You have to understand where I’m coming from to comprehend the weightiness of this review. If you’d told me two years ago that I would willingly spend my own money on a new MacBook Air, I would have laughed. Macs are for the computer-illiterate, people with too much money to spend, non-PC gamers, or some combination of the three.
It’s amazing how things change. This summer after Apple announced a refreshed Air at the Worldwide Developers Conference, I took the plunge and bought one. It’s been a great experience. I love it.
2013 MacBook Air Review – All Aspects Explored
Hardware – 5/5
Apple tends to have the best hardware in the industry, but the MacBook Air stands out even by that high standard. This is one of the best-constructed pieces of electronics I’ve ever used.
The first thing I noticed taking it out of the box was the weight. At just 3 lbs (1.35 kg), the Air feels no heavier than a one-subject notebook.
It stands slim at 0.68 inches (1.7 cm) at its thickest near the hinge before tapering down to a fine point near the bottom of the lid. The user-facing edge is so thin that it can cut fruit.
Despite its thin and light shape, the Air feels rock solid. There’s not a flimsy part on this frame. It has the kind of build quality that you’d expect from a computer costing well over $1,000.
The brushed aluminum construction and black keyboard lend it a gorgeous minimalist aesthetic. No stickers. No logos. No distractions. Just silver with a tasteful script reading “MacBook Air” below the screen.
Speaking of the screen, wow. The 13-inch Air sports a bright 1440×900 LCD panel. The saturation and sharpness are excellent. It put my old Acer IPS external monitor to shame.
The machine’s resolution places it firmly within the standard definition and behind the latest crop of high-res Windows Ultrabooks (and the Retina MacBook Pro). However, this was likely necessary to preserve battery life.
A nice set of chiclet keys lies below the screen. They have less travel than I’m used to, but still feel nice and clicky under heavy typing. Having a good keyboard is critical as a writer, and the Air’s keys perform superbly.
The layout of the keys differs from Windows machines in a few key (pun intended) ways. First, no Windows key. Second, it lacks most of the esoteric buttons such as Page Up and Down, Delete, and Print Screen. Apple compensates for this by building shortcuts into OS X to perform equivalent actions.
I liked the row of media keys at the top. There are shortcuts to play/pause music, adjust volume, brightness, and activate Mission Control. These are far more helpful than basic function keys.
Below the keyboard is a wide glass touchpad. I could write an entire review simply praising this one device. The MacBook Air’s touchpad is fantastic. It is hands-down the best mouse pointer I’ve ever used on a laptop.
Some quick research reveals that Apple uses special sensors to more accurately track finger movements. Whatever the special sauce is, everything works flawlessly. One finger tapping, two finger tap for right-click, and three-finger drag (all built into the OS) execute with grace. Two-finger scrolling is incredibly smooth and responsive.
Apple also thoughtfully included some neat four-finger gestures. A swipe up activates Mission Control. Four-finger swipes left and right switch between virtual desktops and full-screen apps.
Lastly, the Air has a few input ports. The base’s anorexic frame fits two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, a Mini DisplayPort, headphone jack, and MagSafe 2 power slot.
Overall, the MacBook Air’s hardware is phenomenal. Apple gave us a computer that doesn’t compromise the keyboard, touchpad, or weight. That’s amazing.
Battery – 5/5
This is where the new mid-2013 MacBook Air stops being great and becomes extraordinary. The battery life on this machine is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The secret is Intel’s new Haswell chip, designed specifically for power-conscious Ultrabooks. Between that and the power optimizations in OS X, the battery runs longer than the live version of “Free Bird.”
Apple claims you can get up to 13 hours of screen time on the 13-inch model. After using it for months (and rarely with a charger), I can confirm similar numbers.
Using the new Air feels liberating. I never worry about keeping it charged anymore because the battery can go forever. Once you fill it up (a surprisingly quick process), this computer will last for hours.
The amazing battery and thin-and-light hardware make this a great laptop for travelers. It’s easy to take on the road without worrying about trying to find a power outlet.
Battery life is also the most plausible reason for the mid-2013 Air’s standard-definition screen. Retina displays simply need more power. I don’t mind the compromise, but consider this before buying.
The battery life in the new MacBook Air is absolutely fantastic. Living without worrying about chargers is the way to go. If this is what the future of laptops looks like, the future will be awesome.
Software – 4/5
Apple is working on 10.9 Mavericks for release late October. Until then, we Mac users will have to stick with 10.8 Mountain Lion.
The latest version of OS X impresses with its power, flexibility, and user-friendliness. Apple spent the last few years refining rather than redefining its desktop OS, and it produced results. OS X presents a highly polished product with few flaws.
Using a Mac feels subtly different from a PC. Apple does a great job of streamlining the experience without removing functionality. They’ve placed emphasis on what needs to be emphasized without overwhelming the user with options. This balance is hard to strike, but the results speak for themselves.
One aspect of Mountain Lion I especially liked was its approach to window management, which is far and away better than anything on Windows (except maybe with Dexpot).
OS X doesn’t work with windows the same was as Microsoft’s OS. Most of them float on the desktop without running in full screen. Lion introduced a native full-screen mode with a button in the upper right-hand corner of an app. Click that and it’ll expand to fill the display.
For non-maximized windows, Mission Control is a godsend. With a four-finger swipe up (or press of the Mission Control button on the keyboard and dock), your view zooms out and displays all open windows for easy selection. It’s a great way to move between windows. I’d recommend trying this on Windows and Linux with Dexpot and Compiz, respectively.
Four-finger swipes left and right navigate you between full-screen apps and virtual desktops, which display another set of separate windows. Extra desktops are useful when you’re working on several projects simultaneously and don’t want to close your windows.
Mountain Lion also adds a helpful Notification Center which you can open with a two-finger swipe from the edge of the touchpad or by clicking the icon in the top right of the status bar. It displays new emails, Facebook messages, and the finished torrents. Apple claims Mavericks will receive your notifications from iOS and even be able to quick reply to texts.
OS X ships with a rich set of first-party Apple programs. Unlike the manufacturer bloatware you see on Windows, these apps are (mostly) helpful. Mail, Calendar, Messages, and Facetime all have their uses. Mail and Calendar both sync nicely with my Google account. Safari is alright. It works well enough but lacks the universality and extension library of Chrome.
As someone not heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, I found less use for other apps like Reminders, iTunes, and Game Center. Google Calendar handles my reminders, Spotify my music, and Google Play Games my mobile gaming. This is what happens when you don’t have an iPhone.
Using OS X is still a good experience, even without buying into Apple services. You can use gCal, Gmail, Chrome, and even Microsoft Word on a Mac. If you don’t want to lock yourself into Apple, you don’t have to do so.
Overall, Mountain Lion is a powerful and appealing operating system. However, it’s not perfect. There are some issues with external monitor support. When I fullscreen an app, it only covers one screen. The other shows a blank background and goes wasted.
The other problem came when I wanted to play The Walking Dead on my external monitor. In Windows, I’d set the output to the external monitor only and use my laptop’s keyboard to play the game. OS X lacks that feature entirely. If you plug in the power cord and shut the laptop’s lid, it will display only on the external monitor. This solution is useless, though, because then I can’t use my keyboard to play the game. I shouldn’t have to use a Bluetooth keyboard or gamepad just for video games.
The last minor quibble is when you plug-in an external monitor, it displays the top status bar on only one screen.
Mavericks is supposed to improve OS X’s multi-monitor support by allowing you to run a full-screen app on each screen with a menu bar atop both. I look forward to that. Until then, Mountain Lion is still incomplete.
Gaming Support – 2/5
Gaming on a Mac, especially a MacBook Air, sucks. That’s a simple truth.
There are many problems with Mac gaming, but we’ll start with the market share issue. Since Windows composes 92% of all computers in existence, game developers mostly aim for Microsoft’s platform. They understandably want to target the widest possible audience.
This leads to the second problem. Games for Windows are built using DirectX, a Microsoft product that will never release on OS X. Game companies that want to port their title to OS X and Linux have to rebuild it in OpenGL.
Third, OS X has a number of technical issues. It changes the mouse acceleration to improve the day-to-day experience, but this makes gaming weird. Throw in a lack of peripheral support and you’re not helping the game library.
The MacBook Air, in particular, is not built for gaming. It uses Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics, which supposedly improve performance. I barely got 30 FPS out of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings on OS X, a graphically intensive game.
When I did try playing PC games, the Air would heat up to worrying levels. The upper left corner of the computer by the Escape key, in particular, gets hot.
Gaming on Mac isn’t a total wash, though. Valve, Blizzard, and Firaxis all support Apple’s system. Some great games like the aforementioned Witcher 2, Minecraft, Civilization V, and World of Warcraft have made their way to OS X in the past. There’s also a good selection of indie titles on Steam like Bastion, Limbo, and Kerbal Space Program.
The best gaming experience I’ve had so far on my MacBook Air was when I installed Windows through Bootcamp and got Mass Effect 2 running natively. Even with integrated graphics, the i7 Haswell chip performed nicely at around 30 frames per second. Bootcamp is a decent solution to the Mac gaming problem, but it can consume up to 50 GB of storage. That’s nothing to sneeze at when you’re on a 128 GB SSD.
You can game on Mac, but it is a decidedly worse experience than on Windows. Don’t buy a MacBook Air if you’re serious about PC gaming. You can build a desktop PC with better specs for much less than the cost of a new Air.
Performance – 5/5
The refreshed 2013 MacBook Air offers fabulous performance, especially if you spend the money to upgrade to an i7 processor and 8 GB of RAM. I got both upgrades for my Air and the results have amazed me.
First, Intel’s new Haswell chip kicks ass. The geniuses over at AnandTech dissected the i5 and i7 models of the new Air and found that although the i5 model tends to be slightly slower than last year’s Ivy Bridge chip, the i7 improves performance markedly.
General response time from the Air is excellent. Switching between apps via Mission Control and changing virtual desktops executes without a hint of lag. I think I’ve seen the spinning beach ball “loading” icon twice. Ever. The Air flies.
The i7 is supported by 8 GB of RAM. This amount suffices for most work, but be warned that it’s the maximum option. This is a poor choice for video editing.
The computer also features a fast solid-state drive. Performance on that is good as well. Moving files around and installing apps is fast and painless. However, I didn’t get to enjoy the full benefits of that high data transfer speed because most of my file transfers are between USB devices. Just remember that your transfer is only as fast as that USB connection allows.
The best thing about the MacBook Air’s performance is the sense of completeness. OS X, the extra RAM, the i7, and the solid-state drive blend together into one cohesive and speedy package. Everything flows together seamlessly. That sounds wishy-washy, but trust me. Apple did a great job melding everything together to ensure a nearly lag-free end-user experience. The MacBook Air is fast.
Hackability – 5/5
Using OS X surprised me. Apple products have a reputation for being locked down and unfriendly to hacking and modifications. There’s a good reason for that. They are. Just ordering this MacBook Air was an exercise in limited choice. You can bump the processor from an i5 to an i7, increase the storage, and double the RAM from 4 to 8 GB. Apart from choosing preinstalled software (all from Apple), that’s it.
However, once you get OS X up and running, there’s an impressive amount of flexibility built into the system. You can swap out the default web browser (thank god or rather Google). You can delete pre installed apps like GarageBand and iMovie. You can install apps from outside Apple’s official store.
I’m still figuring out the hacking potential with Automator and scripting my workflow. Apple even left in a command-line interface with the bash shell, an immensely useful addition to working with g++ and SSH. This is a great approach to computing- build a slick front-end for easy everyday use while keeping the deep customization and features that serious users want.
OS X also enjoys a great deal of powerful software. Our Mac expert Matt Dawson has a lengthy post history full of helpful tips and hacks. You can supercharge your productivity with Alfred, get the latest features from Mavericks right now on Mountain Lion, and automatically install apps on a new machine (think Ninite on Windows).
One fact that comforted me when I bought the Air was that if I really hated OS X (I don’t), switching to Windows was always an option. Apple includes Bootcamp Assistant in OS X. I used it and tried dual-booting Mountain Lion and Windows 8.
In theory, you could wipe the drive and run only Windows. And of course, you can install your favorite Linux distro if you’ve got a spare SD card handy. In theory, an ambitious user with hard drive space to spare could triple-boot three operating systems.
Kudos to Apple for embracing this and putting in something as cool as Bootcamp. It is such a godsend to work all day in OS X and reboot into Windows for some PC gaming.
The MacBook Air is surprisingly open to hacking and modifications. In my time with the machine, Apple has never blocked me from doing something or limited a feature because it felt I didn’t need it. Everything’s there. A hackable Apple product… who would have thought?
Overall Score – 5/5
The MacBook Air is a superb computer and the best laptop I’ve ever used. This is it – a perfect keyboard and amazing trackpad paired with a crazy-long battery life and speedy internals… all within a frame you can fit in a drawstring bag. It’s portable without sacrificing anything serious.
I would highly recommend this laptop to anyone looking for a high-quality machine to take on the road. The MacBook Air is amazing.