Long-term review: Apple's newest MacBook Air continues to impress

With some judicious power management, you can exceed 10 hours on battery

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The reason ultrabooks and other slim computers are such hot commodities right now is because these systems promise the ultimate balance of power and portability. The MacBook Air delivers well on both promises in day-to-day use, though battery life varies greatly, depending on how you use it.

Battery life

As noted in my earlier look at the Air, I measured battery life by using this notebook the way I use any computer. I set the screen brightness to 80%, set the computer to sleep after 10 minutes of inactivity, and disabled Display dimming and Power Nap in the Energy Saver system preference. My Internet connection was through a corporate Wi-Fi network, and the back-lit keyboard was set to always stay on. I had a bus-powered external hard drive plugged into one of the USB 3.0 ports, and the Air was connected to an external 22-in. Dell display.

I ran Mail, which was checking for new email once a minute; Safari, which had multiple open tabs (though Flash was not installed); iCal; Terminal; Notes; Pages; Messages and Tweebot. I also had a virtual copy of Windows XP in Parallels 8: Microsoft System Center Service Manager, Lync, and LogMeIn were open and running, as were separate VNC sessions.

Under that configuration, the Air lasted just four hours and 38 minutes. The next day, I moved my files from the external drive to the Air's on-board storage and disconnected the USB drive. With everything else the same, I got five hours and 58 minutes of battery life.

Over the next couple of weeks, I used the Air in multiple configurations, each time noting the exact times the battery was used as the primary source of power. When used in the above configuration -- that is, in a multi-monitor setup using software known for being resource-intensive -- I was able to get a consistent six hours. On the days I wasn't using Parallels, I got nearly seven hours of battery life, even when using multiple monitors.

On a day that I tried working without the Dell monitor plugged in and without leaving Parallels open in the background when it wasn't in use, the Air managed to last for a full eight-hour day and then some. There was more than enough juice left over to sleep the machine for a couple of hours, and resume browsing when I returned home.

On lazy weekend days that included some writing, Web browsing and email, battery life encroached on the double-digit mark, which is exactly what you want in a machine balancing performance and portability.

That's impressive. Without any special energy-saving techniques -- literally, take it out of the bag, open the lid and use it full blast -- this computer can last a full workday for most users. It can last even longer if care is taken and energy-saving measures are applied, such as dimming the display or putting the machine to sleep by shutting the lid while not in use.

Final thoughts

I'm a huge fan of the 13-in. Retina MacBook Pro; I even highlighted it as a standout notebook for generous gift giver. But if you don't need the ports or the Retina display, this Air is fantastic. It offers the best balance of mobility and power, with battery life that can exceed 10 hours with a little active power management. It feels far faster than the specs would indicate. And the battery life has outlasted any other Apple notebook I've ever used and reviewed; it's second only to the iPad.

If you're in the market for a great slim laptop, there's no real reason to purchase anything but a MacBook Air.

MacBook Air setup
The MacBook Air at work only last five or six hours on battery when in heavy use. For lighter weekend surfing and email, it lasted longer than 10 hours. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

This article, Long-term review: Apple's newest MacBook Air continues to impress, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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