Review: 2013 MacBook Air (11-inch)
August 19, 2013
Apple recently updated its MacBook Air line to include Intel's new much-touted Haswell processor. We decided to give the 11-inch model a whirl to see how the new processor affects its performance, and how well the laptop stacks up against previous iterations of the Air.
Though we’re only looking at the 11-inch model MacBook Air here, the 13-inch version is identical in RAM, CPU and SSD specs. Only a more generous screen, SD Card slot, a battery that offers at least three hours more life (54 watt-hours vs. the 11-inch's 38), and higher price tag differentiate it, so much of what's written should be applicable for both.
More of the same
If you’re already familiar with the MacBook Air – and since over five years have passed since the line was introduced, you probably are – then the physical difference between this latest 11-inch MacBook Air and those which immediately preceded it can be summed up in one word: negligible.
The 11-inch MacBook Air still weighs 2.38 lb (1.08 kg), measures 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.11 to 0.68 inches (300 x 192 x 3 to 17 mm), and is primarily constructed from aluminum. It's still a stunning laptop, so one can't fault Apple for leaving the styling alone.
Indeed, besides the minuscule addition of an extra microphone hole on the 2013 Air’s left-hand side, it’s otherwise essentially the same computer, physically, as the 2012 and 2011 models. One welcome change is that the base model Air (both sizes) now comes with a minimum 128 GB SSD, rather than the previous 64 GB, and the 11-inch model starts at US$999.
The new generation of MacBook Air is Apple's first computer to feature Haswell, Intel's latest CPU, and the little slab of silicon brings some significant improvements to the table.
Whereas we could expect roughly five hours or so of battery life from the 2012 11-inch Air, the 2013 model boasts a reported nine hours. Indeed, in my own completely unscientific tests, I even managed to exceed this with careful light use.
For the first time, the 11-inch Air offers the ability to do a full day's work without recharging, and this is a huge boon in its favor.
Haswell also brings improved graphics performance – up to 40 percent improved according to Apple – thanks to the Intel HD 5000 graphics chip that's integrated into the CPU. This means that the new MacBook Air should prove more capable for graphically-intensive tasks than previous Air models.
I made the mistake of checking out the MacBook Air next to the MacBook Pro Retina in a store, and the small non-Retina screen looked, frankly, terrible in comparison.
That said, taken on its own merits, it’s still a good screen, with decent viewing angles and very nice colors. I found that it was one of the more pleasant non-Retina glossy screens I’ve used, especially considering its size and (relative lack of) resolution, at 1366 x 768, or 135 pixels per inch (PPI).
While one could argue that it's time for Apple to upgrade the screen, it does the job, looks good enough, and affords such incredible battery life that I'm willing to live with it.
As already noted, the display on the 11-inch Air is small. Too small? Well, that depends on the role the Air will take in your life. I use my computers mostly hooked up to an external display, and only rely on the built-in screen when traveling, or sat on the couch, so the 11-inch Air’s screen works just fine for me.
However, if you’re going to be relying on the Air as your primary machine and don't have an external display, it might be worth trying the model out in store, or even considering shelling out the additional $100 premium to upgrade to the 13-inch Air, as being chained to such a small screen could potentially become tiring for long periods of time.
Having said that, the smaller screen, shorter battery life and lack of SD Card reader slot are really the only tradeoffs you make when choosing the 11-inch Air over the 13-inch Air, and it's a very capable computer. The keyboard is excellent, and the glass trackpad is, though ever-so slightly shrunk in height compared to larger Mac notebooks, still miles ahead of the competition.
And the 11-inch Air is just so light, making throwing it into a bag easy. Sure we can say it weighs 2.38 lb (1.08 kg), but when you’re using it daily, it feels more like an iPad than a laptop, while offering far more power and flexibility than the iOS-based tablet ever could.
I tested the base model 11-inch Air, which sports an unimpressive-sounding 1.3 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (though Turbo Boost can boost this up to 2.6GHz if required), but still came away impressed by its performance.
For those interested, the Geekbench benchmarking tool places the 2013 MacBook Air somewhere in the ballpark of the 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina, and the late 2012 MacBook Pro (non Retina) performance-wise. Though such guides should only be taken with a pinch of salt, that level reflects my own impressions while testing.
Apps load very quickly, zip along speedily, and the 11-inch Air wakes up from sleep before the lid is fully open. To be clear, I’m no graphics power user, but it handled the export of multiple image files and didn't balk at any tasks I gave it, without getting warm or stuttering at any point. Copying files was also very quick, and I don't believe I saw a single instance of "beachballing" (OS X freezing issues) during testing.
My own gaming requirements revolve around a long-running campaign of the aging title Rome Total War and some Minecraft, so I’m probably not best cut out for judging the game-playing capabilities of the 11-inch Air (and really, it's not intended as a gaming laptop). However, it should be capable of light-to-moderate gaming.
I did have the opportunity to put the 11-inch Air through its paces with some audio software, and it performed some heavy lifting without issue, tackling playback and recording of multiple Ableton Live audio tracks, complete with Max For Live plugins, all while hooked up to a large external display.
The 11-inch Air sports two USB 3.0 ports, a combined Thunderbolt and MiniDisplay port, a combined headphones and line in port, a MagSafe 2 connector ... and that’s it.
Though an SD card slot would have been a welcome addition, I think the above is reasonable for a consumer-targeted laptop this size, and rather is more damning of the relative lack of USB ports on much larger Mac laptops, like the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The new Air also sports the 802.11ac WiFi standard, so coupled with the new Airport Extreme, should offer quicker WiFi speeds.
Unfortunately, as with its predecessors, the price you pay for such a small and light laptop is that the 2013 Air is not user upgradeable.
The SSD is the one area which could potentially be user-upgraded, but since Apple has introduced a new SSD type this year (PCIe, to offer those blazing speeds), you’re stuck with what you've got, at least until a third-party company hopefully produces an upgrade.
As for RAM and CPU, these will never be user-upgradeable on the current Air, again illustrating the importance of choosing your computer wisely.
For those wishing to hot-rod their 11-inch Air, Apple offers upgrades in the form of doubling RAM, faster CPU, and larger SSD. A word of caution though: by the time you've fully outfitted the 11-inch Air, the price can exceed a 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina – from $999 for the base model 11-inch Air, up to $1,749 for the top of the range model with 512 GB SSD.
So, should you plunge for the upgrades? Well, the base-level 128 GB SSD is certainly a squeeze if you wish to store any significant amount of media (my own iTunes Library wouldn’t even fit), but many people will find 128 GB more than adequate. Boosting it up to 256 GB will set you back $200.
Doubling the RAM to 8 GB would be a canny move if you wish to future-proof your Mac, or want to use it for gaming, but despite my initial worries, performance is fine with 4 GB RAM. The RAM upgrade costs $100.
The CPU upgrade (from the 1.3 GHz i5 to a 1.7 GHz i7) is a harder sell at $150, as most non-power users will see little benefit in daily use. This option is probably best left for those who really want to squeeze out every inch of performance from their Air.
The base-level 2013 11-inch MacBook Air is currently Apple’s most affordable laptop, and it offers far more bang-for-buck, relatively speaking, than the now-discontinued white plastic MacBook line ever did.
Providing you can live with its relatively small display, or at least make use of an external monitor, the 2013 11-inch MacBook Air is a sound purchase: it's a joy to use, no slouch in the performance stakes, looks great, and offers superb battery life. For all these reasons it remains, in my opinion, far and above the outstanding choice for a laptop of its size.
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