MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) full review

This year's 13in MacBook Air from Apple is not all that different to last year's model, apart from a rather substantial price decrease. The new 13in MacBook Air models now start at £849, rather than £949, so both models are priced below £1,000 for the first time. Where the entry-level, 128GB 13in MacBook Air is now £100 less than it's predecessor, in the case of the 250GB model you can now see a reduction of £130 to place it at £999. Back at the beginning of 2013 the 13in MacBook Air cost £1,400 so this is a sizable discount.

Update: Apple has launched new MacBook Airs for 2015. Read our MacBook Air (11 inch, early 2015) review and MacBook Air (13 inch, early 2015) review for more details. 

These certainly seem more appropriate prices given that the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display starts at £1,099. When the 2013 entry-level 13in MacBook Air was priced at £949, just £150 below the price of the entry-level Retina, it begged the question why anyone would opt for the 13in MacBook Air. This question is now moot as the entry-level 13in MacBook Air has been re-priced at £849, £250 below the price of the Retina MacBook. Read our advice about choosing the best 13in MacBook: MacBook Pro versus MacBook Air.

MacBook Air: Processor

Pricing changes aside, there are some very subtle changes to the spec of the machines. All standard configuration MacBook Air models feature the same Intel 1.4GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, which is 100MHz faster than the 1.3GHz dual-core Core i5 processor found in last year's model.

You can upgrade the processor in the £999 model of the 13in MacBook Air to a 1.7GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7 for £130 – the same processor upgrade offered for the 2013 MacBook Air.

When it comes to raw processor performance, Geekbench 3 indicated an average score of 5400 points for the 13in MacBook Air (2014). We don’t have results from 2013’s model as it was tested with older Geekbench 2. For reference the 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 2014 MBA scored 1.13 points in single-core and 2.57 points in multi-core mode. Cinebench 15 returned results of 97 and 239 points respectively.

It's telling that when comparing a MacBook Pro with Core i5 clocked at 2.6 GHz, and costing £1,499 – offere almost twice the clock speed as the new 1.4 GHz Core i5 in the new 256GB 13in Air (£999), and yet the Air is only around 24 percent slower.

MacBook Air: Spec

As previously, the 2014 MacBook Air models are available in four standard configurations, two with 11.6-inch screens, and two with 13.3-inch screens. The only real differentiators between the MacBook Air models are screen size, the space you have available for storage (either 128GB or 256GB of PCIe-connected flash) weight, price and battery life. A few years ago the 13in MacBook Air was a more powerful model than the 11in MacBook Air, but this is no longer the case. The key difference now is, perhaps, the longer battery life offered by the 13in model, due to the fact that it can accommodate a larger battery.

Like last year's model, the new MacBook Air offers 4GB of DDR3 memory as standard (you can upgrade at point of sale), Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics, and the 128GB or 256GB SSD mentioned above.

Wondering which MacBook Air is best? Read our advice for choosing between the 11-inch and 13-inch 2014 MacBook Air here. You can read our review of the 2014 11in MacBook Air models here.

MacBook Air: Screen

Despite the predictions of analysts, the new MacBook Air models do not feature a Retina display. The 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch displays maintain the same resolutions as in 2013, 1440-by-900 for the 13in and 1366-by-768 for the 11in model. Read the rumours about the MacBook Air with Retina display here.

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. But like the 11-inch version of the 2014 MacBook Air, this panel stands out as perhaps the poorest performing display on any current Apple product.

We used a Datacolor Spyder4Elite display calibrator to test and measured just 63 percent of the sRGB colour gamut. 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.

We found that viewing angles for this twisted-nematic (TN) glossy panel were 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 Datacolor calibrator, to gain an idea of the display’s contrast quality. We recorded at the display’s highest peak output of 308 cd/m2 and discoverd contrast ratio was 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 poor 8.39, with the highest deviation of 13.75 coming from the test’s ‘3E’ swatch (lilac tone).

This is all quite disappointing, but while a Retina display for the MacBook Air would be nice, it's probably not essential for the majority of users. Anyone who would benefit from the extra pixels can upgrade to the MacBook Pro with Retina display but beware that there will be a sacrifice in battery life. Read our Retina MacBook Pro reviews here

You can always plug in an external display and use your MacBook Air with that when you are at your desk.

MacBook Air: Size & Weight

Both MacBook Air models still boast the incredibly thin 0.3-1.7cm unibody design.

Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air still measures 32.5cm wide and 22.7cm deep and weighs 1.35kg. 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 compared to your desire for a lighter laptop. The 11-inch MacBook Air weighs just 1.08kg, 270g less.

If the decision is between the 13in MacBook Air and 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display (1.57kg) then the weight difference is 220g.

5 reasons not to buy a MacBook Air...

MacBook Air: Storage options

Storage is the same as the 2013 models: both MacBook Air sizes are available with a choice of 128GB or 256GB Flash Storage, as last year. In 2013 it was possible to configure a 512GB Flash Storage option when you buy the MacBook Air for an additional £240, and this hasn't changed.

Since the MacBook Air cannot be updated at a later date you need to decide whether to fork out the extra for the additional storage when you buy the machine.

When Apple introduced the 2013 MacBook Air it boasted that the Flash storage was, at the time it was introduced, much faster flash storage than any other Mac. Apple claims this PCIe flash storage is up to 9x faster than a traditional 5400-rpm notebook hard drive. However, as you will see from our benchmark results below, the storage in the 2014 models does appear to be slightly inferior to last year's offering.

Earlier performance tests, including those by our sister title Macworld US, of this year’s MacBook Air series (Early 2014) have suggested it may be slower overall than last year’s (Mid-2013) models. While processor performance is demonstrably slightly improved, the overall system score can be brought down by slower flash storage in comparison between the two generations.

Our Macworld UK tests suggest that it’s not so much 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 - the two MacBook Air models we tested used Flash storage from different manufacturers.

Both the 13-inch and the 11-inch MacBook Air models we tested featured a 256GB flash drive and turned in broadly similar numbers to the 11-inch Air, but with important differences.

We used 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 13-inch MacBook Air averaged at 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. (For context, the best SATA SSDs fitted to state-of-the-art desktop PCs will peak at around 550 MB/s.)

Down at the smallest file sizes, random reads from 4-1024 kB averaged 157 MB/s, and random writes averaged to 158 MB/s.

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 MBA 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 SanDisk (part code APPLE SSD SD0256F).

These drives showed different transfer characteristics. In tests, the SanDisk in the 13in model 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.

[Read about the difference between a traditional hard drive and an SSD drive here.]

Despite the issue with different drives from different manufacturers, the internal flash drive in this and the last generation of MacBook Pro offers 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.

It's worth noting that 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.

MacBook Air: RAM

Each model of MacBook Air features 4GB RAM, as in 2013, and, as in 2013, you can boost this to 8GB for an extra £80. We recommend you do so if you use the kind of software that benefits from a healthy dose of RAM.

Like last year’s model, RAM is not user upgradable, so if you think you might need more than 4GB, be sure to order your MacBook Air with the additional memory.

MacBook Air: Graphics

The new models use the same integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 as the 2013 MacBook Air. When that model launched we were impressed by the improved graphics performance compared to the previous generation. As far as we understand this year's graphics processor is using the same clock speeds (200-1000 MHz) as last year's. These graphics processors dip into the system RAM for their memory, 256 MB-worth from the machine’s 4GB quota. Since the RAM spec has unchanged we wouldn’t expect much gain in graphics performance for the Early 2014 model.

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.

In our tests using the 11.5 and 13 versions of Cinebench, the 13in MacBook Air returned framerates of 23.5 and 18.8 frames per second (fps) respectively.

In Macworld US's graphics tests the new 13in MacBook Air scored higher than last year's model. They tested with Cinebench 11.5 and 15 benchmark software (which tests graphics performance, as applied in rendering animated scenes through OpenGL).

Our tests with Unigine Heaven saw an average framerate of 15.4 fps on the 13in MacBook Air 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 21.8 fps. Dropping slightly to 1280 x 800 and Medium brought some benefit, rising slightly to 26.4 fps. And with a minimum dip at just 12.8 fps we would suggest the graphics performance of the Early 2014 MBA is insufficient to play this game well.

Batman: Arkham City came off little better, able to average 24 fps at Medium and 23 fps 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 29 fps and with a 11 fps minimum.

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.

MacBook Air: Ports

When it comes to ports the 13in MacBook Air models has on up on the 11in model - only the 13in model offers an SDXD card for quickly reading the memory card from your camera. If you are a keen photographer this may be a reason to opt for the bigger model, although you could plug in a SD card reader of your own.

Apart from that, the 11 and 13in models have same number and types of connections: two USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt port (not Thunderbolt 2), a MagSafe 2 power port, and an audio in/out combo jack.

There’s no DVD drive on either model, so you may want to invest in a separate Apple USB SuperDrive for £65.

Read about some alternatives to the SuperDrive here. 

MacBook Air: Battery tests

Inside the 13in MacBook Air is a 54 Wh lithium-polymer battery, that's the same energy capacity as last year’s model. Therefore it's not surprising that the longer battery life that the Haswell processor made possible in the 2013 MacBook Air models continues unabated.

Apple claims that the 13-inch MacBook Air offers battery life that will last a full working day, but that's the same 12-hours it boasted for the 13in MacBook Air last year. Apple also claims that the 11-inch MacBook Air offers up to 9 hours of battery life - also the same as the 2013 model.

However, Apple claims that iTunes movie playback times increase to 12 hours on the 13-inch laptop and 9 hours on the 11-inch MacBook Air, which is an additional two hours of playback time compared to last year's MacBook Air models, according to the company's tests.

We used out standard looped-video rundown test to see how long the MacBook Air (13-inch, Early 2014) would run on one full charge. 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 laptop sustained 12 hours 38 min of playback before expiring. That’s a very impressive figure, even longer than the 11-inch model’s endurance of just over 10 hours in the same test.

In Macworld US's lab tests (which involved looping a movie file in iTunes at 200 CD/m2 brightness with Wi-Fi off and the keyboard dimmed) the new 13in MacBook Air achieved - 12 hours and 13 minutes of battery life, compared to the 11 hours 50 minutes on last year's model. The 11in model managed 9 hours and 39 minutes this year, compared to 9 hours 19 minutes last year.

We had wondered whether OS X Mavericks would allow Apple to boast a longer batter life – Mavericks launched after the new MacBook Airs were introduced last year and Apple boasted that Mavericks could improve battery life.

MacBook Air benchmarks: speed tests

We tested the £999 13in MacBook Air (with 256GB storage) using Macworld's Speedmark 9 performance benchmark suite.  We also tested the 11in model with 125GB storage and compared both new models to 11in and 13in models of last year's MacBook Air. 

The faster processor certainly helped, in some tests, but we were disappointed that the new MacBook Air didn't perform quite as well in some of our speedtests as last year's models, more on that in the section below.

But, in the following tests the newer models outperformed the 2013 versions, although often by only a few seconds.

The new 13in MacBook Air with 256GB storage performed better than the last generation, and the 11in version of the 2014 MacBook Air with 128GB storage, in our tests for iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, Handbrake, and Aperture.

In our Photoshop and Cinebench CPU tests both the 13in and 11in models returned the same score, and in the MathematicaMark 9, and the PCMark 8’s Office application test running on a virtual machine in Parallels, and Unigine Heaven and Valley GPU benchmark tests the 11in MacBook Air actually scored higher than the new 13in model with higher capacity storage.

The new models were beat by the 2013 13in model in the Cinebench R15 test. 

MacBook Air benchmarks: storage performance tests

It seems that it's the flash storage in these new models that is letting them down, however. Our storage performance tests showed the flash storage in these new systems to be slower than last year’s.

Our storage performance tests showed the new flash storage was slow enough to drag down the overall Speedmark score of these new models, despite the faster processors found in this year's models.

For example, copying 6GB of files and folders took 34.8 seconds on the 2013 13-inch MacBook Air, and 38.6 seconds seconds on this year’s 13-inch model. We should note that the 13in MacBook Air from 2013 that we were testing against had 128GB of storage and lower capacity solid-state storage drives are often slower performers, and yet this year's model turned out to be slower.

Compressing a 6GB folder took just over 38 seconds longer on the new 13in MacBook Air and Unzipping took 39.6 seconds longer on the 2014 model when compared to last year’s 13-inch MacBook Air.

Even with a simplified 6GB data set, the 2014 13-inch MacBook Air was still the slowest in our copy, compress and uncompress tests; it was x percent slower than the 2013 13-inch 128GB MacBook Air when copying files, and x percent slower when uncompressing the files. Zipping the files was just x percent slower though.

We ran Blackmagic Design's Disk Speed Test, which showed the flash storage in the new models running slower than the same capacities in the previous generation. The 2014 MacBook Air with 128GB SSD averaged 306 MBps while writing and 620 MBps while reading, while the 2013 MacBook Air with 128GB of flash storage averaged 445 MBps while writing data and 725 MBps while reading.

The 2014 MacBook with 256GB SSD averaged 520 MBps writing and 676 MBps reading, compared to the same capacity model last year which averaged 687 MBps writing and 725 MBps reading.

Running Disk Utility indicated that the four drives in the models we were testing were different, two from Samsung, one from Toshiba and one from SanDisk. Perhaps Apple compromised on the SSD in order to keep the price down.

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