New laptops are always fun, and Apple is one of the first to market with Intel’s newest Haswell architecture. Intel has promised large gains in battery life with Haswell, which is something Apple likes to go all-in on in addition to bragging about performance compared to older models. However, this review will primarily be centered on the hardware and experience with the laptop. I have additional reviews in progress that will examine the performance of the 2013 Macbook Air and adventures in running Windows 8 and Fedora 19 on it.
If you look at the 2013 and previous 2012 models side-by-side, there’s very little that Apple has changed physically. The only real difference is the addition of two small microphones on the left side of the laptop. But there’s no need to re-invent the wheel, Apple has a very solid design here that I don’t anticipate any changes to any time soon. The laptop is very sturdy, made from Apple’s process of milling the entire body out of a single piece of aluminum. The difference is quite stunning, as this replaces an HP m6-1035dx, which had a lower body and bezel made of of plastic, while the lid and palmrest were made out of what I believe was magnesium. There is a bit of a premium to be paid in Apple’s products, but while many claim it as an “Apple Tax”, it’s not always entirely true. Even a fairly well-made laptop like my previous HP feels like a toy in comparison to the aluminum. My only complaint with the aluminum is that because I often wear a watch with a metal band, I often want to take it off to type on it to avoid scratching the palmrest as well as to not hear the sound of scraping metal. If you frequently wear a watch, take heed.
The biggest relief in upgrading, however, has by far been the display. I’ve said this to friends and in other discussions, and I will re-iterate it here: 1366×768 panels are a disease. Most laptops that are manufactured today have this resolution, even at larger sizes like 15.4” and 17″!. The Macbook Air uses a 1440×900 screen. While deciding what laptop to get, I was torn between the Air and a Samsung Ultrabook that had a full 1920×1080 display at the same size. In the end, I chose the Air because the Samsung model was one with Intel’s Ivy Bridge, and I decided that if I was to get a new laptop, it would be with Intel’s Haswell. I did get a lower resolution in return, but anything higher than 1366×768 is an upgrade. It’s a complete shame that laptops have regressed since “HD” became a buzzword and manufacturers decided to cheap out on screens that are barely higher resolution than a 720p television, which even now are becoming a rarity. This is something that Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, went off on a while back on Google Plus after coming to the realization that the Nexus 10 he bought for his wife has a higher resolution and DPI than his desktop monitor or his laptop. Torvalds wrote “So with even a $399 tablet doing 2560×1600 pixel displays, can we please just make that the new standard laptop resolution? Even at 11″? Please. Stop with the “retina” crap, just call it “reasonable resolution”. The fact that laptops stagnated ten years ago (and even regressed, in many cases) at around half that in both directions is just sad.”
The screen is also incredibly thin. Something most people don’t know is that the signature Apple on the lid of the Macbook line isn’t actually lit on it’s own. Rather, it’s the same backlight that lights the screen, and if you shine a flashlight through the Apple logo while the screen is off, you can see the light penetrate the screen.
In terms of expansion, the 2013 Air is fairly utilitarian: two USB ports, an SDXC slot, a single port for audio I/O, and a Thunderbolt port that is electrically compatible with mini-DisplayPort. This may seem barebones, but I rarely used more than one USB port at a time on my previous laptop, rarely used the ethernet (in fact, I think the only time I did use it was when setting up a router), and never used the optical drive. I’d go as far as to say that on laptops now, optical drives are dead weight. Even most casual-use software is distributed digitally, and even if you walk into a brick and mortar store like Best Buy, what used to be distributed on optical media is now a license card with a link to a digital download. That said, if you do require an optical drive for your Macbook Air, be selective. I had an HP external DVD drive I attempted to use with the Macbook Air. Attempted being the key word, as Apple apparently limits the amount of current their USB ports can put out, and it was incapable of powering it. There is a “Remote Disc” option, which allows transmission of data from a computer running Windows or OS X. I toyed with it on my Mid-2010 Mac Mini, but it was quite slow and not worth the hassle. Another point of note for potential buyers is that if you ever intend on using this with a projector, you specifically need a MiniDisplayPort-to-VGA adapter. VGA will be around on projectors for some time to come due to its advantage in cabling length without signal loss. Using a DVI-to-VGA adapter on top of a MiniDisplayPort-toVGA adapter will not work due to the electrical difference, so if you also use it with an external monitor, you will need two adapters. Intel and Apple are trying to position Thunderbolt as the only port you’ll ever need, since it is essentially an external PCI-Express x4 slot. Sadly, Intel still charges a very large amount for the controller chips, and accessories carry a very high premium. It also lacks the ability to provide power, and both AMD and nVidia have shown no interest in producing external video cards due to the low bandwidth.
The 2013 Air is sporting a low-voltage variant of Intel’s Haswell architecture. Many were disappointed in Haswell on the desktop, where it was not that much greater a performer than the previous Ivy Bridge. While not a worthwhile upgrade from Ivy for existing builds, I feel that these criticisms are misplaced; Intel has always said that their goals with Haswell were to reduce power consumption, cut legacy instructions, improve onboard graphics, and add newer instructions such as AVX. They’ve more than accomplished these goals. I cannot say enough good things about how much they have improved the power consumption of Haswell over Ivy Bridge and blow AMD’s Piledriver/Trinity/Richland out of the water. I have regularly been getting 10-13 hour battery life cycles out of the 2013 Air with real-world use in Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, and Apple has promised further improvements in the upcoming Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks. An 802.11ac card is also onboard, which is great for the future and longevity of the laptop. A pleasant surprise, though, is that the solid state drive is not using SATA; it is using PCI-Express. This makes it very fast and high-bandwidth. Booting to OS X takes mere seconds, and Windows 8 and Linux aren’t far behind.
While my performance review is still underway, I can say that in terms of computational ability, the i5-4250U is roughly equal to AMD’s A10-4600M. Both are dual-core, quad-threaded chips, but the i5 has a much lower clockspeed and a TDP of 15W compared to the A10’s 35W. In fairness to AMD, Intel has a one node advantage over them, but regardless, these are the products on the market today. Rather than scale down Piledriver and the future Steamroller to compete with Intel’s low-voltage chips, AMD is throwing Jaguar into that ring, the same architecture powering the Xbox One and Playstation 4. Unfortunately, AMD has been slow to release Jaguar, possibly due to demand from Microsoft and Sony, but once I can get my hands on Jaguar, I’m eager to test it against Haswell. Intel has also vastly improved their onboard GPU performance. Intel graphics used to be something to avoid, but now they’re actually on-par or greater than AMD’s onboard graphics. The 2013 Macbook Air uses HD5000, internally called GT3. This is not the Iris Pro with embedded RAM that has been talked up, but still more powerful than the previous HD4000, and light-years beyond Sandy Bridge’s HD3000. As said, I won’t go too much into specifics in this article, but the GPU is roughly equal to AMD’s A10-4600M. This is quite a feat from Intel, which has nowhere near the experience AMD does with GPU’s. I expect AMD to retake that crown very shortly with GCN-based chips underway, but Intel graphics are no longer something to fear. I can very comfortably play Team Fortress 2 on it.
The Macbook Air ships with Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. The OS supports many gestures on the trackpad, such as scrolling, swiping, and multiple finger swiping to get to Mission Control, which displays all open tasks.
Above you can see my desktop as it sits right now. I’ve customized it a bit, making the top bar opaque, adding mounted drives to the desktop, and changing things up on the dock. Entertainingly, you can kind of tell I’m primarily a Linux user since I have Activity Monitor and Terminal on my dock, something most Mac users never touch. I’ve also installed Chrome and set it as the default browser. I have nothing in particular against Safari, but it’s Mac and iOS only. Chrome runs on Linux, Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS, so I can have it sync my Google account, bookmarks, and plugins across platforms, so I use it. If you plan on only using Mac OS and have an iOS device, there’s nothing wrong with using Safari. Apple’s included email client, simply called “Mail”, is quite nice. I’ve actually felt no desire to install Thunderbird during my time with this review. Messages, on the other hand, is something I immediately replaced. I really do not like the interface, which looks like it was taken straight from iOS. I replaced it with Adium, which is a Mac-centric port of Pidgin’s libraries and code. It supports more instant messaging protocols, supports IRC, and supports off-the-record encryption, something I find important. I also wish Apple would merge Mail, Calendar, and Contacts. While there is system-wide use of the data from each application, it seems rather clunky to have them as discrete applications. I also very much dislike Apple’s TextEdit. I will concede that if I use a text editor, I will likely be in Linux, but TextEdit seems to be unable to decide if it wants to be a text editor or a light word processor. I also dislike how by default it opens to an iCloud panel of recent documents, when text editors are best for editing or quick and dirty writing. To me, it’s just a jarring interruption of workflow.
Other than that, Chrome, Steam and Libreoffice are the only other applications I’ve put on my dock. The only other applications I’ve bothered to install are CCleaner, Silverlight, and Java. I’ve felt no real need to install much else, although I will disclose that my desktop remains my main computer and this is for portable use. Individual workflows can and will vary.
While I will get into Windows and Linux on this laptop in a later article, I do have to chew Apple out on a few things in this area. I had a hell of a time trying to install Windows 8 on this. I used Boot Camp to get Windows drivers and to partition the drive, but it would not install my existing USB install of Windows 8. After some digging, it appears Apple uses a non-standard UEFI implementation and you must use Boot Camp Assistant to create a USB bootable installer of Windows 8 rather than Microsoft’s tool. Apple’s trackpad drivers in Windows also leave much to be desired. I don’t expect full gesture support, but scrolling is clunky and doesn’t use Apple’s “natural scrolling”, where swiping up moves pages downward and vice-versa.
There’s no way to enable it in their control panel, either. This is unacceptable when Apple touts running Windows in addition to Mac OS X as an advantage of having a Mac. It appears they really, really want to keep you on Mac OS X. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it is something worthy of me rolling my eyes.
Overall, this is a great laptop. I don’t regret spending a single penny on it. The battery life is nothing short of insane; both Apple and Intel have done great jobs advancing battery life. The most amazing thing to me is that despite the battery life, it has nearly identical performance to the A10-4600M that it replaced. Using PCI-Express over SATA is a very nice surprise that I hope other OEM’s take up. The only thing I would change about it is adding a higher resolution screen. Despite my love of it not being 1366×768, small, high-DPI panels have come down in price considerably, and Intel is pressuring OEMs to increase resolutions to 1920×1080 and even 2560×1440 on some higher end models. But, Apple has a need to distinguish the Retina Macbook Pro. As it stands, the 13” Retina Macbook Pro has no discrete GPU and the screen is the primary difference between a Macbook Air. The only real downside I see is that the RAM is soldered to the board. If you think you may need 8GB, just get it. The SSD can be replaced with some shennanigans with a pentalobe screwdriver and some careful hands, though as of right now, no PCI-Express SSDs in this form factor exist.
As of right now, there is no Haswell model of the Retina Macbook Pro, but we all know that it is coming. If you need a discrete GPU, that’s the primary reason for buying that model. I’d expect a Haswell Macbook Pro to go with a 25W Haswell and AMD’s Sea Islands or Volcanic Islands, and with that Apple should have no problem distinguishing the two. The current Macbook Air is fast, but I would not want to use it for on-the-go photo editing for photos taken with a DSLR, nor would I want to use it for video editing. The power just isn’t there, and if the new Mac Pro is any indication, Apple will be going with AMD’s Radeon 8000 for the Haswell revision, which is a monster for OpenCL acceleration. But, if you’re looking for a nice, light laptop, the Macbook Air is certainly worth consideration.
Materials used in this review: 2013 Macbook Air, Microsoft Arc Mouse, Windows 8 Professional x86_64, Fedora 19 x86_64, LibreOffice, Steam, Team Fortress 2, Poker Night at the Inventory, Adium, Google Chrome, CPU-Z, GPU-Z
Macbook Air Specs as reviewed: 13.3” Display, Intel Core i5-4520u, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD.