I'm going to let you in on a secret: In the lead-up to Apple's big Mac-and-iPad event last month, Team Engadget had a prewritten story ready to go in the event that Apple finally killed off the Air line. Needless to say, that article never saw the light of day.
Instead, that keynote marked the debut of a long-overdue next-generation MacBook Air. Like the older edition (which is still on sale, by the way), this one has a 13.3-inch screen, a wedge shape and aluminum surfaces. Everything else is changed. Retina display with much thinner bezels? Check. Apple's newer "butterfly" keyboard? Yep. Touch ID and louder speakers? Yes and yes. A stripped-down selection of ports? Sigh.
In many ways, it's the machine that Air holdouts have been waiting for, and ultimately I believe it's going to please a lot of people. But with a starting price that sits just a hundred bucks below the entry-level MacBook Pro, many shoppers will be facing a tough decision.
Gallery: Apple MacBook Air review (2018) | 32 Photos
Gallery: Apple MacBook Air review (2018) | 32 Photos
- Slimmed-down design
- Sharp Retina display
- Long battery life
- Spacious and reliable trackpad
- It has Touch ID
- Underpowered compared to a similarly priced MacBook Pro
- No option to upgrade the processor
- No more SD slot
- Screen is dimmer than the Pro's
Look and feel
I've already written about the MacBook Air's hardware twice -- first in my hands-on piece the day the machine was unveiled and again in my preview earlier this week -- so I'll keep my remarks here brief. The Air shares a design language with the 12-inch MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro and falls in between them on the size-and-weight scale. All told, this new machine has a 17 percent smaller footprint than the one it replaces, and it is modestly lighter, at 2.75 pounds (down from 2.96). It's also thinner: 0.61 inch this time, versus 0.68 inch on the last-gen model.
Unfortunately, the Air is as scratch-prone as every other MacBook. Three days after unboxing it, I set it down atop a table that, unbeknownst to me, had the tiniest of crumbs on it. I slid the machine across the table and -- crrrrrrrrick -- just like that, my Air had a scratch on the bottom. If this were a machine I had bought for myself with my own money, I'd be pissed. As it is, I feel chagrined at having already sullied a brand-new machine.
The Air isn't as small or as light as the 12-inch MacBook, whose main selling point is that it's a featherweight two pounds. That said, the new Air is noticeably thinner and lighter than its predecessor. In my week with it, I've found it easier to carry one-handed between conference rooms in the office. I've also been relieved to find that it takes up less space in my commuter bag and weighs less heavily on my shoulder, too.
But, as my colleague Aaron has already argued, the Air is more than just an upsized MacBook. It shares DNA with the MacBook Pro, both above and under the hood (read: it has an actual cooling fan). Like the Pro, the Air has a Touch ID sensor in the upper right corner of the keyboard that doubles as the machine's power button. Also like the Pro, it has two USB-C-shaped Thunderbolt 3 ports on the user's left-hand side, either of which can be used for charging. A headphone jack sits on the right edge, with speaker grilles flanking the keyboard. The SD card slot is no more.
Display and speakers
What all of these similar-looking Macs have in common, though, is a Retina display. If you've been holding off on upgrading from an older Air, you're in for a treat: The 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 panel here is brighter, sharper and more vibrant than the more washed-out 1,440 x 900 display it replaces.
Eagle eyes will note that this is the same display tech used on the 12-inch MacBook, with the same color gamut: the common sRGB spec. That's one thing you'll get if you pay extra for a MacBook Pro: support for the professional-grade P3 color spectrum, along with Apple's auto-adjusting True Tone technology. After years of reviewing various Macs, though, I really believe you won't miss these features until you do a side-by-side comparison, and even then you might be able to do without.
In any case, for my purposes, the screen served me well. I didn't mind staring at it for hours on end during long workdays, when I sometimes feel like I live in spreadsheets. The panel does movies justice too, as you might expect. I decided to watch Crazy Rich Asians, a movie with some very colorful sets indeed, and I thought it looked fine. As other reviewers have noted, the panel doesn't get as bright as the MacBook Pro's. The difference is obvious in a side-by-side comparison, but even when I was sitting with just the Air, my sense was that the display was good enough but hardly the most brilliant screen I'd ever seen.
I would add that the panel's glossy finish means you might have to play with the screen angle a bit to avoid glare, depending on the ambient light, but fortunately the color fidelity stays strong even if you dip the lid a bit. In situations like this, too, a higher brightness ceiling comes in handy; it can help offset annoying screen reflections.
Just as important as the screen quality, the loss of the Air's signature bezels makes for a striking change. The border around the display is now 50 percent thinner, with the actual enclosure being even skinnier. I think I'd be overselling it if I called it an edge-to-edge display, but it's definitely a lot more screen than you might be used to.
Although those borders have been slimmed down, there's still room for a FaceTime webcam up top, which is more than I can say about other ultraportables. (I'm thinking of the Dell XPS 13 and Huawei MateBook X Pro, whose lower-bezel webcams make for some unflattering Orson Wellesian selfies.) The image quality here isn't anything special -- I won't be using any camera stills for my dating profiles -- but I always looked well lit on conference calls, which is good enough for me.
To match that new screen, Apple upgraded the audio, with the speakers boasting double the bass and 25 percent louder volume over the previous model. The day the Air was unveiled, I reported that I was able to hear movie playback in the noisy demo area, above the din of other reporters and music blaring through speakers.
Keyboard, trackpad and Touch ID
Continuing our tour below the screen, I'd like to take a few moments to revisit the keyboard. This is the third generation of Apple's so-called butterfly keyboard, which you can also find on the MacBook Pro line. I've already shared some impressions in both my hands-on and preview pieces, but I think, more than other aspects of the experience, this is one area where a reviewer needs time to just live with the device for a while. The day the new Air was unveiled last month, I said I felt wistful for my old Air's cushier keys. I added that this wasn't necessarily a keyboard you could learn to love, but it was one you could learn to live with.
At this point, though I still make more typos on Apple's flat keyboard than I'd like, I've gotten used to it. I've pounded out many an email, dashed out comments in Google Docs and made embarrassing web searches I'll need to erase from my history before sending back my test unit. These days, I resent the keyboard most when entering my complex 25-character work-stuff password, but if I'm honest, I would probably make typos in that on any keyboard.
On a more positive note, I've come to prefer the butterfly keyboard's minimal typing noise to both my old Air and the standalone Apple keyboard I use with my iMac. And though key backlighting is hardly a novel feature on laptops, I nonetheless appreciate how the lit-up keycaps help me (enable me) to continue working into the evening, even as I start to dim the lights.
Moving on, the Force Touch trackpad will seem familiar to people who have owned or at least handled recent MacBooks and MacBook Pros. I love the large surface and how reliably it responds to single-finger tracking, tap to click and various multi-touch gestures like two-finger scrolls, pinch to zoom, and three fingers for Mission Control. As I've said in previous pieces, I haven't much use for Apple's pressure-sensitive "force clicks," which let you do things like preview an address in Maps or fast-forward extra quickly through a movie in iTunes. If you enjoy these features, knock yourself out. If you could do without, they're easy to ignore.
I've made no secret in my previous stories about my love for Touch ID, and my feeling there remains the same. As I reported in my preview, the fingerprint sensor has a fast and easy setup process and consistently works on my first try. (Note: macOS doesn't permit you to log in by touch after a cold boot or restart.)
Since my preview, I've used Touch ID not just to log into the machine, but to purchase things in iTunes. If I wanted to, I could use it to buy things from select online retailers, using the Safari browser, or unlock password-protected items in the Notes app. At this point, about a week into my testing, I keep trying to use Touch ID on my old Air, to no avail. It's hard to go back.
If you're feeling paranoid about the security of your biometric identifiers, know that Apple stores that info on a so-called Security Enclave on the built-in T2 security chip -- the same one that allows the new Air to respond to "Hey Siri" commands. To be clear, your fingerprints are not stored on the company's servers.