboard for use with my desktop. If you've used an Apple keyboard before, you know what Im talking about here -- the keys have just the right amount of travel and clickiness, and typing on them is both fun and fast. (Hint: your corporate IT guys will be more willing to buy you one if you tell them it'll lead to 'marginal productivity increases'.)
- The trackpad is still the same glass-feel multitouch unit as before, and it's still so so so much better than anything on any Windows laptop. Not much to say here other than it works, which is blessed relief for any ultrabook user.
- The Air now has two dinky microphones on the left-hand side, which add to call quality when FaceTime-ing (or using Skype, for those not tied into Apple's ecosystem). They seem to work as advertised, cutting out background noise pretty well.
- The MagSafe 2 connector is the same as always: great if you're a klutz, but sometimes falls out a little too easy if you move your laptop around the place. Still, it's worth having, even just for the charging status light on the top.
- The Air's speakers are above-average for an ultrabook: loud, but without a lot of punch down the bassy end. Still, they'll do for an intimate little house party.
- Worth mentioning: Apple still get that people don't want a giant unwieldy power brick to go with their svelte ultraportable. To that end, the charger for the Air has a small power brick, and two choices of plug -- either one with a metre cable on the end, for stretching further, or a power brick that plugs right into the wall, to cut down on clutter.
If you're in the market for an ultraportable laptop with oh-my-god-what-the-hell-happened-here battery life, then yes. The price, although high, certainly isn't any more than what comparable ultrabooks will run you, and the excellent trackpad and keyboard are just icing on the cake.
However, the MacBook Air doesn't stand all on its own. Haswell-powered ultrabooks are starting to trickle out -- Sony released the awesome-looking Vaio Pro the other week, and you can bet your Apple-tattooed left kidney that other manufacturers with great products (read: Samsung Series 9 and Asus Zenbook) will be refreshing the market stall in the next couple months. If you're really after better connectivity options, Iris graphics or a hi-res screen, it's probably worth holding out to (at the very least) see what happens.
Ultimately, though, the Air has been the best ultraportable for a while -- even for Windows -- and for the time being, the status quo certainly won't be changing. Forget hi-res screens or gaming graphics, ultraportables are about working and playing on the go, and the things that make that easy -- light weight, great battery life, and a stubbornly brilliant keyboard and mouse -- remain class-defining in this year's Air.
Gizrank: 4.5 stars
Price: £949 for base model
Processor: 1.3Ghz i5 or 1.7Ghz i7 Intel Haswell, with HD 5000 graphics
RAM: 4 or 8GB DDR3
Storage: 128GB, 256GB or 512GB PCI-e flash
Screen: 1440x900 LED backlit 13-inch screen
Ports: 2x USB 3.0, 1x Thunderbolt, 3.5mm headphone jack, SD card slot, MagSafe 2 connector.
Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Size & Weight: 1.7x32.5x22.7cm, 1.35kg