With just a gentle refresh of its Intel processor, the latest MacBook Air series launched in May 2014 is essentially identical to the range of MacBook Air models launched in June 2013.
For both the 11-inch and 13-inch Apple MacBook Air, the default configuration now has a 1.4 GHz Intel Core i5-4260U, replacing the former 1.3 GHz Intel Core i5-4250U processor inside Mid-2013 models.
We wouldn't expect that limited 100 MHz (0.1 GHz) speed bump to introduce appreciable performance gains. But providing it doesn’t result in added power drain to reduce battery life, the tiny lift may help to keep the MacBook Air competitive against Windows laptop rivals that may be employing the same revised chips.
MacBook Air Processor
As a first sign of raw processor performance, Geekbench 3 indicated an average score of 5392 points for the 11in MacBook Air and 5400 points for the 13in model we were testing. We don’t have results from last year’s models as they were tested with older Geekbench 2. For reference 2013's 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, Retina, Late 2013) with its dual-core 2.6 GHz Core i5 processor scored 6719 points in the same test.
In Cinebench 11.5 processor tests, the both of the 2014 MacBook Air's we tested scored 1.13 points in single-core and 2.57 points in multi-core mode. Cinebench 15 returned results of 97 and 236 points respectively.
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MacBook Air Graphics
Both Cinebench 11.5 and 15 benchmark software also test graphics performance, as applied in rendering animated scenes through OpenGL. Anyone looking for a 3D rendering mobile workstation is unlikely to look to a MacBook Air for the job but the benchmark numbers are useful as a guide to GPU performance.
The graphics processor within the latest revised Haswell-generation Intel Core i5 processor is the same Intel HD Graphics 5000 component as in the Mid-2013 MacBook Air, we understand, with the same clock speeds (200-1000 MHz).
These graphics processors dip into the system RAM for their memory, 256 MB-worth from the machine’s 4 GB quota. And since the RAM spec has unchanged we wouldn’t expect much gain in graphics performance for the Early 2014 model.
The 11.5 and 13 versions of Cinebench returned framerates of 22.2 and 18.5 frames per second (fps) respectively for the 11-inch MacBook Air. The 13in MacBook Air returned framerates of 23.5 and 18.8 frames per second (fps) respectively for the 11.5 and 13 versions of Cinebench.
On the 11-inch MacBook Air, Unigine Heaven saw an average framerate of 18.5 fps at the screen’s native 1366 x 768-pixel resolution, dipping to a worst-case minima of 6.8 fps.
On the 13-inch MacBook Air, Unigine Heaven saw an average framerate of 15.4 fps at the screen’s native 1440 x 900-pixel resolution, dipping to a worst-case minima of 6.4 fps. At a kinder 1280 x 800 and Medium setting, it averaged 19.3 fps with a minium of 10.2 fps.
With Tomb Raider (2013) now available for OS X, we ran its built-in benchmark test using screen-native and High settings, where it played at an average framerate of 27.0 fps on the 11in, and 21.8 fps on the 13in MacBook Air. Dropping slightly to 1280 x 720 and Medium didn’t elicit much benefit, rising slightly to 28.7 fps on the 11in, and 26.4 fps on the 13in.
With a minimum dip at just 14.7 fps on the 11in and 12.8 fps on the 13in MacBook Air, we would suggest the graphics performance of both of the early 2014 MacBook Air models is insufficient to play this game well.
Batman: Arkham City came off little better, with the 11in able to average 28 fps at both Medium and High, albeit dropping to just 1 and 4 fps minima, respectively. The 13in MacBook Air averaged at 24 fps at Medium and 23 fps at High detail settings and screen-native resolution, albeit dropping to just 3 and 8 fps minima, respectively.
To get closer to a playable game we’d suggest trying it at 1280 x 800 and Medium settings, where we saw it average 31 fps and with a 13 fps minimum on the 11in, and an average 29 fps and with a 11 fps minimum on the 13in.
MacBook Air Display
The 11-inch version of the MacBook Air remains unique as the only Apple laptop to ever use the more letter-boxed 16:9 aspect ratio. And as we discovered in our tests, this panel also stands out as perhaps the poorest performing display of any current Apple product.
The 13-inch version of the MacBook Air has a display with the usual Apple MacBook aspect ratio of 16:10, a good balance between 16:9 widescreen for watching full-screen video, and a taller display that aids productivity. Unforunacely, like the 11-inch version of the 2014 MacBook Air, this panel stands is one of the poorest performing display on any current Apple product.
Using a Datacolor Spyder4Elite display calibrator, we measured just 64 percent of the sRGB colour gamut on the 11in and 63 percent on the 13in model. That’s a particularly disappointing result, which was borne out subjectively by off-key screens colours visible to the eye. The wider Adobe RGB gamut was measured with only 48 percent coverage on both Macs.
Viewing angles of these twisted-nematic (TN) glossy panels were also very limited, with marked colour inversion effects evident as we tried to view the screen from the sides and above/below.
Contrast ratio was measured using the same Datacolor calibrator, to gain an idea of the display’s contrast quality. When we tested the 11in MacBook Air screen, recorded at the display’s highest peak output of 344 cd/m2 it was a rather poor ratio of 330:1, falling to 300:1 at its nominal 50 percent brightness setting (corresponding to 64 cd/m2).
The 13in MacBook Air also faired poorly in terms of contrast ratio: Recorded at the display’s highest peak output of 308 cd/m2 it was a 600:1, rising to 680:1 at its nominal 75 percent brightness setting (corresponding to 143 cd/m2).
Delta E from 48 spot tones averaged a mediocore 3.76, with the highest deviation coming from the test’s ‘2G’ swatch (blue tone) for the 11-inch MacBook Air. In the same test the 13-inch MacBook Air managed a poor average of 8.39 Delta E from 48 spot tones, with the highest deviation of 13.75 coming from the test’s ‘3E’ swatch (lilac tone).
MacBook Air Battery life
We used out standard looped-video rundown test to see how long the 11 and 13in MacBook Air models would run on one full charge. Inside the 11in model is a 38 Wh lithium-polymer battery, the same energy capacity as last year’s model. The 13in MacBook Air features a 54 Wh lithium-polymer battery, also the same energy capacity as last year’s model.
The test video was MPEG-4 encoded, played in QuickTime X over Wi-Fi from a NAS drive on the local network. The display was set to 120 cd/m2. In total the 11in laptop sustained 10 hours 11 min of playback before expiring, while the 13in model managed 12 hours 38 min of playback before expiring.
The 11in result is an impressive figure, if a little shorter than the 13-inch model’s endurance, now capable of greater than 12 and half hours in the same test.
MacBook Air Storage
The same storage sizes are offered as last year, from a PCIe-attached solid-state flash drive of either 128 or 256 GB capacity. A build-to-order option of 512 GB is also offered.
Earlier performance tests of this year’s MacBook Air series (Early 2014) have suggested it is slower than last year’s (Mid-2013) models. While processor performance is demonstrably slightly improved, the overall system score was brought down by slower flash storage results in comparison between the two generations.
Our Macworld UK tests suggest that what has been reported is caused not by an over-arching slowdown in the latest models’ flash drives, but instead differences in the performance of drives from different OEM suppliers that Apple now uses for its notebooks’ solid-state drives. And storage performance will vary depending how you test it.
Using Intuit QuickBench to evaluate an unused 50 percent partition of the internal drive, we tested the sequential speed and random read/write (single-thread) speed of flash drives in samples of both the 11- and 13-inch Apple MacBook Air (Early 2014).
The 11-inch MacBook Air averaged 701 MB/s for sequential reads 2-10 MB size, rising to 723 MB/s for 20-100 MB data. Write speeds were almost as impressive, at 612 and 546 MB/s respectively for the same data sets.
The 13-inch MBA averaged 723 MB/s for sequential reads 2-10 MB size, rising to 760 MB/s for 20-100 MB data. Write speeds were almost as impressive, at 568 and 576 MB/s respectively for the same data sets.
On the 11in Mac, down at the smallest file sizes, random reads from 4-1024 kB averaged 172 MB/s, and random writes averaged to 273 MB/s.
On the 13in model, down at the smallest file sizes, random reads from 4-1024 kB averaged 157 MB/s, and random writes averaged to 158 MB/s.
(For context, the best SATA SSDs fitted to state-of-the-art desktop PCs will peak at around 550 MB/s.)
Both models that we tested feature a 256 GB flash drive, so it is not surprising that they turned in broadly similar numbers, however there were still important differences.
On both the 11in and 13in models, sequential medium-file read speeds 2-10 MB were 723 MB/s, and 592 MB/s writes. With 20-100 MB files, this moved to 760 MB/s reads and 578 MB/s writes. Small-file random read/writes averaged 157 and 158 MB/s respectively.
Crucially these two MacBook Air laptops had flash drives from different drive manufacturing suppliers. Our 11-inch MacBook Air sample had a 256 GB SSD manufactured by Toshiba (part code APPLE SSD TS0256F), while the 13-inch MBA had the same capacity drive built by Samsung Electronics (part code APPLE SSD SD0256F).
These drives showed different transfer characteristics. In tests, the Samsung in the 13in exhibited slightly higher overall large-file reads – around 5 percent faster – and similarly slightly higher writes, at almost 6 percent faster.
But in small-file transfers, the Toshiba drive in the 11in measured much better, 9.5 percent faster for reads; and a massive 72 percent faster in random writes overall.
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Benchmarks for 11in MacBook Air: Conclusion
Our revised benchtesting tests do not have many legacy models with which to compare, but nonetheless we can see that both models in the latest MacBook Air line up remain speedy performers. Comparing a MacBook Pro with Core i5 clocked at 2.6 GHz – almost twice the clock speed – the new 1.4 GHz Core i5 in the new Air was only around 24 percent slower, for example.
For most daily tasks, you’re unlikely to feel any slowdown caused by the lower clock speed in the main processor.
Meanwhile Intel’s integrated graphics processor is improving with each generation, and even though there’s no material difference in the Early 2014 revised MacBook Air, this graphics engine is capable of some usable gameplay when kept at modest detail settings. We had usable results at 1280 x 720 resolution and Medium detail in various action games.
Battery of the 13-inch model is superb, greater than 12.5 hours in our tests, making this 13-inch laptop the most enduring laptops we’ve ever tested. Although the battery in the 11in offers slightly smaller capacity we still feel it is superb, greater than 10 hours in our tests. If you really need to break the 12-hour barrier in the same kind of usage, you’ll need to trade up to the 13-inch model with its larger internal battery.
The internal flash drive in this and the last generation of MacBook Pro takes more advanced technology than anything available to almost every Windows laptop. The PCIe-attached storage provides staggering speeds, up to nearly 50 percent quicker than is experienced on even enthusiast desktop PCs using the fastest SATA-connected SSDs. But variations in capabilities between drives from different suppliers has also caused some confusion about the relative performance of this year versus last year’s models.
Storage specialists – including Apple’s current contracted trio of Samsung, SanDisk and Toshiba – refine and tweak their solid-state drives through selection of NAND stock, controllers and firmware to give the best balance they think will benefit their customers. Apple may well be writing its own firmware across all three brands of flash drive it buys in, but intrinisic qualities of the hardware could result in these different performance results.
Display quality was the only issue that failed to impress, where we found budget TN panels with poor colour coverage and limited viewing angles.
We also note that Apple continues to supply conspicuously undersized panels for the available lid size – a 12.5in panel could be included in the space available to this 11.6-inch Air and still leave room for bezel surrounding edge. It's the same case with the 13in MacBook Air, where a 14.3in panel could be included in the space available to this 13.3-inch Air and still leave room for a surrounding bezel.
Especially with the recent lowering of retail price, the 11-inch MacBook Air at £749 or £899, and the 13-inch at £849 or 999, are very attractive options. The £749 entry-level model is Apple’s most affordable portable Mac, and the new price of the entry-level 13in model is now at the same as last year's 11in.