Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: After five years, Apple has restored MacBook clarity

iPad with trackpad

Five years is a long time, especially in consumer electronics. The iPhone went from the original model to the iPhone 5 in as many years. Just think about how many changes took place in that time frame; the iPhone 5’s screen was both larger and more dense than the original, and it packed in LTE, a Lightning port, a much better camera and shockingly better performance in a chassis that weighed less, was thinner and much better built.

Likewise, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro was introduced just five years after the original iPad, and the entire run of pre-Retina MacBooks lasted just five years.

That brings us to the 2020 MacBook Air, which Jason recently reviewed. Due to the current situation we all find ourselves in, I haven’t been able to play with one in an Apple Store, but I did buy my wife a 2018 MacBook Air a few months after it was introduced, and in my review of that laptop, I praised Apple for bringing the MacBook Air into the modern air, but raised concerns about the keyboard.

The new MacBook Air seems to fix all the complaints people had with the 2018-era notebook. It has the Magic Keyboard, multiple CPU options, more generous default storage tiers and starts at $999 once again, unless you’re in education, in which case it’s just $899.

All of this is great, and I think it is fantastic that Apple has restored the MacBook Air not only to its former glory, but its former position of being the default Mac notebook that one can recommend to friends, co-workers, students and more.

The bigger story is a little more interesting though, and it has to do with how long the Mac faithful had to wait for this machine.

Way back in 2015, when Apple introduced the now-defunct 12-inch MacBook with Retina display, I think Apple hoped it would become the de-factor heir to the Air’s throne, but that just didn’t happen. While the form factor is still impressive five years later, that machine was underpowered, introduced the worst keyboard in Apple’s history and had just one USB-C port, limiting its usefulness in the real world.

In 2016, the cracks were already beginning to show, when Apple introduced the Touch Bar MacBook Pro line, which included a low-end model with two Thunderbolt ports and traditional function keys. I owned that machine for a while, and as I wrote at the time, it was a notebook much closer to the MacBook Air than the its Pro-named siblings.

I think Apple hoped this notebook would become the de-factor heir to the Air’s throne, but that just didn’t happen.

From 2016-2018, Mac users who were in the market for an entry-level notebook faced a confusing product line. The 12-inch MacBook and the low-end MacBook Pro had big overlaps in price, but not performance, so many just opted to pick up the still-for-sale non-Retina MacBook Air, forgoing the mess of Apple’s other machines.

In 2018, the company began to clear the mess with the new MacBook Air, but here in 2020, it’s finally clear. If you need a Mac notebook, buy the Air, unless you know you need something more.

It’s been a long five years, but the MacBook line makes sense again. Let’s hope Apple keeps things clear from here on out.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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