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MacBook Air 11" 2013 Review: From a Windows Perspective

Author: Ken Addison
Manufacturer: Apple

Hardware Specifications

Since it was the initial inspiration for the Intel-backed Ultrabook standard, it’s no surprise that the MacBook Air features similar hardware specifications to its Windows counterparts. While the original MacBook Air may have been something of an engineering accomplishment, the lack of redesign combined with Intel’s Ultrabook push has caused an uptick in ultra low voltage, and thin, parts.

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Currently, Apple offers two different screen sizes for the MacBook Air: 11” and 13”. While there are two differently-equipped entries for both screen sizes, Apple does offer limited Built-to-order options for the Air, detailed in the table below.

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Personally, I went with the higher end 11” MacBook Air, featuring 256GB of flash storage, which is what I am featuring in this review.

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Since I chose to not upgrade any of the other specs, we are looking at an Intel Core i5-4250U   processor, with a base clock of 1.3GHz and a turbo frequency of 2.6GHz. This dual-core, Hyper-Threaded part has a TDP of 15W, and also features Intel’s revamped HD 5000 integrated graphics. While this isn’t Intel’s highest end Iris graphics solution, it is the best solution that they offer for this sort of power envelope. As you can see in the picture, the physical package size is longer than one might expect. This is due to Intel's integration of the PCH onto the same die as the processor with Haswell ULT chips, in order to save space for these thin and light designs and to improve overall system efficiency.

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The main point of interest in this MacBook is the inclusion of a PCI-Express based SSD, instead of a SATA-based storage device. While our unit has a SanDisk unit with a Marvell controller, there is also a Samsung-based controller that others have found in their machines. Considering that this same controller has been shown in M.2 NGFF (Next Generation Form Factor) SSD designs from other vendors, all signs point to this being a M.2 SSD with a proprietary connector.

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Other specifications for this notebook include 4GB of Low Power DDR3 (LPDDR3) clocked at 1600MHz, which is made possible due to Haswell’s support for Low Power memory variants. As for IO, two USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port, and a headphone jack are the only way to interface with the machine.

The displays remained unchanged, at 1366x768 for the 11” variant, and 1440x900 for the 13” model. This lack of resolution remains a disappointment, but the screens themselves are high quality for their specifications. While I would have loved to see a “retina” screen, Apple seems to be shifting the focus towards their Retina MacBook Pros for high resolution experiences, at least for now.

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Along with a Bluetooth 4.0 radio, this notebook features a 802.11ac wireless radio, which is a first for Apple. Broadcom is providing the wireless radio for this machine with the BCM4360, which has been seen previously in products such as desktop PCI-Express add-in cards. While Apple technically isn't the first manufacturer to ship a machine with 802.11ac, it is nice to see the adoption start to ramp up.

While the specs of this machine may not be mind blowing, they are relatively impressive for a machine of such small size and low power usage. Next, let’s find out how these parts perform with each other.

June 20, 2013 | 12:08 PM - Posted by pdjblum

Short but complete. Excellently written. Seems very objective. You use their products but you are clearly not one of the millions of sheep who worship crApple and can find no wrong with their products. I actually read the whole thing, though reading crApple product reviews are not something I tend to do. Well, I guess I do read the ones on the Verge to laugh at their always certain conclusion no matter what that it is the best and the only one they can recommend.

June 20, 2013 | 01:29 PM - Posted by Bradon@BossTek (not verified)

I totally agree with you. 100% all around. Do not even get me started about how stupid the Verge writers come across. How innately, just, DUMB they seem.

#PCPERFTW Now that facebook is using hashtags can you do the same for PCPER? I just got to get my swagger-hash on, with my hipster'd out iPhone, with my wooden glasses, while double fisting tall boys of PBR. After all, this is Portland right?

June 20, 2013 | 08:21 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Thank you for the kind words and criticism regarding PC Per, I'm sure Ken appreciates it as well :).

June 22, 2013 | 05:10 AM - Posted by Cruzan (not verified)

My home pc failed and I needed to buy a laptop. I've used Microsoft since DOS 3.3. I looked at Windows 8 and priced the Sony's. I tried W8. I really wanted to buy W8. But let's face it, it's JUNK. So, what about W7? The available laptops are heavy and last gen. So, hard to say, I bought a new MBA and will run W7 under VMWare, or maybe bootcamp (odd, but Apple supports W7 and W8 dual booting). W7 is the only Windows I can tolerate and MBA is the best deal on a Haswell that's available. Perhaps I'll start to like Mac? Yes, I'll have to take the time to learn, but, W8? Really?

Microsoft did this to themselves - 'let's make a touch OS for an installed base of non-touch machines, let's make a touch OS with no applications, let's get rid of the paradigm that billions of people know and use'. Just like their decision to stop supporting IE on XP, the second highest installed OS. All that did was migrate XP users to Chrome.

I have a hard time seeing Microsoft keeping users. Android phones are great and they just don't get PCs.

June 20, 2013 | 01:26 PM - Posted by Bradon@BossTek (not verified)

I hate Apple products. I am too dumb to use them. Like literally I can not use them, no idea how to do anything without right clicking. LOL. And they are way ugly. I honestly feel that Apple products are for women, and small children. Especially iPhones. Those are the most feminine little devices I have ever seen. I should know, as I have 20 iPhone 5's for sale:

https://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/1001447_539173716145385_1689...

As for the newer Macbooks, I think they are just as bad as the last gen. I do not like the hardware, I hate the design, they look like they are from the 90's. Our Laptops look a lot better, and are a LOT faster, for around the same price.

I just can not justify using or owning Apple products. Can not do it. #ImNoHipsterThough

However, that GT-R is freaking awesome. I am actually in the process of importing a skyline, although an R32 GT-R. Should be leaving JP in a few months, and after sitting in customs for a while, it will come home to me where we will pull the swap, along with interior, and suspension, and get to work building a 6-700 HP Single Slug RB26DET Track Assassin. Look for me on the straights of Laguna, or Willow Springs.

And this is another very well written article, very objective. And you are obviously not a swag'd out, Apple loving hipster, so this article was actually easy to read. As all of your articles are. Thank you much.

June 20, 2013 | 01:48 PM - Posted by pdjblum

Have to say I agree that crApple products are so for girls, especially all the little girls that write for The Verge.

No Ken, I do not mean you. They would never allow you to write for the Verge because they only hire little girls who think they are cool, and are so not.

June 21, 2013 | 01:28 PM - Posted by AlexB (not verified)

Talk about juvenile fanboys around here.. I thought this was a more mature crowd.

I use Macs, PC's and Linux machines on a regular basis and I like all 3 for different reasons. But when it comes to laptops, it's hard for me to understand how anyone could objectively find Apple's hardware anything other than high end. I can certainly understand not wanting to pay the premium, but you can't make any real argument that the cheap, plastic, heavy PC laptops from Dell, HP, etc, are desirable for any reason other than price. I've used them and they are almost all universally junk. The only exception I can think of is the HP Envy 14 that my friend owns, and it was nice - though the only reason it was nice is because it was a virtual clone of a macbook. Sadly I don't think HP even makes that line of laptops anymore.

Also, I'm so tired of this nonsense about Mac's being for hipsters. I'm a software developer and everyone in our office uses MB Pro's. And none of us (ok, save for 1 guy) are hipsters. They are really nice machines, and for writing code I'd take one in a heartbeat over anything else. (LInux would be my second choice as a development machine)

June 22, 2013 | 02:17 PM - Posted by pdjblum

Saying you are a software developer does not make you the authority. That everyone uses crMB Pro in your office suggests you are a bunch of mindless fanboys or mindless followers, not that it is the best option to develop on. Somehow I manage to develop on centOS and even windows 7, but I guess I am not the big time developer you are.

Sorry for being a jerk, but starting your post with an attack on the readers here makes you look like the juvenile fanboy.

June 24, 2013 | 03:25 AM - Posted by a Martin (not verified)

No, he was nuanced an reasonable. Nothing but juvenile. He didn't "attack" the readers, he just thought you were expressing yourself in a juvenile way. Seeing everything i black and white is juvenile. Writing "crApple" and saying that Macs and iPhones are for girls is juvenile.

Another thing that shows your "black and white" mindset is your replay where you seem to think he meant Macs are the only platform that it works well to develop on. No! He was only showing that your argument that Macs are totally worthless and only used by blind fanboys is not true. You have reality against you.

June 20, 2013 | 05:03 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I see Apple, in the future, taking the ARM next generation 64 bit processor instruction set, improving it with their in house IP, and pairing it with licensed Nivida IP for a low power, better graphics solution than Intel Iris, and a much lower CPU cost! Apple will then put the savings towards a retina screen on the 13 inch AIR! The Apple based APU will probably have 12 or more ARM cores that are tuned to work with custom Apple instructions for the latest Apple OSs! Apple will then have complete control over all the major components of the laptop products for its lower end laptop SKUs, and be in a position to use the Licensed ARM and Nivida IP to completely provide the CPU power for its entire laptop line after a short time! Intel has been pounding the ultrabook drum for so long now, that Intel must know that their time with Apple is coming to an end, and I suspect that the recent Nivida news may be dew to some heavy cash offers that Nivida could not refuse! Apple and x86 may still have a future in Apples highest end SKUs, but not Intel x86!

July 8, 2013 | 11:19 AM - Posted by meganerd

The problem with this theory is that a future 12 ARM core CPU will likely perform worse and have a higher TDP than an Intel of that future era. I would never bet against Intel's R&D group.

Apple may still want to go down this road, especially if the performance is "good enough" for their users, just do not expect top performing parts based around ARM.

June 20, 2013 | 07:23 PM - Posted by rpdmatt (not verified)

Great write up. I'll say that I expected more from the HD 5000 graphics card, though. Why didn't you pit it against the A10-4600M for games benchmarks?

I won't hold my breath for Windows to come up with some better solutions for battery life, but it would sure be nice.

June 20, 2013 | 08:54 PM - Posted by mLocke

You forgot to mention that Apple products are magically immune to the forces to price depreciation. Years from now you'll be able to sell that Macbook Air on Craigslist for the same price you bought it for and some hipster will be foolish enough to buy it. You could even sell it for a profit if you included a black beret and a white coffee mug.

June 20, 2013 | 10:43 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Doesn't make any sense to me to be doing the benchmarks at 1080p. The laptop screen isn't 1080p. Most people aren't connect them to monitors, that's not what airs or ultrabooks are really made for.

June 20, 2013 | 10:48 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Did you really go the whole review without mentioning if you were using Windows 7 or Windows 8? Windows 8 is more power-efficient.

June 21, 2013 | 03:12 AM - Posted by Onisad (not verified)

The screenshot for ATTO Disk Benchmark would hint at Windows 8.
Hopefully we'll see improvements in 8.1 :(

June 21, 2013 | 09:38 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

You will see lot better battery life in other Windows 8 systems.

This is due to the Haswell platform requiring LOT more work between software and hardware for the battery life to be good. Skimping even a single component or a shoddy driver will show big differences.

In Ivy Bridge, they got away with having lower quality ones, like for example Windows drivers for Macbooks. Not in this generation.

June 21, 2013 | 12:18 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

The Verge LOL...Avoid like the plague.

June 21, 2013 | 12:19 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I see Apple going Bay Trail just like Windows based hardware.
Not ARM.

June 21, 2013 | 06:08 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Bay Trail will not offer Apple the control and Price Point, that having an in house CPU, designed in house By Apple using an Apple implementation of the ARM instruction set, as Apple already does with its ARM instruction set license!
Apple will license the Nvidia GPU IP, and the device will run circles around the ATOM's graphics, and it is not very hard to best Intel's graphics, Iris included! Apple has already designed chips with the A6 in-house CPU design! Apple has the funds to build their own chip fabs that utilize the latest process node! As far as x86 for Apple, they would do better switching to AMD APUs for their higher end laptops, and AMD, fresh from their gaming console boost, offers Apple a lower cost better x86/AMD graphics than Haswell or Broadwell! With OpenCL, OpenGL, Cuda, and other APIs, Graphics AND GPGPU solutions, devices will utilize their GPUs as extra compute power for any task, as this is already done on mobile tablets/phones. Apple will build Apple APUs, and the ARM, Now Nvidia, and other IP licensing options are too good for Apple to not utilize!
Apple will 86 Intel's x86!

June 21, 2013 | 09:33 PM - Posted by Power666 (not verified)

There are hints that Apple is designing their own GPU's in addition to their own in house CPU cores. They're hiring former AMD and nVidia GPU architects like crazy. Like Apple's other custom designs, it took several years for their teams to start from scratch before it appears in end user products.

In the short term, Apple will likely consider nVidia's GPU technology for their SoC's but will likely pass due to various roadmaps already set. The next mobile SoC will likely feature PowerVR Rogue graphics as it should be hitting end devices this year. Similarly it is too late in the design phase to get nVidia's GPU technology into next year's SoC revision. Two years from know, Apple could put nVidia's GPU technology into an iPhone but a year or two after that, Apple's own GPU will be ready. Tactically, it wouldn't make sense to use nVidia's design for just a year's worth of SoC's. Driver support would have to linger in iOS for several generation. Similarly, things like CUDA, wouldn't even make an appearance as Apple is pushing OpenCL.

As for Apple considering AMD, they did. There are drivers for VLIW4 based Radeon graphics for OS X. The only the Radeon 6900 series and Trinity use that architecture. That is a fairly strong suggestion that Apple was considering Trinity at some point.

June 22, 2013 | 09:47 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Yes powerVR for phones and tablets, but Apple could take it to the next level, if they could take the ARM server chips and modify them to run on a laptop! 12 or 16 Apple customizied ARM 64 bit instruction set cores, built around Nvidia graphics with OpenCL, OpenGL, an yes The CUDA support from Nivida to run some legacy code, or GPGPU acceleration, just until OpenCL and other Open APIs take over! These ARM server chips(made with Apple Microcode and IP/Nvidia IP) could provide some serious competition to Intel's lower power lower performing Haswell SKUs, that Apple already uses, at high cost to Apple, in their current MB laptops, and with the Nvidia IP, and Apple's top notch CPU design team, I am sure that Apple could build an ARM/Nivida GPU based "APU" type computing platform that would run circles around Intel's Iris graphics!

June 21, 2013 | 02:32 AM - Posted by dragosmp (not verified)

Great review, quite possibly all I want to know on this laptop.

I'll throw in my 2 cents on why battery life in Windows is so bad. If one does a profiling on the clocks of the CPU when on the default power profiles "Balanced" or "Power saver", you'd see that the CPU cores take turns boosting themselves to full clock, rarely staying more than a few tenths of a second at the lowest clock speed. This is caused (in my opinion) by Win's scheduler that just can't wait and has to send some request to the CPU with the highest priority - the CPU obliges, wakes up and does its thing; in the process it wasted power waking up and falling back to sleep, or it climbed to completely unnecessary clocks in order to service the so-called urgent request.

I tweak this by capping the clocks on different battery profiles. For example Power saver allows only the lowest core speed on battery, while Balanced allows up to 50%. Using K10Stats on AMD allows even more control (voltage, time x load per core until shift up/down). The battery gains are amazing, easily 1.5x - 2x, all while keeping responsive as long as you tune the power profile to your needs.

Since I'm by no means a rocket scientist I can only imagine smart folks can do the same, and an OS maker can do better, see Apple. Micosoft doesn't do it because Win XP/7/8 are actually NT kernels that historically are performance-focused and power consumption isn't their first priority. I don't think Apple sabotaged their Win-implementation; "they" say Win 8.1 will bundle requests (like OS X) to avoid waking the CPU up every couple of miliseconds.

June 21, 2013 | 10:14 AM - Posted by Arne nonomous (not verified)

ok, English is my second language, but the blurb for this article on the front page still bugged me:

"You're next ultrabook"?
I read it as "You are next ultrabook".. Should be "Your next.."?

Otherwise great work, thanks ;)

June 23, 2013 | 01:20 AM - Posted by Mikael (not verified)

Great review, thanks.

Regarding your battery life tests, it would be great if you could "open source" the tests. There doesn't seem to be that many solutions out there for running cross platform battery tests. Actually, I haven't found any. Only commercial battery test seems to be the solution from Futuremark and even that only works in Windows.

June 23, 2013 | 11:08 AM - Posted by w_km (not verified)

Wow, an Apple Macbook review without the drool! I guess the "PC Perspective" title is worth something around here. Can't wait to see the new Haswell-powered PCs though, please do a comparison once they come out (particularly the ThinkPad X/T range).

June 26, 2013 | 07:47 AM - Posted by aajames (not verified)

try activate sleep mode than plug/unplug thunderbolt device than wake computer, on older macbooks this was working nice with this trick

June 29, 2013 | 03:16 AM - Posted by Neil (not verified)

Thanks for the review. Told me everything I needed to know. I was gonna get one of these to duel boot Windows (I have Photoshop for Windows and damned if I'm getting another license for Mac), but considering the gimped battery life I dont think I'll bother.

September 13, 2013 | 11:24 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

The reason windows kills apple notebooks is because it won't let the hardware enter low power states. Look at CPU-z.

July 23, 2014 | 02:00 AM - Posted by Mark1234 (not verified)

100% all around. Do not even get me started about how stupid the Verge writers come across. How innately, just, DUMB they seem.
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