After reviewing the 2013 Apple MacBook Air 13" last June, we thought we'd take a look at how the new MacBook Air handles while running Windows 8 instead of OS X Mountain Lion. We used Boot Camp and installed Microsoft's latest operating system, and here's what we found.
Let's ignore the body, design and finish, as we already talked about those in our main review. To sum it up, very few competing laptops rival Apple's manufacturing and design. Only a spattering of computers, such as the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, attain this calibre of finish.
The 13" MacBook Air 2013's keyboard functions well under Windows 8. After updating Boot Camp in Mountain Lion, almost all of the shortcuts became active, from the backlighting and volume to PLAY/PAUSE, BACK and NEXT. The CMD key adopted the Windows key's functions and CTRL did what it always does in Windows. Not all of the keys are located in the same place as on a standard PC keyboard, but once you get used to it, you almost forget you're using a Mac. The only shortcuts that don't work are F3 and F4 (used for navigating through open windows in OS X).
The touchpad is much more limited in capability under Windows 8 than it is under Mountain Lion. Apple's two-, three- and four-finger gestures don't work; instead you're limited to two-finger vertical and horizontal scrolling. By default, the right-click is set up for simultaneous two-finger clicking on the touchpad. Or you can use Boot Camp to transfer the click to the lower-right touch surface, which makes the command infinitely more practical.
Limiting the capabilities even further, the touchpad doesn't recognise the Windows 8 touch gestures, such as sliding your finger from the edge to the centre to bring up the side bar.
The connectivity, of course, is the same. It all works like gravy, there's nothing to do. The Thunderbolt port accepts various adapters to allow you to transfer the image to an external monitor, and you can use Apple's USB-to-Ethernet adapter for wired connections.
Heat readings with the components under stress
Images taken using a Fluke Ti25 thermal imaging camera
The fan generates the same amount of heat and noise under Windows 8 as it does under Mountain Lion. The typical ambient noise in a room will cover it easily.
The sound quality is another thing that doesn't change. The speakers located beneath the keyboard deliver the same high volume without vibrating the chassis. They clearly lack 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.
We can deduce that the MacBook Air doesn't use any built-in audio treatment to artificially deliver better sound than the competition—it's the components that are superior.
But the screen is a whole different shebang. We were expecting to see the same results with Windows as with Mountain Lion, but instead the image was greatly degraded under Microsoft's OS.
Grey colour temperature
Already a high 6.7 under OS X, under Windows 8 the Delta E (which measures colour fidelity, where lower is better) shoots all the way up to 12. Online shopping becomes a risky game of chance with a Delta E this high, as the products won't have the same colour you see onscreen; a t-shirt you thought was bright red, for instance, might turn out to be strawberry pink when you open the box—not to everybody's liking. The colour temperature also jumps to 13,000 K on average.
The only things that turn out better under Windows 8 are the greyscale brightness (shown in the gamma curve above) and the contrast, which gets a boost from 830:1 to 940:1, placing the Windows 8 version of the MacBook Air in the top three laptops for highest contrast, along with the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A (970:1) and Samsung Series 7 Ultra (900:1).
We tried using the Mac OS colour profile on Windows, and it gave mediocre results. Not worth it.
It turns out the Intel Core i5-4250U processor runs better with Windows 8 at the controls than with OS X. Using our in-house rating system—in which higher is better—the 13" MacBook Air 2013 got a score of 94 under OS X and 108 under Windows 8, bringing it closer to the performance of the 2012 MacBook Air.
On average, a task that takes 1 minute 20 seconds under Mountain Lion will take just 1 minute running Windows 8. We did some 3D modelling in Cinema 4D and it took 382 seconds in Mountain Lion and 298 seconds in Windows. Exporting a batch of photos in Lightroom took 461 seconds in Mountain Lion and 335 seconds in Windows 8. Same goes for compressing files in WinRAR, which took respectively 530 and 266 seconds. The only task that OS X handled quicker was encoding HD videos in HandBrake, which took 440 seconds under OS X and 574 seconds under Windows 8.
At these speeds the processor performs more like the Core i5-3337U found in the Samsung Series 7 Ultra, although that runs 5% faster than the Core i5-4250U.
As for the SSD, while it runs perfectly fine in W8, it's still faster under OS X, with 710 MB/s reads and 435 MB/s writes compared to 640 MB/s reads and 436 MB/s writes in Windows.
Windows 8 isn't able to glean much more performance out of the Intel HD 5000 chipset than OS X does. The benchmarks we ran did show higher performance under W8 (3DMark06 gave it 5,820 under Mountain Lion and 6,250 under W8), but in practice the only games you can play with high detail in the screen's native resolution are older games that don't require much GPU power. The more demanding the game, the more you'll need to make concessions with the quality settings in order to keep the gameplay fluid. No matter which operating system it's running, the MacBook Air is not for gamers.
Under both systems, Full HD (Blu-ray quality) videos play without any hiccups or delays. No difference there.
MOBILITY / BATTERY LIFE
One of the best things about the standard 2013 MacBook Air 13" is that it has record-breaking battery life of 14 hrs 25 min (with the screen brightness at 100 cd/m², headphones plugged in and the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and keyboard backlighting turned off). Under Windows 8 the results are more mixed. Perhaps as the price to pay for the increased processor performance, in the same conditions it lasts only 7 hrs 40 min. That's still very high—it's better than the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A's 6 hours and the Samsung Series 7 Ultra's 5 hours—but it's only half the astronomical 14 hours + that the 13" MacBook Air is capable of.