The new MacBook Air 13-inch has come a long way from something that was once seen as an over-priced netbook. T3 went in for a closer look
When it first launched, the MacBook Air was the classiest, most portable laptop around, its aluminium casing making it stand out for weight and looks. It often drew gasps when people picked it up for the first time.
Now, in a world of ultrabooks and tablets, it needs to prove itself all over again. The rumour was that the 2013 MacBook Airs would have Retina displays, the high-resolution screens now found on some 13-in and 15-in MacBook Pro models. That didn't happen.
Maybe it would have pushed the price up too far – after all, this is Apple's entry-level machine now there's no plain MacBook. Or maybe it would have added weight with the extra battery needed to power those extra pixels.
And after all, battery life, though not bad, wasn't the strongest part of the Air package so reducing that wouldn't have been welcome. We've already reviewed the MacBook Air 2013 11-inch, so now we're looking at the larger MacBook Air 2013 13-inch...
MacBook Air 13-inch: Size and build
This time around, Apple decided to give users longer battery life and leave the weight and size the same as before. Wise decision – a heavy MacBook Air wouldn't have worked (MacBook Lead, anyone?) and the display is already very good.
So the look and build of this year's model follows last year's MacBook Air 2012. Why would you change it – it continues to have a real wow design that's clean, skilfully engineered and entirely high-end. The tapered edges make it feel slimmer than it really is. But it's still astonishingly slim.
For those who like their specs, the new MacBook Air is 32.5cm wide, 22.7cm deep and the height maxes out at 1.7cm, though it's just 0.3cm at its thinnest point. Pick it up and you'll find it weighs almost nothing – well, 1.35kg.
The keyboard is the same size as on the MacBook Pro 15in (save for the smaller function keys that make the top row). It remains the best around – great spacing, perfect travel and responsiveness. And like the other Mac laptops, the keyboard is backlit. This is a feature that you might not think you'll ever need. Until you've tried it, after which it's hard to manage without it.
MacBook Air 13-inch: Features
The ports and sockets on the new Air are identical to last year's model, apart from an extra teeny-tiny hole on the left edge. This is a second integrated microphone designed to help with noise cancellation. So as usual with the Air range there's no Ethernet connection. To wire your laptop in to the internet, you need a USB adaptor.
When the MacBook Air was first revealed, this was laughed at by rival manufacturers, though now many super-slim Ultrabooks have the same solution.
More importantly, one of the under-the-hood changes on this year's model is the improvement of wi-fi to 802.11ac, so faster wireless internet is a possibility and wired Ethernet may be less frequently needed. It would be nice if Apple bundled the cable with the machine but at least the £50 price drop from last year means you may feel you can justify the extra expense.
MacBook Air 13-inch: Screen
So, no Retina display, then. Never mind, this 13.3in display has, as last year, 1,440 x 900 pixels. That's 128 pixels per inch. Way less than the iPhone 5 or iPad 4, but the greater distance between your eyes and the screen work their magic in making the screen look good.
This is an LED-backlit LCD and manages great colour reproduction. It has good viewing angles, too. Overall, you might not even notice the lack of Retina…
MacBook Air 13-inch: Performance
One of the main pluses of a storage system that's entirely SSD – standard on the MacBook Air now for several years – is that it's mighty fast to wake up from standby. Earlier models took a few seconds. This was pretty quick, though it's amazing how soon you found yourself twiddling the trackpad impatiently during this short wake-up period – the mouse cursor wasn't instantly available.
Now, when you open the lid, the mouse is working as fast as you can touch it. It's a saving of just a few seconds, that's all, but it transforms the experience from good to great.
The model we tested had 128GB of flash storage, a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 chip. It is fast. You can get faster configurations, but for most people this will move more than fast enough. Not least, that's down to the 4GB of onboard RAM. You can opt for double this, though that pushes the price up of course.
Of course, this isn't a real match for the pricier Pro which either comes with an optical drive or a Retina display, but the joy of the slim, light Air is hard to be overstated.
MacBook Air 13-inch: Battery
Now then, this is the factor that will decide you whether to buy the laptop. Last year's 13-inch model had reasonable time between charges – hours – but that's now been bumped to a whopping 12 hours of internet-enabled usage. So you need never worry that it's going to go flat on you even if you do a long day's work and hammer it on the commute at both ends, too.
In practice, this seems to last as long as Apple claims. Video playback is timed at 10 hours, which chimes with our tests, too.
This is the real difference between the 13-in and 11-in models. Both are capable and long-lasting but for complete peace of mind, it's hard to imagine needing more than the 12 hours here.
Of course, that extra battery adds weight, and the bigger screen definitely makes the 13-in model less portable. It really just comes down to how much the extra screen real estate is worth in terms of weight, size and price.
MacBook Air 13-inch: Verdict
The latest 13-inch Apple MacBook Air is as slick as ever: thrillingly lightweight, gorgeous-looking and now offering both speedy performance and considerable battery life. This laptop will last you 12 hours of internet- enabled usage before needing a recharge.
For the ultimate in portablilty, the 11-inch model still reigns, though battery life can't match this laptop. And if you have last year's model, you may also be tempted to upgrade by the super-fast recovery from standby which is way faster than the few seconds it used to be. Overall, this is fast, lightweight and, thanks to a £50 price drop, excellent value.
MacBook Air 13-inch release date: Out now
MacBook Air 13-inch price: £949 (reviewed model - 128GB), £1,129 (256GB)