Apple MacBook Air 13-inch 2013: All’s well that Haswell
Intel's new processor tech gives the ageing Ultrabook a lift
Review Part One El Reg’s review of the latest 13-inch MacBook Air comes in two parts: here, I take a look at one of the build-to-order configurations offered by Apple, which upgrades the standard 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of 1066MHZ mobile DDR3 RAM, 128GB solid-state drive specification to a 1.7GHz Core i7 machine with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
Separately, you can read m’colleague Bob Dormon’s thoughts on the standard version of the new Air, which he tackled as a potential Windows machine. It’s worth a read even if you’re not a Windows user because the Boot Camp experience revealed some interesting changes Apple has made to the hardware in order, we reckon, to deliver the major improvement in battery life both machines provide.
Apple’s MacBook Air 13-inch: cutting-edge internals, behind-the-curve casing
The reason I wanted to get hold of the upgraded version of the Air is, of course, because Apple’s mania for providing punters with sealed units containing "no user-serviceable parts within". I couldn’t just throw in the extra memory and storage myself. The Air’s memory is soldered onto the motherboard, leaving the Wi-Fi card and the SSD flash storage as the only readily removable components - and, as you’ll see, swapping out the SSD is a non-starter: it needs a special Apple cable to interface with the motherboard.
Now I - and, I suspect, most of you lot too - find this irritating. I want to be able to increase my computer’s memory and storage capacities over time as I see fit. But I also find myself increasingly wondering whether that’s as sensible a view to take as it once was.
My travel machine is still a 2010 Core 2 Duo-based 11-inch Air with a mere 2GB of RAM and I’ve not felt the need to increase that capacity, even though it gets used for pretty much all the ‘pro’ tasks I put my main, largely desk-bound machine to. I’ve wanted to upgrade it, and probably would have done if I could, but the truth is I’ve not actually needed to.
Still skinny, still almost impossible to upgrade
Likewise, I don’t feel hindered by losing the ability to swap out a battery, largely because I’ve found by experience that a sensible charging regime and a few battery prolonging tricks can eke out a charge to keep me up and running until I can get to a power outlet - all without compromising how I use the computer. And if integrating the battery makes for a slimmer, less weighty, more portable machine, I’m all for it. That’s a trade I am willing to make, though it’s clearly not one other folk will want to accept, especially people who spend a lot of time on ten-hour-or-more flights.
So people who expect to be able to tinker with the insides of their computers are not going to like the new Air any more than they did its predecessors. Possibly less so since Apple has - surprise, surprise - introduced a seemingly proprietary connector for the machine’s SSD. The good news is the machine’s battery life, which is considerably improved over previous MacBook Airs and of other vendors’ laptops too. Perhaps that extra battery in your pack really will be made redundant at last.
Thanks for that should be laid at Intel’s door. Apple has upped the raw battery capacity a tad, and it’s made some other tweaks too, but it’s the Air’s Haswell processor from Chipzilla that really makes the difference. It’s not the only new technology the new Air incorporates: the new Mac also features the latest in Wi-Fi technology, 802.11ac, and SATA Express storage.
The two-mic array is the one new feature on the casing
I’ll look at these in turn shortly, but it’s worth first running through the rest of the 2013 Air’s attributes, though almost all of them were present on earlier models. The Air’s design is as slim and as aesthetically pleasing as ever, but its aluminium alloy shell has solid practical benefits too, as anyone who has ever dropped one onto a hard floor will attest: it’s as tough as.
The keyboard is solid, with negligible flex: it’s there if you really push hard, but you won’t see it under ordinary use. The deck is backlit too, which is one of those features that, when you suddenly find you could really use it, you sorely regret its absence. I miss it when I’m using my 11-inch Air, and I’m pleased to have it here.
The large, glass-covered trackpad is, as ever, smooth and easy to use: OS X provides support for multiple taps to handle right clicks and such, and there’s a whole host of rotate, zoom, multi-finger swipes that you can make use of. I won’t say you don’t need a mouse, but a lot of users can dispense with one when they use this pad.
Too few ports? No fewer than the Sony Vaio Pro offers
Apple remains as parsimonious as ever with ports: just two USB 3.0 connectors here, along with an SDXC-compatible card slot and a Thunderbolt connector. I was playing with a new Sony Vaio Pro last night, courtesy of Amazon, and it’s no more generous. You won’t be surprised to learn that no adaptors are included in the Air’s box - nor, as was the case in the all recent MacBooks, any form of software installation media. There’s no point bundling a DVD with a optical drive-less computer, but there’s no USB stick, either.
Instead, there’s a 650MB recovery partition on the SSD. That’s fine so long as you have an internet connection to download the operating system and your drive isn’t up the spout. If it was, of course, being non-standard, it would still need to be fixed by Apple.
Apple undoubtedly argues that this is much better for the non-technical buyer. Cupertino is probably correct, though its approach is of little advantage to the technically capable, whether they’re Mac owners themselves or have simply been called in to fix a friend’s computer.
The (backlit) keyboard and trackpad are excellent
Fading screen star
I think Apple has a harder case justifying the Air’s screen resolution. The IPS LCD has splendid viewing angles and doesn’t present a negative image if you look at it off axis the way my missus’ three-year-old Toshiba does - a bane for late-night, in-bed movie viewing, I can tell you. Colour reproduction looks good, but I Am Not A Professional Photographer.
But at 1400 x 900, the same resolution as my old 15in MacBook Pro, it’s behind the curve. I’m not asking for a “retina” display - I don’t think a laptop needs one; you sit too far away - but a 13in laptop should really be 1920 x 1080 in this day and age. As an Xcode user, I’d like to see the Air with a resolution greater than that. Full HD, however, is a good balance between resolution and cost. Thank Jobs it’s not 1366 x 768...
Coming to the new Air from a machine of 2010 vintage - it would be a very different story if I’d just been using a 2012 Air - the new model is refreshingly nippy. My main Mac is a two-and-a-half-year-old MacBook Pro, equipped with a first-gen Intel Core i5 that runs at 2.53GHz - a considerably higher figure than the standard 2013 Air’s 1.3GHz i5, or even the 1.7GHz i7 version I have here - and can’t go any higher the way Haswell can.
Doesn’t run hot
Running the kind of apps I usually run - Handbrake and Photoshop are perhaps the most challenging, but you can see the difference in tasks as diverse as importing a library of songs into iTunes and compiling software in Xcode - there’s a noticeable improvement, despite the lower clock speed and, this being an skinny machine, a lower-wattage processor.
Using Geekbench, a testing tool, the Core i7 Air delivers a score of 8359. The standard Core i5 model - with half the RAM and a slower SSD - put in 6789. So that puts the Airs either side of the current Mac Mini desktop, which packs a 2.5GHz Ivy Bridge processor.
Of course, Intel’s dynamic over-clocking technology, TurboBoost, makes a mockery of such comparisons: Geekbench will cause each machine’s CPU to raise its own clock speed somewhere between the baseline - 1.3GHz for the i5, 1.7GHz for the i7 - and a maximum: 2.6GHz and 3.3GHz, respectively. How close to the peak frequency an individual machine can get depends on thermal factors, including ambient air temperature. So the Geekbench numbers should be seen as the basis for broad comparisons not fine ones: neither machine was tested in precisely the same conditions as each other, or their predecessors. But it does show the extra welly the Core i7 brings when you need to call on it.
Apple MacBook Air 13-inch 2013 Geekbench: Longer bars are better
Benchmarks quantify the speed, but they’re not the whole story. What gain, if any, the user senses is equally important, and I certainly felt I had a faster machine under my fingers. It felt very smooth in operation. That too doesn’t complete the picture, of course. All computers acquire cruft over time, and I’m comparing a brand new computer freshly loaded with applications to one that hasn’t been refreshed for years. But the early signs are very positive.
Haswell’s on-board graphics core, the HD 5000, clocked at up to 1.1GHz, is able to chuck out Doom 3 Ultra Quality frames at 1440 x 900 resolution at a rate of 62.2 per second, though the figure is halved if you enable 4x anti-aliasing. Full HD H.264 video plays back nice and smoothly.
Even with the higher speed CPU running flat out, the Air remains practically silent. And when the fan does crank up, it’s not the hair dryer of old. Anyway, you expect noise when you’re crunching numbers; it’s in quiet lecture theatres, or when I’m head down trying to write a tricky paragraph or block of code, that I don’t need the distraction. Thankfully, the new Air didn’t give me any.
It’s not hard to extend the battery life well past 12 hours
Better still, I also got excellent battery life into the bargain. I can still get 11 hours plus out of my 2010 Air, as I did on the 11-inch Acer Aspire I previously used, but I have to disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and knock the screen brightness back to a barely visible 10 to 15 per cent - not a problem in a darkened conference hall, but it's another story in a brightly lit seminar room.
Not so the 2013 13-inch Air. To be sure, this model has a bigger battery capacity than both my 11-inch model and 2012’s Air revision - from 6700mAh to 7150mAh - but with the Wi-Fi on and connected, and the screen set to my usual 85 to 90 per cent brightness, I was enjoying just over 13 hours of operation. So a couple of hours of extra runtime without any visual or connectivity compromise. Performing my usual battery charge preservation tweaks saw that figure rise to 13 hours 42 minutes, and once, briefly broke 14 hours.
Mac OS X’s estimates are usually quite good indicators of runtime based on current usage levels. It’s telling how aggressively the OS and Haswell beneath it are watching out for power-reduction opportunities that this is now a more dynamic readout than it was on previous Macs. It seems to be actively calculating the runtime based on current activity and not simply the remaining charge.
Inside the Air
So at one point I saw I had 11 hours 22 minutes of runtime left, but a short while later that went up to 12 hours 12 minutes, then down to 11 hours 52 minutes. I plugged in a phone to charge and the estimate plunged to under five hours, then back up again when I disconnected the handset. Charge back to full, I looped a 1080p H.264 movie with the screen on maximum brightness and Wi-Fi on and connected to a wireless access point. The Air ran for just under eight hours 40 minutes.
Of course, most folk don’t usually go clicking on the battery icon in the menu bar to check on the ‘time remaining’ readout, they just glance at the percentage score next to the icon. This I found to count down noticeably much more slowly than I’m used to. Again, this is purely a perceptual point, not a scientific measure, but it’s reassuring that, in use, you will know that the Air is going to give you more run time than you’re accustomed to.
But you can’t entirely rely on the percentage. OS X’s own System Information app showed I had 6908mAh left out of 7252mAh, which is 95 per cent in my book, not the 100 per cent the icon was showing. That’s some egregious rounding up on Apple’s part.
Haswell, SATA Express, 802.11ac
How is the battery life extension achieved? It’s all down to Intel’s Haswell processor and how Apple has implemented it. Gone, for instance, is the old Computer Sleep time slider in OS X’s Energy Saver control panel. The System Information app shows that the Air’s system sleep time has been pre-set to just one minute. This doesn’t mean your machine will go into hibernation after that period, rather that’s when it tells Haswell to doze off.
Apple adjusts the Air’s sleep settings
This is essentially transparent to the user. Looking at the machine, with its display still active, you’d never know; start clicking on anything and the CPU wakes up. If there’s any lag while it does so, it’s not detectable by a human being: your typing, say, is there as soon as you hit the keys. Pause to reflect on what you’ve just written, however, and after a minute, back to sleep goes Haswell.
Slap down the Air’s lid and, with no UI interaction to worry about, the Air can turn off the display. Opening the computer up again and it’s immediately ready for interaction, thanks to Haswell’s speedy wake-up procedure and Apple’s use of the low-level Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI) bus to hook up the keyboard and trackpad, a trick borrowed from the embedded world.
Waking up the Air isn’t always such an immediate process, however. Leave it overnight, say, and when you lift the lid this time there’s a noticeable but brief pause - maybe a second or two - before it’s ready for input. Clearly, the Air’s usage monitor decides that, after a certain time, the user isn’t likely to lift the lid any time soon so it can risk dropping into a deeper sleep state, preserving battery charge at the cost of that short pause when the machine is awoken.
The keyboard and mouse now connect by SPI
Last year, I had a short conversation with The Economist’s Tom Standage about Air battery drain when the lid was closed. He thought it wasn’t excessive; I thought it was. Better, I suggested, to turn the thing off, since it couldn’t be relied upon not to lose a good chunk of charge when sleeping. I’m glad to say that’s no longer the case. I haven’t powered down the Air for some time now because I’m not seeing big percentage drops in charge when I open it up again.
It has only taken seven years, but I can now trust an Intel-powered Apple laptop not to deplete its battery during sleep as much as I could its PowerPC-based portables.
Touch wood, I can trust the Wi-Fi too. During testing I didn’t experience any of the Wi-Fi woes that some owners of the 2013 Air have complained about. I connected to two Apple access points: past-generation AirPort Express and Extreme units, both 802.11n but behind the curve. I’ve also connected to a phone hotspot, to El Reg’s ageing 802.11g office base-station, and to the 5GHz radio in a Virgin Superhub 2, again without unexpected disconnections requiring the wireless sub-system to be restarted.
What I haven’t been able to do yet, alas, is test the machine with an 802.11ac base-station.
SATA over PCI = SATA Express = SATA 3.2
The new Air sports an SSD - 256GB here, but 128GB and 512GB options are available too - connected through a pair of PCI Express 2.0 lanes rather than the old SATA bus for faster transfers. So that’s 1GB/s in each direction, 2GB/s overall, compared to 600MB/s for SATA 3.0. It’s an approach that’s nonetheless still part of the SATA spec, where it’s called SATA Express - aka SATA 3.2.
The upshot is a plenty of bandwidth for the SSD to stretch its legs. I duplicated a 55.6GB folder containing about 9,000 MP3 files and it took 2 minutes 47.87 seconds - 2.47Gb/s or 315.89MB/s, and that’s with the OS X file copy error checking and protocol overhead. It felt fast. For comparison, copying the same folder to a 5,400RPM drive via USB 3.0 took eight minutes 54 seconds; a USB 2.0 transfer took almost 28 minutes. With the previous generation of Air, the same copy procedure would have taken around six minutes.
SATA overseers SATA-IO has a proposed connector for SATA Express drives, called M.2. Judging from photos, Apple hasn’t used it, choosing instead one of its own, so don’t expect handy third-party SSD upgrades in the near future, at least until suppliers have had a chance to reverse engineer or license the Apple connector. Likewise slots into which the old drive can be hooked up and then linked to USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt.
M.2 interface (top) and the 2013 Air’s equivalent (bottom)
Air SSD source: iFixit.com
The Reg Verdict
If you’re in the market for a slimline laptop, the new Air is worth consideration. Thanks to Intel’s Haswell chip it’s fast and it offers a very impressive battery life. The solid-state storage is nippy too, and it has 802.11ac Wi-Fi for a degree of connectivity future proofing. The casing is slim yet resilient.
The other side of the coin shows a relatively low storage capacity - we’re still a long way from a cost-effective 1TB SSD - plus a sub-standard screen resolution, limited room for expansion and no room at all for component upgrades, and a degree of portability that was once cutting edge but now being eclipsed by Apple’s rivals, most notably Sony and its 13-inch Vaio Pro. The Sony has a Full HD screen too, though is no more generous with ports.
For Mac fans, especially those with MacBook Airs or Pros of a few years’ vintage, the new Air will be a welcome upgrade - assuming their needs are not still being satisfied by their old machines. For other folk, the factors that made the Air a compelling recommendation a couple of years ago have largely been eroded to nothing by the competition.
Ultrabook sceptics will naturally point to cheaper, more powerful alternatives, but even buyers who really do value portability and don’t mind paying for it will see that the Air is by no means their only option.
The new Air is a nice machine, but it offers nothing you can’t get now, or get soon, from Haswell-powered Ultrabooks: decent performance and a long battery life. SATA Express and 802.11ac are both standards World+Dog will soon implement. In short, choosing a skinny laptop is now simply a matter of whether you want Mac OS X or not. ®