Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (2013) review

With palms resting on the slick and familiar deck of the 2013 MacBook Air, it's with some trepidation that we look to review Apple's latest version of its iconic notebook computer.

The MacBook Air launched as the lightweight alternative to the MacBook. There were, perhaps, flaws in its concept, if not in its physical form. We didn't like the first edition, we felt that the world wasn't really ready for Apple's vision, but a lot has changed, as has the rest of the market.

That sees the MacBook Air updating in 2013 facing stronger competition than ever before. Apple no longer sees this as the lightweight alternative, moreover, the MacBook Air is now pitched as a computer you can use every day, and in this latest version, all day.

But facing this latest Air is a reinvigorated run of Ultrabooks and slim and light notebooks, with a driven vision to bring the sexy back to Windows PCs. Faced with models like the cheaper, but hugely impressive, Sony Vaio Pro, can the MacBook Air still fight its corner?

Design

The MacBook Air design hasn't changed substantially since 2010 and in 2013, it's a familiar sight. It is, perhaps, the de facto image of thin and light, a design that others imitate but want to differentiate from. That is, perhaps, testament to how well designed the MacBook Air is, because it has stood the test of time, in terms of notebook design at least.

What that means is you have the luxurious aluminium wedge design, only 17mm thick at the back tapering into that distinctive thin leading edge. It's a design that works well, giving a great position for setting your fingers on the palm rests, using the keyboard and excellent trackpad. It is compact, lightweight, but gives you plenty of space to work.

It weighs in at 1.35kg, making it a great choice for those who have to carry a notebook around all day and it's a pleasure to use whether planted on your lap or sitting on a desk or table. Despite the slim build, however, there's precision in its execution. The MacBook Air balances perfectly, so you can rest it on your legs without the screen causing it to topple over. You can open the lid without the base lifting and dropping back down with a bang. Little details, but details that matter.

But none of this has changed from the previous models of the MacBook Air. Some might even say that the MacBook Air was due a little something to bring it a refresh, but as the adage goes, if it ain't broken, then don't fix it, and we're perfectly happy with what we find here in 2013. Sure, the inclusion of an Ethernet port would be great... but we've got the message that that's just not going to happen.

All change please

It's under the skin that the MacBook Air has seen more substantial changes. Although the performance of the 2012 MacBook Air was very commendable, certainly good enough for the majority of daily computing needs, it's the performance gains brought by the fourth-generation Intel Core chipsets that Apple has included in 2013 that will get your attention.

Our review model is fitted with the 1.3GHz Intel Core i5, with 4GB of RAM. The new Intel architecture in the fourth-generation chipsets is designed to be more efficient with power, which it certainly is. On the flipside of the equation, you don't lose out on processing power, as OS X Mountain Lion runs nice and smoothly.

In real terms, the big difference you notice in the 2013 MacBook Air is the battery life. Apple say it will give you 12 hours of web use, or 10 hours of iTunes movie watching on this 13-inch model. That's not how you use a laptop in the real world, but it's true that this new Haswell-based MacBook Air offers very impressive battery life.

We've used the MacBook Air in various conditions, typically mixed use across the days we've had this review sample and it will deliver on that all-day promise. Getting through 8 hours' use is possible, but of course, if you are driving it hard, like all battery-powered devices, you'll see the endurance reflect this. We'll continue to use the MacBook Air over the coming weeks and update this review as we test it more.

The new MacBook Air also carries a higher capacity battery too, as shown in iFixit's teardown, which reveals that it has a 7150mAh cell over the 6700mAh of last year, this again, contributes to the better performance.

It's worth a side note at this point on Apple's next iteration of operating system, OS X Mavericks. We've seen Mavericks in the flesh and again there's an emphasis on efficiency and battery life. Although the new OS isn't due out until later in 2013, the prospect of extending the life of the MacBook Air even further with new software optimisations is pretty exciting. The MacBook Air is shaping up to be something of a workhorse.

READ: OS X Mavericks: Everything you need to know

As well as bringing you more efficiency, Intel's new hardware also has a new on-board graphics solution in the Intel HD Graphics 5000. It's more powerful than the previous generation, so those applications dependent on it run faster. You'll spend less time waiting and more time doing, something that's again helped by faster SSD drives, with faster reading and writing speeds.

The net result is that the MacBook Air feels slicker and faster than it's predecessors; it's a machine reborn and that, and the battery life, will be the main things that should appeal to those considering an upgrade.

Display

The 2013 Apple MacBook Air comes with the same LED 1440 x 900 pixel resolution display that it had previously. It's a great vibrant display and although glossy in finish, copes pretty well in bright conditions. The viewing angles are pretty good on this display and we love the colour and punch that it brings.

However, with the resolution not changing in this latest model, it's outpaced by some higher-resolution rivals, such as the Sony Vaio Pro. With the MacBook Pro and devices like the iPad and the iPhone offering Apple's so-called Retina display, the MacBook Air feels like it's missing a trick.

 

Perhaps Apple is saving a Retina display model to coincide with the launch of Mavericks later in the year? Although we'd love a higher resolution, the downside would be a greater demand on the battery, again, and we'd rather take endurance over better visuals on this sort of portable machine.

Connectivity

The MacBook Air has never been the best laptop for connectivity and little has changed on the physical side of things. There's still two USB 3.0, a headphone socket and a Thunderbolt port. The SD card slot is very welcome for the ease of transfer from digital cameras and of course you have Apple's MagSafe 2 power connection.

On the wireless front, however, there has been a change. The 2013 MacBook Air sees a step-up to 802.11ac, meaning it supports the fastest draft protocol for Wi-Fi. As well as supporting the established run of a/b/g and n standards, you'll now be ready for the future when it comes to wireless connections too.

The downside is that there aren't many devices that yet support ac. Apple updated its AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule at the same time as this new MacBook Air, so if you're using Apple's hardware to get connected and back-up, then you'll benefit from the faster speeds. We did, however, find the range to be good from the MacBook Air, finding and connecting reliably where some devices complain in the networks we accessed.

READ: What is 802.11ac Wi-Fi?

Looking to the future again, however, Apple including 802.11ac in the MacBook Air is likely to be a precursor to support across all Apple's devices, and that's likely to be a driver for adoption, so we'd expect to see many more devices soon.

You also get Bluetooth 4.0, so as before, you'll be able to connect accessories and so on.

Finishing up the package

But that's not all that the MacBook Air offers. Sitting in the bezel of the display is the so-called FaceTime camera. This HD webcam is great for staying connected whatever the software you choose to use, but is the same as before. There has been an update, however, and that's the mic.

It's a minor change, with Apple fitting the Air with dual mics rather than one mic unit, the idea being that it can cut down on background noise to help make your video calls or dictation better. In our tests the mic(s) performed well, but in the calls we placed, there wasn't a huge noticeable difference from the good performance of the previous version.

The speakers are impressive too. Although the MacBook Air isn't liberally branded to demonstrate some sort of audio pedigree, it does sound good. Fire up a movie and there's richness to the audio. Watching a catch-up TV on a hotel room, or listening to music, is perfectly acceptable, although the best performance will be had with a decent set of headphones.

The keyboard is excellent, offering a lovely action, with variable levels of backlighting to suit your environment. We still love the big smooth clickable trackpad and we still think it's the best in the business, although others have been getting closer all the time, like that of the Chromebook Pixel.

All in all, the MacBook Air, receiving what appears to be a modest upgrade, is better than ever before and remains one of the best choices for a notebook to handle everyday computing needs. It's not alone however, and undeniably, you are still paying a premium on the hardware front if you set the operating system to one side, as Windows equivalents are cheaper.

Verdict

New internal hardware helps the MacBook Air maintain its position as one of our favourite notebooks. We're still happy with the 2012 MacBook Air, but there's enough here to make us want to upgrade: the improved performance and particularly that battery life, is a real driver to keep the MacBook Air in favour.

Some may say that the display needs to be updated, but as we've said, we wouldn't want to sacrifice endurance for definition, not when the resolution of the Air is good enough. We're also keeping an eye on Mavericks, which if it delivers on its promises of power efficiency, should stretch out the battery life of the MacBook Air even further, perhaps to levels that others can't quite match without an external battery.

If you're looking for more raw power, then there is a 1.7GHz Core i7 upgrade, as well as the option to expand to 8GB RAM and up to 512GB of SSD. That will cost you £1,579, however, the MacBook Air starts at £959 for the 1.3GHz Core i5, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. That's £50 cheaper than the 2012 equivalent. As reviewed here with 256GB of SSD storage the MacBook Air is £1,129.

In our eyes, it's worth every penny as it delivers on that all day battery promise and continues to deliver a premium experience.