SAN FRANCISCO (USATODAY.com) - At the start of Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference on Monday, I was among a throng of journalists racing for the limited rows of seats with power strips. Try explaining to an editor that you ran out of juice in the middle of CEO Tim Cook's presentation.
A less frenzied but no less important chase for the few available power outlets is a common ritual at airports, lest you board a cross-country plane with no options for plugging in.
Suffice to say, battery power is a precious resource that we all can relate to, whether using a laptop in a boardroom, classroom or at 35,000 feet. Those of us who use tablet computers when we travel are generally spoiled; we're accustomed to battery-life ranges that go from quite decent to excellent. We can't usually say the same for our laptops.
So Apple's promise of an "all-day battery" on the new MacBook Air models introduced at WWDC gets your hopes up. The bolstered battery is the main reason to consider upgrading from an older Air or a rival computer; most other changes - while welcome - are relatively modest.
In my quick but harsh battery test in a San Francisco hotel room - I've only had a test computer for a day or so - the Air indeed proved to have very good stamina, if falling short of the 12-hour battery max that Apple achieved under somewhat less stringent testing conditions.
Design-wise, the latest Airs look nearly identical to their predecessors: sleek aluminum unibody construction, smooth and large multitouch trackpads, inviting backlit keyboards. These are good-looking premium laptops.
As before, versions come in two basic sizes: models with an 11.6-inch LED-backlit display and models with a 13.3-inch screen. (My test model was the larger one.) And as before the machines don't come cheap: $999 or $1,199 for the 11-inch model, depending on storage options, and $1,099 and $1,299 on the larger version.
Apple now starts users off with 128 gigabytes of flash storage, more generous than on the prior generation, but still cramped compared to the storage you'd get on the less reliable hard drives that are now passé on Mac laptops. If I had my druthers, there'd be more capacity on the computer itself, even with the push these days to cloud storage. But flash is expensive. You can boost the storage capacity on the Air to as high as 512GB on certain models.
A USB optical drive for DVDs and CDs is a $79 option.
The laptops weigh 2.38 pounds and 2.96 pounds respectively, so these remain light workhorses. At 0.11-inches at their thinnest point and 0.68 inches at the thickest, the machines are appealingly thin as well.
The computers have 1.3 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processors, high-end Intel graphics, and 4GB of memory. You can upgrade the processors and memory. Each has a pair of USB 3 ports, a Thunderbolt port and Apple's proprietary MagSafe 2 power port. Each also has a 720p high-definition FaceTime camera. Only the larger model has an SD card slot.
For now the machines run OS X Mountain Lion, the last version of Apple's venerable Macintosh operating system that carries a Big Cat nickname. At WWDC, Apple previewed OS X Mavericks - you'll almost certainly be able to upgrade the Airs to Mavericks when the software is released this fall. It's not clear what Apple might charge.
The Airs are also compatible with the latest flavor of Wi-Fi networking, what geeks refer to as "802.11ac." The promise is up to three times faster Wi-Fi and better range as well, but you'll need compatible 802.11ac networking gear, which I didn't have for my test.
None of the models has the stunning "Retina display" that is a headline feature on pricier MacBook Pro models. Though the 1366-by-768 native resolution on the smaller Air model and the 1440-by-900 on the larger screen version are nice, the displays are no match for their Retina-based siblings. I suppose Apple kept Retina off the MacBook Airs as a key differentiator with the Pro models. The lack of Retina also keeps the price in check, while helping balance battery considerations.
On 13-inch Airs like my test model, Apple claims you can get up to 12 hours of wireless Web surfing, and up to 10 hours of iTunes movie playback. The smaller models reduce those numbers to 9 hours and 8 hours. The extra juice can be partly attributed to bigger batteries - the flash storage inside the computer is compact. The Intel chips inside (codenamed Haswell) are also way more power-efficient.
I've always taken manufacturer battery claims with a grain of salt. There are multiple factors: screen brightness, whether network radios are turned on, what you're doing in general. I usually run a harsher test than manufacturers - including Apple - do, by cranking brightness to the max, turning off all power-saving measures, and streaming a video over Wi-Fi. Apple tests at a 75% brightness level.
In my informal test, the Air delivered a pretty impressive seven hours and 48 minutes. It's not quite a full business day but awfully close, and my results suggest you can easily make it unplugged through presentations or flights that go a lot longer than Tim Cook's remarks. Even at that, I always keep one eye open for a power outlet.