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Apple MacBook Air 13-inch 2013: Windows struggles in Boot Camp

Can you turn Apple’s Haswell laptop into a Redmond Ultrabook?

Sonic sophistication

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 model’s 128GB SSD. Sure you can offload some files to the SD card slot, but if your Air is to become your digital hub, it’s going to feel congested pretty quickly.

Apple MacBook Air 2013 with running Boot Camp and Windows 8.1 preview

Boot Camp and Windows 8.1 preview

When I last reviewed a 13in MacBook Air a couple of years ago, I sorely missed having an illuminated keyboard, which I’m 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, there’s USB 3.0 on board and you’ve got a fancy noise-cancelling mic array on the side.

The Apple blurb says the two mics used “create an adaptive audio beam”. 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. It’s 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.

Apple MacBook Air 2013 beamforming mics

The beam-forming mic array isn't reconfigurable for stereo recording

The more mics you have with a known geometry, the better it is at homing in on the person speaking. No doubt Apple’s 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.

Apple sound control panel

Deactivating Ambient Noise Reduction eliminates phasing artefacts

I travelled to IFA in Berlin with last year’s MacBook Air 13in, where its lightweight, battery life and overall niftiness really showed its worth compared to the bulk of the battered - I’m not too fussed if I lose it - 15in MacBook Pro I’d usually take. Yet this time round, the wow factor just didn’t really happen when using the new MacBook Air. It’s still very nifty, but the ain’t-broke-don’t-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.

The Reg Verdict

Could Apple shrink the Air and keep the screen size or notch it up an inch or more? A full HD Air, anyone? There’s probably a good reason for this ongoing big borders arrangement – rigidity, antennas and suchlike – but I think it’s time for Apple to show some design innovation again rather than simply adding the 802.11ac Wi-Fi and tweaking the latest Intel chippery. ®

Thanks to Square Group for the loan of the MacBook Air.

Apple MacBook Air 13in 2013

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch 2013: Windows struggles in Boot Camp

The base 13in Air gets a Haswell makeover with its dual-core Intel 1.3GHz Core i5-4250U CPU. The 128GB SSD feels a little cramped for Boot Camping, and for now the 4GB RAM seems adequate.
Price: £949 RRP

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