It may be a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
The new 2013 versions of both the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air look very familiar indeed, as these slim systems have hardly changed at all physically over the past few generations.
The Air was the only Apple laptop line to get a June 2013 update at Apple's WWDC conference. At first glance, it looks like a relatively minor set of changes, with the primary selling point being a move to Intel's new fourth-generation Core i-series CPUs, also known by the code name Haswell. There is, however, one very important difference in the new models, and one that's especially noteworthy if you spend a lot of time on the road and away from your power adapter.
We've previously tested Haswell chips in a few laptops and been impressed by both the performance and battery life gains (to be realistic, the latter is much more important for consumers). If you add Haswell to Apple's already-stellar battery life reputation, you get a system, in the 13-inch Air, that Apple claims will run for up to 12 hours, and in our tests (spoiler alert) ran even longer.
Having a Haswell-generation CPU also gives you Intel's improved HD5000 graphics, which promises improved game performance over last year's HD4000 graphics (itself an improvement over the preceding HD3000, and so on). It's still not anything like having a discrete GPU, as in the 15-inch Retina Pro, but with game services such as Steam and EA's Origin now being Mac-compatible, it may make some small inroads for OS X gaming.
Also new is 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a new standard that will eventually be found in wireless routers, as well as Apple's new AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule hardware. If you have an 802.11n router, which is a much more likely scenario, this may not help you, but it's a nice piece of future-proofing. Apple also says the solid-state-drive storage included in the Air laptops is now faster, although I think bumping the base $999 11-inch model up to a full 128GB of SSD storage (from the paltry 64GB previously sold at that same price) is a much more important development.
It's easy to say that this new version of the 13-inch MacBook Air is a modest step forward, with no physical changes to the exterior, and still no higher-res display, touch screen, or HDMI port. The battery life is a very big deal, however, and when you couple that with a $100 price cut on the base model, down to $1,099, the 13-inch MacBook Air is, despite not being the newest design on the block, still one of the most universally useful laptops you can buy.
|MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)||MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)||Sony Vaio Pro 13|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen||11.6-inch, 1,766x768 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|
|PC Memory||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||1,659MB Intel HD Graphics 4400|
|Storage||128GB SSD||128GB SSD||128GB SSD|
|Networking||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC|
|Operating system||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
The MacBook Air keeps the same external look as the previous couple of generations, a look that still rivals the newest ultrabooks, although some new systems, such as Sony's Vaio Pro line, are getting thinner and lighter without sacrificing much in the way of productivity.
Both the 11-inch and 13-inch versions of the MacBook Air still have the same thickness, ranging from 0.11-inch to 0.68-inch. Spread over the larger footprint of the 13-inch chassis, the 13-inch version still feels satisfyingly thin.
As with the previous version, the rigid aluminum construction makes the Air feel sturdy enough to just throw it in a bag and carry along with you without a protective case or sleeve, and it's interesting to contrast the aluminum unibody construction here with the lighter carbon fiber in the aforementioned Vaio Pro. I'd still trust the Air and its unyielding lid more in a throw-in-your-luggage field test.
The backlit keyboard and trackpad are the same as on the previous models, and the trackpad especially remains the standard by which all others are judged. Many other laptop makers have moved to larger clickpad-style touch pads, but we have yet to find a touch pad that comes close to this for multitouch gestures. The pad is again hinged at the top, allowing the entire pad to click down, and we strongly suggest going into the Preferences menu and turning on all of the tapping options for further ease of use.
It will be interesting to see how Apple's user interfaces develop in the face of both Windows 8, which tries (not terribly successfully) to reinvent the entire concept of working with a computer OS, and the upcoming OS X Mavericks update. For now, flicking around with three-and-four-finger gestures on the MacBook trackpad remains the most seamless way to swap between windows and applications, at least in my experience.
Unlike on the 11-inch MacBook Air, the 13-inch screen is still not a 16:9 display. The screen area also lacks the edge-to-edge glass over a black bezel found in the MacBook Pro; instead the screen is, as in previous years, surrounded by a thick silver bezel.
On the positive side, the native resolution of the display is 1,440x900 pixels, which is better than the 1,366x768 you find in many 13-inch laptops, although even midpriced models are quickly switching over to 1,600x900 or even 1,920x1,080. Of course the Retina Pro models, along with a handful of laptops from Toshiba, HP, and Dell, are experimenting with even-higher-than-HD resolutions.
While the Air screen isn't flat matte, it's also not terribly reflective, which is a step up from the "mirror image" effect you get on some laptop screens.
|Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, June 2013)|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
The ports and connections remain unchanged on this version of the MacBook Air. That gives you two USB 3.0 ports and a Thunderbolt port to play with, with the latter used for both external accessory and video connectivity. The faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi will play nice with Apple's own upcoming new AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule hardware, but I suspect you're still working off an 802.11n router. There's more on what 802.11ac means for you here.
The base configuration for the 13-inch Air now costs $1,099, versus $1,199 previously. Most of the system is unchanged, with the main difference being the new Haswell-generation Intel processor and platform. Interestingly, last year's base model CPU was a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, while the newer Haswell version is a 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U. The step-up $1,299 configuration keeps the same CPU as the $1,099 one, but doubles the SSD to 256GB.
The actual difference in our test results between the 2012 and 2013 models was minor. Year-over-year application performance doesn't show any real improvement, and the new Air actually ran some tests a hair slower. As a longtime MacBook Air user, in everyday use -- Web surfing, social media, HD video playback -- the 2013 MacBook Air didn't feel any different than the previous version. Any of the past few generations is more than powerful enough for mainstream users.
What is decidedly different, however, is the integrated HD 5000 graphics from Intel, a step above the HD 4000 in the previous Air. In our older Call of Duty 4 test (one of the few standard gaming benchmarks for OS X), at the native 1,440x900-pixel resolution, the game ran at 39.0 frames per second on the 2013 Air and 21.9 frames per second on the 2012 Air.