MacBook Air review (13in, 2013)

If you are trying to decide whether to go for an 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook it will all come down to how much you need the extra screen real estate.

Both MacBooks feature the same full-size, backlit keyboard, and both have a large multi-touch trackpad – although the 13-inch version is slightly taller. Both feature two USB 3.0 slots and one for Thunderbolt devices. The 13-inch model is the only MacBook Air with an SDXC card slot, making it a better choice for photographers. There’s no DVD drive on either model, so you may want to invest in a separate Apple USB SuperDrive for £65.

The 2013 MacBook Air 13-inch looks exactly the same as last year's model. It features the same super-slim, lightweight design and if you are looking for a slim, lightweight laptop the MacBook Air is still the best around, although obviously it's smaller sibling is even lighter.

There are four different machines available, but aside from screen size, the specs are pretty similar. In fact in our tests just one Speedmark point separated the 13-inch and 11-inch models in our tests and performance was practically identical. You can read our advice about Which MacBook Air to buy here.

This review focuses on the 13-inch MacBook Air.  You can read our review of the 11-inch MacBook Air here and ourMacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review here

Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air measures 32.5cm wide and 22.7cm deep and weighs 1.55kg. The screen's diameter is actually slightly larger than 13in at 13.3in from corner to corner.

There is one tiny external difference that may be useful to know if you want to make sure you are buying the newest model - 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 helps with noise cancellation, improving audio quality recorded using the new model. The reason we mention this is that some stores will be discounting the older model so don't be taken in if it looks like they have cut prices on the current model – in fact you may be interested in picking up an older refurbished model from Apple, right now you can pick up a 2012 13-inch with a 1.8GHz i5 for £719.

The real changes between the 2012 and 2013 MacBook Air are under the hood, however. On the inside the 2013 MacBook Air features the new Intel Core Haswell processor, rather than the Ivy Bridge chip of last year.

1.3GHz Haswell processor vs 1.8GHz Ivy Bridge 

Many have noticed that the Haswell processors in the new MacBook Airs run at a slower clock speed than the Ivy Bridge processors found in the 2012 models and presumed that the new machines are slower.

However, Macworld's tests show that the 2012 13-inch, 1.8GHz Ivy Bridge MacBook Air was faster than the 2013 13-inch, 1.3GHz Haswell MacBook Air in 8 of 14 tests. That said, the 2012 model beat the 2013 model in the following tests: folder compression, iMovie, iPhoto, Photoshop, Aperture and MathematicaMark 7.

Despite the difference in processor speeds between the two generaitons, the faster graphics and faster flash storage in the newer MacBook Air was enough to result in the two generations earning identical Speedmark 8 scores.

Note that the difference between the 2012 and 2013 11-inch model is more marked than the difference between the 13-inch models, with the 11-inch MacBook Air jumping 9 percent in its Speedmark score to almost equal that of the 13-inch model.

This indication that the fact that the new 1.3GHz Haswell chip matches the old 1.8GHz Ivy Bridge proves the enhancement in the new processor.

It is also possible to opt for a faster processor 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.

There are concerns that the 1.7GHz Core i7 processor may affect battery life on the MacBook Air, however.

The new Haswell processor requires less power than the Ivy Bridge processor found in last year's MacBook Air, as a result Apple has been able boost the battery life in the new model (more on battery life below).

MacBook Air all-day battery

The big news is the longer battery life that the Haswell processor makes possible, and for many longer battery life will be at the top of their wish list. Many laptop owners are frustrated that they don’t get adequate battery life from their portable, and the popularity of the iPad with its 10-hour battery has lead many to start to expect the same of their laptop.

With the new MacBook Air Apple has aimed its sights on this problem.

Apple claims that the 13-inch MacBook Air offers battery life that will last a full working day. That's 12-hours for the new MacBook Air compared to seven hours for last year's machine. Does the MacBook Air match Apple's battery life claims?

In our testing in the Macworld Lab didn't quite replicate Apple's battery life claims. This is because we run slightly different tests to assess battery life. We 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 battery in the new MacBook Air lasts much, much better than before.

In our tests the new 13-inch standard configuration MacBook Air lasted 8 hours and 18 minutes, that's 36 percent longer than the new 11-inch MacBook Air (reviewed here), and 65 percent longer than last year’s 13-inch MacBook Air.

Compared to the 2013 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, the 13-inch MacBook Air lasted 75 percent longer.

In our sister title PC Advisor's battery tests the new MacBook Air models were found to have battery life that was even better than that claimed by Apple. According to PCA's MobileMark 2007 Productivity Test the MacBook Air ran for an amazing 13 hours and 57 minutes.

Of course battery tests tend to focus on certain usage scenarios and your experience may vary depending on what you use the Mac for. 

UPDATE: How does the MacBook Air compare to the new MacBook Pro with Retina display. Watch this video to find out more. 

Is there enough storage in the MacBook Air?

The MacBook Air is available with a choice of 128GB or 256GB Flash Storage. Some people will have no problem fitting their necessary onboard data within the 128GB capacity of the two lower-end models. However, there will be plenty of people with every increasing photo and media libraries who are concerned that even 256GB isn't enough storage for their needs.

All is not lost, however: 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. 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 them from anywhere. 

Alternatively the regular MacBook Pro (without Retina display) offers 750GB storage or a 1TB build-to-order option on the 15-inch MacBook Pro model. 

Fast Flash storage

Concerns about whether there is enough storage for your needs may fade into obscurity once you realise the benefits of the new flash storage Apple is using in this Mac – also referred to as SSD.

The 2013 MacBook Air models offer much faster flash storage than any other Mac. Apple claims this next-generation PCIe flash storage 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. Prior to this, SATA could be a bottleneck, as NAND flash memory chips are now faster than the SATA 6Gb/s bus can allow. Bypassing SATA means that flash-based SSDs can breathe more freely. With SATA, SSD was capped at around 550 MB/s. Without SATA, SSD could hit 800 MB/s. All this adds up to a big change in speed – and Apple actually couples two PCIe 2.0 lanes for the SSD, which should allow up to 1000 MB/s, in each direction simultaneously.

This also potentially improves battery economy, as there is one less power-hungry chip sitting on the logic board.

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.

The 2013 13-inch MacBook Air transferred 6GB of files and folders 25 percent faster than last years model did.

The faster flash also helps to reduce startup times. The new 13-inch Air took around 14 seconds to start up, versus 18 seconds for last year’s model.

When it comes to waking from sleep, Apple says that the MacBook Air will wake up in one second.

For more information on the differences between a Flash or SSD verses a HDD hard drive read our which is the best storage to have in a Mac feature.

Not enough RAM

If you use the kind of software that benefits from a healthy dose of RAM, you may find the MacBook Air lacking. Apple’s other Macs, like the Retina MacBook Pro and 21.5-inch iMacs offer 8GB of RAM as standard, and in some areas it's already considered the norm. In contrast, there is just 4GB of 1600MHz LPDDR memory as standard on all MacBook Air models and for some this will not be adequate for their 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.

Wondering what might become the norm in the future? The new Mac Pro when it launches later this year will get up to 128GB RAM, twice as much as the current Mac Pro (now off-sale in Europe). OS X Mavericks, when it launches, will support 128GB RAM. 

The MacBook Air graphics

Another boost to the 2013 MacBook Air comes in the shape of the latest Intel graphics. The integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 rather than the HD Graphics 4000 in last year's model, and our tests showed that the HD Graphics 5000 outperformed the HD Graphics 4000 by 30 percent on the new 13-inch MacBook Air.

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.

If graphics are of primary importance the 15-inch MacBook Retina model may be more suitable with its additional NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M card. 

Faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi

The MacBook Air is Apple's first laptop to offer compatibility with the 802.11ac wireless standard. The first wireless routers supporting the upcoming standard of 802.11ac first appeared at the end of last year.

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 1.3Gb/s. In comparison, 802.11n products provide connections of up to 450Mb/s.

However, while Apple is using the Broadcom BCM 4360 three-stream capable processor for ac wireless, it is only using two antennae, so the fastest wireless speeds you'll see is 867Mb/s

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

As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, a decision about which MacBook Air to go for is likely to boil down to 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. Then again, a 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina weighs 2kg, compared to 1.35kg: if it's screen size that is important, maybe 15-inches is what you need.

On the subject of the Retina MacBook Pro, note that the MacBook Air screens aren't Retina Displays, so the pixel density is lower. However, that doesn't make the LED screens on the Air inferior to the vast majority of laptop screens.

The 13-inch Air has a native 1,440-x-900 screen resolution compared to the 2,560-by-1,600 resolution on the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina. A superior Retina screen will cost you another £120 on top of the price of the high end MacBook Air if you opted for the entry-level MacBook Pro with Retina.

There is also a difference in the depth of the screen options on the two versions of the MacBook Air. The 13-inch offers a typical 16:10 aspect ratio, compared to the 16:9 aspect ratio on the MacBook Air 11-inch (the same an HDTV).

It's a matter of personal taste as to whether the 13in or 11in screen is best, we'd advise a visit to an Apple Store to try both out. Unfortunately we don't think it will go down well if you put one in your backpack in order to judge how heavy it is.

MacBook Air speed tests

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. This score is identical to the 13-inch 2012 model MacBook Air, which had a 1.8GHz i5.

The new Airs didn’t win all the speed tests. As mentioned above, Macworld Lab tests found the older system was faster in eight of the 15 tests, including our iMovie export, which was 34 percent faster on the older 13-inch.

However, the new 13-inch model was faster in seven of the tests, with 30 percent faster frame rates in Cinebench’s Open GL test and a 28 percent faster file copy result.

When we compared the new 13-inch MacBook Air with the current 13-inch 2.6GHz core i5 dual core Ivy Bridge Retina MacBook Pro, the Pro earned a 14 percent faster Speedmark score. In the individual application tests, the Retina MacBook Pro was faster across the board – with the exception of graphics and storage speeds.

However, the new 13-inch MacBook Air’s Intel HD Graphics 5000 was 31 percent faster in the Cinebench OpenGL test and 14 percent faster in Portal 2 than the Intel Graphics 4000 in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The new Air was also 24 percent faster in our file copy test.

Which 13-inch MacBook Air?

There are four Airs to choose from, and there are several upgrade options on configuration.

The two 13-inch MacBook Air models ship in 128GB or 256GB storage capacities. Prices have changed slightly from last year. The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air is now £50 less at £949, while the high-end model remains the is now £70 more at £1,129.

You may also want to note that the 128GB 13-inch MacBook Air now costs £50 less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro (non Retina) while the 256GB 13-inch Air now costs £120 less than the entry-level 13-inch 128GB MacBook Pro with Retina display.

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.

The verdict on the 2013 MacBook Air 13-inch 

Apple hasn’t changed the exterior of the 13-inch MacBook Air, and that’s no bad thing because we love its lightweight, stylishly slim looks. The real story is in the extended battery life, which laptop users are going to love. Storage is increased in both size and performance, and the addition of 802.11ac Wi-Fi is another huge step forward.

Some may find the 128GB of the lower-priced system confining and we'd recommend the upgrade to 8GB of RAM for all users.

If it's power you need you may want to look to the MacBook Pro with Retina display range which are still ahead in terms of our Speedmark scores, although we expect that Apple will soon update these models.

We also have a review of the 2013 MacBook Air range here. 

OUR VERDICT

Apple hasn’t changed the exterior of the 13-inch MacBook Air, and that’s no bad thing because we love its lightweight, stylishly slim looks. The real story is in the extended battery life, which laptop users are going to love. Storage is increased in both size and performance, and the addition of 802.11ac Wi-Fi is another huge step forward. Some may find the 128GB of the lower-priced system confining and we'd recommend the upgrade to 8GB of RAM for all users. If it's power you need you may want to look to the MacBook Pro with Retina display range which are still ahead in terms of our Speedmark scores, although we expect that Apple will soon update these models.

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