When Apple launched the second generation MacBook Air in late 2010, I was definitely more interested in the 11” model. It was nearly as small as the iPad, but as a full notebook it was considerably more useful. At 2.3lbs, it wasn’t even that much heavier and the $999 pricetag made it the least expensive mobile computer in Apple’s lineup. It wasn’t really perfect: the base SKU with a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo ULV CPU and 2GB of memory seemed painfully inadequate at the time, the 5 hour battery life wasn’t great (the 13” Air was rated at a much better 7 hours), and $999, though cheap by Apple notebook standards, was a lot to justify spending on roughly year-old specs. Needless to say, I bought one. (Jarred’s thoughts at the time: “It has an Apple logo on it, so of course you bought one!”) And then I returned it. It was just unbearably slow

The base 2011 model having only 2GB RAM was basically laughable, and the standard 64GB SSD got a whole lot more indefensible as time went on, but the experience was significantly improved by the switch to modern microarchitectures in the newer 11” Airs. But even so, the 13”, with its higher screen resolution, 16:10 aspect ratio, and larger battery, seemed to be the way to go, especially after the price dropped to $1199.

For 2013, the entry level 11” and 13” SKUs have the same basic specs: 1.3GHz Haswell ULT processor, 4GB LPDDR3, and a 128GB SSD. The price difference has dropped to $100, with the 13” falling to $1099—making it feel like a way better deal, considering the extra battery life (12 hours versus 9 for the 11”) and larger, higher resolution display. And honestly, the 13” is not only a more usable primary computing solution, but also a better computer overall, so I’ll just get that part out of the way first. I will say though, it’s far easier to recommend an Air 11” now that the base model has the 4GB/128GB combo I’d consider the minimum for any ultraportable computer. It took a few years, but it finally became possible to recommend the base 11”er without any caveats. Where the 11” Air becomes really interesting though is when you stop thinking about it in terms of its larger sibling, but in terms of the iPad.

2013 MacBook Air Lineup
  11.6-inch 11.6-inch (high-end) 13.3-inch 13.3-inch (high-end)
Dimensions
H: 0.11-0.68" (0.3-1.7cm)
W: 11.8" (30cm)
D: 7.56" (19.2cm)
H: 0.11-0.68" (0.3-1.7cm)
W: 12.8" (32.5cm)
D: 8.94" (22.7cm)
Weight 2.38 lbs (1.08kg) 2.96 lbs (1.35kg)
CPU 1.3GHz dual-core Core i5-4250U
GPU Intel HD 5000
RAM 4GB LPDDR3-1600
SSD 128GB PCIe SSD 256GB PCIe SSD 128GB PCIe SSD 256GB PCIe SSD
Display Resolution 1366 x 768 1440 x 900
Ports Thunderbolt, 2x USB 3.0, headphone jack Thunderbolt, 2x USB 3.0, SD card slot, headphone jack
Networking 2x2:2 802.11ac
Battery 38 Wh 54 Wh
Price $999 $1199 $1099 $1299

Not only is the Air 11” dimensionally similar to the iPad, but now with Haswell it has roughly equal battery life too. And given that there’s just a $200 price difference between the 128GB iPad and the 128GB Air 11”—$100 if you factor in the cost of an iPad keyboard—it’s really something to think about. Sure, the iPad has a better display and is touch capable, but this is a real computer. It’s just as easy for me to carry the Air 11” as it is for me to carry the iPad, it even fits into the iPad pocket in my backpack.

The images Anand took for the first 2010 Air review keep coming back to me—the size difference really isn’t that much. The current iPad is thinner and lighter than the first gen that we had back then, but not by much, and the footprint hasn’t changed at all. Other than the extra 2.3” in width and few hundred grams in weight (it’s just under a pound heavier), the two are pretty similar. The depths are within a quarter inch of each other and the average thickness of the wedge-shaped Air is essentially the same as the constant thickness of the iPad. So this form factor with this battery life and these specs—does that make the 11” Air compelling enough to justify buying instead of the 13” or another PC notebook in this class?

Hardware

We’re really familiar with this generation of MacBook Air. This is now the fourth generation using this chassis (C2D, SNB, IVB, now Haswell) and in that time, not much has changed. The Air family added Thunderbolt and backlit keyboards in 2011 and moved to MagSafe 2, USB 3.0, and HD webcams last year, but other than that, this is externally essentially the same computer it was back in 2010. This year, the Air gets a second microphone hole in the left side. For reasons unknown, the listed weight for the Air 11” changed from 2.3lbs to 2.38lbs between 2010 and 2011, but has stayed constant at the latter in the generations since.

The chassis is still phenomenally thin and very well put together, with a pleasing simplicity and extremely compact dimensions all around. The keyboard and trackpad are still the best on the market, and it’s awesome to note the uniformity of Apple’s keyboard from the 11” Air through the rest of their larger notebooks and the wireless keyboard that ships with the iMac. I don’t understand how nobody else has figured out how to make a buttonless trackpad as good as Apple’s at any point over the last five years. Over the last few years, I’ve been tempted to buy a Mac more than a few times just because of how good the input devices are. It’s legitimately an advantage that Apple holds for their entire notebook lineup, one that is very critical in a smaller notebook like this one. There’s not much in the way of port selection, but that’s actually not too big of a deal. Perhaps after years of living with ultramobile systems, I’ve learned to make do with just two USB ports and a video out, but it’s honestly good enough for this class of notebook.

There’s a lot new on the inside though. In addition to Haswell ULT, Apple has pushed the envelope and gone for PCIe SSDs and 802.11ac. Considering the other innovations Apple has brought to the mobile computing space over the years, it’s probably not that surprising that they were the first to get ac and PCIe storage into Ultrabooks. Sony has since also started shipping a set of similar systems with PCIe SSDs in their VAIO Pro Ultrabook line, and I’d be very surprised if many of the other high-end Ultrabooks set to launch later in the year don’t have at least one of those two things.

Anand has covered the different Haswell ULT parts used in the Airs pretty in-depth so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. The base model Air 11” that we’re looking at today has the i5-4250U, a 1.3GHz part with max turbos of 2.6/2.3GHz (1C/2C) and Intel’s HD 5000 onboard graphics with a max GPU clock of 1GHz. The i7-4650U is a $150 option and bumps base clock to 1.7GHz, turbo to 3.3/2.9GHz (1C/2C), and GPU max to 1.1GHz. I typically don’t go in for Apple’s upgrade pricing, but this is actually pretty reasonable given the performance increases involved. I think I’d be more tempted to go for the upgraded CPU in a 13”, simply because I’d want to eke every drop of battery I could get from the smaller notebook. The battery has been upsized, now to 38Wh from the previous 35. It’s still a fair ways behind the 13” in terms of battery capacity though; the 54Wh battery in the larger unit represents a 42% increase in size that more than offsets the display-related power consumption delta.

Awesome Battery Life
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  • Torrijos - Friday, August 09, 2013 - link

    One has to wonder how much more battery life improvements OS X Mavericks will bring, seeing how Apple made most of their selling points about energy efficiency. Reply
  • xTRICKYxx - Friday, August 09, 2013 - link

    I've been using Mavericks for a while and I haven't noticed anything too drastic. I typically get around 7-8 hours of light workload for my 15". At most maybe a 10% increase.

    But this is not including the fact that most of my 3rd party apps do not include App Nap yet. It could make a difference.
    Reply
  • ctrocks - Friday, August 09, 2013 - link

    I still want to know the fascination with 11 inch notebooks. I am 6'3" (1.9m) tall, with relatively large hands, and am 47 with good vision for my age (no glasses needed yet). 13 inch notebooks seem small to me, let alone 11. My hands can't fit comfortably on keyboard to touch type.

    I understand portability, but I just can't see using such a small device except for cases where extreme portability is an absolute necessity. I would prefer a 15 inch screen, and a bigger keyboard that fits me over portability.
    Reply
  • abazigal - Friday, August 09, 2013 - link

    You just answered your own question. Ultra-portability. 15-inch laptops are great to use, but absolute murder to haul around when it's time to pack up and leave. Reply
  • ananduser - Friday, August 09, 2013 - link

    Since you talked about the new Sony Vaio, how about, you know, actually reviewing one(the Pros or the Duo or both). You(Anandtech not Vivek) have reviewed 3 MBAs already and not a single other ultraportable.
    BTW corners have been cut in order to achieve the MBA's battery life, the low res screen and the relatively slower CPU. Why not mention it so as to compare apples to apples(no pun intended)?
    Reply
  • fokka - Friday, August 09, 2013 - link

    though i'm not a big fan of the mba, i still think that it is a valid choice for someone seeking portability and not dependent on a ton of processing performance, even more now the battery life has improved to a level you don't really have to think about it much anymore on a day to day basis.

    sure, the display is a bit of a bummer, but only because we became so spoiled by tablets and high-DPI laptops in the recent years. still, it won't hinder you doing any of your work.

    what i like about the air and essentially the entire macbook line-up, is that they are no-nonsense solutions. you get a great package of high quality case, great input devices, above average display quality and most important usable battery life on a mobile device.

    just compare it with the vaio pro. i love some of the vaio lineup for their performance, features and portability, but no way in hell i'm going to shell out this much for a plasticy-feeling computer, no matter if they call the material carbon fiber, magnesium, or whatever they come up with.

    still, using a 2010 mbp13 right now, i'm not really thinking of investing in apple gear again very soon since i learned to prefer a more native windows environment. this is where asus zenbook line comes into play and i hope they can make similar progress with the haswell upgrade as apple, all while providing a great 1080p display.
    Reply
  • ESC2000 - Saturday, August 10, 2013 - link

    So a plastic feel would stop you from an otherwise superior product? Thus is the same tired old argument always trotted out by Apple fans. They used it when the S4 came out with features that demolished the iphone 5. They've probably used it for every Samsung phone that has been released with that prole plastic.

    It is your business how you spend your money, but I but devices to perform tasks for me. If a physical feature is relevant to function (eg the air's unnecessarily large bezels take up precious screen real estate) then I care. But if the best device for me comes in plastic I don't care unless plastic will disrupt its functioning. I don't care whether other people think my device looks expensive. I don't care whether it feels 'plasticky' when I touch it. What is so terrible about plastic anyway?

    I know this is a tired old argument. I should probably save this post in keep so I can just copy paste it every time someone tries to say metal is more premium. Apple did do a good marketing job on that one though.
    Reply
  • fokka - Saturday, August 10, 2013 - link

    i wouldn't even go so far as to call myself an apple fan, since the macbook is the only apple product i ever owned and i'm not having plans on upping that count in the future, but still, i can appreciate certain aspects, like the build quality, of their line up.

    see, in the end it's just personal preference. i for one wouldn't be happy with a "superior" machine hardware wise, if it feel plasticy and flimsy. and please don't tell me a VAIO lid doesn't feel flimsy. i can't comment specifically on the VAIO pro, but about every sony ultraportable i ever touched had a crazy thin display lid which twisted by mere looking at it, so i feel safe extrapolating from that.

    if you are happy with a polycarbonate build that's great and i don't even mean this sarcastically, but for me, i want a device i use for hours to feel great and sturdy and i find this is more the case with a good metal build.
    Reply
  • geok1ng - Friday, August 09, 2013 - link

    U$1000 for a 768p TN panel. I do agree with the review: lets wait for the Surface Pro with Haswelll parts. Or get a real high end ultraportable with a real high end display, for the same price apple is asking for this airthingie Reply
  • abazigal - Friday, August 09, 2013 - link

    Higher screen res typically comes at the expense of poorer battery life. Apple simply made a judgement call to prioritize battery life over everything else. I don't see that as an inherently bad thing. Reply

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