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MacBook Air (11-inch, June 2013) review: A Mac with an iPad's battery life

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The Good The new 11-inch MacBook Air manages a phenomenal 10-plus-hour battery life; base $999 model finally has 128GB SSD; still compact and comfortable to use.

The Bad New CPUs don’t really boost performance over last year’s Air; still lacking SD card slot; 11-inch display’s not as high-res as competitors'.

The Bottom Line Apple’s new 11-inch Air goes a conservative route in 2013, emphasizing longer battery life and more affordable pricing over any big design changes. The battery boost alone might be worth it.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 9

Review Sections

Editors' note: As of April 29, 2014, Apple has updated the MacBook Air line with slightly faster Intel processors (1.4GHz Core i5, up from 1.3GHz) and cut the price of the entry-level configurations. The 11.6-inch MacBook Air now starts at $899 (from $999) in the US and at £749 (from £849) in the UK, and the 13.3-inch version now drops to $999 (from $1,099) in the US and to £849 (from £949) in the UK.

We're living in a post-iPad age for PCs. Excellent battery life and supremely portable forms sometimes make me ask: why use a laptop, which has subpar battery life, at all? Why not just get things done on a tablet instead?

The new MacBook Airs announced at WWDC erase part of that question: the battery life in these new models is astounding. They hit iPad territory, and blow away last year's performance. So, Mac laptops with iPad-strength batteries, check. And lower prices, too? Check again.

Also a nice surprise: the 13-inch Air and 11-inch Air are more similar than ever, with the same exact new fourth-gen Intel Haswell processors, storage options, RAM, and upgraded 802.11ac Wi-Fi capability. Which also means, other than the battery, in most ways they're pretty much the same as before.

The biggest problems with last year's otherwise excellent little 11-inch Air were that the entry-level $999 model only came with a 64GB solid-state drive, and that its 5-hour battery life was a compromise compared with the 7-plus hours of the 13-inch.

This year, the $999 entry-level model has a 128GB SSD, and the battery life's an awesome 10-plus hours. In its size class, the 11-inch Air has become a seriously perfect little laptop...if you can forgive its year-over-year sameness.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I'd be lying if I didn't say I wish the new Airs had bigger, better-resolution screens and more ports. Still, I'd give these up gladly for better battery life and more storage any day of the week. Unless you've got your heart set on a Retina Display, these new Airs are worth considering for that battery life alone. I do feel these laptops are a lot less exciting, in theory, but the debate of Apple and its product inventiveness is a coffee-shop conversation for another time. In practice, this Air has made practical improvements, and it's the workhorse to beat...mainly because of that impressive battery.

MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013) MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) Sony Vaio Pro 11 Acer Aspire S7-391-9886
Price $999 $1,099 $1,149 $1,649
Display size/resolution 11.6-inch, 1,766x768 screen 13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen 11-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen
PC CPU 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U
PC memory 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000 1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000 1,748MB Intel HD Graphics 4400 128MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000
Storage 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive 256GB Intel SSD
Optical drive None None None None
Networking 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4 OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4 Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit)

Design and features
Swap someone's 2012 MacBook Air with the 2013 model and he or she will never know the difference. Cosmetically, it's identical to last year's version: same aluminum unibody construction, same ports, same 1,366x768-pixel 11.6-inch display, same keyboard and clickable trackpad.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Consider that the MacBook Air is a laptop that's stayed largely unchanged (and the 11-inch version feels identical to the one that debuted in 2010), and you have what amounts to a pretty conservative computer update.

Sarah Tew/CNET

And yet, the Air's still one of the best-feeling laptops, all-around, that exists. Apple did its homework making the Air feel comfortable, and it's paid off with a long shelf life. The glass multitouch trackpad's still the most responsive out there, although the surface area on the 11-inch Air is small and narrower, making four-finger gestures feel cramped. The backlit keyboard's the same size and feel as on the 13-inch Air, and still feels great, although the row of function keys are pretty shrunken down.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Air doesn't feel as wafer-thin, though. The Sony Vaio Pro 11 trumps the Air on size and weight (1.9 pounds), compared with the relatively more beefy 2.3 pounds on Apple's all-aluminum design. It still feels good to hold, but it's not astonishing anymore.

The 11-inch Air and the Sony Vaio Pro 11. Sarah Tew/CNET

The 11.6-inch display feels too small for the Air's size, though. It's the only 16:9 wide-screen display in Apple's laptop arsenal, but you could have fit a larger screen in there -- the bezel's awfully wide. That's because it really has the base of a 12-inch laptop, which is how it accommodates such a large keyboard. Interestingly, the 11-inch Air's screen and bezel have exactly the same height and bezel thickness as on the 9.7-inch iPad. The Air's 16:9 screen is wider.

The Vaio Pro 11 (right) has a smaller footprint than the 11-inch Air, and a 1080p display. Sarah Tew/CNET

The 1,366x768-pixel-resolution display -- same as last year's -- is admittedly very crisp and covered with a bit of antiglare coating. But all you have to do is stare at your Retina iPad display to see what a richer, higher-res display could look like. And many laptops now have higher resolutions: the Vaio Pro 11 and Microsoft Surface Pro, similarly sized (and priced) products, have 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution packed into 11- and 10-inch displays. There isn't much of an excuse this year.

Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, June 2013)
Video DisplayPort/Thunderbolt
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Price and configurations
The Air has gotten less expensive than last year by roughly $100 on all configurations, although the entry price is still $999. However, unlike the piddling 64GB SSD you got before, the base Air now has a very acceptable 128GB. Last year, a similar configuration would have cost $1,099.

The step-up $1,199 Air doubles the storage to 256GB. Beyond that, you can also upgrade to a faster dual-core Core i7 processor, and increase the RAM to 8GB and storage to 512GB, just like last year. But these upgrades also cost less: the fully loaded 11-inch Air, which cost an absurd $2,149 last year, now costs a slightly less ridiculous $1,749.

The advantage of going 11-inch over 13-inch is that most of these RAM/CPU/storage configurations end up totaling $100 less on average than the 13-inch version, even though both sizes use exactly the same processors and memory/storage.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance and connections
What's new here? New fourth-gen Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a faster standard than 802.11n that's appearing in PCs and wireless routers. You'll need an accompanying 802.11ac router, like Apple's new Time Capsule and AirPort Extreme, though.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The processor change is a lateral move in terms of performance, effectively. The slower-clock-speed 1.3GHz Core i5 in this year's Air gives very similar performance to last year's 1.8GHz, and in some cases, a slightly slower benchmark.

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