The MacBook Air has come a long way in the five years since I first wrote about Apple's popular ultralight laptop. But technologically, it's been eons. That's how fast technology changes, and an indicator of how much the latest MacBook Air has achieved the promise of portability without sacrificing too much power.
My initial hesitations regarding the Air -- that it was slow, had a limited number of ports, not enough storage, and emphasized style over substance way too much -- have since been shattered by the elegant balance of portability and power the newest Air offers. Gradual improvements with every iteration have culminated in this year's model, which was unveiled at last week's Worldwide Developers Conference and went on immediate sale.
Oh, and Apple even trimmed prices a bit, making the Air even more of a bargain. The 2013 line-up starts at $999 for the 11-in. model (now with 128GB of flash storage, double what it had before), $1,099 for the 13-in. model with the same storage. If you want 256GB of storage, you'll pay $1,199 for the smaller Air, $1,399 for the 13-in. model. All Airs use a Core i5 chip running at 1.3GHz and come with 4GB of RAM. If you want a faster processor, you can get a 1.7GHz Core i7; you can double the RAM to 8GB; and you can get up to 512GB of storage on all but the entry-level model.
Put another way, if you maxed out the processor, RAM and storage, you'd pay $1,749 or $1,849, depending on screen size. That might sound like a lot for a MacBook Air, but remember how much the first one cost in 2008? It started at $1,799.
The biggest change this year is the move to Intel's new Haswell processor, which delivers notably longer battery life than previous generations. (Apple estimates the 13-in. model can now go for a solid 12 hours before you need to recharge.) That, along with a score of other improvements such as the move to faster PCIe flash, have transformed the Air from compromised portable to a no-brainer must-have for mobile users requiring a notebook.
In terms of style, the Air looks exactly like its predecessor, with the exception of a second microphone hole for better sound quality when doing video chats or dictating.
During the five years it's been around, the MacBook Air has become the blueprint for the Ultrabook market. In what I'm sure is pure coincidence, Apple's Windows-based rivals bear more than a passing resemblance to the Air, some of them shamelessly so.
The model in hand, sent over by Apple for my upcoming detailed review, is the 13-in. Air with a i5 chip, 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. For the next couple of weeks, I'll be giving this new model a thorough going-over. But, even after a few days, I wanted to offer up some quick first impressions. So far, I'm more than pleased. It's clear that Apple engineers have been busy, though as already noted, virtually all of the changes are internal. If you liked the slender, wedge-like shape of the beautifully crafted previous generation, then you'll like this one.
Build quality and the materials used are still of the highest order. At 2.96 pounds for the 13-in. model, and 2.38 pounds for its little brother, the Air offers full computing for those who don't need the power of the MacBook Pro, but need to run OS X-based software while on the go.
The MacBook Air has already fit neatly into my daily workflow. (Image: Michael deAgonia)
(I also bought one of Apple's new Airport Extreme wireless routers, which now offers 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking support, so I can test wireless data transfer speeds using the Air, which has 802.11ac abilities, too.)
I'm not giving much away to note that the biggest deal here is the battery life. A number of reviewers have already confirmed what I've seen this week: the new Airs offer substantially more battery life than before. This is because Haswell, Intel's fourth generation Core chipset design, is more energy efficient than ever.
Since many of those tests are done using automation, I wanted to see how the Air would stack up in real-world use. At 9:30 a.m., I unplugged it from its power source with 97% of battery remaining. Then I did what I normally do: I used it. Hard.
Throughout the day, I used Mail - which was set to check for new email every minute; Safari, with multiple open tabs, though Flash was not installed; iCal; Messages; Notes; Pages; Terminal; Tweebot; and, last but not least, a virtual copy of Windows XP running through Parallels 8. Within Windows, I was running Microsoft System Center Service Manager; Lync; an active VNC session; and LogMeIn for remote sessions.
Without compromising my normal settings and workflow, I used the Air until the system ran out of power and put itself to sleep. To ensure consistency, I performed the same test over two days.
The screen was set to 80% brightness, and set to sleep after 10 minutes of inactivity. The 'Put hard disks to sleep when possible' option in the Energy Saver system preference was selected, but Display dimming and Power Nap were disabled. I was connected to a corporate Wi-Fi network, and the back-lit keyboard was always on. Since I have many files on a portable drive, I had one plugged in via one of the USB 3 ports. I also had the Air connected to an external 22-in. Dell display (rotated 90 degrees, if that matters).
In other words, I did what i could to tax the hell out of the Air.
On the first day, the laptop handled all of my work without slowing down for four hours and 38 minutes before needing to be plugging in to recharge.
The second day I saw just under six hours of battery life (five hours and fifty-eight minutes, to be exact). The difference? On Day 2, I had moved the files from my external drive to the Air, so I did not connect the external drive.
Reminder: With some obvious-but-careful power management (turning down the brightness of the screen, disabling Wi-Fi and not plugging in external devices), you can get closer to Apple's claimed battery life, which is pretty impressive. I'll more on this in my full review.
Granted, the times I clocked aren't exactly the 12 hours Apple promises from this computer. But then again, this test was stacked to maximize strenuous real-world scenarios. I can say that this laptop lasted longer than any other Apple laptop I've used under the same or similar circumstances.
It's only been a few days, but I can already see how this device is perfect for those who value portability over ports. I'll have much more on the Air after I've had some serious time with it, but I'm already quite impressed by this little machine.
Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).
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