Of course, most folk donít usually go clicking on the battery icon in the menu bar to check on the Ďtime remainingí readout, they just glance at the percentage score next to the icon. This I found to count down noticeably much more slowly than Iím used to. Again, this is purely a perceptual point, not a scientific measure, but itís reassuring that, in use, you will know that the Air is going to give you more run time than youíre accustomed to.But you canít entirely rely on the percentage. OS Xís own System Information app showed I had 6908mAh left out of 7252mAh, which is 95 per cent in my book, not the 100 per cent the icon was showing. Thatís some egregious rounding up on Appleís part.Windows 8.1 previews aside, if you really need your Intel Haswell MacBook Air to run as a PC, Apple delivers the means to do it without having to rely on virtualisation. That said, the partitioning process does take a significant chunk out of this base modelís 128GB SSD. Sure you can offload some files to the SD card slot, but if your Air is to become your digital hub, itís going to feel congested pretty quickly.
When I last reviewed a 13in MacBook Air a couple of years ago, I sorely missed having an illuminated keyboard, which Iím glad to see graces this model. Maybe that explains the 30g increase in weight, as very little has changed from the outside. OK, so the DisplayPort socket is now a Thunderbolt interface, thereís USB 3.0 on board and youíve got a fancy noise-cancelling mic array on the side.The Apple blurb says the two mics used ďcreate an adaptive audio beamĒ. The idea is to cut the amount of background noise when one is recording a podcast or using voice-chat from the internal mics.Microphone array beam-forming is the audio variant of filtering techniques used in a variety of applications including radio, sonar and Wi-Fi. Itís not exactly new and having a known mic array allows for phase shift calculations to work out directional characteristics enabling background noise to be subdued.
The more mics you have with a known geometry, the better it is at homing in on the person speaking. No doubt Appleís thinking is the user will only be a few feet away from their precious Air and so two mics will suffice. Moreover, having the mics on the side effectively staggers their positioning from the user sitting face on to the screen, so time delays are deliberately introduced. Whether this means left-handed mouse users will have a harder time making themselves understood on Skype as they click away merrily, remains to seen or, more to the point, heard.As for musos, you could usually get away with using the internal mic on a MacBook to record some ideas, however, this new array of two mics introduced quite a bit of phasing when tested capturing acoustic guitar. This might sound inventive, but it isn't particularly desirable. Still, there is a cure: simply deactivate 'Use ambient noise reduction' in the Sound control panel. Oh, and if you're wondering, none of this is stereo either, despite showing up as two channels. This is no surprise really though, as the two mics are effectively summed as part of the beam-forming technique.
I travelled to IFA in Berlin with last yearís MacBook Air 13in, where its lightweight, battery life and overall niftiness really showed its worth compared to the bulk of the battered - Iím not too fussed if I lose it - 15in MacBook Pro Iíd usually take. Yet this time round, the wow factor just didnít really happen when using the new MacBook Air. Itís still very nifty, but the ainít-broke-donít-fix-it design feels rather unimaginative now. The display resolution is 1440 x 900 and seeing those large borders around the screen seems like a waste of potential viewing real-estate.Could Apple shrink the Air and keep the screen size or notch it up an inch or more? A full HD Air, anyone? Thereís probably a good reason for this ongoing big borders arrangement Ė rigidity, antennas and suchlike Ė but I think itís time for Apple to show some design innovation again rather than simply adding the 802.11ac Wi-Fi and tweaking the latest Intel chippery.
How is the battery life extension achieved? Itís all down to Intelís Haswell processor and how Apple has implemented it. Gone, for instance, is the old Computer Sleep time slider in OS Xís Energy Saver control panel. The System Information app shows that the Airís system sleep time has been pre-set to just one minute. This doesnít mean your machine will go into hibernation after that period, rather thatís when it tells Haswell to doze off.This is essentially transparent to the user. Looking at the machine, with its display still active, youíd never know; start clicking on anything and the CPU wakes up. If thereís any lag while it does so, itís not detectable by a human being: your typing, say, is there as soon as you hit the keys. Pause to reflect on what youíve just written, however, and after a minute, back to sleep goes Haswell.Slap down the Airís lid and, with no UI interaction to worry about, the Air can turn off the display. Opening the computer up again and itís immediately ready for interaction, thanks to Haswellís speedy wake-up procedure and Appleís use of the low-level Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI) bus to hook up the keyboard and trackpad, a trick borrowed from the embedded world.
Waking up the Air isnít always such an immediate process, however. Leave it overnight, say, and when you lift the lid this time thereís a noticeable but brief pause - maybe a second or two - before itís ready for input. Clearly, the Airís usage monitor decides that, after a certain time, the user isnít likely to lift the lid any time soon so it can risk dropping into a deeper sleep state, preserving battery charge at the cost of that short pause when the machine is awoken.Last year, I had a short conversation with The Economistís Tom Standage about Air battery drain when the lid was closed. He thought it wasnít excessive; I thought it was. Better, I suggested, to turn the thing off, since it couldnít be relied upon not to lose a good chunk of charge when sleeping. Iím glad to say thatís no longer the case. I havenít powered down the Air for some time now because Iím not seeing big percentage drops in charge when I open it up again.
It has only taken seven years, but I can now trust an Intel-powered Apple laptop not to deplete its battery during sleep as much as I could its PowerPC-based portables.Touch wood, I can trust the Wi-Fi too. During testing I didnít experience any of the Wi-Fi woes that some owners of the 2013 Air have complained about. I connected to two Apple access points: past-generation AirPort Express and Extreme units, both 802.11n but behind the curve. Iíve also connected to a phone hotspot, to El Regís ageing 802.11g office base-station, and to the 5GHz radio in a Virgin Superhub 2, again without unexpected disconnections requiring the wireless sub-system to be restarted.What I havenít been able to do yet, alas, is test the machine with an 802.11ac base-station.The new Air sports an SSD - 256GB here, but 128GB and 512GB options are available too - connected through a pair of PCI Express 2.0 lanes rather than the old SATA bus for faster transfers. So thatís 1GB/s in each direction, 2GB/s overall, compared to 600MB/s for SATA 3.0. Itís an approach thatís nonetheless still part of the SATA spec, where itís called SATA Express - aka SATA 3.2.
The upshot is a plenty of bandwidth for the SSD to stretch its legs. I duplicated a 55.6GB folder containing about 9,000 MP3 files and it took 2 minutes 47.87 seconds - 2.47Gb/s or 315.89MB/s, and thatís with the OS X file copy error checking and protocol overhead. It felt fast. For comparison, copying the same folder to a 5,400RPM drive via USB 3.0 took eight minutes 54 seconds; a USB 2.0 transfer took almost 28 minutes. With the previous generation of Air, the same copy procedure would have taken around six minutes.SATA overseers SATA-IO has a proposed connector for SATA Express drives, called M.2. Judging from photos, Apple hasnít used it, choosing instead one of its own, so donít expect handy third-party SSD upgrades in the near future, at least until suppliers have had a chance to reverse engineer or license the Apple connector. Likewise slots into which the old drive can be hooked up and then linked to USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt.If youíre in the market for a slimline laptop, the new Air is worth consideration. Thanks to Intelís Haswell chip itís fast and it offers a very impressive battery life. The solid-state storage is nippy too, and it has 802.11ac Wi-Fi for a degree of connectivity future proofing. The casing is slim yet resilient.
The other side of the coin shows a relatively low storage capacity - weíre still a long way from a cost-effective 1TB SSD - plus a sub-standard screen resolution, limited room for expansion and no room at all for component upgrades, and a degree of portability that was once cutting edge but now being eclipsed by Appleís rivals, most notably Sony and its 13-inch Vaio Pro. The Sony has a Full HD screen too, though is no more generous with ports.For Mac fans, especially those with MacBook Airs or Pros of a few yearsí vintage, the new Air will be a welcome upgrade - assuming their needs are not still being satisfied by their old machines. For other folk, the factors that made the Air a compelling recommendation a couple of years ago have largely been eroded to nothing by the competition.Ultrabook sceptics will naturally point to cheaper, more powerful alternatives, but even buyers who really do value portability and donít mind paying for it will see that the Air is by no means their only option.
The new Air is a nice machine, but it offers nothing you canít get now, or get soon, from Haswell-powered Ultrabooks: decent performance and a long battery life. SATA Express and 802.11ac are both standards World+Dog will soon implement. In short, choosing a skinny laptop is now simply a matter of whether you want Mac OS X or not. Not only are Google's Chromebooks a success, but they are now the fastest-growing segment of the PC industry, according to market research firm NPD Group.While we were skeptical initially, I think Chromebooks definitely have found a niche in the marketplace, NPD analyst Stephen Baker told Bloomberg.Baker says that in the past eight months, Google's browser-based devices have managed to capture 20 to 25 per cent of the US market for laptops that cost less than $300. This, amid an industry-wide downturn that has IDC analysts predicting a 7.8 per cent decline in overall PC sales in 2013.