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

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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.

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, Summer 2012)
8.4

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The 13-inch <b>MacBook Air</b> 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.

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.

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, June 2012) Average for category [ultrabook]
Video Thunderbolt VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None None

Sarah Tew/CNET

This year's MacBook Air finally has USB 3.0 -- two ports, in fact -- replacing last year's USB 2.0. Combined with the included Thunderbolt port, this offers a solid trio of high-speed connections. However, the Air still lacks HDMI or a hard-wired Ethernet port, both of which can be found on many Windows ultrabooks. Adapters can take care of both needs, but it means one more dongle in your bag. Thunderbolt, introduced in last year's MacBook Airs, remains a helpful but mercurial port. Most Thunderbolt accessories are very expensive, although the prices are gradually dropping. The Air supports one external monitor via Thunderbolt, and can be connected to DisplayPort, DVI, or HDMI monitors with additional adapters.

That SD card slot, while useful, still results in an inserted card jutting from the side instead of resting flush with the edge of the Air. This means that it's not really feasible to use a high-capacity SDXC card to expand onboard storage.

Upgrade options are limited, and some of them can't be altered after purchase. The $1,199 13-inch Air includes 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, but the RAM is fused. To get a version with 8GB of RAM, you have to order the model preconfigured for an extra $100. It's probably an upgrade worth considering. Similarly, the type of flash storage the Air uses isn't the same as a standard SATA drive. A 13-inch Air with 256GB of SSD storage costs $1,499 from Apple, a $300 upgrade.

Both versions of the 13-inch Air sold on Apple's Web site come with the same 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor, a third-gen Intel Ivy Bridge CPU with Turbo Boost up to 2.8GHz. If you choose the $1,499 256GB SSD version, you can upgrade to a bumped-up 2GHz Core i7 (Turbo Boost to 3.2GHz) for $100, and upgrade the SSD to 512GB for an extra $500. Trick out your Air all the way, and it'll cost $2,199 -- not so coincidentally, the cost of an entry-level Retina Display MacBook Pro.

Last year's MacBook Air skipped an Intel processor generation, resulting in impressively large performance gains over the 2010 models. This year, the move to a third-gen Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 (unlabeled on Apple's documentation but similar, most likely, to the Core i5-3427U) produced less dramatic improvements. The new Air is definitely faster in all tests, but by an incremental degree. Compared with the 2012 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Air is nearly evenly matched. Aiding the Air is its SSD, and the fact that some of our benchmarks use Mac-friendly apps such as Photoshop and iTunes. For a lot of people, this 13-inch MacBook Air will feel like a great all-around computer: very fast-booting, with zippy application-launching and overall performance.

New Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics offer a better experience than last year's Airs, helping make up for a slight downturn in performance that happened when Apple stopped using Nvidia's semi-integrated 320M graphics and switched to Intel HD 3000 last year. Running Call of Duty 4 for comparison, we got 21.9 frames per second at 1,440x900 pixels and 39.3 frames per second at 1,280x800 with dialed-down AA, versus 19.7 and 32.1 last year. That's better, but only incrementally: games should more playable on this new Air, but you're still going to need to toy with game settings and dial effects down.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Annual energy consumption cost
Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch (Summer 2012)
$2.93 

Juice box
Toshiba DX735-D3201 Average watts per hour
Off (60 percent) 0.19
Sleep (10 percent) 0.83
Idle (25 percent) 4.23
Load (5 percent) 33.87
Raw kWh 25.82
Annual power consumption cost $2.93

Sarah Tew/CNET

Last year's 13-inch MacBook Air was an already-stellar battery performer, but this year's version takes another step forward. In our video-playback battery drain test, the new 13-inch Air ran for 7 hours and 27 minutes, which is 41 minutes longer than the 2011 13-inch Air. That's the best battery life we've seen from any current MacBook, and leaves most Windows ultrabooks in the dust -- the Sony Vaio T13112FXS, a thicker ultrabook with an equivalent third-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, ran for only 5 hours and 42 minutes.

Service and support from Apple is always a dual-edged sword. Apple includes a one-year parts and labor warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support. Upgrading to a full three-year plan under AppleCare will cost an extra $249 and is pretty much a must-buy, considering the proprietary nature of Apple products. Support is also accessible through a well-stocked online knowledge base, video tutorials, and e-mail with customer service, or through in-person visits to Apple's retail store Genius Bars, which, in our experience, have always been fairly frustration-free encounters.

The June 2012 version of the MacBook Air doesn't change the equation much from what we saw last year: it's faster, has added USB 3.0, and has longer battery life, but much of the rest has stayed the same. However, the general improvements and configurations that cost $100 less than last year make the MacBook Air an even better purchase than it was a year ago, albeit a less remarkable one.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There are plenty of less expensive Windows ultrabook alternatives to the MacBook Air, but few that have the same build quality and performance. Added screen size, improved battery life, and an SD card slot still give the 13-inch Air an edge over the 11-inch model. In the world of MacBooks, this Air is still the go-to laptop to recommend...unless you have $2,200 to spend on a Retina Pro.

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, Summer 2012)
8.4

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 9Support 7