By Jason Snell
November 6, 2018 3:00 AM PT
MacBook Air review: Center of the Mac world?
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
Think back to the fall of 2010. The iPad was just a few months old, and Apple introduced a new design for the MacBook Air. The previous model was an impressively thin and light laptop (that could famously fit in a mailing envelope), but it was expensive and had a single USB port concealed beneath a weird flip-down door. But the new models—and there were two, at 13 and 11 inches—were entirely different. They were still thin and light, but now they offered two USB ports and a new wedge-shaped design.
In that moment, the MacBook Air went from being a bit of an oddball to being the heart and soul of the Mac laptop line—and since two-thirds of Mac sales are laptops, it’s probably safe to say that the MacBook Air is the definitive Mac of this decade. For the past eight years, its exterior design has largely remained unchanged, as other products have come and gone.
Just when we thought it was dead, after several years of essentially no updates, the MacBook Air has returned with a new version that’s clearly inspired by the classic design. It’s been so long since the last major MacBook Air update, in fact, that most of the “new” features on this device are simply a recap of all the changes Apple has made to other Macs the past few years, finally rolled into this one: a new keyboard, Retina display, Force Touch trackpad, Apple-designed T2 processor, USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, “Hey Siri”, and Touch ID.
Surprise! The definitive Mac of the 2010s is going to survive this decade. And while this MacBook Air is dramatically different from previous models in many ways, it’s also got a bunch of familiar touches that make it undeniably a MacBook Air. Like its predecessors, it’s not the computer for everyone… but it will probably be the most popular laptop among the (count ’em) six models Apple currently offers.
Hello, familiar friend
Beyond the mere fact that it exists, the most surprising thing about this new MacBook Air is probably that it is deliberately styled like its predecessor. Anyone who’s carried a MacBook Air around for a few years will recognize all of its curves. The edges are curved, of course; the top shell gently slopes down to those edges; the bottom has the four familiar feet, array of little screws, and the same gentle curves. And of course the definitive wedge shape, when viewed from the side, remains intact—the laptop is .61 inches (15 mm) thick at its thickest point, by the back hinge; it’s just .16 inches (4.1 mm) thick at the front edge.
Sitting closed, you could almost mistake this for an older MacBook Air—if you didn’t look at the ports and if it wasn’t in the Space Gray or Gold shades that have never before been available on an Air. Once you open it up, though, there’s no mistaking that this is a different beast.
The display itself is 13.3 inches diagonal, the same measurement as the last remaining old Air model, but there the resemblance ends. The silver bezels that defined the look of the Air when it was open are gone, replaced by the all-glass covering that Apple has favored in every other laptop for many years. And the remaining black bezels under the glass are much smaller than those on the old model, which means that while the screen is the same size, the laptop itself has shrunk—it’s now 12 inches (30 cm) wide, while the old model was 12.8 inches (33 cm) wide. it’s also about half an inch less deep.
The result is that this is a 13-inch Air, but it’s a lot smaller than the old model—not quite the size of the old 11-inch Air, but closer than you might imagine. As a longtime user of that 11-inch model who always felt the 13-incher was a bit too large, this MacBook Air feels a lot nicer.
What’s old is new again
Leaving aside an embarrassingly tiny speed boost in the middle of 2017, the last spec update for the MacBook Air was in early 2015. That’s also when the 12-inch MacBook was introduced, and in the nearly four years since then, Apple has turned over the rest of its laptop product line, introducing a slew of new features that the MacBook Air never received. It made the Air, once the pride of the Mac, feel a bit like a relic from another time.
(For some people, this was a good thing. Many users have not reacted well to some of the new features Apple has introduced in the last few years, and the Air was still sitting there with its MagSafe charger and its old-style keyboard with more key travel, reminding them of the way things were.)
Those days are over. Like a recap at the beginning of a TV show, it’s time to update the MacBook Air with what it missed when it skipped the last four seasons of MacBook updates.
Keyboard. That classic old keyboard design, on which I typed hundreds of thousands of words, is no more. This new MacBook Air has the new third-generation “butterfly” keyboard design that’s also on the 2018-model MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. This is an updated version of the keyboard that was introduced back in 2015 with the 12-inch MacBook, and it’s got reduced key travel, an arrow-key layout that’s harder to orient on by feel, and a reputation for unreliability.
On the positive side, the MacBook Air benefits from the fact that it’s inheriting the third-generation version of this keyboard, with whatever lessons Apple has learned along the way. It’s definitely better than the previous models. For all of Apple’s claims of improved key stability, I never thought to myself that the old Air keyboard was flawed because if you pressed on the edges of a keycap, the keycap wiggled a little bit. It was a great keyboard and I’ll miss it.
That said… this new keyboard is fine to type on. I don’t love it, but I imagine that I’d rapidly get used to it. I’ve written this entire review on the MacBook Air, and after a brief breaking-in process, I’m basically typing at full speed. The keys provide some audible feedback without the louder crunch that the second-generation version did.
I admit that I’m not thrilled about all the horror stories I’ve heard about people getting crumbs stuck under one of the keys, forcing a blast with a can of compressed air and/or a trip to the Genius bar. But the fact is, if you want a new Apple laptop, you’re going to get this keyboard whether you like it or not. I’m not sure it’s a keyboard I’m ever going to love, but it’s a keyboard I could do business with.
Retina Display. Apple’s been doing Retina displays on laptops for a long time, and the Air was one of the last holdouts. Higher-resolution Mac displays are great, and I’d never buy a Mac without a Retina display at this point. Text is smooth and photos are gorgeous. I will note that despite Apple’s claims that the resolution of this display on the MacBook Air is twice that of the old non-Retina model (i.e., four times the pixels), that’s not accurate. This display is 2560 by 1600, which is only 1.7x the dimensions of the old screen—meaning it’s got about 3.2 times the pixels of the old model. Regardless, it’s an enormous upgrade and really reason enough to get this MacBook Air if you’ve been soldiering on with an old model.
Force Touch trackpad. Believe it or not, the MacBook Air still used the old-style trackpad that physically moved, with the hinge at the top, so the clickable area was largely the bottom half of the trackpad. The new Air has a larger trackpad that doesn’t depress, but detects clicks based on pressure and then provides haptic feedback that emulates a click. It’s easier to make multitouch gestures and you can click anywhere on the surface. It’s a superior trackpad in every way.
T2 Processor. A huge change in what makes a Mac a Mac came with the introduction of the T2, an Apple-designed ARM processor that is similar to the chips that run the Apple Watch, Apple TV, iPhones, and iPads. On all Macs with the T2, the processor is acting as a system controller, managing (and encrypting) the flash storage and managing the security of the system. On the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, the T2 runs the Touch Bar and the Touch ID sensor. This processor also helps enable the “Hey Siri” feature, where you can kick off a Siri request just by saying those familiar words, rather than needing to type a keyboard shortcut as on older models.
USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. The 12-inch MacBook began Apple’s transition away from classic USB to the new USB-C port design. This MacBook Air has two USB-C ports, just as the old MacBook Air had two USB-A ports. But these ports have to do double duty—literally. The older Airs also had a MagSafe port for charging, a Mini DisplayPort connector that could drive an external display or connect to high-speed peripherals via Thunderbolt, and—on the 13-inch model—an SD card slot. The new MacBook Air’s USB-C ports have to be USB ports, but they’re also Thunderbolt ports, video-out ports, and your power source.
If you’re someone who tends to plug in more than one thing at once, well, this MacBook Air is a regression. Apple seems to believe that most users don’t plug much into their laptops, and maybe they’re right. But if you are someone who does, you’ll need to do what most other Apple laptop users in this USB-C world have done—buy an adapter or a hub or muddle through by plugging and unplugging as needed. Welcome to Dongletown.
Stereo sound stage. In recent iPhone and iPad models, Apple has showed off a new set of technologies that combine stereo speakers and some audio processing to provide more dynamic and separated stereo sound. Suffice it to say that if you watch a movie on this MacBook Air you will have a dramatically upgraded experience, not just from that Retina display but from the stereo audio coming from speakers located to the left and right of the keyboard, rather than from behind the back hinge bouncing off the laptop screen like the old model.
Touch ID and iOS influences
Though this MacBook Air is mostly made up of bits that have premiered on other Apple laptops in the last few years, there are a few new wrinkles. Most notably, this is the first Apple laptop to have Touch ID without having a Touch Bar.
Located just to the right of the F12 key, the shiny, narrow-width Touch ID sensor that doubles as the power key. (These days you don’t need to use the power button much, but it’s still useful if you need to forcibly reset a Mac.) In practice, the Touch ID sensor works exactly as it does on the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar—it’s just sharing space with real keys, not a virtual key strip.
With Touch ID enabled, you can unlock the MacBook Air by laying your finger on the sensor. It’s also useful for unlocking third-party apps like 1Password. Once you get used to using a Mac with Touch ID, it’s hard to go back to the old way. This is definitely a step up for MacBook Air users.
In terms of processor, this new MacBook Air model is less flexible than past models, where you could spend more money to configure the Air with high-powered Core i7 processors. The new Air comes in a single processor configuration: a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz. This processor is lower powered than the processors in past MacBook Airs, and is of the class of the processor found in the 12-inch MacBook, not the 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar).
I’d expect the MacBook Air to run faster than the MacBook—especially since it’s got a fan it can crank up instead of throttling down the processor like the fanless MacBook has to do. (Yes, MacBook Air fans, if you put your device to work you’ll hear that familiar blowing sound of the fan going to work.) But it’s not going to be as fast as that 13-inch MacBook Pro.
It’s always been the case that if you wanted a faster MacBook you’d need to spend more cash. The difference is that, today, that money will need to go toward a different model—that 13-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at only $100 more—rather than toward a different processor inside the same model.
In that way, this MacBook Air reminds me of how Apple handles its iOS devices. Apple doesn’t let you choose a different processor speed or class when you buy an iPhone or iPad. Every product comes with what it comes with—in the case of iOS, within a model type all that varies is storage and the cellular network option. I wonder if this is the future of the Mac, too—especially on the consumer end of the line.
At the starting point
There are a lot of MacBooks for sale right now. Leaving aside the old MacBook Air, which feels like it’s months away from retirement, there’s the 12-inch MacBook, the new Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar, and the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. What’s a prospective Mac laptop buyer to do?
The introduction of the new MacBook Air hasn’t simplified Apple’s overall product line—there’s still an old model and the MacBook hasn’t been updated and that 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar still feels like a weird outlier product that should have another name. But I think the MacBook Air does simplify the Mac laptop buying process, in that it feels like the best starting point, the center of the Venn Diagram of MacBooks.
If you’re shopping for a Mac laptop, start with the MacBook Air. Want a cheaper model? The old Air is there for as long as it lasts. Want something even smaller and lighter, and are willing to trade some power, port flexibility, and money for it? The MacBook is for you. Want something more powerful, and are willing to take on a slightly heavier and more expensive device? The 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar is for you. Want even more power? The 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros offer numerous opportunities to upgrade specs and spend more money.
If there’s any place where the MacBook Air has regressed (beyond the $200 increase in base price), it’s in its status as a consumer laptop that could have its specs boosted into something resembling a pro laptop. That’s how I used my MacBook Air, and I’m a little disappointed that it’s no longer built for that use case—but for $100 more I can buy a MacBook Pro that still fits that scenario.
Still, Apple has placed the MacBook Air back where it spent the first part of this decade: firmly at the center of the Apple laptop universe. It’s not the cheapest or fastest or lightest laptop, but it’s the lowest-priced Retina Mac and it’s powerful and flexible enough to serve the needs of the broad audience for consumer Macs. The new geographic center of the Mac is once again where it’s been for most of this decade: It’s the MacBook Air.
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