The 2018 Retina MacBook Air

The elephant in the room at last week’s Apple event was Intel.

Apple introduced two products based on Intel chips — the new MacBook Air and new Mac Mini — but barely mentioned the company’s name. The word “Intel” appeared on a single slide during VP of hardware engineering Laura Legros’s presentation of the new MacBook Air. She also spoke the word once, saying the new Airs have “the latest Intel integrated graphics”. In the presentation of the new Mac Mini, “Intel” never appeared in a slide and wasn’t mentioned. The CPUs in the new Mini were simply described as 4-core and 6-core “8th generation” processors.

One slide, one mention.

Apple is not going to throw Intel under the bus — they’re taking an “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” approach, as they should. Macs are Apple’s products, not Intel’s, and it’s ultimately Apple’s responsibility that both of these products went so long between updates. But Apple’s frustration with Intel as a partner is palpable at this point. Look no further than the other product introduced at the same event, the new iPad Pro. Apple spent an entire segment talking about the A12X chip in the iPad Pro and the performance it delivers. They spent almost no time talking about the performance of the CPU or GPU in the new MacBook Air. Performance is actually pretty good for the price and for the intended audience of the MacBook Air — but only when compared against other Intel-based notebooks. When compared against the iPad Pro, it doesn’t look good at all.

Single-Core Multi-Core Compute
2018 MacBook Air With Retina 4,316 7,847 22,048
$999 Old MacBook Air 3,335 6,118 14,570
2018 iPad Pro 5,007 18,051 42,574
iPhone XS 4,851 10,534 21,869
15" MacBook Pro w/ 2.9 GHz Core i9 5,653 21,737 59,010

What we’re seeing here is a double whammy. On the one side, Apple’s custom silicon team is firing on all cylinders, delivering new A-series chips year after year with ever-more-incredible performance and efficiency. On the other side, Intel has missed deadlines, and what they have shipped often isn’t impressive. In fact, when Apple did spend time bragging about the performance of the new MacBook Air’s chips, they were talking about the T2, the Apple-designed “security chip” that does a hell of a lot more than just manage security features. Even before they’ve moved away from Intel chips, Apple is boasting about the performance of their own custom silicon, not Intel’s.

Behind the scenes last week in New York, I asked a few folks from Apple for any sort of hint why these two Macs — the MacBook Air and Mac Mini — went so long between updates. One thing I was told is that Apple wants to focus on “meaningful updates”. The days of “speed bump” updates are largely over. The value just isn’t there.

The new MacBook Air is a meaningful update. It is faster, smaller, thinner, and lighter, with a terrific retina display (finally), vastly improved speakers, Apple’s terrific Force Touch trackpad, and more. If there’s a blessing in the long wait for this new MacBook Air to appear, it’s that it debuts with the third-generation of Apple’s butterfly keyboard. The Air skipped the bad keyboards.

The iPad lineup has seen meaningful updates on a regular basis not because Apple cares more about iPads than MacBooks, but because Apple controls the system architecture of iPads and they don’t control it on MacBooks — Intel does. Apple sells more iPad units than Macs, but the Mac accounts for significantly more revenue. Apple should love the Mac because it’s a fantastic platform — but they should also love it because it makes the company a lot of money.

Look at the iPad’s A12X compared to the iPhone’s A12 and you can see how much attention Apple is paying to the iPad’s system architecture. There’s no reason they won’t pay as much or more attention to the Mac’s custom silicon when they switch from Intel to their own chip designs. It should be downright glorious.

But that’s the future. In the present, we’ve got this new MacBook Air, and it’s pretty damn sweet.

Overview

There’s only one CPU option for the new MacBook Air: “1.6GHz dual‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz”. There are no build-to-order CPU options. I could be wrong, but off the top of my head, I think this is a first for a Mac notebook in the Intel era. MacBook Pros have a slew of different CPU options. The 12-inch MacBook, surprisingly, has three CPU options. Even the base model non-retina MacBook Air has two CPU options.

Why? I hate picking a CPU. Putting cost aside, I never know what the right balance is between performance and battery life. These are the sort of decisions I want Apple to make. That’s what they do with iPhones and iPads.

When you order a new MacBook Air, the only choices you make (other than color) are how much storage you want and how much RAM (8 or 16 GB). That’s it, and that’s how it should be.

I’ve been using a space gray model with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage since late last week. I’m glad to be testing a model with the base 8 GB of RAM — this is the configuration that most people will actually buy and use. I use a lot of RAM because I tend to keep a lot of apps open and a lot of tabs — too many tabs — in Safari. My personal MacBook is a 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2014 with 16 GB of RAM. I’ve been thinking about buying a new 13-inch MacBook Pro with 32 GB of RAM. (I really need to clean up my Safari tabs more often.) Update: The problem, of course, is that currently only 15-inch MacBook Pros support more than 16 GB of RAM. My desired 13-inch MacBook Pro with 32 GB of RAM doesn’t (yet) exist.

I’ve been using this device heavily over the last few days — as heavily as I could while simultaneously testing the new iPad Pro, at least — and performance has been great. The system is swapping, but I honestly don’t notice. SSD performance is that good.

If you don’t know whether you need the upgrade to 16 GB of RAM, you don’t need it. I would recommend the base 8 GB configuration to just about any typical user.

The display is excellent even if it’s not Apple’s best. MacBook Pro displays offer 500 nits of maximum brightness; the new MacBook Air offers only 300 nits, according to Apple. MacBook Pros also offer wide color gamut (P3), and the models with the Touch Bar also offer True Tone. They also start at $1,800. Everyone who’s been waiting for a retina MacBook Air should be pleased by this display — it’s sharp, accurate, well-balanced, and more than bright enough.

The form factor is just about perfect. It’s noticeably thinner and lighter than a 13-inch MacBook Pro and noticeably more modern-looking than the old Air. One thing that Apple doesn’t get enough credit for in their latest notebooks is the quality of the display hinge. Metal now, not plastic, these hinges have just the right amount of resistance — they’re easy to open, easy to close, and easy to adjust to the perfect viewing angle. It’s obvious when you look at the industry and see what size notebooks are the most popular, but a 13-inch display really is perfect as the default size for most people.

These butterfly keyboards are polarizing. Some love them, some hate them. I’m in the middle. I like a laptop keyboard with a clickier feel and more travel than these keyboards, but with this third generation, the keys do snap back a bit more than they did in the first two generations. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen asking for Apple to make a MacBook keyboard with Touch ID but without the Touch Bar. Well, here it is. The only problem I’ve run into with Touch ID is that I just spent the last week with a new iPad Pro with Face ID, which is even better.

The Esc key works perfectly.

Battery life has been outstanding. Apple’s tech specs suggest this new MacBook Air should get better battery life than any other MacBook, Pro or not. I believe it.

Here’s a nice little touch: the Apple logo stickers included with the Getting Started packet are color-matched to the device. Space gray stickers for a space gray MacBook Air. Maybe this isn’t new, but I hadn’t noticed it before.

The Modern MacBook and the End of an Era

With this update the MacBook Air falls in line with Apple’s modern MacBook design language:

  • Aluminum color options (space gray, silver, gold)
  • Butterfly keyboards
  • Large Force Touch trackpads
  • USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports for power and peripherals

There are some cool things about the old designs that I miss:

  • MagSafe. USB-C plugs are hard to pull out. MagSafe was easier to connect and disconnect. The magnetic charging of the new Apple Pencil reminds me quite a bit of MagSafe. It was just such a great idea. I miss the charging indicator light on the MagSafe connector too.

  • The glowing Apple logo on the back. I’m happy to trade it for a thinner display, but I do miss it. It was just such an iconic aspect of Apple’s Mac notebooks, going back to the PowerBook era. I noticed a bunch of the black-and-white “Behind the Mac” images Apple showed in a short film on stage last week in Brooklyn prominently featured glowing Apple logos on MacBooks.

  • The new arrow key layout. I’m getting used to the feel of these butterfly keyboards in general, but I cannot get used to the new arrow key layout. I want my upside-down T layout back.

Making Sense of Where This New Air Fits in the MacBook Lineup

Back in August I wrote:

But the more I think about it, the more I think that something along the lines of the “just put a retina display in the MacBook Air” scenario seems the most likely. Nomenclaturally it makes no sense. The computer named just-plain “MacBook” should logically be the one that is the baseline best-selling model for the masses. The one named “Air” should be the one that is as thin and lightweight as is feasible. But today we’re three years into the era when the just-plain MacBook is the radically thin and light model, and the Air is the best-selling baseline model that isn’t really any thinner or lighter than the Pro models. Well, so what? We drive on parkways and park on driveways and no one is confused.

And so here we are, with a new MacBook Air that really is the MacBook for almost everyone, and a just-plain MacBook that is the MacBook for those willing to pay a premium — both in dollars and performance — for an ultra thin and light form factor.

These new MacBook Airs are terrific computers at fair prices. But the overall state of Apple’s notebook lineup is a bit of a mess at the moment. Here are your options if you’re looking to spend about $1,000-1,500 on a Mac notebook:

  • The old non-retina MacBook Air, which still starts at $1,000.
  • The new MacBook Air, which starts at $1,200.
  • The 12-inch MacBook, which starts at $1,300.
  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar — a.k.a. the MacBook Escape — which starts at $1,300.

The $200 difference between the $1,000 non-retina Air and new $1,200 retina Air is quite possibly the best $200 value you can spend in the Apple Store. The $1,000 MacBook Air is a machine I wouldn’t recommend to anyone; the $1,200 MacBook Air is a machine I’d recommend to anyone who doesn’t need more than 128 GB of storage.

The non-retina MacBook Air has a CPU upgrade for $150, but even with that upgrade it’s still slower than the new MacBook Air. I understand why the $999 Air is still in the lineup — so that Apple can say they have a notebook at $999. I have no idea why the $1,150 configuration of the old Air is still there. It seems like a rotten deal next to the new MacBook Air.

The entry model of the 12-inch MacBook comes with 256 GB of storage. The other entry models — including the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar — come with 128 GB of storage. Upgrading from 128 to 256 GB of storage costs $200 for all of these devices. These prices start to make more sense when you consider that. For 256 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM:

  • New MacBook Air: $1,400
  • 12-inch MacBook: $1,300
  • 13-inch MacBook Pro: $1,500

The 12-inch MacBook is for people who want the very thinnest and lightest MacBook they can get. It weighs 3/4 of a pound less than the new MacBook Air, which is significant.

It’s not clear at all who the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar is for today, though. In principle, it’s for people who want higher performance than the MacBook Air provides. In practice, it’s not much faster — about the same in single-core, and about 15 percent faster in multi-core. It weighs more, costs more, and yet doesn’t have Touch ID.

Both the 12-inch MacBook and the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar are overdue for updates. (Have I mentioned that Intel has been dropping the ball lately?) Presumably, updates are coming, and when they arrive, these prices should all make more sense value-wise. But right now, the new MacBook Air is the only consumer MacBook that looks like a good deal.

A lot of people are looking at the lineup as it stands today thinking they must be missing something, because it seems obvious that most people looking for a MacBook in this price range should buy the new MacBook Air. They’re not missing anything. The new Air is exactly that: the MacBook most people should buy, and exactly the MacBook everyone has been asking Apple to make.