The appeal of the MacBook Air was obvious for several years. It was significantly cheaper than the MacBook Pro, but still had enough power and a large enough screen to function as a portable workhorse laptop. It was best laptop you could buy for quite some time.
This new MacBook Air is overdue by almost half a decade. But its appearance doesn’t quite bring back the old appeal of the Air line.
It’s £50 more than the 12-inch MacBook. It’s just £50 less than the entry-level MacBook Pro. And anyone wanting to do serious work on it should seriously consider the £200 upgrade to the version with 256GB SSD, bringing the total to £1,399.
Despite being around 100g lighter than a 13-inch Pro model and a little more powerful than the small MacBook, all the Apple laptop lines feel a little too close for comfort. As a consequence, unlike the original, the Air has no concrete personality. It’s not exceedingly light, nor overly powerful.
However, for many buyers it will still satisfy completely. Its build quality is superb, the screen radically better than that of the old Air, and for some the excellent speakers will be noticed far more often than the lack of power.
Apple’s build quality is easy to take for granted if you don’t spend the year comparing countless Windows laptops of varying quality. Many of those dip if you press the keyboard too hard, flex if you pick them up by one end.
The MacBook Air feels almost as rigid as a solid block of metal during normal use. Until you exert a frankly unfair amount of pressure, the keyboard and screen do not bend or flex, which only heightens the naturally expensive impression of the aluminium shell. In this sense, then, it’s just like the 12-inch MacBook.
The screen is the most important update for those who have waited for the new Air, hoping for a more affordable alternative to the MacBook Pro.
Apple’s older version, which you can still buy even though it seemed out of date four years ago, has a low-resolution twisted nematic (TN) LCD screen. It is pixellated, colour reproduction is poor and at the wrong angle colours invert. Only a Windows laptop at the £500 mark or below would use such a screen.
The new Air upgrades to a fairly good 2,560 x 1,600 pixel IPS LCD. It’s sharp, colourful and has an anti-reflective coating. Like other MacBooks, this isn’t a touchscreen and it doesn’t fold back that much. In one stroke, the Air is no longer an embarrassment. Save for the £949 mode, which will henceforth be quietly locked in the basement when any relatives come to visit.
You also get the same trackpad tech seen in the MacBook Pro. It’s a large, extremely smooth glass-topped pad that uses haptic feedback instead of a physical clicker. Windows laptops use pads that actually move up and down. The MacBook Air has an actuator that creates the feel of a click without any actual movement.
This also means you can choose the level of click feedback, and it enables force touch, a secondary click gesture used when you press harder. The trackpad is excellent. And so are the speakers.
The MacBook Air has speakers to each side of the keyboard, not on the underside where they live in most Windows laptops. These are far louder, clearer and bassier than those of rivals, including the Dell XPS 13.
They get much closer to the audio of a portable speaker. Not a great one, granted, but they still make YouTube videos and films much more enjoyable. Often find yourself starved for entertainment in a bland hotel on a boring work trip? The MacBook Air is one of the best laptops for the job.
Battery life is good, too. Apple says the MacBook Air lasts up to 12 hours of mixed use, or 13 of pure video playback. In our experience, real-world general use including web browsing, writing documents and some video streaming sees the battery last around ten hours. It’s enough for a full day’s work or a long flight, if not clearly better than the more powerful LG Gram or Dell XPS 13.
Another welcome plus to the new laptop is that Apple has very sensibly added fingerprint-scanning Touch ID to the Air. It’s the little black button at the top-right of the keyboard. You use it to login, in place of a password, or to validate purchases from the App Store or iTunes. It’s far better than almost all Windows laptop finger scanner pads, as it is simply more reliable. It actually works.
For the most part the MacBook Air is a great laptop for someone who just wants to do the basics, and is after a pretty, portable model. However, there’s one important limitation to the screen. It is not hugely bright.
While the 300 nits on offer is bright enough for well-lit rooms and will suffice for outdoors use, the MacBook Pro models are rated at 500 nits, and will therefore look much clearer on a bright day. A reminder: the entry-level MacBook Pro is only £50 more.
Despite using an “8th generation” Intel Core-series processor, the MacBook Air’s power is actually closer to that of the 12-inch MacBook than the MacBook Pro. While you won’t find this mentioned on any of Apple’s product pages, the Air uses a “Y” series Intel processor, which only has half the number of cores as the “U” series versions used in most Windows alternatives.
“Y” chips are generally used to allow for longer battery life. The MacBook Air does outlast the Pro models, but there’s a knock-on effect for several kinds of buyer.
If you just use your laptop for the basics, for low-demand apps, browsing, video streaming and so on, the MacBook Air performs perfectly. MacOS does not feel slow, and there’s enough power to comfortably edit photos in a CPU-intensive application like Adobe Photoshop. Low-power CPUs have developed that far, at least.
However, a comparison with the 2013 MacBook Pro we still use frequently is telling. According to the Geekbench 4 and GFXBench benchmarking tools, the Air CPU is only roughly 15 per cent more powerful than the old Pro. Both have Core i5 CPUs, they’re five years removed from each other. This is not a good result.
The GPU figures are not better. Our old MacBook Pro actually outperforms the Air in some graphics tests. This is because MacBook Pros use Intel’s higher-powered Iris-series integrated GPUs, and this Air has a lesser Intel HD 617 GPU.
If someone in your household likes playing Fortnite or something similar, the MacBook Air is perhaps not the best choice. To get to the desirable level of a solid 30fps-plus you need to massively downscale the rendering resolution and texture fidelity. Apple does not make any great gaming laptops, but even the base level MacBook Pro handles such titles much better than the Air.
Those who need edit video, who want to run plug-in saturated music production software or other demanding apps optimised for multi-threaded performance should not buy a MacBook Air either. The base Dell XPS 13 has roughly double the CPU power for £200 less, as it has a 256GB SSD as standard. For £1,199 from Dell you get a CPU comparable to that of the £1,749 MacBook Pro.
Those who have used Windows laptops to date, or much older MacBooks, may also find the Air’s connections a shock. Aside from a headphone jack, the MacBook Air has just two USB-C ports. These are fast Thunderbolt 3 connections, but many will need to buy adapters to plug-in accessories.
The MacBook Air is an ideal buy for those with high expectations of what a laptop should look, feel and sound like, and primarily use the computer for web browsing, email, watching films and streaming services.
However, though many MacBook buyers may not need the added power of the quad-core MacBook Pro, it is a shame that the MacBook Air’s graphics chipset hampers its ability to play popular games like Fortnite well.
To look at this laptop with a pragmatist’s eye, this is the Air’s one real problem. Several types of buyer will likely not consider it. But as great little light entertainment machine, the Air still performs.
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