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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  • solipsism - Saturday, August 10, 2013 - link

    Your first paragraph compares a RAIDed system to a single drive system that then says it's "just as fast" then your 2nd paragraph argues that the MBA can't benefit from having a PCIe SSD over a SATA SSD.

    Do you honestly don't know what faster storage can do for disk reads and writes? Do you think Anand lied about the results of his 2013 13" MBA comparison?

    128K Sequntial Writes:
    2010 MBP — 89 MB/s
    2013 MBA — 714.2 MB/s

    How exactly does that not offer any benefit?
    Reply
  • ESC2000 - Saturday, August 10, 2013 - link

    Anyone who reads this review and thinks there is anti apple bias is himself biased toward Apple. You've made your position pretty clear.

    Anandtech has done three major articles/reviews of Mac laptops in the past two months and basically none on any other laptops. That should be pro Apple enough for you.
    Reply
  • ESC2000 - Saturday, August 10, 2013 - link

    Just to be clear, that is a response to darwinosx not Vivek. Reply
  • IHateMyJob2004 - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    $999? Who would spend that much on a small screen laptop? Only fools .... Reply
  • solipsism - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    Because the performance, quality and utility of a device is based solely on the size of the display? I guess that means it's foolish to even spend $200 on a cheap cellphone since the display on those is much smaller¡ Reply
  • purerice - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    Good point. Actually in the end you end up paying over $600 for that $200 cell which just adds to your point. This can handle 1600p resolution on an external display. Not for Crysis but it will run Excel fine.
    I used to have a 12" laptop with 1024x768 screen that I attached to a Dell 2407 when at my home office. At the time 4.6 lb (2.1kg) was light for a laptop. Having a small laptop for the road that you can plug in to a beautiful display at home is the best of both worlds. I would rather have a fully functional, 2.4 lb 11" laptop with SSD for $1000 than 15" laptop that weighs 3x and has a 5400 rpm hard drive for $600.
    I replaced that 12" laptop with a 6 lb, 15" Penryn-based Dell laptop that got 90 minutes of battery life new, that was about $600. I use it when I have to for work and looking back I gladly would trade portability, HD speed, and battery life for the higher screen resolution, a little speed, and $400. Most gladly.
    Though now that Toshiba's IB-based U925 is no longer available, I am hoping they replace it with a Haswell version. Touchscreen+tablet mode are features I would rarely use, but in certain cases they would be extremely helpful.
    Reply
  • jutre - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    And what about the RAM ? Is 4GB (not up-gradable) acceptable for anybody ? If you buy your laptop today, it is for using it for the next couple years. I guess forking 100$ for the extra RAM in order to futureproof your laptop a no brainer ? Reply
  • purerice - Friday, August 9, 2013 - link

    I think so. LPDDR3 memory that Apple uses here and Sony uses with the Vaio Duo is (almost?) always attached to the motherboard, unlike most DDR3L memory. There will likely be other bottlenecks for sure, but especially with shared vram, the 4GB is closer to 3-3.5GB. Reply
  • name99 - Saturday, August 10, 2013 - link

    Are you people retarded?
    This is not a machine being sold to run huge Mathematica simulations, or to host 4 simultaneous VMs. It's a machine sold to people who perform "normal" computing tasks, basically email, web, reading PDFs, maybe MS Office, maybe some arranging photos, maybe some light gaming.

    You're like people who look at the specs for a 2-door sedan and complain "But what if I want to use it to tow my boat 24 hours a day?"

    If it doesn't fit your computing needs, don't fscking buy it. It doesn't meet my needs (which DO include substantial Mathematic usage), so I bought a quad-core 16GB 15" rMBP. The difference is I don't waste everyone's time by claiming that the entire damn world has the same computing needs that I do.
    Does it meet my GF's needs? My mother's needs? My two sister's needs? Yes, yes and yes.
    My programmer brother's needs? No.
    That's why Apple makes multiple laptops!!!
    Reply
  • TheinsanegamerN - Sunday, August 11, 2013 - link

    dude, roid rage much?
    nobody is retarded here. they were having a legitimate conversation on the ram found in the macbook air, and then you butted in.
    normal users can run over 4 GB of ram usage. ask anyone who runs multiple tabs while a video is playing in the background.
    and nobody was claiming that the world has the same computational needs as them.
    so kindly shut up and go back to your "Mathematical equations" and leave socializing to people who are not incredibly rude morons.
    Reply

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