Tue, 13 Aug 2013 Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (2013) review: Updated
The 11in MacBook Air is as light as it gets without sacrificing power and usability
- Manufacturer: Apple
- Pros: As fast as the 13-inch model; so light you will forget you are carrying it; longer battery life
- Cons: Limited storage capacity; slower processor clock speed than previously; not enough RAM as standard
- Price: £849 or £1,029
- Star rating:
The 2013 MacBook Air 11-inch looks identical to last year's model. If you are looking for a slim, lightweight laptop the MacBook Air is the best around. In fact the 11in MacBook Air is as light as it gets without sacrificing power and usability.
There are four MacBook Airs available, in two different sizes, but aside from the size of the screen, the specs are pretty similar. In fact in our tests there was only one Speedmark point difference between the 13-inch and 11-inch models - performance was practically identical. This is in contrast to last year's MacBook Air family where the difference between the 11-inch and 13-inch versions was much more pronounced.
If you are trying to choose between an 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook it will come down to how much screen you are willing to sacrifice in the name of weight. Both Mac laptops feature the same full-size, backlit keyboard, and both feature the multi-touch trackpad, although the one on the 11-inch model is narrower than that on the 13in, which may prove inconvenient for those with bigger fingers or in need of precision.
All MacBook Air versions feature two USB 3.0 slots and one Thunderbolt port. However, only the 13-inch model has an SDXC card slot so if you are an avid photographer that may make the decision for you. There’s no DVD drive on either model, but you can always invest in a separate Apple USB SuperDrive for £65 if you really need one.
Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air measures 30cm wide and 19.2cm deep and weighs just 1.08kg. The screens diameter is actually slightly larger than 11-inch at 11.6-inch from corner to corner.
If you want to make sure you are buying the newest model (some stores will be discounting the older model now so don't be taken in if it looks like they have cut prices on the latest model) there is one tiny difference to look out for. The 2013 MacBook Air sports two tiny holes near the audio port. These tiny holes are microphones and the second mic is new to the 2013 MacBook Air. Having dual mics aids with noise cancellation, improving the quality of audio recorded using the new model.
The differences between the 2012 and 2013 11-inch MacBook Air are under the hood, however. On the inside all the new 2013 MacBook Air features the new Intel Core i5 Haswell processor, rather than the Ivy Bridge chip of last year.
The new MacBook Air 1.3GHz processor compared to the old 1.7GHz processor
One common question regarding the new MacBook AIr is whether the new 1.3GHz models are slower than last year’s 1.7GHz model. The answer is no, but the explanation isn’t that straight forward.
While it’s true that the GHz difference means that the Haswell processors in the new MacBook Airs actually run at a slower clock speed than the Ivy Bridge processors found in the 2012 models, the new 1.3GHz 11-inch MacBook Air was actually 9 percent faster overall than last year’s 1.7GHz 11-inch Core i5 Ivy Bridge model. The individual application tests were very close, with seven tests (including Photoshop and Aperture) within 3 percent of each other.
One reason for this is the faster graphics and faster flash storage in the new MacBook Air, both factors boosted the 2013 generation's Speedmark 8 score.
The difference between the 2012 and 2013 11-inch model is more marked than the difference between the new 13-inch models and their predecessors. In fact there is very little difference between the comparable 11-inch and 13-inch models in the current line up. This is the first time that the smaller MacBook Air has really matched its larger sibling - previous generations were always considered entry level models and there was a time when many users would have disqualified the MacBook Air as a low-end machine lacking adequate power. This is no longer the case.
Some may suggest that the fact that the new 1.3GHz Haswell chip beats the old 1.7GHz Ivy Bridge proves the credentials of this new Haswell processor.
In addition, the new Haswell processor requires less power than the Ivy Bridge processor found in last year's MacBook Air, and as a result Apple has been able to boost the battery life in the new model (more on battery life later).
If you want a faster processor you can configure your perfect machine at the point of sale (it can't be updated after you have bought it). For an extra £130, Apple will swap out the dual-core 1.3GHz Core i5 processor for a dual-core 1.7GHz Core i7 with Hyper Threading and with Turbo Boost speeds of up to 3.3GHz. We are yet to test this build to order model but it sounds like it might be worth the money to upgrade, although there are concerns about the drain on battery life for this supped up model with speculation suggesting that Apple’s battery life success is only possible because it has made sacrifices in terms of clock speed.
MacBook Air all-day battery
Speaking of battery life, as we mention above the energy efficient Haswell processor makes longer battery life possible, and for many longer battery life will be at the top of their wish list. Most of the laptop owners we know complain that they don’t get enough battery life out of their portable, and the popularity of the iPad with its 10-hour battery has lead many to expect the same of their laptop.
With the new MacBook Air Apple is attempting to address this need for extended power, and not only has Apple increased battery life, it has left the rest of the industry behind. The next closest competitor (Sony) offered half the battery life, according to our sister site, PC Advisor’s tests.
Apple claims that the 11-inch MacBook Air offers a nine-hour battery, compared to five hours for last year's machine. Does the MacBook Air match Apple's battery life claims?
The testing in the Macworld Lab didn't quite replicate Apple's battery life claims, but we run slightly different tests to assess battery life. Macworld Lab ran two tests to compare this year's new models with last year’s MacBook Air models and a 2013 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. Based on our tests we can confidently say that the new 11-inch MacBook Air's battery life is much, much better than before.
In our tests the new 11-inch standard configuration MacBook Air lasted 6 hours and 6 minutes, compared to just 3 hours and 34 minutes for the 2012 model. In comparison we got 36 percent more battery life out of the 13-inch MacBook Air, which lasted 8 hours and 18 minutes with our tests. Apple claims the 13in model offers 12-hours of battery life. (Read our review of the 13-inch MacBook Air here.)
We should note that our sister title PC Advisor's battery tests found that the new MacBook Air models had battery life that was even better than that claimed by Apple. According to PCA's MobileMark 2007 Productivity Test the 13-inch MacBook Air ran for 13 hours and 57 minutes, we expect that they will gain similarly impressive benchmarks from testing the 11-inch model.
Is there enough storage in the MacBook Air?
Probably the biggest concern people have when deciding whether to buy a MacBook Air is whether there will be adequate storage for their needs.
The good news is that both MacBook Air models are now available with a choice of 128GB or 256GB Flash Storage - last year's 11-inch model started at 64GB. Some people will have no problem fitting their necessary data within the 128GB capacity of the two lower-end models. Others will be concerned that even 256GB isn't enough storage for their needs. Perhaps you have an extensive photo library or music collection.
All is not lost: It is possible to configure a 512GB Flash Storage option when you buy the MacBook Air for an additional £240. The MacBook Air cannot be updated at a later date so you need to decide whether to fork out the extra for the additional storage when you buy the machine.
However this isn't your only option for extra storage, you may be happy to plug your MacBook Air into an external drive - you could get a pretty decent NAS drive for the extra £240 you would be paying the extra 256GB of Flash Storage Apple would build into your system, with the bonus of backing up wirelessly. Of course a 1TB hard drive will not be as speedy as your on-board Flash Storage. Alternatively you could back your files up to the cloud, which is a handy option if you want to be able to access files from anywhere.
If you really need storage the current MacBook Pro offers a 750GB hard drive option. If you need help deciding between Macs with hard drive and SSD flash drive options read SSD vs HDD hard drives: which is the best storage to have in a Mac.
Fast Flash storage
Concerns about whether there is enough storage for your needs may fade into obscurity once you realise the benefits of the flash storage – also referred to as SSD. It’s not just any flash storage.
The 2013 MacBook Air models offer much faster flash storage than any other Mac to date (you can expect to see even more impressive flash memory in the new Mac Pro when it launches later this year). Apple claims this next-generation flash storage, connected via PCI Express based flash controller technology rather than via SATA, is up to 9x faster than a traditional 5400-rpm notebook hard drive and up to 45 per cent faster than the flash storage in the previous-generation MacBook Air. The MacBook Air was first laptop in the world to use this new system that cuts out the SATA middleman.
Our tests showed that the flash storage inside the new MacBook Air makes it possible for the new models to achieve better or identical speedmark 8 results despite the new Haswell processor running at a slower clock speed.
We ran Black Magic’s Disk Speed Test on the MacBook Air 11in and found the read speeds for the new 11-inch model were 667.7 MBps, versus 141.1 MBps on the 2012 11-inch Air’s 64GB of flash storage. Write speeds on the new 11-inch model hit 726.8 MBps, compared to 393.7 MBps on the 2012 Air.
The 2013 11-inch MacBook Air transferred 6GB of files and folders an amazing 50 percent faster than last years model did.
The faster flash also helps to reduce startup times. When it comes to waking from sleep, Apple says that the MacBook Air will wake up in one second.
Is there enough RAM in the MacBook Air?
One sure fire way to speed up a computer is to give it more RAM and one area where many will find the MacBook Air lacking is RAM. These days many of Apple’s Macs come with 8GB RAM as standard. Only the Mac mini, low end MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air offer just 4GB RAM in the off the shelf option.
The 4GB of 1600MHz LPDDR memory as standard on all 2013 MacBook Air models will not be adequate for everyone’s needs. Luckily you can boost this to 8GB for an extra £80. If you can afford to we strongly recommend that you purchase the extra RAM as you won't be able to add it later and a few years down the road your are bound to be wishing you had. It really is a small price to pay to future proof your Mac.
Note that Apple’s other non-upgradable Macs, like the Retina MacBook Pro and 21.5-inch iMacs have 8GB of RAM as standard so in some areas it's already considered the norm. That said, just two years ago the entry-level MacBook Air offered just 2GB RAM.
The MacBook Air graphics
The 2013 MacBook Air also gains thanks to the latest Intel graphics. The integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 replaces the HD Graphics 4000 in last year's model, and our tests showed that the HD Graphics 5000 outperformed the HD Graphics 4000 by 24 percent on the 11-inch models.
In terms of graphics speed the new MacBook Airs showed great improvements. Macworld's lab found that the Intel HD Graphics 5000 in the new system pushed 24 percent more frames per second in Cinebench’s Open GL test and produced an 8 percent higher frame rate in Portal 2.
The smaller screen may prove beneficial in terms of graphic responsiveness as the graphics card has fewer pixels to power.
Faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi
The MacBook Air is Apple's first laptop to offer compatibility with the 802.11ac wireless standard. The new standard, sometimes referred to as 'Gig Wi-Fi' or 5G Wi-Fi, is the successor to 802.11n. 802.11ac promises bandwidth of up to 1.3Gbps. In comparison, 802.11n products provide connections of up to 450Mbps.
However, we have discovered that Apple is actually only using two antenna in the MacBook Air (rather than the three usually required) and as a result you’re only see 867mb/s wireless speeds, depending on your local area network.
To take advantage of this you’ll need an 802.11ac base station. Apple’s new £169 AirPort Extreme feature three-stream 802.11ac with a maximum data rate of 1.3Gbps. Apple has also unveiled two new Time Capsules to support 802.11ac. The 2TB model costs £249. The 3TB Time Capsule is priced at £349. Read our Apple AirPort Time Capsule review here.
MacBook Air screen size
Key to your decision about which MacBook Air model you opt for will be whether you need the extra screen space or if you’d prefer less weight to lug around.
The 13-inch MacBook Air might be the one for you if you are happy to carry 270g extra weight for the sake of a larger screen. If on the other hand you are a commuter or a student, and will be carrying the weight around, every gram will count.
It's a matter of personal taste as to whether the 13 or 11-inch screen is best, we'd advise a visit to an Apple Store to try both out. Unfortunately you won't be able to put one in your backpack in order to judge how heavy it is.
Size aside, the LED screens on the Air are unchanged from the previous models. They aren't Retina Displays like those on the MacBook Pro, so the pixel density is lower but that doesn't make them inferior to the vast majority of laptop screens. One thing to note is that the ratio of screen is different. The 11-inch MacBook Air offers a 16:9 aspect ratio like that of an HDTV - perfect for movies - while the 13-inch version is a standard 16:10 ratio and you may miss the extra height.
If it’s really the screen that matters then it may be worth considering that where the 11-inch Air has a native 1,366x768 screen resolution the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina offers a 2,560x1,600 resolution screen.
Which MacBook Air is fastest?
We tested the base i5 MacBook Airs using Macworld Lab’s Speedmark 8 benchmarks. The 11-inch Air scored 165 to the 13-inch Air’s 166, which is significant as it indicated that Apple no longer sees this as the lower-end option. This score is also 9 percent higher than the 11-inch 2012 model MacBook Air, which had a 1.7GHz i5 and scored 151.
So if you are wondering whether to update last year’s 11-inch model, you will see a great leap in performance.
It’s telling that the 13-inch and 11-inch model were neck and neck in our various speed mark tests, with the 13-inch model edging a head a fraction in some cases, while the 11-inch actually beat the 13-inch by a tiny amount in seven of the 15 tests (including Photoshop and Aperture).
The complete speedmark test results are available here.
Which 11-inch MacBook Air?
There are four Airs to choose from, and there are several upgrade options on configuration. The new 11-inch MacBook Air has caught up with its slightly bigger sibling, which means that the only sacrifice you will make now in choosing the smaller model is the size of the screen and the weight of the device. If you decide to opt for the 11-inch MacBook Air you will also see a saving of £100 for the low-end model and £100 for the high-end model when compared to the 13-inch equivalents. So the decision whether to go with a bigger screen really comes down to £100.
The two 11-inch MacBook Air models ship in 128GB or 256GB storage capacities. Prices have changed slightly from last year.
The entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air stays at £849, while the high-end model is now £100 more than the 2012 model at £1,029.
When you configure your new laptop you can opt for a 512GB SSD for an additional £240, but only with the upper-end 256GB MacBook Air models.
All MacBook Air models run on the 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, with Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz. You can upgrade this at point of purchase to a 1.7GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7 and Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz. This costs £120 for the 128GB models, and £130 for the 256GB Airs.
Where in the case of the 13-inch MacBook Air there may be a decision to be made between choosing the Retina or Pro 13-inch versions, in the case of the 11-inch model there is no real equivalent in terms of laptop. Perhaps the only competition to the 11in MacBook Air is the iPad. You can buy a 128GB iPad for £739 (saving £110) and that has cellular connectivity so you can always be online.
There’s not much difference between the weight of the MacBook Air and an iPad with stand and keyboard, and now that Microsoft Office is available for iPhone we expect that an iPad version won’t be far behind, so bear that in mind.
MacBook Air 11-inch Verdict
Apple hasn’t changed the exterior of the 11-inch MacBook Air, its still lightweight with stylishly slim looks. The real story in the case of the 11-inch model is the speed improvements and coupled with the extended battery life and increased storage, and the addition of 802.11ac Wi-Fi, this year's MacBook Air 11-inch is a huge step forward. This is the first time we would seriously consider the smaller machine as a contender.
Some may find the 128GB of the lower-priced system confining and we'd recommend the upgrade to 8GB of RAM for all users, whatever MacBook Air you choose.