Visually speaking, very little separates this year's MacBook Air from last year's. The 2013 generation still has the same trim, reliable, lightweight aluminium chassis and lid in the same dimensions (1.7 cm thick, weighing in at 1.35 kg).
The chiclet keyboard is as nice and enjoyable as ever. The backlit keys are well-spaced; you rarely miss your target. The keyboard also has all the standard Function key shortcuts.
The touchpad is the same one as the 2012 MacBook Air. Much to our delight, it has the same comfortable size (10.5 x 7.6 cm), same surface, same performance.
Unfortunately, the ports are just as limited as before, with just two USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port, a headphone/microphone combo jack and an SD card reader. True, it's hard to fit extra ports into a chassis this size, but an Ethernet port and an HDMI out would have been more than welcome. For these and any other type of connection, you have to buy adapters from Apple's website, usually for around £25.
Heat readings with the components under stress
Images taken with a Fluke Ti25 thermal imaging camera
Images taken with a Fluke Ti25 thermal imaging camera
The cooling fan is practically silent. Both with the fan running and not, the (minimal) ambient noise in our testing room never strayed from 34 dB(A). Even when the computer is fighting its hardest, you'd have to put your ear up to the chassis to hear it. However, this MacBook Air manages fan noise better than it manages heat. Just like last year, when you demand more out of the computer, the keyboard starts to get hot and the air coming out of the vent sometimes exceeds 45°C (113°F). Luckily, both the 11" and 13" vent the hot air from a spot in between the screen and chassis, that way your legs don't get hot when you have the laptop sitting atop your lap.
Sound quality has always been one of the MacBook Air's strong points. Despite the thin body, the built-in speakers—located underneath the keyboard—deliver good volume without making the chassis vibrate. The sound clearly lacks bass (between 20 Hz and 250 Hz), which makes it hard to fully enjoy your favourite music, but the spectrum is nonetheless balanced and the vocal range (300 Hz to 3,000 Hz) is perfectly intelligible.
Frequency response curve: built-in speakers
Green = good / Orange = tolerable / White = heavily altered
As always, the headphone output is much louder than competing laptops (even many 15" and 17" models). The sound is clean, with no crosstalk or distortion.
The 1440 x 900 display is also the same one as before. The average contrast is 830:1, no matter how high you set the brightness (up to 316 cd/m²). This puts the MacBook Air in the upper average in terms of contrast, although it's still a notch behind its direct rivals, such as the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A and Samsung Series 7 Ultra, which respectively have contrast ratios of 970:1 and 900:1.
Grey colour temperature
The colour rendering could be better. Much higher than the desired 3, the Delta E of 6.7 may be a turn-off to image purists. Also, the TN panel has narrow vertical viewing angles. Asus and Samsung, by contrast, use much more effective IPS and PLS panels in their high-end ultrabooks.
The Intel Core i5-4250U processor is powerful enough to handle any task. However, we were a little disappointed to see that it's a rung below last year's! On average, a task that requires one minute to compute on the 2012 MacBook Air takes one minute and ten seconds on the 2013 MacBook Air. But that figure can vary greatly depending on the application. For example, where it took the 2012 model 360 seconds to encode an HD video, it takes the 2013 model 440 seconds. But if you're doing 3D modelling, the speeds are much closer (375 seconds in 2012 and 382 seconds in 2013).
The SSD provides great overall responsiveness, allowing the computer to start up in about 10 seconds and shut down in 18 seconds. Based on our measurements, the SSD is on average twice as fast as the 2012 MacBook Air.
Last year's Intel HD 4000 chipset (3DMark06 score: 5820) has made way for an Intel HD 5000 (3DMark06 score: 6090), which does just as little to awaken our inner gamer. It can run the odd non-demanding game such as World of Warcraft in the screen's native resolution (1400 x 900) with a satisfactory amount of detail. But once you move on to games like Diablo III or StarCraft II, you'll have to be much less demanding and lower all of the quality settings in order to get any kind of fluid gameplay. And if you want to try your hand at something even bigger, like BioShock Infinite, you'll have to lower the native resolution altogether.
The 2013 MacBook Air 13" can decode Full HD movies (equivalent to Blu-ray) without flinching.
MOBILITY / BATTERY LIFE
Finally, the battery! This is really the star of this review. Apple is advertising 12 hours of battery life, and we got much more than that: 14 hours and 25 minutes of video playback (with the screen brightness at 100 cd/m², headphones plugged in and the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and keyboard backlighting turned off). This sets a new record, and it's a huge smack in the face to the previous models (the 2012 MacBook Air got just 7 hours and 42 minutes). This officially makes the 2013 MacBook Air 13" the indisputable reference in laptop batteries and hopefully will push other brands to follow suit.