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Review: Haswell laptops deliver on long battery

Sunday - 8/25/2013, 7:10pm  ET

A MacBook Air from Apple, bottom center, a Vaio Pro 13 from Sony, top left, an Aspire S7 from Acer, center, and an XPS 12 from Dell, right, are displayed for a photograph, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in New York. Each notebooks has a microprocessors that belongs to a new family of Intel chips called Haswell. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

AP Technology Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Just in time for the back-to-school season, new laptops with extended battery life are hitting store shelves.

What these laptops have in common are microprocessors that belong to a new family of Intel chips called Haswell. The chips consume less power than previous generations and promise a 50 percent boost in battery life for watching video. The improvements extend to word processing, Web surfing and other computing tasks as well.

Put another way, you can unplug your laptop in the morning and go a full day without a charge, with some breaks for meals, exercise and errands. The 13-inch MacBook Air, for instance, promises up to 12 hours of battery life. Three Windows machines I tried promise seven to nine hours. For students, that's a full day of cutting classes -- and more. For business travelers, that's a cross-country flight including delays.

The catch: Slim, lightweight laptops with Haswell chips cost more than $1,000. Cheaper laptops will be heavier or come with older chips.

I reviewed Apple's MacBook Air and Dell, Sony and Acer computers running Microsoft's Windows 8. Samsung and other PC makers are just coming out with Haswell laptops, so you should expect even more choices by the holidays. The four I tested use solid-state flash drives, which keep laptops light but don't have as much capacity as traditional storage. They also lack Ethernet ports for wired Internet connections and slots for DVDs. Expect to use Wi-Fi a lot, though USB ports are available to connect devices. Base models come with 128 gigabytes of storage. You can spend a few hundred dollars more for additional storage and faster processors.

Here are the four Haswell laptops I tried, starting with the cheapest:

-- MacBook Air from Apple Inc. Starts at $1,099 for 13-inch model.

With a screen measuring 13.3 inches diagonally, the larger model weighs 2.96 pounds and costs $1,099. An even lighter, 11.6-inch version is available for $999, but promised battery life is just nine hours. Spend the extra $100 for three additional hours and a larger screen if you can afford it.

It's odd that the Air is the cheapest of the four I reviewed, as Apple's computers are traditionally pricier than their Windows counterparts. But in this case, the Windows laptops I tested all come with touch screens, something Apple has avoided in laptops on the premise that people don't want to lift their hands off the keyboard to use touch controls. The base model of the Air also has a slightly slower processor -- at 1.3 gigahertz, compared with 1.6 gigahertz for the three Windows laptops.

Although promised battery life on the 13-inch review unit was 12 hours, I was able to get more than 14 hours once by turning off the Wi-Fi connection. I typically got nine to 11 hours for general Web surfing. Apple promises up to 10 hours for playing video downloaded from its iTunes store. I ran that test four times and got nine to 10 hours of playing the same episode of "Revenge" over and over. As with other laptops, performance drops significantly when streaming video over Wi-Fi, down to six to seven hours of Hulu.

Beyond having a long battery life, the Air is a solid machine that is easy to hold and carry. Although its aluminum exterior is easy to scratch and dent, I feel comfortable banging it around in my backpack because it has few moving parts that might be susceptible to damage. I even ran four miles home with it once.

Only the 13-inch model has a slot for SD memory cards.

Apart from its limited storage compared with laptops with regular hard drives, the MacBook Air will work fine as a primary computer. However, if you need an even more powerful laptop, see if Apple will update its MacBook Pros with Haswell this fall.

-- XPS 12 from Dell Inc. Starts at $1,200.

The XPS 12 is part of a category called ultrabooks -- slim and light laptops, much like MacBook Airs, except they run Windows. The XPS 12 is also a convertible. The screen spins like a pig roasting on a spit. In one position, you get a laptop. Spin it 180 degrees, close the lid, and you have yourself a tablet. Magic.

Unfortunately, the XPS 12 is on the heavy side. The base model is 3.35 pounds. On paper, it's less than a half-pound heavier than the Air. But in practice, it feels heavy -- especially as a tablet, at more than double the 1.44 pounds for the full-size iPad. The XPS 12 is alone in lacking an SD card slot, and its 12.5-inch screen is the smallest. But it is also the only one to have physical volume buttons on the side, and it's more affordable than the other two Windows laptops I reviewed.

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