Apple’s MacBook Air has experienced extreme peaks and troughs over the past decade: the second generation design introduced in 2010 has been, for years, the standard by which all mid-size laptops are judged . Air was Apple’s most popular Mac and one of the best and most popular laptops ever. This story and the strength of the Air brand meant that people still bought the MacBook Air, even if Apple left it far behind the rest of its laptops.
It was weird: at one point, Apple openly pointed out that the base 13-inch MacBook Pro model was a better choice than Air in a speech, and people again bought Air instead.
Ultimately, Air’s stubborn popularity and a renewed commitment to the Mac led Apple to completely rethink the MacBook Air around a Retina display in 2018. But Apple also gave it one of its struggling butterfly keyboards , which has developed a reputation for unreliability and a worse reputation for expensive patches.
When Apple updated the new Air last year, it stayed with this butterfly keyboard, which means there was still a question mark above it. And the Intel chips inside have faced even moderately demanding tasks.
This brings us to now: the MacBook Air 2020 comes with the new Apple Scissor Switch keyboard introduced in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and the processors have been upgraded to the new 10th generation Intel parts. Apple also lowered the price by $ 100: the MacBook Air now starts at $ 999.
The way back has been long, but this new MacBook Air is exactly where it needs to be: downright in the mix of being the best laptop for most people.
The basic MacBook Air starts at $ 999 with a 1.1 GHz dual-core Core i3 processor, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. But almost everyone should spend at least $ 100 more on the 1.1 GHz quad-core Core i5 upgrade. I reviewed the advanced configuration of $ 1299 which has a quad-core Core i5 and doubles storage to 512 GB, which is the version that most people should have. You can’t upgrade the storage later, so it’s best to load when you can.
On the left side, there are two Thunderbolt 3 ports; the new Intel chips have Iris Plus graphics, which means you can now run a 6K screen from a MacBook Air. (I couldn’t test this because our Pro Display XDR is in the office, and I don’t currently have access to it. But I’m willing to bet that running a 6K screen involves a fair amount of heat and noise from the Air Fan. I will update if and when we learn more.)
On the other hand, you will find a headphone jack because normal people who do normal things on a laptop often have to plug in headphones. I beg you: use wired headphones for your videoconference. You will be much happier and you will not find yourself delaying the start of each meeting so that everyone can relax with Bluetooth.
But you’re not here for teleworking tips – you’re here to learn more about the new keyboard. Reliability aside, I was absolutely not a fan of butterfly keyboards, and I kept my 2015 MacBook Pro as long as possible because I much preferred its traditional keyboard. I’m happy to say that the keyboard of the new MacBook Air is a solid comeback. It looks like the keyboard of the 16-inch MacBook Pro that I have been using for several months, that is, it feels very good. The keys have a travel of 1 mm, the arrangement of the arrow keys in inverted T is back, and everything is just clickable enough without being too noisy. Overall, everything is very solid and very satisfying.
I don’t really want to give Apple too much credit for updating this keyboard because it took the company a long time to move away from the butterfly design after people started calling the issues. And I no longer think that Apple is taking advantage of the doubt about reliability. It will just take time to regain that confidence. But apart from the story, the keyboard is one of the most important parts of a laptop, and the new keyboard in the MacBook Air is extremely good.
I also much prefer this keyboard with a standard top row and function buttons to the Touch Bar keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro. I know people who like the Touch Bar – maybe you do too – but I don’t like it, and I think it’s really telling that Apple still hasn’t installed a Touch Bar on its laptop the most popular. Physical volume and brightness keys forever, that’s what I say.
The other thing that Air doesn’t have is a touch screen. There is nothing more to say about this at this point; if Apple can add trackpad support to iPadOS, it can probably include touch support in macOS. But the company doesn’t seem interested in this, so I wouldn’t expect it to happen anytime soon. At least the trackpad is great: it’s huge like all modern MacBooks, but it’s still nice to scroll and click.
So that’s the keyboard. From a physical hardware perspective, it was the only thing Apple needed to fix. It still looks like what you would expect from a MacBook Air. It has the classic corner shape, it’s not fragile at all like other ultrabooks, and the glasses around the screen are pretty minimal.
The other big news is the processor selection, which consists of three special versions of the 10th generation Intel Y-series chips. The old MacBook Airs offered only one choice of anemic dual-core processor; now you can specify an Air output with a 1.2 GHz quad-core Core i7 if you wish.
Our review unit is the advanced configuration, with a 1.1 GHz quad-core Core i5 chip and 8 GB of RAM. It was quite successful: I worked in Chrome, Slack, Zoom and Lightroom as I normally do, and things went well. This sentiment is supported by a Geekbench 5 single-thread score of 1001, which is essentially in line with the single-thread score of the 16-inch Core i9 MacBook Pro of 1109.
But I wouldn’t call Air a rocket; I can certainly push the limits quite easily. Opening Lightroom is enough to speed up the fan, and after a few changes, it goes to full speed. Heavy, sustained workloads cause the system to perform aggressive thermal limitation, essentially capping the maximum processor speed to manage heat.
Apple told me that this limitation was by design. The company doesn’t think most people need sustained performance, so Air is built around Intel’s turbo boost function, which can quickly boost the processor to 3.2 GHz to do something, and then the reduce to 1.1 GHz to preserve heat and battery life. It’s a fairly normal strategy now.
But if you push the air for a little while, things will get hot and the system will not allow the processor to reach 3.2GHz. In my tests with Cinebench, the clock speed was limited to around 1.5 GHz under sustained workloads. And this fan blew his heart.
In daily use, I have never really noticed any of this thermal management, which is of great interest. But it’s also clear that there isn’t a ton of performance space if you have to sit down to render 3D graphics or export videos all day long. You will definitely hear this fan and you might experience slowdowns.
Many people have tweeted me about the difference in performance between the Core i5 Air and the Core i5 MacBook Pro 13 inch. Aside from the differences between the U-series processors, it really comes down to thermal design: Apple told me that the MacBook Pro is the best laptop for people who need to push their machine to the limit all the time. It has a more forgiving thermal design and faster turbo boost clock speeds. Basically, the MacBook Pro can run hotter and faster for a longer period of time than the MacBook Air, which means better performance for heavy and durable tasks.
I feel like people with these needs know exactly who they are; they should wait for an updated MacBook Pro with an updated keyboard. Everyone will likely find that the performance of the MacBook Air is fine for most everyday tasks, but that they will hear the fan running from time to time.
I have to say that the Air’s battery life was just average: Apple claims that the new Air can get up to 11 hours of battery life if you’re browsing the web in Safari, but my work day pretty the annoying operation of Chrome, Slack, and Zoom killed the battery in just five hours with screen brightness at its maximum. I could probably have extended it a bit if I had turned the brightness down, but it’s not the brightest screen in the world to start with – it averages around 400 nits of brightness – so I was only not impatient to move it back.
I don’t think it’s entirely Apple’s fault – these three apps are battery hogs – but at this particular point in history, I don’t think I’m the only one with Zoom and Slack open all the time. day. And while Safari is much more efficient than Chrome, Chrome is still a reality for many people. It’s great that Air can achieve tremendous autonomy if you limit yourself to Apple’s own apps, but my friends, we live in a society.
Speaking of Zoom, the webcam in the Air is the same old 720p webcam that Apple has always used. Its good. He is aggressively good. I hope someone from the Mac team talks to a member of the iPhone camera team before taking out another laptop with this webcam.
I can easily continue with minor observations on the MacBook Air: USB-C is still some sort of elaborate logic puzzle. The Retina display is remarkably sharp, but it doesn’t have the MacBook Pro’s wide P3 color gamut, and it’s odd that Apple calls it 2560 x 1600 when running at 1440 x 900 per default. (You can set it to the equivalent of 1680 x 1050, and you should.) The gold model is slightly pink, which is very striking. It doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6 because Apple uses a different Wi-Fi module than what is normally provided with these Intel chips, but nobody has Wi-Fi 6 yet. uses a 30 watt charger, which means any number of third-party USB PD devices will charge it fine. We’re at the point where macOS Catalina comes out of the box with almost all of the Apple apps preloaded in the Dock, including podcasts and Apple TV.
But really, the most important thing is that, for the first time in several years, I am confident in saying that most people in the Mac laptop market can just buy a MacBook Air and expect let him do most things competently and reliably for a long time to come. It’s a big win and a solid comeback.
Photograph by Nilay Patel / The Verge