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13" Macbook Air 2013

About twenty years ago, I bought what people would call their first “grown up” computer. It was an Acorn A5000, which on the outside looked like a PC. I’d switch it on with a satisfyingly clunky switch and it would make a tuneful “booooooop!”, before the machine’s fan would roar into action. Despite using an ARM processor, the machine was on the noisy side - but dammit, it was a man’s computer*. Built like a freakin’ tank, noisy but exceedingly reliable. I still have it now and it still works.

Those were the days. If you bought a computer, the very fact that it was noisy was a bit of a status symbol - it was quite obviously doing something very important and it didn’t hold back from letting you know. That was nineties computing all over - like a big old Ford Capri with go-faster stripes on it. Why do you think all those PCs back in the day had “TURBO” buttons? Coincidence? I think not.

Back to the present day - at the moment I’m using a machine that is completely silent, a new 13-inch Macbook Air. The silence is unnerving. There’s no sound from the hard-drive, there’s no sound from the processor fan and no sound from the graphics chip. Even the power supply is a diddy little (silent) thing. After using computers for nearly thirty years (most of which made a whir, clunk or beep) this is an odd experience - but I could quickly get used to it.

The model I’m typing on is one of the newly-updated models that was announced a few weeks back. The design of the machine itself is nothing new, but the last round of changes have brought this machine (which has been around for about five years now) up to a level of maturity that meant it was worthy of consideration as a replacement for my ageing Macbook Pro. If Mr Jobs were alive today, he’d undoubtedly admit that this iteration is the one that he’d have wanted to sell back in 2008, had the technology allowed.

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There’s a couple of reasons why I’ve finally taken the plunge and gone for this model. The change to Intel’s Haswell processor means that it’s now a lot less power-hungry. Apple say that you should be able to squeeze twelve hours out of a single charge. Obviously that’s dependant on what you’re doing, but when you’re used to four-ish hours on a Macbook Pro, you’re pining not to go back to a plug socket so often. The machine is now cheaper (cheaper still if you have an academic discount) and the flash storage is now PCIe, all helping to minimise the traditional bottleneck of the hard-drive. The difference is immediately noticeable. I’ve seen a demo of an Air next to a Macbook Pro. The test involved opening ten-ish applications and documents in a row. Even with a head-start of ten seconds, the Air finished the job about fifteen seconds ahead of the Pro. At this point, I was sold. Yes, I’m an impatient bugger.

But what about real-life performance?

Well, let’s start with switching it on. The thing boots to login screen in eight seconds. Eight. Bloody. Seconds. The faster boot up and shutdown now means I don’t put it to sleep so often, a power-saving move in itself - but let’s move to normal usage.

I started on a full-charge this morning and have been using the machine for three hours so far, using about 30% of the battery. That’s with Bluetooth off, Wifi on, the screen at half-brightness and some general music listening on Spotify and a bit of web-browsing whilst I type this post. The battery indicator tells me that I’ve got over six hours left, which is pretty damn good.

Battery Indicator
Get used to insane amounts of battery time. I eventually got over ten hours on this charge. I’ve heard reports of thirteen hours plus.

You’ve already heard me say that the machine’s damn quiet. In fact, the fan only comes on when I’m gaming and even then it doesn’t stay going for very long. In conjunction with that, the machine runs extremely coolly. After that three-plus hours of usage, the base of the unit is virtually cold, which I hope would contribute towards a longer lifespan. Heat is what kills computers in the long-term and it’s good to use a machine that I can truly call a laptop again. So many machines now get called “portable computers” instead, mainly because the manufacturers are scared that if people use them on their laps it’ll set fire to their genitals. I kid you not, this machine doesn’t even seem to get vaguely warm.

Talking of quick, application startup is pretty good with regular stuff like Word and Excel firing up in under three seconds. Despite the i5 processor being under-clocked at 1.3Ghz, the turbo (2.6GHz) means the machine never feels underpowered. I’ve been playing around with some games that I used to play on my Macbook Pro (such as Grid, Legend of Grimrock, Bioshock 2) and the frame rate is much improved and at a higher resolution. The machine’s not a gamer’s rig, but it holds up pretty well, consider it’s using Intel’s own integrated graphics chip.

Now, a negative point - the RAM is soldered on to the motherboard. That means you must buy the memory upgrade when you buy the machine. Why Apple took the decision to solder the RAM, God knows, but with 8GB on board the machines kicking along just nicely with no swap being used. At least you know that when OS X Mavericks comes out, it’ll run just fine and that the upgrade will increase the lifespan of the machine. Performance is pretty reasonable overall. I’m no fan of comparison graphs, namely because they rarely translate into real-world usage, but a quick benchmark test on Geekbench scored 6109 (32-bit). My old 2.26Ghz Core2Duo Macbook Pro scored 3500. With the added performance of the SSD, the speed increase is noticeable.

If you’ve got a Macbook Air, then one of the failings you have to be aware of is connectivity - there’s not much. For starters, there’s no ethernet port or Firewire. You can connect the Air to an external monitor using the Thunderbolt port, there’s an SD card-slot and a couple of USB 3 ports - but that’s it. Of course, Apple will kindly sell you an ethernet adaptor should you need it, but then again there’s enough travel WiFi routers out there that’ll pop into an ethernet socket and this seems like a better solution to use that’s not specific to a particular device. The whole point of the Air is its simplicity, ease of transportation and battery life. If you’re wanting a well-connected power machine, this probably isn’t the device for you.

The keyboard and trackpad are just the same as the Macbook Pro. The keyboard is backlit and feels as good as ever to type on. In the many years I’ve been using Apple’s laptops, I’ve never felt the need to use an external keyboard, unless someone has an old IBM Model-M style keyboard that they’d like to give me? No, I thought not - but for such a thin machine you’d think that it would feel flimsy in everyday use, something it definitely doesn’t. Whilst everyone has to exercise a degree of care with their laptop, this machine feels solid and well built.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning the screen. It’s not a retina screen, but still a really good quality display. The lack of retina display doesn’t bother me. The resolution of 1400x900 seems entirely sufficient, bearing in mind that this is a 13-inch screen, I’m not actually sure I want an insanely high resolution anyway, as I just end up increasing the size on all the fonts so that I can read them. I’m also sure a retina screen would have a seriously detrimental effect upon battery life.

So, being aware of the machine’s limitations you’ll probably be pondering between this and a Macbook Pro - a question that can only be answered by looking at your individual needs and how deep your pockets are. Having used my Air for over a week now, I don’t miss the DVD drive or the reduced connectivity, but I am certainly enjoying the increased battery life, quick start-up time and snappy performance. It’s a good all-rounder, made more attractive a purchase by the reduced academic pricing. The 13-inch machine was a must. This is the computer that I do all my day-to-day stuff on and 11-inches just wouldn’t be sufficient (fnarr! fnarr!). The 11-inch machine also has a lesser battery life and doesn’t have an SD-card slot either, both musts for me when I’m doing digital photography or writing images to SD-card for my Pi.

I’m an I.T. professional by trade. I spend my days fixing other people’s shit. There’s something really quite nice about turning a machine on, quickly doing what I need to and powering it back off without any fuss, something the Air does really well. I have no doubt that there are other brands of Ultrabook out there and some may perform slightly better, but this is a solid all-round device with a wonderful keyboard, screen, build quality and battery life. What more could you want?

*Please don’t complain about sexism or gender-specific nature of that statement, unless you’ve completely missed the tongue-in-cheek nature of my comment. In which case, whinge away until the cows come home. Moooooooooooooo.
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