With all the excitement over Apple’s radical new Mac Pro and iOS 7, the spotlight hasn’t lingered long on the latest MacBook Air. Despite all the rumours, it has an identical chassis to last year’s model and no Retina display; the only dramatic change is the appearance of Intel’s Haswell mobile processors.
Those hoping for a drastic redesign, or the arrival of killer features such as a high-DPI Retina display, will be disappointed, but the MacBook Air remains a stunning piece of design. It isn’t the lightest laptop – at 1.33kg, the 13in model is noticeably heavier than the 1.05kg Sony VAIO Pro 13 – but build quality is top-notch. It might just be our imagination, but this year’s model feels a touch stiffer – both the base and lid are rock-solid.
Beneath that familiar exterior, Apple has rung the changes. Intel’s Haswell processors take centre stage, and Apple has swapped the mSATA SSD of previous models for PCI Express-based flash storage. As a result, raw performance has moved up a notch. We ran our Real World Benchmarks in a Boot Camp installation of Windows 8, and the 1.3GHz Core i5-4250U powered to an impressive 0.7 overall; last year’s Ivy Bridge-based 1.8GHz Core i5-based Air scored 0.68.
The Samsung-made SSD delivers the biggest boost. In the AS SSD benchmark, the 128GB drive read large files at 690MB/sec and wrote large files at 485MB/sec – faster than any SSD we’ve seen in a laptop, and not far off what we’ve seen from twin SSD RAID arrays in desktop PCs.
Graphics performance is slightly improved, too. Unlike the VAIO Pro 13, which uses Haswell processors with the more modest Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU, the MacBook’s CPUs feature the faster HD Graphics 5000 chipset. In our least demanding Crysis benchmark, run at 1366 x 768 resolution and low detail settings, the Air achieved an average of 43fps; upping the resolution to 1600 x 900 and Medium quality settings saw that average drop to a playable 25fps.
The arrival of Haswell sends battery life soaring. In our light-use battery test run in Windows 8, the MacBook Air lasted 11hrs 43mins, longer than any Ultrabook we’ve tested so far.
Connectivity sees two USB 3 ports accompanied by a single Thunderbolt port (which doubles as a mini-DisplayPort video output), and there’s an SDXC card reader and a 3.5mm headset jack. Bluetooth 4 makes the grade, and the Wi-Fi chipset now reaches 802.11ac speeds.
On paper, the 13.3in, 1440 x 900 screen lags behind the Full HD Ultrabooks on the market, but image quality is excellent. Brightness hits a maximum of 325cd/m2, and the contrast ratio of 811:1 isn’t far behind the best. Images drip with rich, saturated colours, and accuracy is good, with an average Delta E of 4.
Ergonomics are as good as ever. The backlit Scrabble-tile keyboard sports crisp-feeling, grippy keys, and the touchpad is great, too. In OS X, it responds instantly to gestures, and it works well in Windows 8, too, despite the fact that current Boot Camp drivers don’t support edge-swipes.
Despite all the improvements, pricing is competitive. Our 13in review unit, with its Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD, retails for $1249. Upgrading to a 1.7GHz Core i7 costs $180; a 256GB SSD costs an extra $200; and increasing the RAM to 8GB costs an extra $120.
This update sees the MacBook Air in world-beating form. Die-hard Windows users may prefer one of the many fine Ultrabooks or hybrids on the market – Windows 8 remains at its best with a touchscreen – but if style, speed and stamina matter more to you, the MacBook Air ticks every box.