We're living in a post-iPad age for PCs. Excellent battery life and supremely portable forms sometimes make me ask: why use a laptop, which has subpar battery life, at all? Why not just get things done on a tablet instead?
The new MacBook Airs announced at WWDC erase part of that question: the battery life in these new models is astounding. They hit iPad territory, and blow away last year's performance. So, Mac laptops with iPad-strength batteries, check. And lower prices, too? Check again.
Also a nice surprise: the 13-inch Air and 11-inch Air are more similar than ever, with the same exact new fourth-gen Intel Haswell processors, storage options, RAM, and upgraded 802.11ac Wi-Fi capability. Which also means, other than the battery, in most ways they're pretty much the same as before.
The biggest problems with last year's otherwise excellent little 11-inch Air were that the entry-level $999 model only came with a 64GB solid-state drive, and that its 5-hour battery life was a compromise compared with the 7-plus hours of the 13-inch.
This year, the $999 entry-level model has a 128GB SSD, and the battery life's an awesome 10-plus hours. In its size class, the 11-inch Air has become a seriously perfect little laptop...if you can forgive its year-over-year sameness.
I'd be lying if I didn't say I wish the new Airs had bigger, better-resolution screens and more ports. Still, I'd give these up gladly for better battery life and more storage any day of the week. Unless you've got your heart set on a Retina Display, these new Airs are worth considering for that battery life alone. I do feel these laptops are a lot less exciting, in theory, but the debate of Apple and its product inventiveness is a coffee-shop conversation for another time. In practice, this Air has made practical improvements, and it's the workhorse to beat...mainly because of that impressive battery.
|MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)||MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)||Sony Vaio Pro 11||Acer Aspire S7-391-9886|
|Display size/resolution||11.6-inch, 1,766x768 screen||13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen||11-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U|
|PC memory||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000||1,748MB Intel HD Graphics 4400||128MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000|
|Storage||128GB SSD hard drive||128GB SSD hard drive||128GB SSD hard drive||256GB Intel SSD|
|Networking||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
Swap someone's 2012 MacBook Air with the 2013 model and he or she will never know the difference. Cosmetically, it's identical to last year's version: same aluminum unibody construction, same ports, same 1,366x768-pixel 11.6-inch display, same keyboard and clickable trackpad.
Consider that the MacBook Air is a laptop that's stayed largely unchanged (and the 11-inch version feels identical to the one that debuted in 2010), and you have what amounts to a pretty conservative computer update.
And yet, the Air's still one of the best-feeling laptops, all-around, that exists. Apple did its homework making the Air feel comfortable, and it's paid off with a long shelf life. The glass multitouch trackpad's still the most responsive out there, although the surface area on the 11-inch Air is small and narrower, making four-finger gestures feel cramped. The backlit keyboard's the same size and feel as on the 13-inch Air, and still feels great, although the row of function keys are pretty shrunken down.
The Air doesn't feel as wafer-thin, though. The Sony Vaio Pro 11 trumps the Air on size and weight (1.9 pounds), compared with the relatively more beefy 2.3 pounds on Apple's all-aluminum design. It still feels good to hold, but it's not astonishing anymore.
The 11.6-inch display feels too small for the Air's size, though. It's the only 16:9 wide-screen display in Apple's laptop arsenal, but you could have fit a larger screen in there -- the bezel's awfully wide. That's because it really has the base of a 12-inch laptop, which is how it accommodates such a large keyboard. Interestingly, the 11-inch Air's screen and bezel have exactly the same height and bezel thickness as on the 9.7-inch iPad. The Air's 16:9 screen is wider.
The 1,366x768-pixel-resolution display -- same as last year's -- is admittedly very crisp and covered with a bit of antiglare coating. But all you have to do is stare at your Retina iPad display to see what a richer, higher-res display could look like. And many laptops now have higher resolutions: the Vaio Pro 11 and Microsoft Surface Pro, similarly sized (and priced) products, have 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution packed into 11- and 10-inch displays. There isn't much of an excuse this year.
|Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, June 2013)|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Price and configurations
The Air has gotten less expensive than last year by roughly $100 on all configurations, although the entry price is still $999. However, unlike the piddling 64GB SSD you got before, the base Air now has a very acceptable 128GB. Last year, a similar configuration would have cost $1,099.
The step-up $1,199 Air doubles the storage to 256GB. Beyond that, you can also upgrade to a faster dual-core Core i7 processor, and increase the RAM to 8GB and storage to 512GB, just like last year. But these upgrades also cost less: the fully loaded 11-inch Air, which cost an absurd $2,149 last year, now costs a slightly less ridiculous $1,749.
The advantage of going 11-inch over 13-inch is that most of these RAM/CPU/storage configurations end up totaling $100 less on average than the 13-inch version, even though both sizes use exactly the same processors and memory/storage.
Performance and connections
What's new here? New fourth-gen Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a faster standard than 802.11n that's appearing in PCs and wireless routers. You'll need an accompanying 802.11ac router, like Apple's new Time Capsule and AirPort Extreme, though.
The processor change is a lateral move in terms of performance, effectively. The slower-clock-speed 1.3GHz Core i5 in this year's Air gives very similar performance to last year's 1.8GHz, and in some cases, a slightly slower benchmark.