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

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

I was initially quite impressed with Apple's newest MacBook Air after just a few days of use -- and now, after having used this ultra-svelte 13-in. laptop for the better part of a month, this little machine has managed to consistently wow me with its extended battery life and better-than-expected performance. In many ways, the MacBook Air sits in the sweet spot between portability and power, with more than a dash of style thrown in for good measure.

When it comes to style, the new model looks exactly like its predecessor, except for a tiny second microphone hole on the left side. This year's changes are all beneath the surface -- and are uniformly good, unless you happen to be a user who likes do-it-yourself upgrades.

The MacBook Air line-up

The latest Air line-up, unveiled last month at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, is powered by Intel's fourth generation dual-core "Haswell" chip. The Core i5, which is the standard processor offered with the new Air, is specifically designed for low power consumption, sporting 3MB of shared L3 cache and clocked at 1.3GHz (it can ramp up to 2.6GHz when needed for processor-intensive tasks).

All of the Airs come with 4GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 SDRAM (upgradeable to 8GB); an Intel HD Graphics 5000 series integrated graphics chip that offers dual-display, extended desktop support; and the ability to use the next-generation Wi-Fi standard, known more technically as 802.11ac.

The line-up also comes standard with a built-in FaceTime HD camera (for video chats and PhotoBooth); a large Multi-Touch glass-covered track pad; a full-size, backlit keyboard; decent-sounding stereo speakers; a solid magnetic latch; two USB 3.0 ports; dual microphones (for noise canceling purposes); a headphone jack; a Thunderbolt port; and the MagSafe 2 power port, which automatically disconnects the power cord from the computer if suddenly yanked out.

The basic $999 model is equipped with an 11.6-in. 1,366-x-768-pixel, LED-backlit display; 128GB of flash storage and a battery capable of nine hours of estimated battery life (according to Apple's tests). For another $200, you can double your storage to 256GB. The smallest Air weighs just 2.38 lb., is 11.8-in. wide and 7.56-in. deep. When closed, it's just 0.11 in. at its thinnest point and 0.68 in. at its thickest.

The MacBook Air line comes in two sizes, one sporting an 11.6-in. display, the other with a 13.3-in. screen. (Image: Apple)

The model I worked with -- provided by Apple for review purposes -- was the entry-level 13.3-in. (1440-x-900-pixel) MacBook Air, which sells for $1,099. This version comes with an Intel Core i5 chip, 128GB of flash storage, 4GB of RAM, an SDXC card slot, and up to 12 hours of battery life (also based on Apple's own tests). While has the same height as the smaller air, it is 12.8 in. wide, 8.94-in. deep and weighs 2.96 lb.

There are a variety of build-to-order options, including an upgrade to a 1.7GHz Intel Core i7 chip, to 8GB of RAM and to more flash storage -- as much as 512GB for an additional $300 (this last option can only be applied to the $1,199 11-in. model and the $1,299 13-in. model). A totally tricked-out 13-in. Air goes for $1,849.

One option you don't get is the possibility of a Retina display. Those super-high-resolution screens are still only available in the MacBook Pro line, which is too bad. Even so, the screen is very nice, very bright and well-saturated. Im sure most buyers won't see that as a deal-breaker.

Unboxing the Air

Inside the box, you won't find much except the laptop itself, a 45W power adapter and the AC wall plug and cord. As with the previous model, there's no Ethernet port or optical drive, so if you can't survive on Wi-Fi connectivity alone, you'll need to get a Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter for $29. And if you still use CDs or DVDs, you'll need an external drive; the Apple-made external SuperDrive sells for $79.

All Air cases are built of aluminum using Apple's unibody design for the main enclosure and display housing, meaning they were cut from a single block of aluminum. The result is a laptop that doesn't flex, creak or bend under its own weight -- even when lifted from any of the corners. The fit and finish in the construction is noticeably top notch. This device feels as expensive as it looks, and a latch-less, magnetic mechanism snaps the lid shut and keeps it there until a gentle pry opens the clamshell and wakes the computer.

Like other Apple laptops, the Air also comes with the now-familiar glass-coated trackpad. Im still a big fan of the trackpad, and Im not sure why Apple doesnt have all of the gesture motions it allows turned on by default. Sure, advanced users will just go into the System Preferences and turn them on, but I think most people using the Air now are accustomed to touch. Having the swiping motions available for use right of the box makes sense.

Speed improvements

Waking is virtually instantaneous, the obvious result of an operating system and hardware designed to work well together. There wasn't a single time during my three weeks with this Air that OS X wasn't awake from sleep and ready for input by the time the screen was set in place.

The improved read times from the PCIe flash-based storage have much to do with this. I found that the Air surpassed the write speeds of my mid-2012 Retina MacBook Pro -- still Apple's high-end model -- and was nearly twice as fast as my laptop on disk read tests. The MacBook Pro, which sports a Core i7 chip, had read/write values of 457.1MBps and 414.5MBps, respectively. The MacBook Air had read/write values of 442.3MBps and 723.6MBps. Both laptops were tested using Disk Speed Test.

The megahertz wars are more or less over since chip speeds alone don't really reflect real-world performance. But to tell you the truth, after using the machine for a few days, I was pretty surprised that the Air was equipped with a basic 1.3GHz Core i5. This computer ran all of my apps without hesitation (in other words, there were no instances of the Spinning Beach Ball), including a virtual copy of Windows XP in Parallels running multiple apps. The processor is actually clocked at 500MHz lower than the original 2008 Air, yet, it performed admirably under stressful conditions, never hesitating or choking during use while delivering excellent battery life.

Mind. Blown.

Credit the MacBook Air's PCIe flash storage for faster write speeds than a Retina MacBook Pro and even faster disk read test results.

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.

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).

Read more about macintosh in Computerworld's Macintosh Topic Center.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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