Apple has finally given the MacBook Air the update fans have been craving for the last three years: new processors and a vastly improved Retina display. But is this the new Mac laptop for most people or has it lost some of the desirability and shine while stagnating since 2015?
When closed, the new MacBook Air looks pretty much the same as the old one. The aluminium frame is still wedge-shaped. It still has the cut-out in the deck to lift the screen and still has the Apple logo emblazoned on the lid, even if it is now metallic and shiny rather than being light-up opaque plastic.
The lid looks like a MacBook Pro, but with the wedge-shaped aluminium body of the new MacBook Air’s predecessor. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
But side by side it is clear this is a smaller, more modern Mac shrunk in both width and length, but not in height, fitting exactly into the footprint of the current 13in MacBook Pro. Gone, too, are the old selection of ports from the Air, reduced to only two USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports and one headphone socket. USB-C is the industry standard port of the moment, with Thunderbolt 3 adding much greater capacity and future proofing, but the lack of an SD card reader is disappointing.
Open it up and essentially what you are looking at is the screen and deck of a MacBook Pro without Touch Bar. Gone are the large grey bezels around the 13.3in screen from the Air, replaced with thinner black borders as used on other Apple laptops.
The MacBook Air has Apple’s third-generation butterfly keyboard, a large force-touch trackpad and speakers drilled into either side. In the top right is the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which is noticeably faster than Apple’s previous iterations, but instead of a Touch Bar you have regular F keys. While the Touch Bar can be useful, many don’t like it and most will probably be happy the MacBook Air does not have it.
The Touch ID fingerprint scanner in the top right corner of the keyboard is excellent. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Some will love the keyboard, some will hate it because it is still pretty clicky with minimal key travel. It isn’t my favourite keyboard on a laptop but it is crisp and responsive and I have no problem typing for long periods of time on it. Everyone should love the trackpad, however, which is the best in the business. It is big, smooth, responsive and totally solid, despite the feeling of motion when you push down on it provided by the Taptic Engine haptic motor below it.
Build quality is top notch, with no noticeable give or flex in any part of the machine. Weighing 1.25kg, the Air is about the same as rivals such as Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 2 and is slim enough that you don’t really notice it in a backpack. But it is noticeably heavier than the 921g 12in MacBook or 770g Surface Pro 6 (1.08kg with keyboard attached). At its thickest part it is also 0.7mm thicker than the MacBook Pro.
- Screen: 13.3in LCD 2560×1600 (227 ppi)
- Processor: dual-core Intel Core i5-8210 Y-series (8th generation)
- RAM: 8 or 16GB
- Storage: 128, 256, 512GB or 1.5TB
- Operating system: macOS Mojave
- Camera: 720p FaceTime HD camera
- Connectivity: Intel UHD 617, wifi ac, Bluetooth 4.2, 2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, headphone
- Dimensions: 212.4 x 304.1 x 15.6mm
- Weight: 1.25kg
Good balance of power and battery
The new MacBook Air has two Thunderbolt 3 ports in the left side and a headphone socket in the right. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
The MacBook Air as tested had 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
The MacBook Air has a relatively unusual mix of hardware for 2018. It only has one choice of processor, an eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, but it isn’t the same quad-core U-series processor available in the 13in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, instead it is a dual-core Y-series chip.
While the fine points of processor names are probably lost on most Mac buyers, Y-series chips are lower power in performance and energy consumption than their U-series siblings. For the MacBook Air, Apple has mixed things up a little – most computers that use Y-series chips are fanless, but the MacBook Air has a small fan, which means it should maintain performance for longer by better dissipating heat. Not that I ever heard the fan in day-to-day use, unlike the old MacBook Air.
Performance is very similarly to a dual-core 2017 MacBook Pro, falling down only in intensive multiprocess tasks, where both laptops are far behind the 2018 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar partly because it has a quad-core processor.
With a fast SSD and RAM, therefore, the MacBook Air feels snappy in all tasks and will easily handle most day-to-day activities. It was a pleasure to use. Only if you attempt to do something graphically or arithmetically challenging, such as attempting to play the latest game, edit multiple 4K videos or mine cryptocurrency, will you find the MacBook Air struggles.
The MacBook Air is capable of seeing out a work day without having to be plugged in, lasting about nine hours between charges. That was with the brightness set about two-thirds, 20 or so tabs open in Chrome, iA Writer, Reeder and various chat apps in constant use, while listing to Spotify over Bluetooth headphones for four hours. More conservative use should mean about 10 hours of productivity but it won’t come close to the 14 or so hours some managed to squeeze out of the previous MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air ships with a relatively small 30W USB-C charger. The smaller the charger is physically the better but 30W is relatively low-powered, taking around 2.5 hours to fully charge from 40% while being used to browse the web. Using a 45W USB-C charger shaved a full hour off the time.
Dark mode is one of the biggest additions to macOS Mojave. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
MacOS hasn’t radically changed in years, iterating small elements of the interface with each update, while improving the performance of the underlying system. Now at version 10.14 Mojave, the biggest visual change is the introduction of a dark mode to the interface, which is meant to be for concentrating at night or similar, but I found it a nice change and left it on all the time.
Mojave also brought some of Apple’s iOS apps to the Mac, including Apple News and Voice Memos. For the most part you cannot tell that the app is a port of sorts of an iOS app. The Apple News app works more or less as any regular Mac app would, but with fewer features and options than you might be used to on macOS, and the same goes for Voice Memos, which syncs with the Voice Memos app on iOS.
MacOS is a mature and stable operating system that anyone who has used Windows 10 or most versions of Linux will be able to adjust to relatively easily.
The third-generation butterfly keyboard is good, but can be divisive, while the large force touch trackpad is genuinely brilliant. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
- The speakers are fairly loud for a laptop
- You can use a digital USB-C headphones adapter to output audio if you want
- You can use either USB-C socket to charge the laptop
- The body is made from the recycled offcuts of aluminium left over from the manufacture of other Apple products
- On paper the screen isn’t as bright or colourful as that fitted to the MacBook Pro but the difference wasn’t especially noticeable, nor does it have Apple’s TrueTone system
Options are available with up to 16GB of RAM for an extra £180, 512GB of storage for £400 and 1.5TB of storage for £1,200, reaching a maximum price of £2,579.
In many ways the original MacBook Air became the default Mac for most people. It was a highly capable machine that didn’t cost the earth (for an Apple product).
The new MacBook Air lives up to most of the standards set by its predecessor. It is highly capable machine that will handle the majority of what most people need to get done. It’s not an exciting or ground-breaking computer but it is the new workhorse for all those who don’t need serious graphical or processing performance but must use a Mac.
However, since the last version of the MacBook Air launched in 2015, competition in the sub-£1,300 premium laptop category has increased dramatically. With strong options from Dell, Microsoft and many others that are often cheaper and more powerful than the new MacBook Air, if you aren’t tied into MacOS there are arguably better options.
For those Apple buyers who have been lost in the gap between the tiny 12in MacBook and the costly 13in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, the new MacBook Air delivers. In fact, I would say the MacBook Air is the new default Mac – and not only because it’s the cheapest. It is arguably the most balanced and, therefore, best Apple laptop currently available.
Pros: good keyboard, brilliant trackpad, USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, headphones port, Retina display, Touch ID, good battery life
Cons: expensive, no SD card reader, only two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, only a 30W charger in the box, butterfly keyboard has had problems with longevity in previous versions