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MacBook Air review (13-inch, 2013)

Apple builds the ultimate coffee shop computer

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MacBook Air 2013 top (1024px)
MacBook Air 2013 top (1024px)

Toby’s Estate Coffee in Brooklyn should be my favorite local coffee shop. The Australian company’s first US location is big and bright, with ample seating, great service, and terrific coffee — the ultra-expensive Strada variable-pressure espresso machine behind the bar sees to that. It’s also full of attractive young people hellbent on challenging traditional notions of fashion, beauty, and exactly what constitutes a pair of pants. The entire experience is delightful.

There’s only one problem: there are exactly zero power outlets in the joint.

The lack of power is rumored to be deliberate; a gentle way to keep patrons from lingering all day over laptops while sipping $2.75 Americanos. Sure, you’ll see the occasional laptop owner try and settle in for a few hours, but panic sets in fast — eventually fear drives everyone to make a move, freeing up seats for the next wave of creative-class nomads to try and beat the clock while sucking down fresh cups of joe.

But Apple’s new 13-inch MacBook Air might change Toby’s for good — it’s almost exactly the same externally as last year’s model, but a revised chipset inside offers a claimed 12-hour battery life with improved graphics performance and even faster Wi-Fi speeds if you have a compatible router. In short, Apple’s just taken the best overall laptop on the market and turned it into a declaration of war against coffee shops everywhere.


Same as it ever was

Apple’s been shipping this MacBook Air design since 2010, and there’s not much new to say about it — although the basic idea has been aped by almost every other PC manufacturer in the industry, it remains as class-leading as ever. The backlit keyboard is solid-feeling and comfortable, and Apple’s multitouch glass trackpad remains leaps and bounds ahead of the Windows competition. There are other laptops on the market now that are thinner and lighter, like the Sony VAIO Pro and the Toshiba Kirabook, but the Air’s blend of size, weight, stiffness, and durability continues to set the standard.

Only one design change, and you might not even notice what's new

On the left side, you’ll find the only real design change in this version of the Air: dual stereo mics instead of the single mono mic of years past. Apple says the two mics allow for noise canceling during calls and adaptive voice detection when you’re using OS X’s dictation feature; everything seemed to work just fine for me.

You’ll also find a USB 3 port on the left, as well as a headphone jack and a MagSafe 2 power socket. One day the change to MagSafe 2 will result in computers so astoundingly thin that the annoyance of dealing with incompatible adapters and buying new power supplies will fade, but that day is not yet here, and the MacBook Air is not that computer.


As with any relationship, the Air's flaws are very familiar after three years


On the right side, you’ll find another USB 3 port, a Thunderbolt port, and an SDXC card slot. Again, after three years this is all very familiar — but as with any relationship, years of familiarity means the flaws in this design have risen to the surface. Most Air-toting travelers I know always pack both Ethernet and monitor-out dongles in their bags, that 720p FaceTime camera is still just okay, and while the 1440 x 900 display is still as sharp and bright as ever, it’s starting to look pretty average next to the high-res displays in newer Windows laptops, the Chromebook Pixel, and Apple’s own Retina machines.

On the whole, though, nothing about the exterior of this Air will make you stand out at Toby’s — everyone else there has an Air as well. The big changes are all on the inside.


Performance and battery

All day

13 hours and 29 minutes. That’s all you really need to know — that’s how long the new MacBook Air running Safari lasted running The Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and images at 65 percent brightness. Run time in Chrome was shorter, at 11 hours and 29 minutes, but both are still ridiculously impressive. In fact, it’s the record for a laptop running our test without an external battery.

13 hours and 29 minutes. That's really all you need to know.

This insane battery life is enabled by Intel’s new Haswell chips, which will spring up on laptops across the industry in the coming weeks. Apple’s actually managed to outperform Intel’s standard Haswell battery life claims with the new Air; we’ll have to see how Windows machines with the new chips compare.

While Haswell offers dramatic battery life improvements, performance is slightly different story. The base model $1,099 Air I tested has a 1.3GHz Core i5 processor, clocked lower than the previous model’s 1.8GHz chip. Apple says the more efficient Haswell chip should perform about the same, but the benchmarks indicate that it’s the tiniest bit slower — 6,057 in Geekbench vs. 6,197 for the older version. I didn’t notice any difference in real world usage, and I’m happy to take the extremely slight performance hit for more than double the battery life. I suspect most consumers buying a base model laptop will feel the same way. (I do think the 128GB of storage in the base model is a little skimpy — you can get 256GB for $200 more, which feels a little expensive but is probably worth it.)

A slight performance hit for more than double the battery life

Apple does say the new Air should have 40 percent faster graphics, and while you still won’t want to rely on the integrated Intel graphics card for any high-end photo or video work, it’s certainly passable. I played Portal 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode 2 without any issues at native resolution. But the Air has never been a gaming laptop, and you shouldn’t look to the new model to change that.

If you have a brand-new router with 802.11ac support, you’ll find the the Air supports even faster Wi-Fi networking than before — up to three times faster, in fact. Apple is selling two such routers now, the $199 Airport Extreme and the $299 Time Capsule; I didn’t have any units to test with. But expect all new routers to support the standard; the Air will be ready as the world upgrades.


Still the best all-around laptop you can buy

We’ve been recommending the MacBook Air for three years straight now, so this is pretty simple: if you’re a normal person shopping for a laptop, you should buy a MacBook Air. It does all the things you want a laptop to do, it does them well, and now it does them for 12 hours at a clip. At $1,099 for the base model, $100 less than last year, it’s even a solid value compared to its best competition from Sony, Toshiba, and others — I’d jump up to the $1,299 model for the extra storage, but that’s about it. Every other complaint about this machine feels like a quibble (sigh, Ethernet adapter) or longing for spec-bump upgrades that don’t feel all that necessary yet (touchscreen Retina display, anyone?) But it’s pretty hard to value any of those things over 12-hour battery life.

In fact, when I showed the new Air to the people at Toby’s they didn’t look impressed — they’ve seen a lot of MacBooks come in and out of their shop. But when I told them about the battery life, they gathered around the familiar-looking machine with interest. “That’s longer than we stay open,” said one of the baristas, with a note in his voice somewhere between admiration and concern. The new Air is the first of a dramatic new breed of computer — it lets you set up a mobile office for a full day without concern for power.

Toby’s might have to increase the price of those Americanos.