Teardown:MacBook Air 13-inch 128GB

Apple’s latest offering of laptops chases the business market.

The big news about the new generation of MacBook Air laptops, announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June, concerned battery life.The 13in model will now offer 12 hours of operation against seven for the 2012 version; the 11in model offers nine hours against a previous five.

That these are the ‘highlight’ upgrades may show Apple attacking a market that Steve Jobs resisted during his lifetime: the traveling businessman.

Jobs never much liked his products being sold as traditional productivity tools, though he probably did not object as much as you think when they were used like that. It was a question of marketing.

Chasing the road warrior immediately invited comparisons with Windows-based laptops, and these would not only highlight differences in cost but also the smaller amount of productivity software available for the Mac OS.

In short, differentiation was a slog.

But times change. An increasing number of airlines now offer on-board Wi-Fi, though perversely no power points outside of business class. Still, that’s a lot of workers who want computers that last throughout a long-haul flight.

Similarly, the lightweight Air has been proving increasingly attractive among those same voyagers as the airlines actively drive their customers towards a ‘carry-on-only’ luggage model.

As shown by iFixit’s dive into the 13in model, it isn’t just a bigger, better battery that is driving the longer operational life.

The new generation has upgraded its silicon to Intel’s fourth generation Core processor, Haswell. The 1.3GHz chip (with ‘turbo boost’ to 2.6GHz) is one of the first to roll out of Intel since the company unveiled plans to aggressively match x86 power consumption to that for ARM-based devices.

The move up to Haswell will provide further benefits, Apple says. The new silicon has integrated graphics (HD 5000) that will provide a 40 per cent boost in speed.

Apple has essentially kept the external appearance of the MacBook Air the same, simply introducing a few other significant tweaks under the aluminium.

The company has moved its SSD storage interface from SATA to PCIe to deliver a much faster read-write. According to iFixit, looking at both the 13in and 11in models showed some slight differences here. Samsung dominated the controller, Flash storage and RAM in the 13in (displacing Toshiba’s SATA-based contributions in the 2012 models). In the 11in model, the Flash is supplied by SanDisk and the controller by Marvell.

Apple does like to multi-source where possible, but the Air SSDs have typically been proprietary designs.

Early adopters will also note that all Air models now offer the incoming 802.11ac ‘Gigabit Wi-Fi’ standard as well as more traditional flavours of the wireless networking standard.

Mass adoption of 11ac is not expected until 2014, and claims of gigabit performance still have to be battle-tested outside the lab, but the standard does have solid potential for streaming HD video.

Not surprisingly, Apple is launching an 802.11ac-compatible version of its Airport Extreme router alongside the new Air models while it waits for other players to incorporate 11ac in their routers.

Skyworks has provided the front-end WLAN module while Broadcom powers the internal AirPort card on the laptops themselves.

Apple has moved to a dual microphone configuration, which should help to reduce ambient interference on both VOIP and voice recognition software.

From a repairability point of view, iFixit scored both the 11in and 13in MacBook Airs at just  4/10. Its beef, though, is not the owner’s ability to fix the computer – although the components are overwhelmingly proprietary, thus driving you into Apple’s embrace – as his or her inability to upgrade it.

The RAM is soldered to the logic board and the SSDs themselves are not compatible across different generations. Boo hiss, indeed!

One final point concerns price. The Teardown column has had several pops at companies for holding up ‘premium’ pricing in the UK against what they charge in the US.

Well, this time Apple has actually cut the price on the 128MB 13in edition of the MacBook Air by £50 to £949. That’s still not the same as the $1,099 (£727) charged in the US, even allowing for sales tax... but let’s give them some credit for the slightly narrower gouge.

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