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The 2020 MacBook Air

We waited a long time for a retina MacBook Air. When we finally got it back in November 2018, it was worth waiting for. Smaller, lighter, faster, better speakers, and — finally — a retina display. The MacBook Air has been and remains Apple’s most popular Mac — perhaps by far. When most people think of a “Mac”, what they think of specifically is a 13-inch MacBook Air. It’s the workhorse Mac — the best Mac for most people.

But that first crack at a retina MacBook Air wasn’t perfect.

Well, nothing’s perfect. But the retina MacBook Air had a few significant shortcomings:

  • The keyboard. Because the retina MacBook Air was so late to the modern MacBook era, it debuted with the third-generation butterfly-switch keyboard. That third-generation design really was much improved over the first two, especially, it seems, in terms of reliability. But it’s hard to find people who claim those butterfly keyboards are their favorite keyboards. And it’s really easy to find people who — reliability issues aside — just don’t like the way they feel.

  • Price. The MacBook Air is supposed to start at $999. It just is. But the retina MacBook Air started at $1199. And so Apple kept the by-that-time ancient non-retina MacBook Air around for a while just to occupy that $999 price point in the lineup. The way things should be, you ought not just be able to buy a MacBook Air for $999, you ought to be able to buy a good MacBook Air for $999.

  • Performance. Yes, the retina MacBook Air was faster than the non-retina MacBook Air models it replaced. But that’s because the non-retina MacBook Air models were really old. They were embarrassingly old.

With the new 2020 MacBook Air, Apple has pulled a Michael Corleone and settled all family business. I’ve spent the last day testing Apple’s $1,300 mid-range MacBook Air, with the quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 512 GB storage, and 8 GB of RAM. My thoughts and observations:

Performance

I’ve only had this machine for a day, so I don’t have any extensive testing results to report. But it’s solid. One significant difference between this MacBook Air and the previous generation is that it offers CPU options at all. With the previous retina MacBook Air, there was one and only one CPU option. From my 2018 first-look review:

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.

Well, now we’re back to CPU options. I can’t say I love that, but the lineup doesn’t seem that confusing to me. The difference between the dual-core Core i3 and quad-core Core i5 seems pretty obvious: $300 will get you much better multithreaded performance. Unclear to me is whether the Core i7 is worth an additional $150. (And if you want quad-core multithreaded performance but are OK with just 256 GB of storage, you can upgrade the base model to the quad-core i5 for just $100 as a build-to-order configuration.)

With all the usual caveats that artificial benchmarks aren’t accurate indicators of real-world performance, here are some interesting numbers from Geekbench 5 (average of two runs, single-core / multi-core):

Single Multi
MacBook Air 2020 (4-core Core i5) 1,127 2,854
MacBook Air 2018 (2-core Core i5) 639 1,379
16″ MacBook Pro 2019 (8-core Core i9) 1,263 7,277
13″ MacBook Pro 2014 (2-core Core i7) 733 1,791
11″ iPad Pro 2018 (8-core A12X) 1,118 4,477
iPhone 11 Pro (6-core A13) 1,321 3,387

I’d wager heavily that in terms of performance-per-watt, Intel remains hopelessly behind ARM, but in terms of sheer CPU performance — especially single-core, which is what matters most for a lot of day-to-day stuff like using the web — this 10th-generation Core i5 is more than holding its own. Previously the MacBook Air was hit by a double whammy: it was slower and less power efficient. Now it’s just less efficient. Not bad for Intel.

What’s important, I think, is that it’s a good/faster/fastest lineup — not meh/good/faster.

Price

The new MacBook Air starts at $999, and that base model is a terrific computer for a lot of people. For a long time, it was hard to recommend Apple’s base model MacBook Air. No longer — especially because it now ships with 256 GB of SSD storage (up from 128).

As I pointed out in my initial thoughts on this week’s new products, until this week, if you wanted a MacBook Air with 256 GB of storage, it cost $1,300. Now, you can get that for $1,000 (and education customers only pay $900). That’s a big price drop — and you get a faster computer and a better keyboard to boot.

Keyboard

Surprising exactly no one, the keyboard in the new MacBook Air uses the same new scissor switches introduced back in November’s 16-inch MacBook Pro. (The new Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro, coming in May, does too.)

I love it.

If anything, it feels a little better than the 16-inch MacBook Pro keyboard. It has the same 1 mm key travel, very similar clickiness, but it maybe feels a little softer, in a good way. Or maybe it just sounds softer. This might not be the keyboard itself but rather a result of the very different case sizes. Compared to the third-generation butterfly switch keyboard in the previous MacBook Air, it feels downright luxurious. To my taste, this conclusively proves that less than 1 mm travel is too little travel.

The bottom line: Apple is once again making excellent, world-class, no-caveat MacBook keyboards, so something, however insignificant in the grand scheme of life, is right in the world.

Also, I remain a huge fan of the Force Touch trackpad. The 13-inch MacBook Air is (duh) a smaller device than the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and it has a correspondingly smaller trackpad. But even after months of using a 16-inch MacBook Pro day-in and day-out, this trackpad doesn’t feel too small at all. Again, if anything, it feels better to me.

Delightfully Close to Perfection

The things that haven’t changed with the MacBook Air — size, weight, display — didn’t need to change. They were already great. The things that have changed — price, performance, and for me personally, especially the keyboard — have all changed significantly for the better. These new MacBook Airs are a lot cheaper, performance is appreciably improved for both CPU and graphics, and the keyboard has gone from “well, it’s OK” to “damn, this keyboard feels so good it makes me want to write something”.

I mean, really, what would you change? Serious question.

I do wish there were at least one USB-C port on the right, just to make it more convenient when the nearest power outlet is on that side. But, come on, it’s not that big a deal to snake the cable around the back of a notebook this small.

An option to get a Touch Bar? I’ve lost count of the number of MacBook Pro owners I know, or whose opinions I’ve simply read, who wish they could buy a new MacBook Pro with good old-fashioned function keys instead of a Touch Bar — not because they want to save a few hundred dollars or because they particularly like function keys, but because they outright dislike the Touch Bar. Conversely, I’ve never met anyone who wishes that the MacBook Air had the Touch Bar. Me, personally, I’m ambivalent — I don’t dislike the Touch Bar, and in fact I like it in several ways, but I can’t say I miss it at all after a full day using this keyboard without one. Not one bit.

The speakers on this MacBook Air are great compared to Airs of old, but they pale in comparison to the rather amazing sound that comes out of a 16-inch MacBook Pro. But I’m not even sure that sound like that is possible out of a notebook as small as the Air. Compared to any other 13-inch notebook I’ve heard, these speakers are good.

The camera stinks, especially in low light. There’s no other way to put it. But it’s the same crummy “720p FaceTime Camera” as in all the other MacBooks. You can buy a $3,000 16-inch MacBook Pro and you’ll get the exact same camera. I think this is largely a factor of just how thin the lids are on MacBooks. Is there room for a camera with better optics and a bigger sensor?

So what’s left? For what it is meant to be, it’s really hard to complain about anything at all regarding this machine. Now that Apple has extricated itself from its butterfly keyboard thicket, it’s clear that Apple was onto something with this design language, which debuted with the no-adjective 12-inch MacBook in 2015.

Don’t overthink it. The new MacBook Air is what it looks like: nearly perfect.