At its “Back to the Mac” event in the fall of 2010, Apple took the wraps of the second-generation MacBook Air. In one keynote, the MacBook Air went from a too-expensive, underpowered notebook1 to the computer that would define an entire generation of laptops.
For the next five years, the MacBook Air was the clear “default” Mac notebook for the masses, and the machine that Apple’s competitors aimed to beat in terms of power and design.
When the single-port MacBook showed up in 2015, Apple seemed ready to move beyond the MacBook Air and its success, letting the machine languish with just one extremely minor spec bump in 2017.2 It retained its beloved teardrop shape and less-beloved-but-still-iconic silver screen bezels, but came with a non-Retina display, and came with ports and a keyboard that felt decidedly old-school compared to the MacBook Pro.
The machine’s design, coupled with the MacBook Air’s “legacy” USB A ports and MagSafe may have looked old in Apple Stores, but for many, they were still highly relevant. Not everyone was ready to move into Dongletown, and the Air offered a way out, with the display and slower CPU a tax many thought was worth paying.
This limbo between the past and future became home for the MacBook Air until October 2018, when Apple unveiled the all-new MacBook Air. Even though it was refreshed to better match its more modern siblings, this MacBook Air was an attempt to rekindle the love people felt for the old machine.
This is where my wife Merri comes into the story. In 2015, she got an original 12-inch MacBook to replace an aging 11.6-inch MacBook Air. That MacBook did not age well, and its slow speed was outmatched by the Late 2013 iMac she migrated to in August.
However, desktop life didn’t really suit her, and when the new MacBook Air came out, we decided to get her one. While it is her laptop, she was generous enough to let me borrow it for long enough to put some thoughts together about it.
In a way, this single photo sums up much of what you need to know about the new MacBook Air’s design, and how it has progressed past that of the old one:
All I see when I open an old MacBook Air is the B E Z E L S. On the new machine, display runs much closer to the edge. In fact, from the hinge up, the MacBook Air looks pretty much like my 13-inch MacBook Pro. A side effect of this is that the entire notebook is smaller than the old model:
The size difference feels greater than it is, as the new keyboard has less aluminum on either side of it. What’s there is perforated (in part) for the stereo speakers, which are also greatly improved this time around. All in all, the new machine feels tighter and more solid than the outgoing design ever did.
The new Air can be had in Silver, Space Gray and Apple’s new Gold finish. Merri went with the traditional silver, and I think it looks great.
That display is the most important upgrade Apple made to the 2018 MacBook Air. Gone is the old 1440 x 900 display, replaced with a 2560 x 1600 panel. Like Apple’s other modern portable Retina displays, the default resolution isn’t a clean scale of the number of pixels on the screen:
In reality, the default “looks like 1440 x 900” setting still looks good, as the pixels are too small for most to discern any fuzziness.3
While the display is sharp, it does lack some niceties experienced with the MacBook Pro’s panel. The Air lacks support for the P3 wide color gamut, instead supporting the sRGB color space, and True Tone is nowhere to be found.
I’m honestly okay with these tradeoffs on a consumer machine, but the brightness being capped at 300 nits is more of an issue for me. It’s plenty bright indoors, even under harsh office lights, but it can’t cut through sunlight like the 500 nit screen on my Pro. I hope Apple can crank this panel up in a future revision.
Keyboard & Trackpad
The MacBook Air uses the same butterfly keyboard as found on the 2018 MacBook Pros, complete with debris-preventing membrane. Having written most of this review on the Air, I can tell no tangible difference between this keyboard and the one in my MacBook Pro.
I don’t hate this keyboard the way some people do, but I don’t love it, either. If Apple could just squish the Magic Keyboard into its future notebooks, I would be a lot happier.
The Force Touch trackpad on the new Air is narrower than the monstrous one on my MacBook Pro,4 and I prefer it. Apple’s touch rejection algorithms can’t cash the check the Pro’s design has written.
The biggest news here is that the new Air is the first Mac to ship with a Touch ID sensor without a Touch Bar.
Even several years in, the Touch Bar has failed to win me over. Perhaps it is because my primary Mac is a desktop, but I find myself ignoring the Touch Bar most of the time when I’m using my MacBook Pro. While I assume the Air lacks the Touch Bar for cost reasons, part of me hopes that is Apple realizing the whole thing is a bit of a dud.
The new machine weighs 2.75 pounds, making it lighter than the old Air (2.96 pounds) and my 13-inch Pro (3.02 pounds). However, with the thick end of the taper being 0.61 inches tall, my MacBook Pro is thinner at the hinge, where it stands 0.59 inches. Side by side, the difference is nearly impossible to notice, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Of course, the Air tapers down 0.16 inches, while my Pro is a consistent thickness back to front.
That tapered design is what made the Air stand out so much back in 2010, and I have to say, it’s still nice, here in the 2018 model. It makes the Air feel noticeably thinner than my Pro, and gives the Air an attractive profile. If you liked how the old MacBook Air looked and felt in your hands, this one is basically better in every way.
The original MacBook Air was terribly underpowered, hampered by its slow CPU and iPod-style spinning hard drive. The second-generation machine used a much better CPU and Flash storage across the board, and eventually grew to be fairly powerful notebook, even for workloads like mine with audio. It was never able to rival something like the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but that was totally fine for a machine that cost hundreds less.
Much has been said about the silicon inside the new MacBook Air. All 2018 models come with the same 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, which can Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz. It comes coupled to 8 GB of RAM, which can be swapped for 16 GB at the time of purchase.
I was nervous that this 7 watt i5 would leave the MacBook Air gasping for breath when under load, but in truth, the Air feels great in day to day use. Yes, you may hear the single fan under load, but even when it’s spinning, things remain cooler (and quieter) than the havoc the quad-core CPU can bring raining down on my MacBook Pro.5
A big part of this comes down to the SSD. The PCIe-based modules are speedy, and thanks to the on-board T2 chip, safely protected with on-the-fly data encryption. From a performance perspective, I have no qualms over recommending this machine for anyone with all but the most demanding of workflows.
Ports and Such
The only port that is similar between the second and third-generation MacBook Air is the headphone jack, ironically.
MagSafe is gone. USB A is toast. The SD card slot is but a mere memory. All data — and power — must flow through one of the machine’s two Thunderbolt 3 ports, both located on the left side of the notebook.
In a way, this feels like to a return to form for the line, as the first-generation MacBook Air also had a limited number of ports. Thankfully, Apple didn’t bring back the original machine’s little flip-down door:
Even though my brain knew it wasn’t going to happen, in my heart, I had really hoped that the Retina MacBook Air would have included MagSafe and at least one USB A port. These things are used in offices and schools, coffee shops and dorms. MagSafe would have offered protection in those environments that the ever-grippy USB C power cords just … don’t.
As helpful as that would have been, USB A would have been a huge concession to consumers and students. While nerdy power users are annoyed by the move to USB-C, they can at least see and understand the benefits. Most consumers just see it as a way for Apple to collect another $19.99 on their way out the door.
Of course, there are benefits to USB-C. Merri’s desk setup is now super clean. A single cable runs from her notebook to a LG UltraFine 4K Display that I picked up refurbished on Amazon for half of what Apple asks for it.
That USB-C cable powers the machine, and I have her Time Machine drive dangling off the back of the monitor. Coupled with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, it’s about a minimal setup as possible.
USB-C is just part of the story, though. Thunderbolt 3 unlocks super fast external storage, as well as the ability to use an eGPU, something that MacBook owners are stuck dreaming about as they wait for Photoshop to render. Merri isn’t that kind of user, but it’s neat that her thin and light notebook could be used that way at some point in the future if her needs change.
The MacBook Air now starts at $1,199. For that, you get the standard Core i5, 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD.
Currently, the 12-inch MacBook starts at $1,299 for the m3 model with 8 GB of RAM and 256 of solid state storage. On the other end of things, the two-port MacBook Pro “Escape” comes with an i5, 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage for $1,299.
Bumping the stock MacBook Air to a 256 GB SSD makes the total $1,399.
The MacBook is a lot slower, but demands a premium for its size. When compared to the 12-inch MacBook, the MacBook Air is way more capable of dealing with the outside world. Two ports means you can charge and have a hard drive, printer, SD card or Ethernet cable plugged in at the same time, assuming you have the right dongles in your bag. The MacBook exists for people who demand portability above all else, and that’s more than enough reason for being.
The two-port MacBook Pro is a bigger mystery to me. When Apple introduced in 2016, it was pitched as a replacement for the MacBook Air. The company hedged its bet, leaving the Air for sale, and over time, it has become clear that this MacBook Pro hasn’t been able to do what Apple wanted it to, sales wise. Hence, the new MacBook Air. My guess is that this machine would already be gone, if the Touch Bar MacBook Pros could come down in price.
None of this it mention that the old, non-Retina MacBook Air can still be had for $999. That’s clearly just to hit the price point, but I would love to see the Retina Air start at $999, or at least $1,099 with 128 GB of storage.
The whole thing is just too confusing right now. If you have $1200 to spend on a laptop, you should probably just buy the MacBook Air, but getting to that decision is more complicated than it should be.
Speaking of confusing, you cannot order a MacBook Air with a 1 TB SSD. The 512 GB upgrade runs $400; the 1.5 TB option is a whopping $1,200, which doubles the cost of the notebook. Why no middle ground, Apple?
With the 2018 MacBook Air, Apple has attempted to bring back a classic design, updating it for the modern era. For the most part, it works. The tapered design still looks great, and while it can’t keep up with the MacBook Pro, the dual-core CPU doesn’t have to. The second-generation MacBook Air was fast enough for just about everyone, and Apple has managed to maintain that level of performance here as well. Even the stellar battery life reminds me of the old machine.
Everything on paper checks out, but I’m not sure the new MacBook Air feels as special as the old one did.
No doubt, this is largely due to the fact that almost everything is thin and light now. The Air may be lighter than my Pro, but the gap is smaller than ever.
I think the other factor that plays into this is harder to describe. The old MacBook Air was loved by nearly everyone, and with its modern keyboard and ports, Apple has ruffled an awful lot of feathers. The MacBook Air has been caught up in that now, and there are some out there that will look at the required stack of dongles and the still-questionable keyboard and refuse to fall in love.
That’s where I am, I think. The 2018 MacBook Air is a great computer. It’s what you should buy for your next home or office notebook, and it’s what parents should get for their kids headed off to college later this year. Apple finally has a new default notebook, and that is great news for Mac users. It’s just a shame that it costs a little too much, and comes with the additional costs of dongles and adaptors.
Welcome to the modern world, MacBook Air owners.
- You can learn more about the original MacBook Air over on my YouTube channel. ↩
- The speed bump just came to the 13-inch model, as the 11.6-inch model was quietly removed from sale to the public in October 2016. ↩
- I love that the example artwork in this preference pane is a copy of the “Think Different” script. ↩
- On my Pro, the edges of the Trackpad reach into the space below the left Command key and the right Option key. On the Air, the left edge barely passes the edge of the space bar and doesn’t extend past the right Command Key. ↩
- All hail our future ARM Mac Overlords. ↩