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Practical Mac

Is the MacBook Air a professional laptop or an entry-level one?

Computer makers typically differentiate between the two categories, but Apple’s super-slim computer manages to be both. And with the revision launched last week, both categories benefit.

When Apple originally introduced the MacBook Air, it was an elite option for people who wanted to pay extra for a notebook significantly thinner and lighter than its competition. But soon after, Apple unexpectedly made the MacBook Air its entry-level offering: the 11-inch model starts at $999, its least-expensive laptop.

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Now, Apple sells configurations of the Air that appeal to everyone who doesn’t want to lug a large laptop. The 11-inch model is still $999, and the 13-inch model starts at $1,099.

Under normal circumstances, this update wouldn’t merit a lot of fuss. The MacBook Air shares the same physical design and screen resolutions (sorry, no Retina display option yet), and the processor speeds are roughly comparable. The least expensive configuration includes 128 GB of storage, which is much more realistic than the anemic 64 GB of the previous generation.

What’s dramatically different about the new MacBook Air is battery life. I’m not talking about whether it theoretically gets an extra hour or so under ideal conditions. No, the 13-inch model achieves 12 hours of battery life on a single charge. The 11-inch model boasts 9 hours of battery life. That’s a full workday.

And it appears to be a conservative estimate on Apple’s part — several outlets have performed benchmark tests and ended up with longer working time. (Apple noted that its 12-hour estimate is based on tests that better reflect real-world conditions, such as setting the screen brightness to 75 percent instead of 50 percent.)

Apple didn’t chunk up the Air with a much-larger battery. (Well, the battery is a hair larger than the 2012 model, but that wouldn’t account for such gains.) Instead, the answer lies in the new fourth-generation Intel “Haswell” processor, which dramatically conserves power. Let me give you an example.

I just checked the battery gauge in the menu bar, which shows a sliver of red and 17 percent power remaining. On every other laptop I’ve owned, this would necessitate a scramble to locate the power adapter, but on the MacBook Air clicking the battery icon reveals an estimate of more than three hours.

(That was with the screen brightness set to 50 percent, an adjustment I made without thinking about it when I noticed the battery was getting low.)

I think Apple will need to adjust its algorithm for displaying that red indicator on Haswell-equipped machines.

Battery life should improve even further in the fall when Apple releases OSX Mavericks, the tenth major revision of OSX. Mavericks is currently available as a pre-release version for developers so they can start ensuring their applications work properly.

One of the features Apple demonstrated at its WWDC (Apple Worldwide Developers Conference) keynote was much-improved processor handling. If something processor-intensive is in the background and hidden — even by just part of another window, Mavericks suspends the activity. That works around my No. 1 frustration with Safari, consuming vast resources in the background or in tabs that aren’t visible.

The whole Mac lineup also has begun another wireless networking shift with the introduction of the new AirPort Extreme, which incorporates 802.11ac networking. Right now the MacBook Air is the only model that includes corresponding chips that take advantage of the new technology. It’s backward-compatible with existing devices, but it has the potential for much faster speeds and improved range and coverage.

(Glenn Fleishman wrote a good detailed post explaining 802.11ac at

The MacBook Air is an impressive update, but it’s also an incredible tease right now because it makes the current MacBook Pro line outdated. If you need more processing power or a Retina display, you may want to wait. It’s inevitable that the rest of the portable lineup will be revised with Haswell processors that increase battery life.

That’s worth waiting for.

Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to More Practical Mac columns at

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