The keyboard is solid, with negligible flex: it’s there if you really push hard, but you won’t see it under ordinary use. The deck is backlit too, which is one of those features that, when you suddenly find you could really use it, you sorely regret its absence. I miss it when I’m using my 11-inch Air, and I’m pleased to have it here.The large, glass-covered trackpad is, as ever, smooth and easy to use: OS X provides support for multiple taps to handle right clicks and such, and there’s a whole host of rotate, zoom, multi-finger swipes that you can make use of. I won’t say you don’t need a mouse, but a lot of users can dispense with one when they use this pad.Apple remains as parsimonious as ever with ports: just two USB 3.0 connectors here, along with an SDXC-compatible card slot and a Thunderbolt connector. I was playing with a new Sony Vaio Pro last night, courtesy of Amazon, and it’s no more generous. You won’t be surprised to learn that no adaptors are included in the Air’s box - nor, as was the case in the all recent MacBooks, any form of software installation media. There’s no point bundling a DVD with a optical drive-less computer, but there’s no USB stick, either.
Instead, there’s a 650MB recovery partition on the SSD. That’s fine so long as you have an internet connection to download the operating system and your drive isn’t up the spout. If it was, of course, being non-standard, it would still need to be fixed by Apple.Apple undoubtedly argues that this is much better for the non-technical buyer. Cupertino is probably correct, though its approach is of little advantage to the technically capable, whether they’re Mac owners themselves or have simply been called in to fix a friend’s computer.I began to wonder if choosing Boot Camp’s ‘download drivers’ option would be a better bet than relying on this stick of version 5.0.5033 drivers from the Apple Support site. Maybe there were a few sneaky machine-specific updates available that Apple was keeping quiet about?This appeared to be sound thinking, as a glance at the Apple System Profiler reveals that both the keyboard and trackpad on the new MacBook Air rely on SPI connectivity, rather than the usual internal USB hub shenanigans. Motorola was behind the name Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI), using the tech as way of classifying a range of communications protocols.SPI is full-duplex and is suited to a master-slave set-up for relatively slow-speed communications, making it ideal for peripherals. You can tack on USB to an SPI controller too, which might be what Apple has done to link up its existing USB stack to the new hardware. But then again, maybe what we’re seeing is old PC peripheral support on Intel boards being tapped into by Apple. Perhaps this is another MacBook Air power-saving trick.
Where this leads to is perhaps an explanation as to why the old Boot Camp 5.0.5033 drivers didn’t work: namely, no SPI driver support. The freshly downloaded version reported it was installing Boot Camp 5, build 5241 and all seems happy now. Oh and if you were curious as to how this came about, the answer is simple: be sure to plug in your designated Boot Camp drivers USB stick into the left port of the MacBook Air before downloading the new batch and keep it there. Overlook this seemingly inconsequential detail and you’re stuffed. It’s all in here.So now Windows 7 glistens at me from the MacBook Air's bright but not dazzling, shiny but not too reflective display. Why not Windows 8? Well, from past experience, I knew Windows 7 would work and for benchmarking this would be, er, quick. And now for the result of all that palaver, Futuremark’s PCMark 7 notches up a balanced score of 4138, climbing to 4157 in high performance mode.Oh and if you’re planning on doing this, be sure to update to Win 7 Service Pack 1 – without it the PC Mark 7 score was a lowly 3004. Just for the record, the Windows Experience Index measured up at 5.9.
Incidentally, the Windows 8.1 Preview installed without a hitch, but beware that choosing the erase all (clean) option will kill off Boot Camp components you've just installed. Still, the keyboard and Wi-Fi networking works but you don't get the trackpad gestures, which means no right click. Install those new Boot Camp drivers and that functionality is restored.Before doing so, I ran PCMark 7 in this virgin state and it scored 2585. Sadly, the driver install process then broke some apps that had run on the Win 8.1 Preview beforehand. PCMark 7 failed to start, as did the exceptional open-source transcoder Handbrake. The Windows 8 compatibility mode option was tried but the outcome didn't change.I think Apple has a harder case justifying the Air’s screen resolution. The IPS LCD has splendid viewing angles and doesn’t present a negative image if you look at it off axis the way my missus’ three-year-old Toshiba does - a bane for late-night, in-bed movie viewing, I can tell you. Colour reproduction looks good, but I Am Not A Professional Photographer.
But at 1400 x 900, the same resolution as my old 15in MacBook Pro, it’s behind the curve. I’m not asking for a “retina” display - I don’t think a laptop needs one; you sit too far away - but a 13in laptop should really be 1920 x 1080 in this day and age. As an Xcode user, I’d like to see the Air with a resolution greater than that. Full HD, however, is a good balance between resolution and cost. Thank Jobs it’s not 1366 x 768...Coming to the new Air from a machine of 2010 vintage - it would be a very different story if I’d just been using a 2012 Air - the new model is refreshingly nippy. My main Mac is a two-and-a-half-year-old MacBook Pro, equipped with a first-gen Intel Core i5 that runs at 2.53GHz - a considerably higher figure than the standard 2013 Air’s 1.3GHz i5, or even the 1.7GHz i7 version I have here - and can’t go any higher the way Haswell can.Running the kind of apps I usually run - Handbrake and Photoshop are perhaps the most challenging, but you can see the difference in tasks as diverse as importing a library of songs into iTunes and compiling software in Xcode - there’s a noticeable improvement, despite the lower clock speed and, this being an skinny machine, a lower-wattage processor.
Using Geekbench, a testing tool, the Core i7 Air delivers a score of 8359. The standard Core i5 model - with half the RAM and a slower SSD - put in 6789. So that puts the Airs either side of the current Mac Mini desktop, which packs a 2.5GHz Ivy Bridge processor.Of course, Intel’s dynamic over-clocking technology, TurboBoost, makes a mockery of such comparisons: Geekbench will cause each machine’s CPU to raise its own clock speed somewhere between the baseline - 1.3GHz for the i5, 1.7GHz for the i7 - and a maximum: 2.6GHz and 3.3GHz, respectively. How close to the peak frequency an individual machine can get depends on thermal factors, including ambient air temperature. So the Geekbench numbers should be seen as the basis for broad comparisons not fine ones: neither machine was tested in precisely the same conditions as each other, or their predecessors. But it does show the extra welly the Core i7 brings when you need to call on it.
Benchmarks quantify the speed, but they’re not the whole story. What gain, if any, the user senses is equally important, and I certainly felt I had a faster machine under my fingers. It felt very smooth in operation. That too doesn’t complete the picture, of course. All computers acquire cruft over time, and I’m comparing a brand new computer freshly loaded with applications to one that hasn’t been refreshed for years. But the early signs are very positive.Haswell’s on-board graphics core, the HD 5000, clocked at up to 1.1GHz, is able to chuck out Doom 3 Ultra Quality frames at 1440 x 900 resolution at a rate of 62.2 per second, though the figure is halved if you enable 4x anti-aliasing. Full HD H.264 video plays back nice and smoothly.Even with the higher speed CPU running flat out, the Air remains practically silent. And when the fan does crank up, it’s not the hair dryer of old. Anyway, you expect noise when you’re crunching numbers; it’s in quiet lecture theatres, or when I’m head down trying to write a tricky paragraph or block of code, that I don’t need the distraction. Thankfully, the new Air didn’t give me any.
Better still, I also got excellent battery life into the bargain. I can still get 11 hours plus out of my 2010 Air, as I did on the 11-inch Acer Aspire I previously used, but I have to disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and knock the screen brightness back to a barely visible 10 to 15 per cent - not a problem in a darkened conference hall, but it's another story in a brightly lit seminar room.Not so the 2013 13-inch Air. To be sure, this model has a bigger battery capacity than both my 11-inch model and 2012’s Air revision - from 6700mAh to 7150mAh - but with the Wi-Fi on and connected, and the screen set to my usual 85 to 90 per cent brightness, I was enjoying just over 13 hours of operation. So a couple of hours of extra runtime without any visual or connectivity compromise. Performing my usual battery charge preservation tweaks saw that figure rise to 13 hours 42 minutes, and once, briefly broke 14 hours.
Mac OS X’s estimates are usually quite good indicators of runtime based on current usage levels. It’s telling how aggressively the OS and Haswell beneath it are watching out for power-reduction opportunities that this is now a more dynamic readout than it was on previous Macs. It seems to be actively calculating the runtime based on current activity and not simply the remaining charge.So at one point I saw I had 11 hours 22 minutes of runtime left, but a short while later that went up to 12 hours 12 minutes, then down to 11 hours 52 minutes. I plugged in a phone to charge and the estimate plunged to under five hours, then back up again when I disconnected the handset. Charge back to full, I looped a 1080p H.264 movie with the screen on maximum brightness and Wi-Fi on and connected to a wireless access point. The Air ran for just under eight hours 40 minutes.