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Apple’s new MacBook Air and the era of all-day computing

At its World Wide Developers Conference a few weeks ago, Apple announced many new features and enhancements to OS X and iOS that will be available to customers come autumn. But there was another announcement that will have a huge impact on the industry over the next few years.

The new MacBook Air was introduced with little fanfare and some initial reactions criticised the fact that it does not have a Retina display. Had it featured a Retina display though, its battery life would have suffered. Apple knows from past sales that demand for a Retina display is not top of the list of customer demands – and longer battery life is.

In the past, a 13in MacBook Air was able to get seven hours of battery life at best. Personally I could never get more than four hours on mine but I like my screen bright and this drains power quickly. The big news with the new 13in MacBook Air is that, thanks to some significant engineering, its battery life is rated at 12 hours, which I was told at launch was conservative. In our review it chalked up 15 hours of battery life.

Any portable capable of 12 hours or more achieves the holy grail of laptop computing, which is what we call "all-day computing." If you have used an iPad or other top-of the-line tablet from a competitor, you already know the beauty of all-day computing. With an iPad I never need to carry a power cord since it's guaranteed to outlast my business day, even if I am working extra hours.

To achieve this amazing battery life, Apple worked very closely with Intel to tweak the Haswell ULT processor. However, Apple's also done some of its own handiwork by adding a lot of battery level controls at the software level, enabling it to squeeze out at least three extra hours.

This Apple/Intel collaboration is very important and between the chip and OS, Apple has a serious competitive advantage over the other Intel vendors. What is unclear is whether these Apple/Intel tweaks, which at the moment seem proprietary, will ever be available to competitors. As of this weekend, I had yet to hear any answers. However, even if the Apple-influenced Intel chip can be offered to competitors, any operating system would require similarly detailed tweaks to achieve comparable battery life.

I recently asked one of the PC vendors how long they thought it would take, with Intel and Microsoft's help, to get their laptops to last at least 12 hours on a single charge. From what they know of roadmaps, they suggested they might get to the 12 hour mark by mid-2014. I personally think we could see these as soon as early next year but even so, I suspect that 12 hours would be in best case scenarios; most would get more like 9 or 10 hours on average. The good news is that you could probably lump a laptop that gets 10 hours into the all-day computing category. Still, I would carry a charger with me to be safe.

This move by Apple changes the game. In the past, many of us judged the quality of our PCs and laptops by the speed of the processor. In fact, for almost two decades, we witnessed a tit-for-tat megahertz war going on between the PC semiconductor companies vying for top dog billing in processor speeds. However, battery life is the new megahertz battle.

And don't forget about the MacBook Air's eye-catching and sleek design. Other vendors have tried to boost their laptops' battery life by using larger batteries but Apple has achieved this level of longevity by including a slightly larger battery without sacrificing its thin build.

All vendors have taken serious note of the MacBook Air's extra-long battery life and understand that this product sets the bar for all-day computing. It will force the competition to improve their own laptops, and that's always good news for us consumers.