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Apple's Haswell-Powered 13-Inch MacBook Air
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Date: Jul 24, 2013
Section:Mobile
Author: Dave Altavilla
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Introduction & Specifications
Intel's roll-out of their 4th generation Haswell-based Core series processors has been a little pokey, quite frankly, when you compare this launch to the deluge of products that hit the market when Ivy Bridge broke cover last year.  Regardless, Apple always seems to have an inside track on Intel's latest technology and so, as it turns out, our first Haswell-powered notebook has finally arrived and it's none other than the Apple MacBook Air. The new MacBook Air for 2013 is virtually indistinguishable from the previous gen model, though if you'll look closely there actually two tiny pinholes on its left edge, for dual omnidirectional microphones, versus a single mic on previous models.  Beyond that, it's the guts of the new Air that bring the glory.

In addition to the anticipated performance gains that Intel's new CPU might bring to the table for the MacBook Air, there are additional component-level enhancements that Apple baked in to their new ultra-light machine; namely a higher capacity 54 Whr battery and a PCI Express-based Solid State Drive (SSD).  If you've been reading these pages for any length of time, you'll know the latter feature gets us more than a little fired-up.  Let's see what the new MacBook Air is made of and if it holds its own versus Windows-based Ultrabook offerings in the market.


MacBook Air 13-Inch Notebook with Intel's 4th Generation Haswell Core Mobile Processor
Specifications & Features
  • Mac OS X 10.8.4
  • 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache
  • 4GB of 1,600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
  • 128GB or 256GB of PCI Express Flash storage
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • 13.3-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen, TN display
  • 1440x900 native resolution (16:10)
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Two USB 3.0 ports (up to 5Gbps)
  • Thunderbolt port (up to 10Gbps)
  • Mini DisplayPort video output (via Thunderbolt port)
  • DVI output using Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter (sold separately)
  • VGA output using Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter (sold separately)
  • Dual-Link DVI output using Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter (sold separately)
  • HDMI audio and video output using third-party Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter (sold separately)
  • MagSafe 2 power port
  • SDXC card slot
  • 720p FaceTime HD camera
  • Built-in stereo speakers
  • Dual internal omnidirectional microphones
  • Headphone port
  • Support for Apple iPhone headset with remote and microphone
  • Full-size backlit keyboard with 78 (U.S.) or 79 (ISO) keys
  • Multi-Touch trackpad with support for Multi-Touch gestures
  • Built-in 54-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
  • 45W MagSafe Power Adapter with cable management system
  • 0.11-0.68 x 12.8 x 8.94 inches (HxWxD) - 2.96 pounds
Direct Price: $1,099 (as tested) - $1044.99 via Amazon Prime




We won't belabor the point but Apple still hasn't seen fit to up the ante on the MacBook Air's display, opting instead to stick with the 1440x900 TN panel carried over from the previous generation 13-inch machine, with the 11-inch variant sporting a 1366x768 native res.  Regardless, in its 13-inch incarnation, the MacBook Air's display is still a decent high-end option on the market, save perhaps for the Toshiba KIRAbook or the Chromebook Pixel -- both of which are significantly more expensive alternatives.

Again, notable upgrades come in the form of its storage subsystem and battery capacity with the new Air offering a 54Whr battery over last year's 50Whr cell.  In fact, Apple claims "all-day battery life" with up to 12 hours of up-time in standard use and 10 hours with continuous movie playback.  We'll have see if that pans out in testing but there's one more feature that stands out rather prominently and that's the MacBook Air's MSRP, which weighs in at a cool $100 less versus last year's 13-inch model (as tested).  Let's look more at design and function, next.
 
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Design & Layout
If you've laid eyes or hands on previous generation Apple MacBook Air machines, the new for 2013 MacBook Air is going to look and feel virtually identical to what you've experienced previously.  This of course is likely not a bad thing for most folks, since Apple's mechanical design aesthetics have set the industry watermark for quite some time now. In fact, the Air's thin, all-aluminum exterior has seen the sincerest form of flattery from the competition, over and over again.  To be candid, however, it does feel like Apple is due for a design refresh with their MacBook line. Though we can't argue with success, why not take it up a notch again?







One thing the MacBook Air has going for it, that we have rarely seen achieved in competitive Ultrabooks, is the fingerprint resistance of its all aluminum exterior.  The surface exterior of the MacBook air does a really good job of keeping it clean and almost smudge-free.  As expected, fit and finish is also top notch, with zero flex in the keyboard area and a comfortable, spacious key layout that has solid, tactile response.  Apple's glass multi-touch trackpad is also roomy and very responsive, with seemingly instantaneous reaction to pinch and zoom control, as well as multi-touch scrolling and navigation. 

If we had to pick a competitive Ultrabook versus the MacBook Air, in this area, we'd say Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon comes close, though the keyboard of that machine does have some give to it.  The Apple typing and control experience is a no-compromise, top-shelf affair.  And you guessed it -- a backlit keyboard is standard with this machine, as we feel it should be with all notebooks in this class of device.



Hey, it's not a "retina" display but what's in a name anyway?  Though we could always go for a bunch more pixels jammed into its 13-inches, a 1440x900 resolution display is not too shabby either.  In addition, keeping resolution down inside a reasonable stratosphere we're sure helps keep cost in check as well. That said, the 13-inch Air's display is bright and vibrant with good color uniformity and off-angle viewing.  We do, however, wish there was a tad less glare on the panel.  We've been spoiled by some high quality matte finish displays as of late and when the light hits the MacBook Air just right, well, the results are "glaring."  No worries, I won't quit my day job for stand-up anytime soon.  Regardless, the MacBook Air 13's display is really quite nice, suitable for more strenuous graphics work, pedestrian office requirements or play.



So the MacBook Air 13 is only a little over half an inch thick at the rear of its chassis - its thickest dimension.  As a result, you're not going to squeeze a lot of IO options on the edge of this machine.  Apple offers a pair of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports, and SD card slot, a headphone jack, their fancy-pants MagSafe 2 power port and if you squint, you see it - the one difference between last year's MacBook Air and this year's.  Right down there next to the headphone jack are not one but two tiny pinholes for dual omnidirectional mics - eureka!  We kid, but that's the only difference in the chassis design, literally.  Last but not least is the MacBook Air's high speed Thunderbolt port, which by the way also doubles as a mini-DisplayPort port.  Is that too many "ports?"  Beside the over-use of the word "port," some may find the MacBook Air comes up a little short, with no Ethernet or mini-HDMI ports available.  Apple takes care of the latter IO requirement with a DisplayPort to HMDI adapter that you can buy separately.



With signature-good looks and very high quality materials at play, the MacBook Air 13 really does still set the bar for quality and durability. Again, a little less gloss on the display is all we'd ask for but that's splitting hairs, to be honest.

What really helps the new MacBook Air 13 stand out from last year's model, however, is what's under the hood that you're not seeing here - namely Intel's Haswell CPU architecture with a stronger graphics engine, and that PCI Express SSD we've been rambling-on so emphatically about.  The combination of the two should offer a user experience tour de force.  We'll see in our forthcoming benchmark numbers if this pans out but for now, let's look at the Air's software package to get a sense of what you can expect out of the box.

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Included Apple Software and Experience
The MacBook Air we tested came with OS X 10.8.4, the latest version of Apple's Mountain Lion OS.  We have previously posted a full overview of the features of Mountain Lion, so we won't dive in too deep here.  However, Apple's operating system offers a lot of key functionality out of the box, that purists might argue is more full-featured than competitive Windows-driven alternatives in the market currently.



And we're not talking about bloatware, or trial versions of software either.  Whether you consider simple utilities like the integrated DVD player, iTunes or iPhoto, or more higher-end software suites like GarageBand and iMovie, Apple really does pack in quite a bit of useful software in their standard bundle.


But it's the little things sometimes that matter.  One small addition to Mountain Lion that we find comes in quite handy is the Downloads Stack.  In a Windows 7 environment, you can often times find yourself drilling down through folders to get to a file you've recently downloaded.  Windows 8, on the other hand, offers more shortcuts to downloads and a download manager with pause/resume functionality.  For Mac OS the Downloads Stack is Apple's convenient solution to this problem that Windows web browser implementations have yet to address cleanly.  Just hover over the stack at the bottom right of the Mac OS dock (next to the trash can) and you can scroll through your downloads or open the Finder app to browse the download folder directly.

And of course Apple has tightly coupled social integration with OS X 10.8.  Within the Mail, Contacts and Calendars you can plug in your credentials to various services like Twitter, Facebook and Flickr adding your contacts at these services to your mail, contacts, calendar and messaging apps in OS X. Facebook integration plays an prominent role in the experience, if you want it to. Linking your Facebook account to OS X merges your online friends into your Contacts, adds profile photos for contacts, and delivers Facebook notifications directly on your MacBook.



Once these services are connected to your Mac, you can also then share files and media just by clicking the share button and selecting the service you want to share over. Competitively speaking, though these aren't exactly ground-breaking features, it feels like Microsoft has been playing catch-up adding this level of functionality into Windows 8. Mac OS X in some ways has a cleaner implementation of the same functionality.  In addition, though Microsoft is currently evangelizing one primary, touch-capable UI for all platforms, Apple does a relatively good job of injecting the feel and familiarity of iOS into OS X. 



Finally, content creation has always been a strong suit for Mac OS, and that trend continues with apps like GarageBand offering powerful tools that might otherwise be consider expensive software packages on other platforms.  On the software side of things, you do get what you pay for with the MacBook Air, let's see if the hardware is up to the task as well.


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Max OS X Performance Testing
Our Test Methodologies: We've recorded two sets of benchmark numbers for various metrics here in our evaluation of the new MacBook Air.  The first set of tests were run on Apple Mac OS X with either cross-platform capable benchmarks or Mac-only benchmark suites that limit us to comparing reference data only from other Apple products.

However, on the next page, you'll find benchmark results of the MacBook Air running Windows 7 64-bit using Boot Camp. This allows us to see how the MacBook Air compares to several Windows-based Ultrabooks, and while it's not a total apples-to-apples (or Apples-to-Ultrabook) face-off, it's pretty darn close.

CineBench R11.5 (64-bit)
Content Creation Performance
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and it tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads to process more than 300,000 total polygons; while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.



Here we see exactly where Intel's new Haswell-based Core i5 dual core architecture stands versus the previous generation Ivy Bridge architecture in last year's model of the MacBook Air.  Though the Haswell-based Core i5 4250U in this year's MacBook Air is clocked 500MHz slower at its base and Turbo Boost frequencies, versus the Core i5 3427U Ivy Bridge chip in the previous gen MacBook Air, it still runs neck and neck in terms of CPU throughput but really breaks out in graphics.  In the OpenGL portion of our Cinebench testing, the new MacBook Air shows a significant 34% advantage over its predecessor and even leaves older generation discrete GPU-powered MacBook Air systems in the dust.

Mac OS X Performance Benchmarks:  Geekbench
General system performance
To touch on overall system performance, we chose Geekbench, by Primate Labs. This is a widely used, highly respected Mac benchmarking suite that "provides a comprehensive set of benchmarks engineered to quickly and accurately measure processor and memory performance."



In terms of processor and memory throughput, here again, the new MacBook Air, with its more modest CPU clock speeds for the Haswell-based Core i5 powering it, still is able to edge out the previous generation MacBook Air with Ivy Bridge.

Mac OS X Performance Benchmarks:  XBench
Individual Subsystem Performance
XBench, created by Spiny Software, is another widely used, highly respected Mac benchmarking suite that touches on nearly every aspect of performance, from CPU to graphics and storage subsystem metrics.
 



Here we seem to be picking up our first anomaly.  In this test, Haswell's HD 5000 graphics throughput doesn't seem to measure up to the Ivy Bridge chip found in last year's MacBook air.  It could be a case of the current driver that is less than tuned for this app, as it stands in stark contrast to our Cinebench results, which generally place great stock in for repeatability as a measure of real world performance.  Beyond graphics, the CPU portion of this benchmark drops in about where expected but the Disk test gives us a glimpse of greatness with the new PCI Express SSD in this latest generation of Apple's MacBook Air.


Apple's previous generation MacBook Air scores 243/447 writes/reads in this test.

We concluded our Mac OS X testing by loading up BlackMagicDesign's Disk Speed Test and came to confirm our expectations for Apple's new PCI Express-based SSD solution in the MacBook Air. Don't blink, you'll miss it, so we took a screen capture for you.  What you're seeing here is the SATA bottleneck totally eliminated with direct attached PCI Express Solid State Flash memory offering read throughput in excess of 700MB/sec.  Ever wonder why all high end standard SSDs top out at around 500MB/sec?  It's the SATA interface getting in the way, even at 6Gbps.

Write performance for the 2013 MacBook Air clocked in at almost 2X versus last year's model but still not at the upper limit of the SATA interface.  The 2013 MacBook Air's read performance, on the other hand, offers up the fastest notebook storage subsystem results we've ever recorded, hands down and by a long shot.

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Windows 7 Boot Camp Performance Testing
Here we're evaluating the MacBook Air's performance in Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, which we installed using Apple's Boot Camp utility. Boot Camp sets up a separate partition so that you can have a multi-boot environment on your Intel-based Mac system (yes, it only works with Intel) -- one for Mac OS X and the other for Windows 7. The neat thing about Boot Camp is that it allows you to run Windows natively, so you don't have to worry about losing performance to overhead like you do with virtualized solutions.


After installing Windows 7, we applied all the current updates and patches, including Service Pack 1.  Holding down the "Option" button upon bootup with the MacBook Air presents you with the above partition select option screen.  It works quite well and is a pretty convenient way of running either operating system when you need it.

Futuremark PCMark 7
Simulate Application Performance
This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system components in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC--watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth--is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.



Interestingly enough, though PCMark 7 tends to favor systems with strong storage subsystem performance, the new MacBook Air just edges out last year's model and pulls up well short of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.  We'd caution, however, that driver packages for Apple's hardware implementation (especially things like their PCI Express SSD) under a Windows environment, may or may not be completely optimized for performance.

Futuremark 3DMark 11
Simulated DX11 Gaming Performance
The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11 uses the advanced visual technologies and 3D effects that are only available with DirectX 11. 3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test. We tested the MacBook Air with 3DMark11's Performance preset option enabled.


13-Inch Apple MacBook Air 2H-2013 - Intel Haswell-Powered


13-Inch Apple MacBook Air 2H-2012 - Intel Ivy Bridge-Powered


Here the new MacBook Air is showing almost a 2x gain over last year's model.  Specifically, the 3DMark 11 Graphics Score recorded on the new MacBook Air offers nearly twice the performance, though the Physics score is roughly on par.

Far Cry 2
DirectX 10 Gaming Performance


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the test systems in this article with the FarCry 2 benchmark tool using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map.










Here we see a 30+ percent gain for the new MacBook Air over its predecessor and one of the fastest ultralight notebook scores we've pulled to date in this benchmark.  Only Dell's Inspiron 14z (which is a heftier machine for sure) with discrete Radeon HD 7000 series graphics outpaced the MacBook Air.  Here we see the first evidence that Intel's latest integrated graphics engine can actually offer discrete-like graphics performance. What's interesting as well is the Core i5 4250U powering the MacBook Air doesn't sport Intel's higher-end Iris Graphics IGP.  It will be interesting to see what GT3e variants of Haswell can offer but in the meantime, it's impressive to see any ultralight machine like the MacBook Air offer playable frame rates at 1280 resolution and high image quality in this test.
 
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Battery Life and Acoustics
To measure battery life expectations of the MacBook Air, we ran three different tests. First, we subjected the Mac OS X 10.8.4 installation to our web browsing test as a best-case, light workload test condition. Then we loaded up BatteryEater Pro on the Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit partition (Boot Camp) to see how it compared with an assortment of Ultrabooks under a heavy-load test condition.  Finally, as a baseline mainstream usage model test, we looped a 1080p HD QuickTime movie trailer until the machine ran down and powered off.

For many of you, battery life is one of the most important metrics when shopping a notebook. Here's how the new MacBook Air 13 stacks up.


Battery Life Tests 
Light and Heavy-Duty Workloads



We tested and re-tested the MacBook Air in our light-duty web browsing workload but the results were consistently the same.  The new MacBook Air lasted over 12.5 hours on a single charge. with its display set at 50% brightness.  This result was impressive to say the least and is easily the best up-time number we've ever seen from any notebook in this test.  In fact, the new Haswell-driven MacBook Air blew every other Intel Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge-based notebook right out of the water in this metric.  No doubt this is the result of Haswell's significantly improved power consumption characteristics and features, that we've covered here previously.



Our Battery Eater Pro testing shows the opposite end of the spectrum, with the new MacBook Air managing only to edge out last year's model by a few minutes, in terms of worst-case, heavy workload battery life.  In reality, this is not always such a bad thing. The MacBook Air' s processing power is there when you need it. This test aims to pull 100% of the system's resources where possible, so it ends up chewing through an ultralight's smaller battery pretty quickly.


RED 2 1080p H.264 Movie Trailer - The MacBook Air stayed up for 9 hours, 47 minutes

Looping the RED (Retired and Extreme Dangerous) 2 trailer was just what the doctor ordered for our last battery life test (it's hilariously funny and Catherine is easy on the eyes too).  In this scenario we're looping a 1080p H.264-encoded QuickTime movie clip over and over until the system powers down.  We realized 9 hours and 47 minutes of untethered up-time - just 13 minutes short of Apple's top-end claim.  Again, in a word, "impressive."  In general, Apple's "all day battery life" claim was confirmed and proven in our real-world testing efforts.

Update, 7/25 - A note on acoustics -
I was previously remiss when I brought this section to a close without mentioning how quite the 2013 MacBook Air 13 is.  Under most test loads, even during our HD video loop test above, the MacBook Air was virtually silent - as in, stick your ear right up next to it and you won't hear a thing.  We did, however, notice its cooling fan spin up under heavier-duty game tests and our Battery Eater Pro test run, both of which exercise the graphics core in Intel's Haswell Core i5 processor that is tasked with pushing the pixels.  In short, you really have to push the machine hard graphically otherwise you won't hear a peep out of it.  Even under a heavy graphics processing demand, the rare time its cooling fan spins up, noise levels are completely tolerable.
 

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Performance Summary & Conclusion
Performance Summary:  Overall, the new for 2013 Apple MacBook Air offered better performance versus last year's model, especially when it came to graphics and storage subsystem throughput.  Apple's super-thin notebook also placed near the top of its class in terms of performance versus a number of competitive Ultrabooks currently in the market, especially when it came to boot-up times, handling multimedia, graphics performance and battery life.


The original "Unibody" all aluminum frame

You can't look at what Apple was able to achieve with the current generation of MacBook Air products and not be impressed.  From significantly improved graphics and file system performance, to dramatically longer battery life; you might say one of the top "Ultrabooks" on the market currently isn't actually an Ultrabook - it's a Mac. We do have a small reservation about some WiFi instability we encountered that others are reporting in Apple's support forum as well.  However, word of Appleseed invites going out to owners of an impending software update that should be rolling out to the masses soon, allay most of our anxiety there.

Beyond that small hiccup, the new MacBook Air is a slam-dunk.  The machine we tested is priced a solid $100 less than last year's 13-inch model, currently at $1099 ($1044.99 for Amazon Prime subscribers).  This still puts the MacBook Air 13 in the upper echelon of premium ultralight notebooks, cost-wise, but Apple's offering is otherwise competitively priced when you consider offerings from Lenovo, Dell and others.  Sure, with a native resolution of 1440X900, the MacBook Air still technically doesn't have a full HD display, never mind Apple's high-end Retina panel, but in a 13-inch machine 1440X900 still cuts the mustard just fine for most folks.

We like the new Intel Haswell-powered MacBook Air 13, with its PCI Express SSD serving up data at over 700MB/sec and its almost unbelievably-good battery life.  That just gets our geek on in the nicest of ways; so we're giving it an Editor's Choice.


   
 
  • Hello Haswell! Great performance
  • Sleek, light-weight design
  • Thin, sturdy and smudge-resistant
  • Wicked-Fast PCIe SSD
  • Impressively-long battery life
  • Priced $100 less than previous gen
 
  • No HDMI output
  • Still a premium price



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