MacBook Air (2013) review: we test both the MacBook Air models

Apple's 2013 MacBook Air is still the best-looking, slim, lightweight laptop out there, and now it boasts amazing battery life, faster storage and the latest Wi-Fi.

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Pros

  • Stylish
  • super-slim
  • lightweight Mac laptop with amazing battery life

Cons

  • Fewer slots than MacBook Pro

MacBook Air (2013) review

Apple MacBook Air 2013 11in and 13in

Apple’s 2013 MacBook Air looks identical to the 2012 MacBook Air and scores closely in our speed tests. So what’s different about the new MacBook Air laptops? [Updated June 19, 2013: further MacBook Air battery tests. Updated July 4, 2013: i7 processor models tested.]

Read our individual review of the MacBook Air 2013 11-inch (with video) and our review of the 13-inch MacBook Air hereFor advice about Which MacBook Air to buy click here or read our MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review.

Inside is where Apple has been busy – swapping Intel Ivy Bridge chips for the new, fourth-generation Intel Core Haswell processor.

The Haswell MacBook Air’s big news is much longer battery life, as well as improved wireless network (based on the 802.11ac wireless standard), better graphics (via integrated ) and energy efficiency improvements.

The promise of battery life that will last a full working day is going to be the saving of the laptop – under intense threat from Apple’s own iPad tablet.

From the outside the new MacBook Air hasn’t changed much from the previous model. It’s still the same super-slim, lightweight, stylish laptop in a cool wedge of aluminium.

[Related: MacBook Air 2013 speed tests: how much faster is the Haswell model?Apple launches new MacBook Air with battery improvements, Haswell | New MacBook Air release date and UK pricing | New MacBook Air 'just as tough to repair & upgrade as last year's model']

Not sure which Mac to buy? Read our Which Mac buyers guide

2013 new MacBook Air: Specs, prices and upgrades

As before, the MacBook Air comes in 11-inch (actually 11.6-inch) and 13-inch (13.3-inch) models. With 128GB and 256GB storage options there are four Airs to choose from, and there are several upgrade options on configuration. We tested the base models of each (i5 processor; 4GB RAM; 128GB flash storage) and ultimate models (i7 processor; 8GB RAM; 512GB storage).

11-inch MacBook Air 2013

The entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air starts at £849 (inc VAT) with a 128GB SSD. An SSD is a Solid State Drive – flash storage that is much faster than old-style whirring hard drives. More on these later.

Previously the cheapest MacBook Air shipped with a meager 64GB drive so this new Air represents a big plus in storage.

The 11-inch MacBook Air with 256GB SSD costs £1,029.

13-inch MacBook Air 2013

The 13-inch MacBook Air also ships in 128GB and 256GB storage capacities, costing £949 and £1,129 respectively.

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 Airs (both 11- and 13-inch).

If you want a slim, lightweight laptop the MacBook Air is the best around. The 13-inch model is 32.5cm wide and 22.7cm deep, while the 11-inch Air is just 30cm wide and 19.2cm deep. The 13-inch Air weighs 1.35kg, with the 11-inch version weighing just 1.08kg.

Choosing the best MacBook Air for you will come down to screen size vs portability. Get yourself down to an Apple Store or local reseller to see if you can live with the smaller screen. You might decide the 13-inch Air offers more valuable screen space for that 0.27kg weight difference.

As you'll read below speed differences are minimal so Apple has made it a fairly easy choice when picking out the right Mac laptop for you.

MacBook Air 2013 laptop

Even the 11-inch Air features a full-size, backlit keyboard, and both have the wonderful, large multi-touch trackpad.

The LED screens on the Air are unchanged from the previous models. They aren't Retina Displays like you get with the MacBook Pro, so the pixel density is lower but that doesn't make them inferior to the vast majority of laptop screens.  The 11-inch Air supports a native 1,366-x-768 resolution. The 13-inch Air has a native 1,440-x-900 screen resolution.

The new MacBook Air models also support dual displays and video mirroring alongside full native resolution on the built-in display.

All models boast the onboard 720p FaceTime HD camera.

11-inch MacBook Air ports

Above: Apple MacBook Air, 11-inch model

Below: Apple MacBook Air, 13-inch model

13-inch MacBook Air ports

Both Airs have two USB 3.0 slots and one Thunderbolt. The 13-inch model also has an SDXC card slot.

As with all MacBook Airs – and all new Mac computers – there’s no DVD drive, so you may want to invest in an separate Apple USB SuperDrive for £65.

There is one tiny external difference between the 2012 and 2013 MacBook Airs. The 2013 Air now has two microphones, compared to one previously.

2013 new MacBook Air: Speed tests

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.

Hyper-Threading is supported on the i5 processors, allowing multi-threaded applications to address four virtual processing cores on these dual core systems.

4GB of 1600MHz LPDDR memory is standard on all models. You can boost this to 8GB for an extra £80. While 4GB might be enough for most, if you can affrod the extra then doing so on purchase is wise as you can't do it later – the memory is not user upgradeable.

The Ultimate (Configure-To-Order) models we tested would cost £1,479 (11-inch) and £1,579 (13-inch).

Each model uses Intel’s new HD Graphics 5000 integrated graphics, 40 percent faster than the previous Graphics 4000.

Because so much of the engine is the same there’s little to differentiate the new models in terms of overall performance.

Apple MacBook Air 2013 Speed Tests

Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, Albert Filice and Jeff Sandstoe. For more detailed application benchmarks for the standard models see the Macworld Lab article. For the Configure-To-Order model detailed speed test benchmarks, see here.

We tested the base i5 (fitted with 4GB of RAM, and 128GB flash storage) and i7 (further upgraded to 8GB RAM, and storage increased to 512GB) MacBook Airs using Macworld Lab’s Speedmark 8 benchmarks.

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

The new i5 Airs didn’t win all the speed tests. 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. 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.

The one big speed improvement we noticed was in the 11-inch i5 2013 model versus its 9% slower 2012 equivalent.

In terms of graphics speed the new MacBook Airs showed great improvements. 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.

We also tested the Configure-To-Order (CTO) MacBook Air models packing the i7 processor and 8GB of RAM – compared to the standard i5 processor and 4GB of RAM. As expected the 11-inch and 13-inch i7 models scored almost the same - the 11-inch is very marginally faster but nothing noticeable.

The CTO 11-inch MacBook Air is 24 percent faster overall than the stock 2013 11-inch model we tested. Photoshop tests finished 17 percent faster with the CTO Air. iPhoto and Aperture were 25 percent faster and the PCMark productivity suite was 31 percent faster running under VMWare Fusion than the stock 11-inch 256GB MacBook Air.

The CTO 13-inch MacBook Air is 23 percent faster overall than the stock 13-inch model. The CTO Air was faster in every test, with 24 percent faster times in our Handbrake, Aperture and file decompression tests.

Compared to last year’s stock 11-inch MacBook Air (1.7GHz i5 Ivy Bridge processor) the Haswell-based CTO 11-inch MacBook Air is 36 percent faster overall thanks to the new model's faster integrated Intel HD 5000 graphics and faster flash storage.

Both the CTO 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air models are 8 percent faster overall than the 2013 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, again due to the MacBook Air’s faster graphics and flash storage. (The Retina MacBook Pro was faster in a number of tests, including Handbrake, Cinebench CPU, iMovie import and iMovie export tests.)

2013 new MacBook Air: Improved battery life

All laptop owners would say that they don’t get enough battery life out of their portable. With the new MacBook Air Apple has aimed its sights on this very problem.

Apple claims that the 11in MacBook Air has nearly doubled from a five-hour battery life to a nine-hour battery life. Apple says that the 13in MacBook Air goes from seven hours to 12 hours of battery life.

Apple MacBook Air Battery Test Results

And with the Configure-To-Order Ultimate MacBook Air models:

MacBook Air Battery Test results 2013

Macworld Lab (testing by James Galbraith and Jeff Sandstoe) doesn't quite replicate Apple's battery life claims, and we can't accurately verify them as the company doesn't specify the criteria of its own testing. Apple states “wireless web” and “iTunes movie playback” when qualifying its battery life numbers.

To test battery life, Macworld Lab ran two different tests on the new models, last year’s models, and a 2013 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro – see results above.

In both tests we set the brightness to maximum and made sure that automatic brightness adjustment was off, backlit keyboards were off, and Screen Saver was set to never start.

It's clear, however, that the new MacBook Air’s battery life is bigger and much, much better than before.

In the first test we looped a movie clip in full-screen mode with Wi-Fi disabled. The new 11-inch MacBook Air lasted 6 hours and 6 minutes, compared to just 3 hours and 34 minutes for the 2012 model.

The new 13-inch standard configuration MacBook Air lasted 8 hours and 18 minutes, 36 percent longer than the new 11-inch MacBook Air, and 65 percent longer than last year’s 13-inch MacBook Air.

As with the battery tests of the standard 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air and the CTO 13-inch MacBook Air, the 11-inch systems (with lower battery capacity) don’t last as long on a single charge as the 13-inch models. While the new 13-inch MacBook Airs were able to last over 8 hours in our movie playback test, the 11-inch models last just over 6 hours. The CTO systems’ battery results were very similar in the video playback tests to the stock MacBook Airs.

We saw a bigger difference in our battery tests using the Peacekeeper benchmark, a very demanding test. The CTO 11-inch MacBook Air lasted just 3 hours and 28 minutes, compared to 4 hours and 5 minutes for the stock 11-inch MacBook Air.

Compared to a 2013 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, the 13-inch MacBook Air lasted 75 percent longer. See Macworld.com's article for fuller battery-test results.

Battery tests are difficult to replicate exactly. In contrast to the Macworld Lab results PC Advisor tested the new MacBook Air models battery life and surpassed Apple's claims. The runtime in its MobileMark 2007 Productivity Test was actually 837 minutes, which is 13 hours and 57 minutes.

2013 new MacBook Air: Power savings

The new MacBook Air is designed for power savings, and boasts more energy-efficient Intel Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs. These chips have a slower clock speed to save energy, but can still deliver 40 per cent faster graphics performance, claims Apple. And our speed tests prove that there’s no overall loss in performance.

Apple has enhanced the Air’s low-power settings, too. The new MacBook Air can be left on standby for up to 30 days, and Apple says it will still wake up in one second – fast enough for even the most impatient road warrior.

MacBook Air models 2013

2013 new MacBook Air: Faster Flash storage

The larger, faster flash storage in the new MacBook Air transferred 6GB of files and folders 51 percent faster than last year’s Air. Macworld Lab ran Black Magic’s Disk Speed Test on the two systems and found the read speeds for the new 11-inch model were 667.7MBps, versus 141.1MBps on the older 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.

2013 new MacBook Air: Wi-fi

The new MacBook Air models are compatible with the latest 802.11ac wireless networking, which is said to be three times faster than previous standards.

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 mdoel costs £249. The 3TB Time Capsule is priced at £349.

Apple MacBook Air 2013 open slim

OUR VERDICT

Apple hasn’t changed the exterior of the MacBook Air, and that’s no bad thing because we’re all rather in love with its lightweight, stylishly slim looks. The real story is in the extended battery life, which laptop users are going to love. It might even lure back a few iPad users, too. Storage is increased in both size and performance, and the addition of 802.11ac wi-fi is another huge step forward. Your choice of which MacBook Air comes down to screen size. If you want ultimate portability in a laptop rather than an iPad the 11-inch Air is light enough for you not to notice in your hand luggage. The 13-inch offers that extra screen space if you don't mind the larger body and increased weight (0.27kg difference). Then it's down to storage and memory. If you can afford it upgrade now rather than regret it later.

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