Editor’s note, Nov. 16: Originally published Nov. 6, this review has been updated with final benchmark and battery life scores, as well as a review rating.
Apple’s MacBook Air has gotten a much-needed reboot, keeping the name, but changing just about everything else, both outside and in. That means a new 8th-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, more RAM and SSD options, a high-res Retina display, and the move to USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. And while it’s still called the MacBook Air, this new version might as well be called the “MacBook Pro Lite,” because that’s essentially what it is.
For most of its 10-plus year life, the classic MacBook Air was the default laptop for pretty much everyone, from college students to creative types to startup entrepreneurs. For many years, I called it the single most universally useful laptop you could buy.
But over the years, the competition moved to higher-res displays, thin screen bezels, bigger touchpads, regular component upgrades, and thinner and lighter bodies.
While this reimagined MacBook Air fixes almost all of the previous design’s issues, it adds a couple of its own. It’s a much better fit with the rest of the current Mac design sensibility: Larger than the 12-inch MacBook, smaller than the 13-inch Pro, and much different from the classic Air, which Apple is still selling, at least for now.
That means the long-standing design, with its thick screen bezels, smallish touchpad, deep keys and multiple ports is gone. If anything, the new Air looks and feels like a half-step between the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Its price has jumped up to join the rest of the MacBooks as well. For most of its life, the Air was $999. Not cheap, but a reasonably achievable luxury, especially for a rock-solid laptop that could last years.
The new starting price is $1,199 (£1,199, AU$1,849), which is a tough blow for generations raised on the idea of getting that first MacBook for under a grand. Right now, it’s only $100 less than the 12-inch MacBook or 13-inch basic MacBook Pro, so there’s some price-versus-features math to do.
My cheat sheet for that is as follows. Compared to the new MacBook Air:
- The MacBook Pro is more expensive, more powerful and less portable.
- The 12-inch MacBook is more expensive, less powerful and more portable.
With each laptop excelling in a different area, and only $100 separating their base models, there won’t be one correct answer for everyone. That said, this new Air is the safe middle ground between the two extremes.
Picking one up, it immediately feels lighter and smaller than the current Air, which I’m intimately familiar with. At 2.7 pounds (1.25 kilograms) and about 15 millimeters thick, it’s actually fairly average when it comes to 13-inch laptops . Some similar systems get down under 10mm, but at the expense of battery, features and processing power. As it is, the new MacBook Air is firmly in the mainstream of slim laptops, but not leading the pack.
One bit of catch-up is in the screen design, which cuts the thick bezel border surrounding it by about half and adds an edge-to-edge glass overlay. It’s a sharper, more modern look, and a long overdue upgrade.
Like the current Pro and 12-inch MacBook, the new Air still feels like a tank, with its one-piece aluminum construction (now 100-percent recycled aluminum, according to Apple). That’s one of the reasons MacBooks, both Air and Pro, have been able to command premium prices for so long – because you’re making an investment in a product that will hopefully last for many years.
It’s all about the keyboard
As the only MacBook with a traditional island-style keyboard, the MacBook Air was one refuge from those who disliked the super flat butterfly mechanism keyboards in newer MacBooks. Now the Air is firmly in the same camp as the other models. Some may lament the loss of the older style of keyboard, but I think the butterfly keyboard has never been as troublesome as people imagine, and I’ve certainly dealt with more difficult keyboards in more expensive products.
In this new Air, you get the latest version of the butterfly keyboard, with a new membrane underneath to help keep dust from gumming up the keys. To our knowledge, the Air and the Touch Bar versions of the Pro have this version, whereas other MacBooks have a previous version.
It takes a period of adjustment to get used to the subtle tactile feedback, but once you do get used to it, it’s fine for even long-form typing. But yes, you may never grow to love it.
The payoff is that the new Air also includes a much bigger touchpad, of the same Force Touch style as on other MacBooks. That means it doesn’t have a diving-board hinge on the back, and instead uses four corner sensors to register clicks, allowing the body to be thinner.
Will die-hards take this change hard? They might, but that old keyboard was never as great as you remember.
USB-C for you and me
If the keyboard change bothers you, the port situation isn’t going to be much better. Following the march of not only other Apple laptops, but also many of the premium Windows laptops from the past two years, the MacBook Air is now USB-C only.
That said, it’s got two USB-C ports, instead of the single one on the 12-inch MacBook, so you can do more than one thing at a time (like connect a peripheral and the power cable, since the beloved MagSafe connector is also gone). And these are Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, which can output to two 4K or a single 5K display.
The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro has a similar pair of USB-C Thunderbolt ports, but lacks the Touch ID fingerprint reader found here. The fingerprint reader is really the best part of the Touch Bar experience, and it’s a great addition to the MacBook Air. The Touch ID sensor is regulated by Apple’s T2 chip, which also handles the encryption and Siri voice activation.
About that processor
What was that sound? I looked around the room, and realized the sound was somewhere close to me. Lifting the MacBook Air to my ear, it was coming from inside the laptop itself. The fan in the new MacBook Air doesn’t often kick in, but when it does, you’ll hear it in an otherwise quiet room. After using a 12-inch MacBook, and other fanless PCs like the Acer Swift 7 or Surface Laptop 2, it’s a bit of a shock to hear the fan on something so slim spin up like that.
A good amount of digital ink has already been spilled on the processor in this new MacBook Air. The specific Intel CPU inside is a dual-core processor from Intel’s Y series. The 12-inch MacBook uses chips from the same family, while the MacBook Pro, and most Windows laptops in this class, use quad-core Intel processors from the U series. It’s an oversimplification, but Y series generally means less power, but better battery life and less heat. The U series means more power (but still not close to what’s found in gaming laptops, desktop PCs and so on), but at the expense of battery life and cooling. Apple is said to customize these CPUs, so they’re not the same as stock off-the-shelf chips.
To demystify the issue as much as possible, the new MacBook Air is a tad faster than the still-available previous model. (But since those Intel chips were several generations behind, that’s not much of an achievement.) It’s also faster than the current 12-inch MacBook, which is still running 2017 Intel chips, but it’s slower than some comparable Windows laptops in its price class and the base 13-inch MacBook Pro.
So: Do you get better performance than before? Yes. Should you expect more CPU power from a $1,199 laptop that weighs 2.7 pounds and has some serious fans? Also yes.
Battery life, traditionally a strong suit for MacBooks, continues to impress, although the best Windows laptops can now match or beat them. Here, we get 10:46 in our streaming video playback test, which is a solid number, if not something I’d shout from the rooftops. Processor efficiency and Apple’s improved ability to fit as much battery into a device body as possible deserve much of the credit here.
You can spend an extra $100, and get something more portable and less powerful (the 12-inch MacBook), or spend the same extra $100 and get something less portable and more powerful (the MacBook Pro). Where the new MacBook Air ends up is right between those other two options, which seems to be the lane it’s supposed to be driving in. If you’re willing to move to the Windows platform, the spec, performance and price options widen greatly, but you lose access to MacOS, which is the driver for many Mac users.
Those in the 4K video editing, professional high-end photography or advanced 3D modeling businesses should really be looking at a MacBook Pro anyway. For everyone else, the last-gen MacBook Air was generally more than fast enough, as is the latest version of the 12-inch MacBook. This new Air is faster than either of those, so I’m not particularly concerned about the specific CPU inside.
But, to play Devil’s Advocate for a second, for an extra $100, the basic 13-inch MacBook Pro really is much more powerful in CPU performance terms.
Still the ultimate student laptop?
One area where the new MacBook Air may lose some ground is as the default student laptop on many college campuses (and the default work laptop at many companies). Even though this is a much better laptop in nearly every regard, it loses one big advantage the previous MacBook Air had – its price.
At $999 in the US, the MacBook Air was an affordable luxury for many students, artists, writers and anyone who wanted a premium experience at a less-than-premium price. The new Air starts at $1,199, which is a 20 percent premium, even though both the old and new entry-level models have 8GB of RAM and 128GB of solid-state storage.
At least that old-school Air is still available for now, just as the old 13-inch MacBook Pro was for more than a year after the newest design debuted in 2016. If you’re firm in your need for USB-A or HDMI ports, or an island-style keyboard, pick one up now, because who knows how long it’s going to last. But based on the past several years of concerns we’ve had about the low-res screen, thick display bezel and outdated CPU, it’s hard to recommend that classic model right now.
Fortunately, the new model has such sweeping overall design, usability and component upgrades that it’s certainly worth at least $200 more than the old one. It’s just a shame that right as the MacBook Air is again one of the most universally useful laptops you can buy, it’s that much more of a reach for potential owners.