Editor's Rating: 4.5/5
Road warriors and jet travellers rejoice, we've found a laptop that will last all day and well into the night. The newest Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid-2013) lasted an astonishing 15-and-a-half hours on a battery test that makes most current mainstream ultrabooks and ultraportables cough and die after four to six hours. The fact that the system gives up very little if any day-to-day performance is astounding. This isn't a low-powered slate tablet that gives up computing performance in exchange for battery life. With the latest MacBook Air 13-inch, you have a fully functional ultraportable laptop with extremely long battery life, as it should be. If you need to do real work on a plane, train, or out in the field, get a MacBook Air 13-inch. It's our new Editors' Choice winner for mainstream ultraportable laptops.
Design and Features
Almost physically identical to the previous Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2012), the new MacBook Air 13-inch continues on in almost the same chassis as the previous model. The MacBook Air has an all-aluminum construction, tapering from 0.11 inches thick in the front to 0.68 inches in the back. It's essentially the same chassis Apple has been using for the past three years, which is in turn a slightly modified version of the chassis they've been using since 2008. While not necessarily the thinnest laptop on the market anymore, it is still as thin and portable as it ever has been. The side panels house a pair of USB 3.0 ports (one left, one right), a Thunderbolt port (which can be used as a mini-DisplayPort for external monitors), a headset jack, a SDXC card slot, dual microphones and the system's MagSafe 2 power connector. The twin microphones are new, and will help others hear you during FaceTime sessions. In the future, under OS X Mavericks, the dual mic setup will help the system pick out your voice when you're using Siri. MagSafe 2 is the same connector that was introduced with last year's MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The new MacBook Air tips the scales at a svelte 2.91 pounds, which is in the same ballpark as competitors like the Dell XPS 13-MLK (2.96 pounds) and the Acer Aspire S7-191-6640 (2.63 pounds with extended battery).
The MacBook Air has a backlit keyboard that's comfortable to type on, and a glass-surface, multi-touch trackpad. The system doesn't have a touch screen or touch screen option, but that's no deal breaker on a Mac, since OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion isn't optimized for touch anyway. The display measures 13.3 inches and has a screen resolution of 1,440 by 900. This is lower than the 1,920 by 1,080 resolution you'll get on systems like the Acer S7-191-6640 and Dell XPS 13-MLK, but you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference while watching a video at this screen size. If you need a higher resolution on a Mac, consider the MacBook Pro 13-inch (Retina Display).
The interior of the MacBook Air has been updated, with a new fourth-generation Intel Core i5-4250U processor and new PCIe-based Flash Storage. The 128GB flash memory module is mated to the motherboard with a new, faster PCIe connector, which makes the system react a little faster than the SATA-based flash storage of last year's model. The flash storage is physically smaller than last year's, according to ifixit.com, which means that third party upgrades will again be scarce. The base system comes with a 128GB flash storage unit, with about 102GB free when you take it out of the box. There are 256GB and 512GB options available on Apple's website. If you want more system memory, you'll have to order the system with it pre-installed (8GB total for $100 more). The memory is built into the motherboard, with no upgrade slots for additional memory DIMMs. The system comes with a 54 WHr battery, which is an improvement over the 50WHr battery in last year's model. Like all MacBooks and many ultrabooks these days, the battery in the MacBook Air 13-inch is not user replaceable.
The MacBook Air comes with the standard mix of full-version software built into OS X Mountain Lion, including FaceTime, Photo Booth, iPhoto, iTunes, Safari, Mail, Calendar, and Apple's App Store. This is good, because it means that the system isn't burdened by extraneous trial software. Windows PC makers are learning from this example: both the Acer S7-191-6640 and the Vizio 14-Inch Thin + Light (CT14-A4) come with Microsoft Signature prep, which removes all of the trialware and bloatware that would've come pre-loaded on a typical Windows retail system.
The system boots in only about 10 seconds, and wakes from sleep even faster. This is no doubt due to the MacBook Air's speedy flash storage and the fact that the system hasn't yet had too many programs installed yet. Apple completely abandoned optical drives last year as an obsolete technology, you can install files you've downloaded from the Internet, copied over from a USB drive, or use the Apple App Store to install new programs. The new MacBook Air comes with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which is backward-compatible with dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi. You should use the system with Apple's newly updated AirPort Extreme or another 802.11ac router if you need transfer rates approaching 1 Gbps. Speaking of speedy transport, the MacBook Air comes with a 10Gbps dual channel Thunderbolt port, which as stated earlier can interface with a mini-DisplayPort. For Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, and other interfaces like FireWire 800, you'll need to buy an optional dongle from Apple or another provider. You'll be able to use an Apple TV or adapter cables for a multi-monitor setup after you've upgraded to OS X Mavericks later this year, but having HDMI built in would make this system that much closer to perfect. The MacBook Air 13-inch comes with Apple's one-year standard warranty with 90 days of phone support.
The system's new 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 is nominally clocked 400Mhz slower than the 1.7GHz i5-3427U processor in the last MacBook Air, but both will turbo up to 2.6GHz if needed. The lower base clock speed no doubt helps the system stretch out battery life. The new MacBook Air 13-inch lasted a staggering 15 hours 33 minutes on our battery rundown test. That is more than double the six hours we get from the best ultrabooks using 3rd-generation Intel Core processors like the high-end ultrabook Editors' Choice Asus Zenbook Prime Touch UX31A-BH15T (6:38). Most systems return far less battery power, like the five hours for the Dell XPS 13-MLK (4:56) or four hours like on the Sony VAIO Fit 14 (SVF14A15CXB) (4:08).
The downside of the lower-clocked processor is that the MacBook Air is a bit slower on the multimedia benchmark tests (Handbrake and Photoshop CS6), where it lags the Windows systems with faster-clocked Core i5 processors. On the flipside, the MacBook Air is still two to four times faster than Intel Atom-powered Windows 8 slate tablets on the Handbrake test, and those Atom-powered tablets can't run the Photoshop CS6 test at all. The integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 of the new MacBook Air shows a much-improved Heaven benchmark score over previous MacBook Airs and other systems with Intel HD Graphics 4000. Essentially, since there is an obvious upgrade path for users who want a faster multimedia workhorse (namely the MacBook Pros), the tradeoff for battery life is well worth it for the general business and consumer user.
With double the battery life of the strongest current Windows 8 competition, the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2013) adds epic untethered usability to a highly portable system. While systems like the Acer Aspire S7-191-6640 and Vizio CT14-A4 start to approach the MacBook Air's portability, none can approach that level of work utility away from a power outlet. The MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2013) is the system you want to be using if you need to deliver real work away from your desk. The fact that it can return such a long battery life while still using a mainstream processor is astonishing. Make no mistake, this simple score shows that laptops haven't conceded the battery life prizes to the mobile OS tablets yet. The MacBook Air 13 is close, but not quite perfect, since it lacks a built in HDMI-out port and the slower-clocked processor returns slower multimedia performance on benchmark tests than rivals. That said, due to its excellent battery life, portability, and its very good day-to-day performance, we have no qualms in giving the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Mid 2013) the Editors' Choice for ultraportable laptops.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.