Apple MacBook Air 11-inch 2013: Netbook with next-gen tech
Cupertino’s ultraportable continues to shine thanks to Intel’s Haswell chip
Review “Can’t innovate any more, my ass,” said Apple veep Phil Schiller as he unveiled the redesigned Mac Pro at the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June.
The smooth, black cylindrical design of the Mac Pro and the visual revamp of the forthcoming iOS 7 were clearly intended as a riposte to the critics who had argued that the company had lost its mojo since the death of co-founder Steve Jobs.
Apple’s MacBook Air 11-inch 2013 ... netbook survivor
There were, however, rather fewer signs of innovation in the updated MacBook Air slimline laptop that was also announced at the same time as the new Pro. In fact, the innovation there came not from Apple but from its chip supplier Intel in the form of its new fourth-generation Core i processor, Haswell.
The first of the new MacBook Airs I was were able to get my hands on was the 11-inch version, which is virtually identical to its recent predecessors. In fact, the only visual give-away is the addition of a tiny second microphone on the left-hand edge of the machine which helps with noise-reduction during FaceTime and Skype sessions. You’ll want to check out Bob’s write-up of the 13-inch MacBook Air if you want to know more about how the two mics work together.
Two mic pick-ups for better noise elimination
Of course, the design of the MacBook Air was impressive to start off with. Its slimline styling, tapering smoothly from back to front, set the standard for the modern Ultrabook even before Intel’s marketing department got around to inventing the term. The 1.08kg weight and 17mm thickness of the 11-inch Air are no longer unique, but the “unibody” aluminium case remains impeccably smart. It’s a delight to pick up this model in one hand and just admire the design and build quality.
The real changes are on the inside this time around. As well as the Haswell processor, Apple has opted for low-power 1600MHz DDR3 memory and a new flash storage sub-system that it claims is 45 per cent faster than the one used in previous Airs. The end result is improved performance and – more importantly – significantly longer battery life.
Nothing but USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt on the other side
The starting price for the 11-inch model hasn’t changed, setting you back £849 for one with 4GB of memory. However, the measly 64GB of flash storage on last year’s model has been doubled to 128GB, and the built-in Wi-Fi has been updated to 802.11ac. It provides a significant performance improvement over 802.11n, as I found when I reviewed the new Time Capsule base-station.
I was, however, surprised to discover that the dual-core Haswell Core i5-4250U runs at just 1.3GHz, whereas last year’s Ivy Bridge model was clocked at 1.7GHz.
Geekbench benchmark results
Longer bars are better
Hats off to Intel, though: a quick benchmark run with GeekBench in 64-bit mode produced a score of 6809, rather more than the 5790 I recorded for last year’s model. So the Haswell processor certainly doesn’t disappoint even at just 1.3GHz. There’s an option to upgrade the MacBook Air to a dual-core i7 running at 1.7GHz for another £120, but this basic 1.3GHz model felt smooth and responsive during my time with it, and more than adequate for web browsing or running Microsoft Office and such.
The improved flash storage - a PCI Express-connected drive, aka SATA Express - helps here too, adding a noticeable snap to many tasks. The Air boots in ten seconds and wakes from sleep as soon as you open the lid. And Apple was pretty close with that 45 per cent performance improvement estimate: duplicating my 25GB iTunes library took just 117 seconds, compared to 175 seconds on last year’s model.
There’s more to Haswell than just its clock speed. Graphics performance also perks up quite a bit thanks to the new HD 5000 integrated graphics core. Running the Mac-native version of Diablo III at 1366 x 768, the 11-inch Air’s native resolution, produced a perfectly playable 35fps even with the graphics set to ‘high’ and a good number of zombies and demons crowding the screen - though, sadly, even Haswell can’t do much about the missing end-game.
Slimline and very portable
The more detailed 3D graphics of Batman: Arkham City proved a sterner challenge, with the frame rate falling to 15fps with the graphics on ‘high’. However, turning the graphics settings down to ‘low’ did allow it to manage a playable 30fps. Bear in mind that this game reduces most laptops with Ivy Bridge graphics to single-digit frame rates, and it’s clear that Haswell really does make more-than-casual gaming a realistic proposition for integrated graphics at long last.
Haswell’s real strength, though, lies in its ability to improve battery life. Apple claims that the new 11-inch Air increases battery life from up to five hours to nine. When I set BBC iPlayer going, with the Air connected by 802.11ac, it ran for bang-on seven hours, compared to the five hours last year’s model managed to stay running for. Less demanding work such as word processing, intermittent emailing and web browsing, allowed me to stretch that to a few minutes short of eight hours, so it really does provide all-day computing now.
Oh, for a higher res display - or even a 12-inch one in the same chassis...
Switch off Wi-Fi and dim the screen, and there’s no reason why you can’t keep it going for the best part of 12 hours. Tony’s review of the build-to-order Core i7-based 13-inch Air has more details on how Haswell helps here.
Lest you accuse me of being an uncritical fanboi, I would point out that the MacBook Air is by no means perfect. The 11.6-inch display remains extremely bright and attractive, with rich colours and wide viewing angle. However, the 1366 x 768 resolution on this model hasn’t changed in years. That resolution works well on a screen of this size, but it is starting to look a bit dated compared to the many Windows laptops that now offer a 1920 x 1080 resolution. Even my third-generation 10-inch iPad can manage 2048 x 1536.
As Tony point out in his 13-inch Air review, it’s not that we necessarily want a “retina” display here, but we do want more pixels to let us get more content onto the screen.
Connectivity also remains a particular issue with this model. Neither the 11- nor the 13-inch Air has on-board Ethernet, HDMI or Firewire, but the smaller machine of the two lacks even the SD slot found on the 13-inch version. Admittedly, the multi-purpose Thunderbolt port can fill in for most of these missing interfaces – but only by purchasing adaptors at £25 a shot. Just because this is becoming increasing the case with other vendors’ Ultrabook-class machines doesn’t let Apple off the hook.
Who needs a $@#!?!$%in’ tablet, eh?
And – whisper it gently – the MacBook Air’s once-groundbreaking design is starting to show its age. Gleaming Gorilla Glass is starting to replace boring old metal in many of the latest Windows laptops, and with Haswell rivals such as Sony’s 11-inch Vaio Pro weighing in at just 870g, it’s possible that the MacBook Air may have spent just a little too long resting on its admittedly once impressive laurels.
The Reg Verdict
The competition may be catching up, but the 2013 edition of the 11-inch MacBook Air remains a classy piece of kit. The Haswell update provides significant improvements in performance, graphics and battery life, and the premium prices charged for many Windows Ultrabooks means that it no longer looks over-priced when compared to its nearest rivals. It’s a shame that the 2013 update wasn’t a little more ambitious, but the 11-inch MacBook Air is still one of the most attractive ultraportable, netbook-size laptops currently available. ®