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Apple MacBook Air (2020) first look: Buy it for the keyboard

Apple addressed the most glaring flaw on the last-gen model, all while lowering the price.
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Dana Wollman/Engadget

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Hello from the new MacBook Air. Allow me to answer your first question up front: Yes, the new keyboard is excellent. There's only one problem with it: I've already greased the keys with residue from the peanut butter sandwich I was eating. Work-from-home life, y'all!

I'm typing this on Thursday afternoon, only hours after receiving the new model. That's been just enough time to unbox the system, set up Touch ID, switch the default browser to Chrome (sorry, Apple) and install all of my favorite desktop apps. You might see some other stories today being billed as MacBook Air reviews, but this is not that. I'll be taking a few extra days to live with the new machine, getting work done with the help of the 10th-gen Intel Core processor inside, watching movies on the True Tone display and, of course, testing Apple's claim of a 12-hour battery life. For now I only feel equipped to weigh in on one thing in particular. Thankfully, it's the thing you care about most: the new I-swear-it's-not-terrible keyboard.

You can tell at a glance that the keyboard has changed. In place of the flat so-called Butterfly design, Apple has swapped in cushier keys with a full millimeter of travel. You don't have to put your face down at key level to notice they're clearly taller than before. You may remember this as the keyboard we loved so much on last year's 16-inch MacBook Pro. Well, it's here now, and we wouldn't be surprised if it makes an appearance on the smaller MacBook Pro sooner than later.

If you weren't in the market for an expensive 16-inch laptop at the time though and skimmed past the news, it's worth recapping what else makes this keyboard such a big improvement. For starters, Apple ditched the much-maligned butterfly design, whose main benefit was that it made the individual keys stable and less wobbly. Here, Apple took inspiration from its own desktop Magic Keyboard, which uses a scissor mechanism -- you know, the thing the butterfly keyboard was meant to replace. For this generation though, Apple retooled the keycaps with a new rubber dome and a mechanism that locks at the top of the stroke to minimize wobble.

Everything I praised about the keyboard on the 16-inch model holds true here. I just don't make many typos on here. And when I do, it's not because a key got stuck and double-registered (or didn't register at all!) but because I'm an imperfect touch typist and my finger hit the wrong button. It happens. I find myself typing quickly. Confidently. Aggressively. I pound away at the keys, knowing they'll keep up with me. With each press I'm met with springy feedback.

Apple MacBook Air 2020

Excuse me: loud, springy feedback. If you can't tell, I love this keyboard. I won't be returning to my company-issued MacBook Pro unless I need to use the VPN. Just know that the slight trade-off to this new-and-improved typing experience is that it's a tad noisy. It's not a problem when I'm working alone in my apartment, but if I were in an office or co-working space I might feel a little self-conscious.

As with the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple moved to a so-called inverted-T arrow-key arrangement, with the up and down arrows stacked on top of each other, flanked by smaller left and right arrows on the sides. The smaller size of those buttons makes it easy to find them by feel when you're editing text, navigating a spreadsheet or what have you. This is an improvement over the last-gen keyboard, where the left and right keys were as tall as the stacked up/down keys. That said, it's a subtle difference.

Besides the keyboard, the other visible hardware change is the 13.3-inch display, which uses Apple's auto-adjusting True Tone technology. On the one hand, you won't miss this feature if you've never tried it; a Retina display without it is still lovely. But toggle and untoggle the True Tone box in the display settings menu and you'll immediately notice the screen shift from cold and bluish to something warmer, more natural and pleasing. Try it both ways and see how you like it, but I'm guessing you'll settle on True Tone, as I did.

The display itself has the same size and 2,560 x 1,600 resolution, with the same thin bezels. The size and weight also remain the same, at 2.8 pounds. For better and worse, the selection of ports hasn't changed either: two USB-C-shaped Thunderbolt 3 sockets and a headphone jack. (You get four USB-C ports on the MacBook Pro: Apple had to leave at least a few reasons for people to step up!) It's worth noting that one of the selling points here is that Apple doubled the entry-level storage from 128GB SSD to 256GB, all while dropping the base price from $1,099 to $999.

As for color options, you can choose between Space Gray, Silver and Gold, the color of my test machine in the lead image. (Shot on iPhone, by the way -- that work-from-home life again.)

Over the coming days, I'll be watching a bunch of movies and TV shows on the display and, just as important, testing the 10th-gen Core processor, 8GB of RAM and Intel Iris Plus Graphics. Battery life is rated for 11 hours of web browsing and up to 12 hours of iTunes movie playback. I'll be evaluating that too. In the meantime, I've had the machine unplugged for close to three hours, and I still have 70 percent battery left. (Update: That figure quickly plummeted to 59 percent during a brief Google Hangouts call in Chrome and then started draining more slowly again after I was finished.)

As for speed, I've been using a mix of Chrome, Safari, Notes, Spotify, Photos and Slack, with a few App Store downloads. Performance has mostly been brisk, though I noticed a slight delay when I rotated some pictures clockwise from the main feed inside the Photos app.

The Air will ship next week, but you can pre-order it now. There are two configurations to choose from: the $999 model with 256GB of storage and a dual-core Core i3 processor and a $1,299 model with 512GB of space and a quad-core Core i5 CPU. Both can be upgraded with 1TB or 2TB of storage, a quad-core Core i7 chip and up to 16GB of RAM.

I'll be back next week with a longer piece and video too. Stay tuned!

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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