NEW YORK — 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.
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. 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 Apples MacBook Air and Dell, Sony and Acer computers running Microsofts Windows 8. Samsung and other PC makers are coming out with Haswell laptops, so expect more choices by the holidays. The four I tested use solid-state flash drives, which keep laptops light but dont have as much capacity. They also lack Ethernet ports for wired Web connections and DVD slots. 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 more 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.
The Air is the cheapest of the four I reviewed, as Apples computers are traditionally pricier than their Windows counterparts. In this case, the Windows laptops I tested all come with touch screens, something Apple has avoided in laptops on the premise that people dont 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 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 videos 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.
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, its 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.
Promised battery life is about 8.75 hours. I got nearly 8.5 hours for word processing, spreadsheets and other tasks that didnt need Wi-Fi. With wireless turned on, I got 7.5 to eight hours of use. Like the other two Windows machines, I got five to six hours of iTunes video. Thats about half of what I got on the Air, but Apple has the advantage in being able to optimize its hardware for the software it also designs. I got about 5.5 to six hours of streaming video on Hulu, which is just about an hour less than what I got on the Air.
Vaio Pro 13 from Sony Corp. Starts at $1,250: The Pro is an ultrabook thats light. Very, very light. The 13.3-inch laptop weighs just 2.34 pounds, only 60 percent more than an iPad. Sony uses carbon fiber to keep it light. It feels to me like cheap plastic thats about to break because it bends. But Sony assures me that its more durable than aluminum. And Sony says the fact that it bends isnt a sign of weakness but a characteristic that lets it absorb shock.
I consistently got more than the seven hours of battery life promised for general Web surfing and word processing. I reached 8.5 hours once with Wi-Fi turned off. Battery life drops below six hours, though, for iTunes video download and Hulu streaming. If you do a lot of that, you can add a spare battery for $150, doubling the battery life. The system is still less than 3 pounds with the spare battery attached. The other units I tried wont let you replace batteries or insert a spare at all.
Aspire S7 from Acer Inc. Starts at $1,450: The Aspire has what I want in a laptop, except for the price.
The laptops aluminum body is covered on one side with glossy white glass. It reminds me of a refrigerator, but I came to appreciate the durability it brings once I started lugging it around. Its also fairly light, at 2.87 pounds.
You can flip its screen all the way back so that both the keyboard and the screen are level with the surface, just like a tablet on a tabletop. I cant think of any scenarios in which I would need that, though Acer says its good for presentations.
Acers website promises eight hours of battery life. I exceeded nine hours with Wi-Fi off and got seven to 8.5 hours of general Web surfing. But I got less than six hours of iTunes video and Hulu streaming.