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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Apple MacBook Air 13in (Mid-2013) review: true laptop longevity now available


Apple has hit two notable ‘firsts’ with this, the 2013 incarnation of the iconoclastic MacBook Air. It packs several game-changing revisions. Not only is it the first mainstream laptop you can buy with an Intel Haswell processor, it’s also the first production laptop supporting the new ‘three-times-faster’ 802.11ac Wi-Fi draft standard.

The use of a low-power Intel Core i5 processor means that the MacBook Air should now last longer than ever before – and quite possibly by a significant margin: Apple’s figures, based on wireless web browsing, spell out a total runtime that has been stretched from an already handy seven hours, all the way to 12 hours.

Externally there’s little to differentiate this year’s Air from the last refresh, refreshed as before at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference. Indeed there’s little cosmetically to separate it from the previous two generations, since the notebook’s main design revamp in 2010.

The Apple MacBook Air (Mid-2013) sports the same supreme all-metal build quality that we’ve yet to see surpassed in other brands’ laptops, styled with a wedged taper from rear to front edge.


Apple MacBook Air 2013 has the same familar tapered profile as the last few generations

Despite Apple’s reputation for assembling premium products at premium prices, we’ve not seen any Microsoft hardware partner match the features, build and attention to detail, either at the same price or higher.

One small visible change for the new MacBook Air is an extra pinhole on the left flank, marking an additional, second microphone. This trusted tech trickled down from the Retina MacBooks, adding noise cancellation to improve voice clarity in FaceTime and Skype calls.

Looking over the internal specs, there are two primary and significant changes. Most notably, we can see Apple has made a brave move in marketing terms by specifying a lesser-looking processor.

Where once was a 1.8 GHz Core i5 dual-core chip, there’s now just a 1.3 GHz processor. But here’s evidence that the megahertz and gigahertz wars are truly over.

Aside from the Intel Atom, the bargain-bin Pentiums and some AMD chips, every processor we test these days is quite capable of decent speed running OS X or Windows and the applications therein, certainly swift enough for most daily needs.

The real ongoing battle today is device battery life. Long and reliable runtime is crucial now that people are familiar with Apple smartphones and tablets that last for days of active use. Why can’t a notebook PC do this too? Have we finally arrived in a brave new world where a laptop can match the life on an iPad?

The processor clock speed is down, but processor performance is up. That’s what we found when running the PCMark 7 benchmark in Windows 7 Home Premium.

The previous Mid-2012 MacBook Air with its 1.8 GHz Intel Core i5-3427U reaped 4497 points in this general test of computer speed and responsiveness.

This Mid-2013 version with its lowly 1.3 GHz Intel Core i5-4250U scored 4602 points, suggesting a modest but measurable 2.3% boost in overall performance.

It’s worth noting that this dual-core chip still includes Hyper Threading too, to process four concurrent threads, and will also dynamically overclock to twice its rated speed, 2.6 GHz in Turbo mode.

While Intel talks of its Core i-Series chips’ baseline speed and their Turbo peak speed, one could also view this processor as a 2.6 GHz part that runs predominantly underclocked at half its baseline speed.


Apple's trademark backlit keyboard is still available on the 2013 MacBook Air

Since PCMark 7 also measures the speed of storage as part of the test suite, this better-for-less result could also be attributed to the upgrade in flash memory. There’s now 128 GB as standard across both 11.6in and 13.3in models, and importantly this takes a new form-factor that bypasses any SATA bus. Instead it uses a direct PCIe connection, obviating the intermediary and unneeded SATA stage.

In fact, turning to Geekbench 2 test, we can see that raw processor and memory performance is overall slightly down on last year’s model. The latter averaged 7903 points, while 2013 MacBook Air recorded 6770 points.

Memory for this generation and the last is 4GB as standard, configurable to order to 8 GB, and this is now low-power LPDDR3 SDRAM running at 1600 MHz.

Apple seems to have taken several strategies to help eke out more runtime with the Apple MacBook Air (Mid-2013) 13.3in notebook.

The larger factor is still almost certainly the shift in Intel processor from third-generation IvyBridge to fourth-generation Haswell.

But unplugged operation is also helped by a slightly larger battery, up 10% in capacity from 49 Wh to 54 Wh, and perhaps the use of low-power memory too.

We put the 2013 MacBook Air to the test in Windows 7 Home Premium, using the venerable MobileMark 2007 (Productivity) benchmark test. And here we recorded a runtime that comfortably exceeded the specified 12 hours, hitting a new record figure of 12 hrs 57 mins.

Allowing for times when you may be working the machine harder than the MS office and Adobe apps that comprise this test, even an eight-hour stretch between charges means you can yet charge your laptop for the morning, take to work and comfortably last the day without dependence on a mains charger.

The first wireless routers with the upcoming standard of 802.11ac first appeared late last year, yet for the last 8 months whenever we looked for 11ac-capable laptops, all we saw was tumbleweed.

Apple has finally broken ranks and included an 802.11ac wireless chipset, courtesy of the only manufacturer currently shipping 11ac components, Broadcom.

The Broadcom BCM4360 is a three-stream capable wireless processor, although Apple appears to only fit the MacBook Air with two Wi-Fi antennae (hidden in the screen hinge).

This means the fastest wireless sync speed you’ll see is 867 Mb/s, and real-world throughput will always be much lower than this, even in ideal conditions.

Thankfully the company doesn’t make any of the routine mendacious claims for ‘gigabit wireless’. That’s patently impossible here, whatever your metric.

We hooked up the Apple MacBook Air (Mid-2013) 13.3in initially to an existing 802.11ac wireless network, based on the Netgear R6300 11ac router.

Set up 3m from the router, the MacBook Air clearly indicated a sync speed of 867 Mb/s on 11ac’s higher-speed 5 GHz band.

In real-world file transfers, we measured actual throughput at a steady 176 Mb/s.

Turning to the new Apple Time Capsule with 802.11ac, the same results were seen with short-range transfers. While wireless throughput is less than one-quarter of the indicated wireless speed, we noted that longer range connections maintained better performance.

At 10m from the 11ac Time Capsule, with one intervening plaster stud wall, transfer speed was measured at a relatively good 148 Mb/s.

To summarise the wireless performance, these are better results than we’ve ever seen for 802.11n on the 5 GHz radio band, but actual performance is still disappointing.

Put into real terms, 802.11ac – with this 2x2 MIMO configuration anyway – is still some way behind what you’d expect from the old USB 2.0 standard, for example.

But you can expect to benefit from better Wi-Fi connections with the 2013 MacBook Air on 11ac, compared to 11n, and especially at more distant range where pre-11ac networks tail off so rapidly in quality.

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