Apple MacBook Air 13-inch review: Sleek 13-inch MacBook Air gets a big battery boost

Apple ditched the backlight on the keyboard on previous generations of the Air, but brought it back with typical fanfare a couple of generations ago. It's still in place this time around, meaning you can happily keep typing away long into the night without having to get up and put a light on. There's an ambient light sensor too, so it will automatically dim if you're in very dark situations where you don't need as much light to see it.

Screen

It seemed almost certain that Apple would finally update its Airs to include the high-resolution retina displays, bringing it in line with its MacBook Pro models. The 13.3-inch screen remains untouched though. It offers a resolution of 1,440x900 pixels, which is the minimum I'd expect to see on a display of this size.

Put it side by side against the retina Pro, or indeed any other Full HD display and the difference is noticable. As it is, the Air's display is perfectly clear and more than adequate for most everyday tasks, but the extra helping of pixels would make things that bit more crisp -- and certainly help the mobile photographers among you.

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch screen
It's not Full HD or retina-class, but the screen is still bright and clear.

It's not clear why Apple has again left the display as it was -- perhaps just simply to give it something else to include in a future update. With rivals like Samsung pushing Full HD -- and considerably higher, in the case of its new Ativ Book 9 Plus -- I can't help but see it as something of a missed opportunity.

It's just as bold as the previous models though, which made my various test videos, including my favourite YouTube clip of all time, look luscious. The glossy coating means you'll find yourself staring back at your mirror image from time to time, but there are certainly more reflective screens to be found elsewhere.

Whether we eventually see the same retina display shoved inside the skinny frame of the Air in due course remains to be seen.

Performance

It's inside where Apple has done the most work in refreshing the Air. The dowdy old Intel Ivy Bridge processors have been replaced with the latest Haswell models. The headline feature of the new Haswell silicon is the promise of vastly improved battery life, which I'll come to shortly.

In terms of raw performance though, there's not much difference. The Core i5 processor in my review unit is running at a slower 1.3GHz clock speed than the 1.8GHz in last year's model. It also packs 4GB of RAM, but you can configure that to 8GB online if you need to.

I booted up the Geekbench benchmark test and was given a score of 6,774. By comparison, my 2012 Air with a 1.8GHz chip and 8GB of RAM achieved a similar 6,469 on the same test. Neither are mind-blowing scores by any means, but are far from unimpressive. I found general use to be very similar too. Web browsing, HD video playback and image editing seemed every bit as swift on the new model as it was on the previous generation.

My colleague Dan Ackerman at CNET.com put the new Air through its paces and found in certain tests the new model was a shade slower than last year's. It took the new model 333 seconds to perform an Adobe Photoshop CS5 image processing task, while last year's Air performed the same task in a more spritely 216 seconds.

The Haswell processor also comes with the updated Intel HD 5000 graphics processing. It's doesn't give the same grunt for gaming as a dedicated graphics card, but it'll help out with less demanding titles. Half Life 2: Episode 2 played smoothly and Portal 2 played with higher frame rates than I've typically seen from an Air -- something Dan found in his testing, too.

The Air now makes use of 802.11ac Wi-Fi. That might be a meaningless number to most of you, but it means it can connect to an ac router with greater stability and providing faster speeds. Compatible ac routers are still thin on the ground, but it's good future-proofing to have on board for when ac routers become more commonplace.

Battery

The main improvement in the Air is its battery life, thanks to the low power usage of the Haswell processor. Apple claims that the 13-inch Air is now able to keep chugging for 12 hours, up from the 7 hours of last year's model.

Dan Ackerman actually found that Apple's claim was a little conservative, as his model achieved over 14 hours on his test, which is extremely impressive. Of course, like batteries in any device, this number will vary wildly, depending on how you use it. The new processor is particularly tuned for playing back video, which Dan notes is at the heart of his battery benchmark test.

If you spend you time rendering high-resolution photos, encoding video and streaming lots of video with the brightness ramped to the max, don't expect to get anything like that figure. If you're more restrained in your usage, you shouldn't need to worry too much about walking too far from your plug.

Conclusion

The 2013 MacBook Air doesn't look any different to the previous generation and it's disappointing not to finally see a resolution boost in the display. The new Intel Haswell processor provides roughly similar performance for general tasks as its predecessor, but its low power usage has given battery life a significant boost.

If you regularly work away from plug sockets and want the security of knowing you're not going to be left high and dry without power, the new Air is a great choice.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Resolution 1440 x 900 ( WXGA+ )
  • Installed Size 4 GB
  • Weight 1.35 kg
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