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Apple MacBook Air aims for all-day battery life

Thanks at least in part to their new fourth-gen Intel processors, the 2013 MacBook Airs now stay up and running for up to 12 hours.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, June 2013)
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The MacBook Air's new focus: massively increased battery life and a slightly lower overall price. Is that the magic formula?

The Air is Apple's go-to mainstream laptop for tons of people, but before today, it hadn't had an update in a full year. The Air was once the bleeding-edge representative of forward-thinking computer design. Now, it's a great go-to everyday laptop in a landscape full of similar products. The MacBook Air was the laptop that kicked off the ultrabook craze; it's the grandaddy of slim design. But, the landscape's changed fast. Windows 8 ultrabooks are faster, cheaper, and better-designed than before, and iPads are becoming an ever-more-appealing laptop alternative for many.

Keep in mind, Apple doesn't tend to make sweeping design changes to its products every year...or even every three years. The thicker MacBook Pro's stayed virtually identical-looking since 2008. The Air, too, has settled into a form.

How will this year's stand out?

Apple's latest MacBook Airs don't change the equation, but they do finesse the product further with new Intel fourth-gen "Haswell" processors and some new features like improved 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

Lower price
Amid the Air announcements during the keynote, a small point that may have been lost is that the new 13-inch Airs are $100 less expensive: $1,099 and $1,299, instead of $1,199 and $1,399. That's not a big deal, since that's the price they should have been all along. But it's good to hear that the Air's value package is increasing.

Design
It's the same as last year. Is that a bad thing? Depends on your perspective. The MacBook Air was the laptop that kicked off the ultrabook craze. The tapered, blade-like look is the same, to nobody's surprise.

And, since touch screens aren't an issue on Macs, nothing really needed tweaking from an ergonomics perspective.

But, the Air is feeling like an old familiar product now, the same way the thicker MacBook Pro did for years. Kudos to Apple for figuring out a formula that worked and kept somewhat timeless, but it's not exciting, new stuff.

Performance
Here's where the news gets better. Intel's new fourth-gen Core i5 and i7 processors are geared toward ultrabooks, setting things up perfectly for the Air. Indeed, the 9-hour and 12-hour battery life claims on the new Airs are a big step up from the 5- and 7-hour battery results we got when we reviewed last year's models. Of course, these processors should also offer some speed bumps over last year. Once again, dual-core Core i5 and i7 processors are the options.

Apple claims faster SSD performance as well on the 2013 models, with quicker wake-from-sleep and application-launching speeds.

Graphics get a bump up to Intel HD 5000, which, based on our initial CNET tests on Haswell laptops, should provide another good step up in gaming and photo/video work.

James Martin/CNET

Count 802.11ac Wi-Fi as another performance boost, providing you have an 802.11ac-capable router like Apple's new AirPort Express and Time Capsule; 802.11ac is a new Wi-Fi standard that's appearing in many new PCs this year.

Display
At one point, the 13-inch Air's 1,440x900-pixel display was actually somewhat higher-res compared with the competition. That was 2011. Now, laptops not only tend to gravitate to 1080p, but a good handful of higher-end premium laptops have begun adopting Retina-level resolutions. The Air didn't get a resolution bump; it's still 1,440x900, and the 11-inch version is still 1,366x768. You'd expect, perhaps, a higher-resolution display option at this price, but that isn't happening this year.

13-inch Air
Last year, Apple's larger Air had a third-gen Intel Core i5 processor (upgradable to a dual-core i7), 4GB of RAM standard, and a 128GB or 256GB SSD, upgradable to 512GB. For this year's Air, the drives stay the same, but a single charge has up to 12 hours of battery life. Apple's also updated the laptop's wireless radio to 802.11ac Wi-Fi (aka 5G Wi-Fi), which offers up to 1.3Gbps of wireless connection speed.

11-inch Air
The 2012 11-inch Air had a lot of appeal for its size alone -- but the base $999 model only had a 64GB SSD, which sounds more like what you'd find in a tablet or phone. While you could bump it up to 128GB for $100, the new $999 Air starts at that 128GB size. It, too, gets the wireless bump to 802.11ac.

This is a developing story that will be expanded shortly. Check out our complete WWDC coverage so far.

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