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Sunday, June 23, 2013, 12:41 am PT (03:41 am ET)

Review: Apple's new 11-inch MacBook Air (Mid-2013)

Apple unveiled the latest incarnation of its hot-selling MacBook Air lineup at WWDC 2013, taking somewhat of a gamble in concentrating on greatly extended battery life in lieu of a more conventional performance boost. But did that bet pay off?

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When it was introduced in 2008, the MacBook Air was viewed as somewhat of a niche product. Paltry battery life, mediocre performance and a hefty price tag forced the ultraportable into a niche category reserved for road warriors who valued portability above all else. The introduction of the 11-inch model in 2010 further muddied the waters, as it came just months after the launch of Apple's iPad in April.

However, subsequent updates have made the MacBook Air one of Apple's most popular computer lines.

In 2013, Apple could have stuck with a normal refresh cycle to release new models with the usual speed and minor battery life buffs. Instead, the company surprised and chose to go all in on endurance.

Design



This entire section can be summed up in two words: dual microphones.

Apple made zero changes to the Air's exterior aside from adding a second tiny hole for a two-mic setup similar to the one seen on the pricier MacBook Pro with Retina display. The change is hardly noticeable aesthetically, but makes a world of difference in use. More on that later.

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Other than that, the 2013 MacBook Air is completely identical to the 2012 model. This is a good thing, as Apple's ultraportable is one the most impeccably designed and solidly built laptops on the market. The unibody chassis adds incredible torsional rigidity, while the 0.68 inch-to-0.11 inch (1.7cm-0.3cm) taper lends just enough tilt for typing.

Weight remains the same as last year's model at 2.38 pounds, meaning less than one pound separates the 11-inch Air from the 1.46-pound 9.7-inch iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular.

Other niceties carried over from the previous iteration are stereo speakers, a large multitouch trackpad, one Thunderbolt and two USB 3.0 ports, and a "full-size" backlit keyboard.

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As with previous 11-inch MacBook Airs, the letter and number chiclet keys are indeed full size, but the top and bottom rows are more narrow than the 13-inch model. Despite their size, Apple has found a way to make the scissor-type key mechanisms work, with adequate depth and feedback for touch typists.

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Internals



With a winning product design already in place, Apple focused on the internals of its diminutive laptop lineup for 2013. In such a compact chassis, the company could have conceivably gone one of two routes: greater performance or greater efficiency.

After reading the spec sheet, it was clear that Apple was willing to sacrifice all-out speed for extended battery life with Intel's next-generation Haswell ULT processors. Everything about the platform is tailored to be energy efficient. There is a moderate bump in performance, at least for some versions, but the significant power savings far outweighs the small speed boost.

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Apple's standard configuration for the 11-inch MacBook Air comes with a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU with Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz, and 4GB of memory.

Our review unit came kitted out with a 1.7GHz dual-core Core i7 CPU with Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz, and 8GB of LPDDR3 RAM running at 1600MHz. The LPDDR3 memory standard is the latest in low-power tech, offering considerable efficiency improvements compared to the DDR3L RAM found in the last generation Air.

As for storage, Apple chose to do something special and switched to PCI Express as a bus for its solid state drives. The 2013 MacBook Air is the first Apple product to ship with PCIe SSDs, in our case a SanDisk component, and is among the first consumer grade computers to use the technology.

Apple now offers a 128GB SSD as standard across the MacBook Air line, with 256GB and 512GB options available for the pricier 1.7 GHz 11-inch model.

In addition to faster PCIe storage, Apple also bulked up the Air's battery to a 38Whr package, up from 35Whr last year. Despite the extra juice, the six-cell battery arrangement is still compact enough to fit inside the super thin chassis.