By Jason Snell
March 20, 2020 5:30 AM PT
2020 MacBook Air review: No news is good news
[Author’s Note: I’ve updated this piece to change the chart at the conclusion of the story. I put the wrong numbers in the chart, and those numbers were wildly misleading about iPad Pro 2018 performance. I regret the error. I will update this chart with data from the 2020 iPad Pro when it’s available. -j.s.]
Here’s what you need to know about the 2020 MacBook Air: It’s everything that was great about the 2018 MacBook Air, but it’s cheaper and faster, with more customizable specs and—perhaps most importantly—the same Magic Keyboard as the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Despite the keyboard and the $1099 starting price, the MacBook Air was already my go-to Mac laptop recommendation. What this new model has done is eliminate almost every caveat, warning, or footnote that might have come along with that recommendation. If the MacBook Air wasn’t definitively the center of the Mac world before—and Apple says it’s been the most popular Mac model “by far”—it certainly is now.
The key upgrade
If you’ve followed along with the ongoing story of Apple’s “butterfly” keyboard design, introduced with the 12-inch MacBook in 2015, you know that it’s been criticized for both its typing feel and its fragility. Apple instituted a special service program to deal with the repair issues.
This new MacBook Air model, thankfully, does not use that keyboard design. Instead, it’s got the same design as the 16-inch MacBook Pro introduced last fall. The keys use a more traditional scissor switch and offer about a millimeter of key travel. That’s not as much as in the previous, non-Retina MacBook Air, but it’s still pretty good. (And yes, this new MacBook Air also has a proper “inverted T” layout for arrow keys, as it was in the old days, allowing you to orient more easily based on key feel.)
I still prefer the feel of that older Apple keyboard, but given the choice between the keyboard on the new Air and the one from the previous generation, I’d choose this new one every time. In contrast, my wife—who uses a 2018 MacBook Air with the butterfly keyboard—tried the new keyboard and shrugged. Some people just don’t care that much about keyboards!
But if you’ve been holding out for a MacBook Air with Retina display that’s got a keyboard with more travel, you can end your holdout now. It’s here.
The right price
My 2018 excitement that the MacBook Air would be revived was tempered by the butterfly keyboard (did I mention I didn’t like it?), but more than that, it was by the price: $1199 (dropped to $1099 last July). After the MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro failed to catch on because of their high prices, I was hoping that the MacBook Air would give Apple a solid laptop option for $999. The MacBook Air was cheaper, but it couldn’t hit that magic price. (Though in fact, it has been hitting it via sales at various websites over the past year. I’ve bought two of the 2018 Airs for $999. But it wasn’t the “real” price.)
This 2020 MacBook Air finally sets the bar at the right place: $999. While that price will only get you a dual-core i3 processor, it’ll get you 256GB of storage, double the base storage available on the old $1099 Air. (You can also upgrade to 512GB for $200, 1TB for $400, and 2TB for $800.)
I wish Apple had hit this price two years ago, but I’m glad it’s gotten there today. $999 (and $899 for education) makes this Air a lot easier to recommend to price-conscious Mac laptop buyers. Fortunately, if you were hoping for more power than a dual-core i3, Apple has options for you, too.
Choices at last
Back in the old pre-Retina days, you could configure the MacBook Air’s processor to be much more powerful than the default. (I’ve got a 2012 MacBook Air with an i7 processor that’s only now starting to show its age.) But when the Retina MacBook Air debuted in 2018, it came with only a single processor configuration: a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz.
The 2020 MacBook Air lets users buy a faster processor if they want—and for the first time, there are four-core options for the MacBook Air. The $999 base model is powered by a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3, with Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz. But you can also configure a 1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, with Turbo Boost up to 3.5Ghz for an additional $100, or a 1.2GHz quad-core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz for an extra $250. While all models use Intel’s integrated Iris Plus graphics, Apple says that graphics on these models are up to 80 percent faster than the previous model.
I was only able to test the $1299 model that includes the quad-core i5 processor, so I can’t test whether the highest-end model meets Apple’s claims of speeds twice as fast as the prior model. But I was able to test the new laptop in Primate Labs’ Geekbench 5 and compare it to older Mac models. The results were encouraging, with a 32 percent improvement in single-core performance and 63 percent improvement in multi-core tests. (More cores helps.)
Apple seems to have hit the $999 price point by saddling it with the two-core i3 processor, while for the old $1099 price you get the mid-range processor with four cores. I’d expect the $999 model to be roughly comparable to the old model in terms of performance, but the good news is that if you want a bit more processing power, you can pay and get it. (And yes, you can take the $999 model and simply configure up the processor to the i7 model if you want to.)
Worth the wait?
If there’s a hint of things to come in my test results, though, it’s the performance of the iPad Pro. This isn’t the new 2020 model that’s due out next week, either—it’s the third-generation iPad Pro that was released the same day as the first Retina MacBook Air model. The 2018 iPad Pro was faster in single-core performance and 70 percent faster in multi-core performance.
Even if we accept that macOS and iPadOS are different beasts and that a Mac built around Apple’s own A-series processors wouldn’t necessarily score quite as high, it’s a clear sign that Apple’s state of the art iPad processor from 18 months ago is faster than the mid-range MacBook Air processor today.
Though rumors abound that Apple is going to be introducing ARM Macs, there’s no telling when that might happen and what form those computers might take. How compatible will they be with older software? Will Intel apps that haven’t been recompiled for ARM run in a slow code-translation layer? Will Apple have to work out bugs that come along with the transition?
If you don’t really need a new Mac laptop, maybe you should wait to see what happens with ARM. But if you’re someone who has been holding out for a new MacBook Air—and ideally one without that infamous keyboard—I wouldn’t recommend that you wait. This is the MacBook Air that you’ve been waiting for.
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