MacBook Air Review: A Tiny Computer with Big Battery Life

The MacBook Air's internal makeover makes all the battery-life difference.

June 24, 2013, 6:06 PM

June 25, 2013 — -- Apple MacBook chargers follow me around. One lives in my bedroom, one in my living room and another at my desk at the office. It's just one of the symptoms of my laptop not lasting long enough to get me through a day at work or even the few hours I spend after work couch surfing.

Apple's new 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air laptops, however, promise to go the distance with all-day battery life. Announced at Apple's WWDC conference earlier this month, the new laptops don't look any different from the outside, but on the inside they have been given complete makeovers with Intel's latest Haswell processors. They also now pack more storage for the price; the 11-inch model with 128 GB of storage, which previously only had 64 GB, starts at $999.

No, the new Airs aren't drastically different -- at least not to the naked eye -- but the small changes go a long way. Quite literally.

A Familiar, But Loved Design

The new MacBook Airs could be put on a police lineup with the old MacBook Airs and not even the best detective would be able to tell them apart. The exteriors of the laptops are indistinguishable from the previous versions. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. As every other company in the industry continues to ape the ultrathin, unibody aluminum aesthetic with their own slender ultrabooks, Apple's four-year-old design still leads.

The 11.6-inch version, which I have been testing for the last two weeks, is, well, adorable. The small 0.11-inch to 0.68-inch thick laptop can easily be held in one hand and easily fits in an averaged sized purse. The 13.3-inch version, however, while not as compact, has a higher 1440x900-resolution screen, a few extra ports (including an SD card reader) and longer battery life -- a point I'll come back to soon.

Still, with both the new Airs, you don't get the ultra crisp screens found on Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina Display models or Google's Chromebook Pixel. While it would be nice if there was a higher-resolution display offered, it would also likely drive up the price.

However, one thing Apple has perfected on the Air is its keyboard and touchpad combination. The backlit keyboard is well-crafted and nicely spaced, and the large, glass trackpad still tops the competition in every which way. Unlike many Windows laptops, it is responsive to a suite of multitouch gestures, including two-finger scrolling, and just works for when it comes to regular navigation of the screen. Even as Windows 8 has improved touch support, no PC maker has been able to master the touchpad experience as Apple has.

Forget the Charger at Home

You won't notice the Air's real changes until you hit the power button and start to use the machine. The insides of the system have been freshened up with Intel's latest Haswell or 4th generation processors, which promise a graphics boost and the "biggest battery-life increase in Intel history," according to the chipmaker.

The performance increase isn't as obvious as the battery boost -- but again, that's not a bad thing. In comparison to the last generation Air from 2012, this year's version feels just as peppy in terms of everyday computing tasks. It boots up in 18 seconds, resumes from sleep almost instantly, and there's no wait when opening up applications.

Writing this review in Pages while simultaneously streaming music, running Tweetdeck and Safari with more than 10 tabs open didn't make the 1.3GHz Core i5 processor, 128 GB solid state drive and 4 GB of RAM break a sweat. Adding a 1080p video into the mix didn't slow down performance either.

However, while the machine is fine for those tasks, it's still not the one you'd want to have around when doing heavy video or photo editing. You'd be best suited by Apple's MacBook Pro or iMac desktop lines, or one of the many new Intel Haswell laptops coming out during the back-to-school season. The new Airs run Apple's Mountain Lion operating system, but will be capable of running the forthcoming OS X Mavericks, which will add and fix a number of new usablity features when it is out later this fall.

But the promise of the new Air is not that you can do those things faster -- it's that you can do them for longer without interruption. Apple claims that the 11-inch Air lasts nine hours on a charge, up from the previous versions five hours. In my regular usage I got closer to eight hours of non-stop usage on a single charge. However, on my video playback test, which loops an HD clip at 65 percent brightness until the battery is dead, the machine lasted nine hours and eight minutes. That will allow you to watch about four full-length movies on the machine before having to find an outlet. Even better is getting off a flight from San Francisco to New York City and having three hours left.

Compare that with similarly-sized netbooks from three years ago, which required giant battery humps to achieve half that battery life with half the power, and you can appreciate just how far we've come in the last few years. And, if you're hoping for even more battery life, the 13-inch Air lasts just about 12 hours on a single charge, according to reviews from The Verge and Laptop Magazine. It just costs more, with the entry level model starting at $1,099.

Bottom Line

For the last two years, whenever a friend or family member has asked me what laptop to buy, I have recommended the MacBook Air. It's not that there aren't great Windows ultrabooks and laptops out there, but the Air has consistently provided the best blend of performance and ergonomics in a truly mobile package. With the new version, there is just another reason to recommend the laptop.

While most people don't care to know about what processor is inside their laptop, the one inside the new Air enables battery life that's on par with a tablet or a smartphone. If you require more power, it's best to wait for the new series of laptops based on the same new Intel processor family that will be coming out soon from various PC makers. But there's no doubt about it: the Air is the laptop to buy if you want the chargers to stop following you around.

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