Apple's new 11-inch MacBook Air builds on a winning formula (July 1st, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: From $999. $1249 as tested.
- Fantastic battery life - Faster flash architecture - Much improved graphics performance - Wi-Fi 802.11ac connectivity - Excellent keyboard, trackpad - Better value
- TN panel not a match for the PC competition - Third year with unchanged design - Relatively large bezel starting to look dated - No SD card slot
Apple's new MacBook Air range is being marketed by the company for its outstanding claimed battery life. Apple is also touting faster flash memory, new 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity as well as the new found graphics prowess of Intel's fourth-generation Core i5 and i7 dual-core processors. However, its genre-defining design remains unchanged for the sixth-generation model, while it also continues with a TN panel when its competitors are moving to IPS technology and higher resolutions. Does the 11-inch MacBook Air have what it takes to remain at the top of the ultraportable segment?
Design and build quality
The new 11-inch MacBook Air, like its larger 13-inch stable mate, continues with a design that is virtually indistinguishable from the 2010 redesign. The only telltale sign that it is a mid-2013 model are two pinholes on the left-hand side of the chassis that accommodate a new dual-mic arrangement. Nonetheless, the MacBook Air continues to be the design yardstick for the segment, with much of the competition following a similar design approach. When Apple strikes on a winning design formula, it tends to avoid expending any effort on embellishing it until it is ready to release a completely new design.
Its aluminum chassis remains strong and durable, providing a very sturdy platform for working on the go. The fit and finish is also absolutely top-notch with the anodized finish much more durable than on, for example, the iPhone 5 or iPad mini. As most of its ultrabook competition is also using more premium materials, including carbon fiber, Apple's use of aluminum is no longer quite the advantage that it once was. For the most part, the design still looks attractive, although the large bezel around the display is making is start to look somewhat dated against ultrabooks that have shifted to an edge-to-edge display design aesthetic.
Apple has been experimenting with carbon fiber technology, but it has yet to make an appearance in any of its shipping products. While Sony's Vaio Pro models have been criticized for some chassis flex, its 11-inch notebook is significantly lighter than the 11-inch MacBook Air at 1.92 pounds, while its 13-inch variant weighs around the same as the 11-inch MacBook Air model at 2.34 pounds. Chassis flex or not, Apple needs to look at what it can do to help further reduce the weigh of its MacBook Airs if it wants to keep ahead of the pack.
Apple has continued with the same display specifications found on all previous generations of the 11-inch MacBook Air, which is a TN panel with a resolution of 1366x768 pixels. While it seems inevitable that Apple will eventually incorporate a higher resolution Retina panel into the MacBook Air line up, it has opted for better battery life in this generation. While this may be a reasonable trade-off, we find the absence of IPS technology verging on unacceptable in a high-end ultraportable in 2013 - especially one from Apple. A number of high-end PC ultrabooks now carry at least an IPS panel, while some are now also shipping 11-inch devices with both IPS technology and higher-resolutions of 1920x1080 pixels.
For a company that has tried to push the technology curve on displays, it is now playing catch up. Sony's new Vaio Pro 11 packs in 1080p Triluminos display, making the 11-inch MacBook Air display look anaemic by comparison. The $100 price drop on the new MacBook Air is small compensation for omitting a higher quality display. Viewing angles and color reproduction on the 11-inch MacBook Air can only be described as adequate, with color shifting considerably if the display is not positioned at an optimal viewing angle.
The display on the 11-inch MacBook Air is not awful - as far as TN panels go it's one of the best. The problem is that it has simply been properly surpassed by much of its competition, including 11-inch ultrabooks from Acer and Asus. We would also like to see Apple increase the size of the display for both the 11- and 13-inch models to take advantage of the large bezels that currently distinguish each model. Both models could accommodate a larger, higher resolution and IPS displays, without increasing their overall footprint.
Our 11-inch MacBook Air has been fitted with the upgraded Intel Core i7 1.7GHz (4650U) dual core chip and 8GB of system RAM, resulting in a significant performance boost over the current entry-level model. However, generally speaking, the biggest performance leaps with the new 'Haswell' chips aren't outright in processing performance, but rather with the significantly improved battery life in notebook applications. The new Intel HD 5000 integrated GPU also delivers significant performance boosts over the older Intel HD 4000 GPU from the third-gen Core-series mobile processors.
However, this is not to say that there is no performance boost that comes with the new Intel architecture. Although the new 'Haswell' chip design is built on the same 22nm process as the superseded 'Ivy Bridge' design, it is more efficient. So much so, that the 1.3GHz chip found in the mid-2013 11-inch MacBook Air is almost on par with the 1.7GHz chip from the outgoing model. When you couple that with the new 45 percent faster flash memory, overall, the new base model 11-inch MacBook Air is a faster system than the model it replaces. The new Core i7 chip as fitted to our test unit gives the 11-inch MacBook Air the best performance yet. Moreover, with Turbo Boost 2.0 enabled, the chip is able to overclock for heavy processor loads to 3.3GHz.
Subjectively, the new MacBook Air is noticeably faster than the model it replaces. Any sign of system lag that was present in the older models has been eliminated with the new design. The external case of the MacBook Air may not have changed, but its internals, including the motherboard, have all been given a substantial revamp. This is born out in our objective testing as well:
The 32-bit Geekbench score of 7489 is quite impressive for a MacBook Air. As a point of comparison, it out performs our 2011 Mac Mini with dual-core 'Sandy Bridge' CPU that scored 6526 highlighting just how quickly Intel has evolved the design of its chips in the interceding years. It is still some way off the performance of the Core i7 2.3GHz quad-core 'Ivy Bridge' found in our mid-2012 MacBook Pro with Retina Display, that scored 11058 in the same test.
Similarly, the Cinebench R11.5 (64-bit) shows the impressive performance gains made with the new Intel 'Haswell' chips. Our mid-2013 11-inch MacBook Air scored 26.86fps on the Open GL graphics test, while it also returned a score of 2.92 points on the CPU test. Compared to our 2011 Mac mini, which featured a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M, the new MacBook Air integrated Intel HD 5000 GPU significantly outperforms the older discrete chip which managed just 18.04fps in the same test. CPU performance is similar as well, which is also impressive given its lower clock speed and that it is an ultra-low voltage chip as well. It is still, however, some way behind the the scores we achieved for our mid-2012 rMBP, which includes discrete Nvidia Kepler graphics (34.80fps) and a third-gen quad-core chip clocked at 2.3GHz (6 points).
Overall, though, the new MacBook Air with upgraded CPU and RAM is going to offer plenty of performance for most users, and offers genuine casual gaming potential as well, living up to Intel's promises for the graphics performance improvements with its latest generation of integrated GPUs.
The 11-inch MacBook Air is fitted with two USB 3.0 ports, but continues to miss out on any SD card slot as fitted to the 13-inch model. It continues to feature a single Thunderbolt as well, which gives the device considerable flexibility. Pairing it with an Apple Thunderbolt display, or Thunderbolt dock, and you have instantly got a much wider range of options when it comes to I/O. You can daisy chain up to six Thunderbolt supported devices, or a range of devices with USB 2.0 and 3.0 or Firewire among the various options.
However, the real highlight from a connectivity perspective is the new support for the 802.11ac wireless (draft) standard. We have a new 3TB Time Capsule on hand to get a better sense of the capabilities of the new connection. We will update this review when we have completed our tests. Apple says that it should achieve transfer speeds up to three times faster than 802.11n. It certainly adds another dimension to the MacBook Air's capabilities, and there is no question that it is good to see Apple start to roll this into its next-generation devices.
Apple claims that in combination with Intel's new fourth-generation Core processors, otherwise referred to as 'Haswell,' the 11-inch MacBook Air can last for up to 9 hours on a single charge, while the larger 13-inch MacBook Air is good for up to 12 hours. Apple's measures for real-world battery performance were changed several years ago to bear a closer resemblance to what users can reasonably expect. Rather than put the notebook through some artificial tests, we charged up our 11-inch MacBook Air and took it on the road with us.
We used it primarily for word processing, checking emails while also surfing the Internet. Brightness was set at 50 percent where we could, but we also used it at slightly above these levels. Where possible, we also had the keyboard backlighting off, but were also prepared to use it as we normally would in lower light situations. While we think that it is realistically possible to achieve 9 hours of battery life from the 11-inch MacBook Air, in our real world testing we found that we could achieve over 8 hours of use quite comfortably. Apple claimed that the previous 11-inch MacBook Air from 2012 was good for up to 5 hours - it is safe to say that they mid-2013 MacBook Air substantially outperforms the older model in this regard.
If that had been a factor in pushing users to opt for the larger 13-inch model for its additional battery life, the 11-inch model even outstrips the older 13-inch model for battery performance as well. As mentioned, the new Intel silicon has been optimized for extending battery life and it is the most significant factor driving the extended battery life in the new MacBook Airs. Similar battery life gains have also been made in competing ultrabooks that have adopted the new 'Haswell' chips as well. It will, however, be very interesting to see how Mac OS X Mavericks helps to extend battery life further with array of new software optimizations designed to reduce overall power consumption.
Keyboard and trackpad
The mid-2013 MacBook Air continues with a very similar (if not the same) keyboard as previous iterations. It is a backlit Chiclet style that is very comfortable to type on. Despite the narrow dimensions of the notebook itself, the keyboard has good travel and is relatively quiet as well, making it great for getting work done on planes or other enclosed spaces. The palm rest area on the 11-inch MacBook Air is also quite generous for a small notebook, further enhancing user comfort. It is full size and fully featured and is simply a pleasure to use.
Similarly, the large oversize trackpad on the 11-inch MacBook Air is also very comfortable to use. Apple has opted for an approach to multi-touch input on notebooks that places the emphasis on a more ergonomic approach to user interaction and input on a notebook. In other words, using the large multi-touch track pad with Apple's wide range of gesture controls is much more comfortable than reach upwards to interact with a touchscreen as has been encouraged by Microsoft's Windows 8 interface on many PC ultrabooks. Further, the responsiveness and precision of Apple's trackpad software remains well ahead of the competition.
The mid-2013 11-inch MacBook Air remains an excellent device. The combination of Mac OS X Mountain Lion with its strong design aesthetic remains a compelling proposition. The $100 price drop helps to sweeten the deal, while the updated system architecture including new Intel 'Haswell' chips and faster flash make it a very attractive proposition. The keyboard is top-notch as is the trackpad hardware along with the way that Apple has implemented multi-touch gestures. The 11-inch form factor, coupled with the ability to upgrade to the faster Core i7 silicon also makes it a very powerful package in a small form factor.
The biggest drawback that we have with the latest MacBook Air is with the old TN display panel that Apple has persisted with for yet another generation. Remember, it was way back in 2010 that Apple introduced IPS technology on the iPad. All of its iPhones currently on sale, including the iPhone 4 also feature IPS panels. While a Retina display would be a bonus, it is unlikely that Apple could have included the Retina technology without negatively affecting battery life and putting upward pressure on its price. So, rather than the $100 price drop, we would sooner that Apple incorporate an IPS panel as standard, preferably with a 1920x1080 resolution like much of its competition as an absolute minimum.
If the quality of the display is not an issue for you, then the mid-2013 MacBook Air has plenty going for it. The real selling point is the much improved battery life, which could attract users who prefer the smaller form factor, but opted for the 13-inch model to get more usable battery life. However, even though Apple has included a slightly higher capacity battery, most of the credit for this can go to Intel for this gain. The mid-2013 MacBook Air is definitely worth checking out. Whether it remains the class leader will depend on what your personal preferences are. In our view, it has made plenty of positive steps forward. However, competitors have also taken some significant strides forward, with some taking a clear lead in reduced footprint, weight and display quality.