Apple MacBook Air (13-inch review: Apple MacBook Air (13-inch

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The Good The 13-inch MacBook Air has new Intel CPUs, better battery life, and an improved 720p Webcam, and finally adds USB 3.0 ports, while shaving $100 off the price from last year's models.

The Bad The design, while strong, stays largely the same: there's no Ethernet port, and the base SSD storage option of 128GB is smaller than a standard hard drive, though common for ultrabooks.

The Bottom Line This year's MacBook Air opts for gradual improvements rather than anything revolutionary, but lowered prices continue to make it the go-to mainstream recommendation for any MacBook owner-to-be.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 9
  • Support 7

Not too long ago, the MacBook Air practically stood alone in the computer landscape with its unique blend of design, size, and performance, an improvement on the thin laptop with low-voltage CPU. The MacBook Air, in turn, influenced the arrival of the ultrabook, and a wave of newly designed Windows ultrathin computers aspiring to one-up the Air at its own game.

The 2012 MacBook Air no longer stands as the coolest Mac laptop: that crown has been temporarily stolen by the Retina Display MacBook Pro. Nor is it as unusual. However, it still remains the best example of an ultrathin laptop -- for its construction quality, performance, and ergonomics.

The 13-inch Air has the same looks as last year, and nearly the same build, with a few key differences: a new third-gen Intel Core i5 processor, USB 3.0 ports (replacing the previous USB 2.0), a higher-def 720p Webcam, and an altered MagSafe 2 charge cable and connector. Also, both 13-inch MacBook Pro models now cost $100 less, bringing the entry-level model with 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) to $1,199, the exact same cost as the 13-inch MacBook Pro. While the new Air doesn't have Mountain Lion, the next version of OS X, installed, a free upgrade will be made available when it's released.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The improvements in this year's 13-inch Air are far less dramatic than last year's, both from a features and performance standpoint, but the Air is truly the go-to MacBook now, and even more affordable, although its cost still looms well above that of most Windows ultrabooks. Because of that and its excellent performance, the MacBook Air remains the MacBook of the current batch we'd most recommend.

Want a MacBook that's easily portable? This is it. Want a back-to-school MacBook? This is the one. And, until the $2,199 Retina Display MacBook Pro drops in price, the $1,199 13-inch Air remains the MacBook for the masses. It's lighter, it performs better than ever, and it's less expensive, and in head-to-head tests with the 2012 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Air performed very closely, and had better battery life: nearly 45 minutes better than the 2011 MacBook Air.

Owners of last year's Air need not consider an upgrade, but if you haven't pulled the trigger on getting an Air yet, this is the best time to leap on board.

Price as reviewed $1,199
Processor 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 ULV (third-gen)
Memory 4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 128GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD 4000
Operating system OS X Lion 10.7.4
Dimensions (WD) 12.7x8.9 inches
Height 0.11-0.68 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 2.98 pounds / 3.68 pounds
Category ultrabook

The all-aluminum unibody design of the MacBook Air has become iconic, and its rock-solid wedge-shaped build has influenced many of the current crop of Windows ultrabooks. However, just as the iPhone started iconic and gradually found itself surrounded by a sea of similar competitors, the MacBook Air now sits among ultrabooks, no longer as much of a stand-out it was a year ago. That doesn't mean the Air is any less comfortable or excellently built, but the look, going on a few years old, is less surprising.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 13-inch Air is still one of the thinnest laptops around, but it does have a screen bezel that's larger than the current norm in high-end ultrabooks. The keyboard, wide and comfortable with slightly shallow keys, also has quite a bit of extra space around it. It's hard not to imagine a 13-inch Air that's a little more compact, perhaps shrinking to a smaller footprint. That's a small quibble, though; at 2.96 pounds, this laptop is unlikely to feel imposing in any bag.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new 13-inch Air has one small but important change: it uses a different charge cable, called MagSafe 2, that replaces last year's MagSafe. It looks similar, but it's actually wider and flatter, and requires a differently shaped power cable that juts out from the side of the Air rather than hugging the side like existing MagSafe cords. I prefer the older design, and unfortunately, old MagSafe cables you have lying around will now require a $9.99 adapter to work with your new Air. Keep that in mind.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Air has a shallower keyboard than the type that's on Apple's MacBook Pros and the wireless Bluetooth keyboard you get with an iMac, but it's just as great for typing. The backlighting adjusts well to ambient light. Like on all Macs, a row of function-reversed buttons control volume, screen brightness, and other functions. A button to the top right, normally the eject button, powers up the Air. It's still a tiny bit weird that this isn't a hard circular power button instead, like on the Pros.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The large multitouch and multifinger clickpad still stands as the best touch pad in the industry. It never hiccups, and gestures are as silky-smooth as on an iPad. It remains a perfect synchronization of hardware and software, and no Windows ultrabook has been able to match it. Competitors now offer similarly sized pads, but not ones of similar quality.

Unlike the 11-inch MacBook Air's, the 13-inch screen is not a 16:9 display, maintaining the same aspect ratio fragmentation as last year's Airs. The screen area also lacks the edge-to-edge glass over a black bezel found in other MacBooks; instead the screen is surrounded by a thick silver bezel. On the positive side, the native resolution of the display is 1,440x900 pixels, which is a better than the current 13-inch standard of 1,366x768 pixels. In head-to-head comparisons, the new 13-inch Pro's glass showed far more glare than the Air's, which is treated with an antiglare coating. The 13-inch MacBook Pro screen has a lower resolution of 1,280x800, and does not offer any higher-res screen upgrades, meaning it has the highest-resolution 13-inch display you can get on an Air; if you want a Retina Display, you'll have to pay up for that far larger $2,199 next-gen 15-inch Pro.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The MacBook Air comes with OS X Lion 10.7.4 preinstalled, but owners will be grandfathered in to a free OS upgrade to Mountain Lion when it's released -- a $19.99 value. Apple's standard suite of iLife software is preinstalled as well, giving you GarageBand, iPhoto, and iMovie.

The Air's speakers are oddly quiet, especially compared with those of ultrabooks such as the Sony Vaio T. They're fine for solo streaming of TV and movies, and game audio, but in a crowded room you'll prefer headphones.

A new HD Webcam has an increased 720p resolution, catching up to the quality of the Webcams in other Macs. FaceTime calls look far crisper, and it's a welcome upgrade.