Apple’s iPhones get significant feature overhauls nearly every year, but until last week, one of Cupertino’s most popular and affordable laptops hardly changed at all since it was introduced in 2008. There have been minor spec bumps, but the Air has maintained the same overall physical appearance of the first-generation model, even when the MacBook and MacBook Pro have received radical design overhauls. That changes with the new MacBook Air (starts at $ 1,199; $ 1,399 as tested), which has slimmed down, ditched its outdated display and CPU, and received several other overdue upgrades as well. The upgrades unfortunately do not result in excellent computing performance, but they nevertheless return the MacBook Air to its place among the best ultraportable laptops.
Catching Up With History
The new 13-inch MacBook Air comes more than 10 years after the original, whose unique wedge shape gave it a minimum height of just 0.16 inch and a maximum height of 0.76 inch. Those dimensions made Apple confident enough to promote it as the world’s thinnest notebook. Then-CEO Steve Jobs famously unveiled the diminutive machine by pulling it out of a manila envelope, and the laptop-buying public went wild, at least until they realized that significant compromises had to be made to get the MacBook Air that thin, such as ditching the optical drive and making the battery non-replaceable.
A decade has passed, and those compromises no longer seem so important now that CDs and DVDs are on their deathbeds and most of the MacBook Air’s competitors have non-replaceable parts as well. This period of innovation in the ultraportable laptop market, which in no small part owes its existence to the MacBook Air, saw the 13-inch Air itself remain largely the same. Sure, it slimmed down a bit, to a minimum of 0.11 inch and a maximum of 0.68 inch, and its screen gained a few pixels, but this and other minor improvements pale in comparison with the high-resolution displays and featherlight weight of some of its competitors.
Even Apple’s other laptops eclipsed the MacBook Air in terms of raw innovation, with the MacBook Pro and MacBook adding Retina Displays, slimmer chassis, power-efficient Intel processors, and even Touch Bars and fingerprint readers.
That Apple withheld these and other features from the MacBook Air isn’t surprising from a marketing standpoint, since it needed an entry-level model to give context to its more premium notebooks. But with last year’s minimally refreshed MacBook Air, the withholding started to become punitive. Apple updated the aging Intel processor with another one that itself was several generations behind the chip giant’s latest and greatest silicon, a puzzling move that made Apple watchers wonder if the MacBook Air was on life support.
Roaring Back to Life
The wondering ended last month, when the MacBook Air roared back to life with nearly every major innovation that it has missed. Apple rejiggered the height a bit—the range is now between 0.16 and 0.61 inch, still with a sloping wedge—but the most striking visual change by far is that the laptop is now noticeably smaller than its predecessor both in width (11.97 inches vs. 12.8 inches), depth (8.36 inches vs. 8.94 inches), and weight (2.75 pounds vs. 2.96 pounds).
These changes are most noticeable when you open the new MacBook Air’s lid. The edges of the keyboard and the display are now much closer to the edges of the chassis. These slimmer borders, or bezels, are all the rage in consumer electronics today, and Apple has embraced them with both the iPhone and its other laptops, so adding them to the MacBook Air is the most important visual design change the company could have made to make the laptop appear more modern.
Other than the slimmer bezels, the rest of the broad design strokes are largely the same. The percentage of recycled aluminum increased, and with the addition of Space Grey and Rose Gold, so did the color choices. And of course there is still no optical drive or user-accessible screws to let owners replace the battery or other components.
Gaze at the MacBook Air a bit longer, though, and you’ll identify several major and sometimes controversial physical changes. Apple completely overhauled the input/output port selection, adding two USB-C ports that both support the lightning-quick, cutting-edge Thunderbolt 3 data transfer interface while ditching the more traditional USB Type-A ports and the mini DisplayPort video output. The only constant here is a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The port reconfiguration is decidedly modern, and it matches the USB-C-only complement of the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. But many Windows competitors manage to fit both USB Type-A ports and USB-C ports, recognizing that the complete switchover to USB-C is still several years away. With the MacBook Air, everything from the power cable to your external monitor and mouse get plugged into the USB-C ports, so you’ll almost certainly need to buy at least one adapter.
The second controversial physical change is the addition of a keyboard with Apple’s unique butterfly-style switches. When struck, each key travels a far shorter distance than every other laptop key I’ve ever used. It’s a jarring feeling at first, though I’ve gradually become accustomed to tapping instead of striking the keys. I far prefer the keyboards on Lenovo’s ThinkPad lineup, and I’m keenly aware of the significant redesigns Apple made to address flaws on previous generations of the butterfly switch design, which resulted in a lawsuit. Even so I still appreciate the keys for their stability and the satisfying thud they make when they’re depressed.
A far less controversial hardware change is the addition of a Force Touch trackpad to the MacBook Air. The old trackpad surely held its own compared with the often-clumsy pads on Windows competitors, but paled in comparison to the giant, wondrous, hingeless Force Touch pad on the MacBook Pro. It’s the best, most precise touch pad I’ve ever used. Not only are your finger motions registered with extreme accuracy, but clicks are completely virtual—they’re simulated by tiny vibrations called haptic feedback instead of a physical hinge. The result is the unique-to-Apple ability to click anywhere on the oversized pad and receive a uniform level of feedback, eliminating a ton of unnecessary finger movements.
You can even customize how strong the virtual clicks are, turn them off completely, and adjust other features like multitouch gestures in Apple’s System Preferences app. Through its Precision Touchpad initiative, Microsoft has been pleading with Windows laptop makers to improve their pads for years, but none has come close to Apple’s Force Touch marvel.
Another unequivocal hardware improvement is the MacBook Air’s Retina Display. The previous generation has a woefully low-resolution 1,440-by-900-pixel screen in an era when it’s very difficult to find another laptop for sale for more than $ 1,000 with anything less than a full HD resolution (1,920 by 1,080). The new panel is a gorgeous Retina Display, with a resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 and In-Plane Switching (IPS) tech to prevent washout when you’re looking at it from extreme angles.
As nice as the new Retina Display is, however, Apple could have done even better. There’s no True Tone calibration to adjust the white balance to the ambient color temperature in the room, a feature reserved for some MacBook Pro models. In casual testing in PC Labs, I also found the new MacBook Air’s display slightly dimmer than the 15-inch MacBook Pro at full brightness. And there’s no touch screen option—you can’t add the thin Touch Bar as an optional extra like you can with the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The new MacBook Air does come standard with Apple’s fingerprint reader and T2 coprocessor, though. The reader is nifty enough, doubling as the power button and recognizing my print with 100 percent accuracy over several days of locking and unlocking the laptop. The T2 chip is far more innovative, providing security features more common to business machines than consumer ultraportables.
The T2 consolidates many behind-the-scenes tasks previously accomplished by multiple pieces of silicon—the system management controller, image signal processor, audio controller, and SSD controller—into a single chip. But its most noticeable benefit is security. It handles everything from encrypting the hard drive to checking for evidence of hacker tampering at startup to even authenticating purchase you make online with Apple Pay using your fingerprint. The T2’s secure boot technology uses the same code found in the security features of iOS, which famously thwarted even the FBI’s efforts to hack it.
Many of these features are available in Windows machines equipped with Intel’s enterprise-focused vPro security tech. Unfortunately, vPro isn’t available on most consumer laptops. That Apple’s own capable coprocessor now graces its latest entry-level notebook is noteworthy, and possibly a harbinger of future Intel-free Mac computers.
Nice, But Not Noteworthy
Other MacBook Air features are nice to have, but hardly noteworthy. There’s a 720p webcam centered above the display. It provided adequate but slightly grainy image quality for a quick Photo Booth session in my testing. It lacks the physical security door that some Windows laptops now come with to thwart a hacker’s attempt to spy on you, but the T2 chip severs the built-in microphone’s connection to the operating system when you close the lid, providing at least some reassurance against would-be surveillors.
Sound quality is decent. Apple says the new MacBook Air’s speakers are 25 percent louder and deliver half again as much bass as the old one. I listened to a few seconds of the same movie on both machines, one right after the other, and while I didn’t notice any more volume, I did find that the sound was significantly richer.
Wireless connections—ever important since the physical port selection necessitates an adapter to connect to many peripherals—include 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2. The MacBook Air struggled to stay connected to a 5GHz signal during my testing at home when all of my other devices had no issues. It had no trouble with the 2.4GHz signal from the same network, however.
In addition to the included one-year warranty, you can also purchase three years of additional coverage for the MacBook Air from Apple.
Ho-Hum Performance Per Dollar
The new base model MacBook Air comes with a 1.6GHz low-power Y-series Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 128GB PCI Express SSD for system storage. If you’ve already started your laptop shopping, you’ll note that many laptops in the MacBook Air’s price range come with significantly better components. A full-powered U-Series Core i5 and 256GB of storage is more common. The $ 1,400 Asus ZenBook S even comes with a Core i7 and 512GB of storage.
You can upgrade the MacBook Air’s storage and memory, of course. Configuration options include 16GB of RAM and a 256GB, 512GB, or 1.5TB SSD. As is common with Apple computers, however, adding options drains your wallet at an alarming rate. The model I tested comes with a 256GB hard drive—all but a necessity in a world of space-devouring 64-bit apps and large photo libraries—for an additional $ 200. Load up all the options and you arrive at a cool $ 2,600 asking price.
That’s an unthinkable sum to spend on an ultraportable laptop with a Y-series Core i5 processor. Unlike with the MacBook Pro, Apple doesn’t offer a Core i7 upgrade option for the new MacBook Air. Its predecessor, which is still available, does offer an optional Core i7, but it is several generations old so I don’t recommend buying it under any circumstances. The MacBook Air is therefore not a great value when it comes to raw computing performance, the kind you need to render a 3D image or manipulate 4K video footage.
So, first a quick look at our comparison set…
Perhaps nowhere is this lack of outright muscle more evident than in our Cinebench test, a 3D rendering exercise that taxes all of a CPU’s available cores and threads. The MacBook Air achieved a score of 286 on this test, compared with 611 for the Asus ZenBook S, which boasts a much more powerful Intel Core i5-8250U with four cores and eight threads. The Core i5-8210Y, by contrast, has half the number of cores and threads.
The story is much the same when it comes to transcoding a 4K video file to a 1080p file using the Handbrake app. This task took the MacBook Air 1 hour and 11 minutes, compared with a little more than 26 minutes for the ZenBook S. Neither is the MacBook Air very good at editing images in Adobe Photoshop. It finished applying our series of 10 filters to a test image in 4 minutes and 1 second, compared with 3:26 for the ZenBook S and 2:46 for the MacBook Pro.
While the MacBook Air lags behind similarly priced competitors on these tests, it’s important to remember that no ultraportable excels at these tasks at any price, constrained as they are by limited space to cool their CPUs and GPUs. The same is true of gaming: the MacBook Air displayed an average of 17 frames per second on our Heaven game simulation at medium quality settings and 1080p resolution. For a true multimedia powerhouse, you’ll have to step up to a workstation-class Windows machine or the 15-inch MacBook Pro, with its powerful graphics chip and available Core i9 CPU.
None of this really matters much if you’re using the MacBook Air mostly for casual computing tasks like web browsing and word processing. During a full weekend of use, I never experienced any lag or sluggishness, even with multiple tabs open in the Safari browser, including one streaming video. Everything felt very snappy. This is a far better experience than any Windows laptop with a Y-series processor I’ve used, all of which occasionally hung when multiple tabs or open or even while opening folders in Windows Explorer.
Fan noise was noticeable while streaming video and running benchmarks, and the bottom of the MacBook Pro became rather warm to the touch. Apple has adjusted cooling firmware before, including to correct a high-profile incident with the 2018 MacBook Pro’s cooling system, so it’s possible that the MacBook Air’s fan noise could be reduced with a future software update.
The Y-series Intel chips are designed to consume just 7 watts of power under normal conditions, compared with 15 watts for the U-series chips. This translates into excellent battery life. I never once had to plug in the MacBook Air during a weekend of use at several hours per day. Our battery rundown test, which involves playing a 1080p local video file at 50 percent screen brightness with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth off, confirms the laptop’s stamina…
The result of more than 13 hours is excellent compared with the ZenBook S (7:23), though a bit below the even longer times we’ve seen from other Macs like the MacBook Pro (17:56).
A Welcome Improvement
The MacBook Air helped usher in the era of ultraportable laptops, and this year’s update is a sign that Apple still believes in it. There’s nothing revolutionary about the Retina Display, the Thunderbolt ports, the Force Touch trackpad, or the slimmed-down chassis, but they’re still excellent improvements. In the case of the trackpad, it’s an improvement that you can only find on an Apple laptop.
As a result, the MacBook Air is better than its predecessor in every way, but it’s not necessarily a no-brainer purchase for everyone. It’s unquestionably a poor value in terms of computing performance per dollar, which should matter only to people who occasionally need to edit multimedia. Alternatives like the ZenBook S or the 13-inch MacBook Pro are better suited to this and other similar resource-intensive tasks.
Ultimately, if you must have a macOS machine for casual use, the MacBook Air will not let you down. More capable than the 12-inch MacBook, with its single I/O port, and less expensive than the MacBook Pro, this laptop offers a thoroughly excellent experience for performing casual computing tasks and a healthy though not exhaustive dose of the latest Apple innovations.