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

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)

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.