Macbook Air re­view

THE NEW 2018 MACBOOK AIR IS ES­SEN­TIALLY THE 12-INCH MACBOOK, MADE LARGER.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY JA­SON CROSS

Ap­ple says the Macbook Air is “the most beloved note­book ever,” and it’s not wrong. The huge suc­cess of the orig­i­nal Air had rip­ple ef­fects through­out the in­dus­try, but it has lan­guished in re­cent years. For the last three years or so, Ap­ple had kept up with nei­ther tech­no­log­i­cal nor de­sign ad­vances in its most im­por­tant lap­top.

Now, the Macbook Air has fi­nally been brought up to mod­ern Mac lap­top stan­dards, skip­ping for­ward three gen­er­a­tions of In­tel pro­ces­sors, ad­ding a Retina dis­play and Thun­der­bolt 3 ports, and giv­ing us three color op­tions, among other things. But it feels a bit like Ap­ple threw out the baby with the bath­wa­ter, jet­ti­son­ing some fea­tures of the Macbook Air that make it so well-loved.

In fact, it would be more ac­cu­rate to call this a 13-inch Macbook than an all­new Macbook Air. Depend­ing on how you look at it, this is ei­ther a great up-sized up­grade to the 12-inch

Macbook ( go.mac­world.com/mcb7), or a dis­ap­point­ing rein­ven­tion of the Macbook Air that throws out half of the things we re­ally loved about it.

A RETINA DIS­PLAY, FI­NALLY

The mar­quee fea­ture of the new Macbook Air is its Retina dis­play. It has a res­o­lu­tion of 2560x1600, giv­ing it a pixel den­sity of 227 pix­els per inch—that’s the same pixel den­sity as the 12-inch Macbook and the Macbook Pro, and four times the pix­els of the old Air. It has a 48 per­cent broader color re­pro­duc­tion than the old Macbook Air, but it’s still lim­ited to the SRGB color gamut, just like the 12-inch Macbook. The DCI-P3 color gamut is re­served for Macbook Pro dis­plays and imacs.

Those wide, sil­ver, 2010-era bezels around the dis­play have shrunk buy half and are now black, with the glass go­ing all the way out to the edge of the lid. It’s the look you know from ev­ery other Mac lap­top, and while it’s not quite as edge-to- edge as the best non-ap­ple lap­tops, it’s a huge im­prove­ment.

The slim­mer bezels give the whole sys­tem a smaller foot­print than the old Air. It’s al­most ex­actly the same di­men­sions as a 13-inch Macbook Pro, in fact. The back edge is just a hair thicker than the Macbook Pro, but it ta­pers down to­ward the front in the fa­mil­iar wedge-shaped fash­ion. This shaves off about a quar­ter pound of weight: it’s 2.75 pounds, in­stead of three pounds for the 13-inch Macbook Pro and old Macbook Air.

ALL THUN­DER­BOLT 3, ALL THE TIME

One of the things we loved about the Macbook Air was the Magsafe charg­ing con­nec­tor. USB-C charg­ing is con­ve­nient in a “you only need one cord” sort of way, but there is al­most no old-school Mac lap­top user that doesn’t have a dozen sto­ries about how the mag­netic break­away charger saved it from cer­tain doom when some­one tripped over the power cord.

Ap­ple is all-in on Thun­der­bolt 3 ( go. mac­world.com/t3ad) and USB-C now. The new Macbook Air has two 40 Gbps Thun­der­bolt 3 ports on the left side and a

head­phone jack on the right, and that’s all. Both USB-A ports are gone, as is the SD card reader.

It’s easy to un­der­stand Ap­ple’s in­ten­tion to drag the world kick­ing and scream­ing into the USB-C era, but it feels pre­ma­ture, par­tic­u­larly on its least ex­pen­sive mass-mar­ket lap­top. All your thumb drives prob­a­bly have USB-A con­nec­tors. Did your dig­i­tal cam­era come with a USB-C cable? No? Nei­ther did mine. From pod­cast mi­cro­phones to game con­trollers, most ev­ery­day pe­riph­er­als still ex­pect a USB-A con­nec­tor. It would be eas­ier to for­give Ap­ple’s USB-C zeal if it was con­sis­tent across all its prod­ucts, but the ipad and all iphones still come ex­clu­sively with USB-A ca­bles in the box.

The fact of the mat­ter is, al­most ev­ery­one who buys the new Air is go­ing to have to shell out for at least one don­gle ( go.mac­world.com/ad19), if not more.

Would it have killed Ap­ple to put a sin­gle USB-A port on the right side? Still, at least there are two Thun­der­bolt 3 ports rather than just the one on the 12-inch Macbook, so you can charge your lap­top and still plug in other stuff.

NEW KEY­BOARD, TRACK­PAD, AND SPEAK­ERS

All other as­pects of the Macbook Air have been brought into line with the rest of the mod­ern Mac lap­top line. That means the old key­board with its scis­sor-switch mech­a­nism, uni­ver­sally hailed as one of the best on any lap­top, has been jet­ti­soned in fa­vor of the ul­tra low-pro­file third­gen­er­a­tion key­board with its but­ter­fly-switch mech­a­nism. It’s the same one you’ll find in the

new Macbook Pro ( go.mac­world.com/ mp15), com­plete with the sil­i­cone mem­brane that helps keep dust out and makes typ­ing a lit­tle qui­eter (it helps, but it’s still too loud).

Depend­ing on who you ask, this is any­thing from a side-grade to a ma­jor down­grade. It’s worth noth­ing that it didn’t re­ally al­low Ap­ple to make the lap­top any slim­mer; the old Air was only 7 hun­dredths of an inch thicker at the wide end but 5 hun­dredths of an inch thin­ner at the small end. Ap­ple didn’t in­crease the size of the bat­tery, ei­ther. The old Air had a 54 watthour bat­tery, the new one is 50 watt-hours.

The old track­pad has been swapped out for the Force Touch track­pad you now find on ev­ery other mod­ern Mac lap­top, which is a good thing. It doesn’t have quite the sat­is­fy­ing tac­tile re­sponse of the old model, but it’s larger, clicks evenly ev­ery­where (the old one was hard to click along the top edge), and al­lows you to do neat stuff in macos, like force-click­ing on any word to get dic­tionary and the­saurus en­tries for it, or on an ad­dress to get a Maps pre­view.

The speak­ers are a lot bet­ter than those on the old Macbook Air. They’re no­tice­ably louder, and the sound is a lot less tinny. Don’t ex­pect them to fill your liv­ing room with mu­sic, but at least there’s some bass re­sponse now.

Touch ID and the T2 pro­ces­sor

There’s no Touch Bar on the new

Macbook Air, but there is Touch ID. That means you have phys­i­cal Func­tion keys and a real ESC key, but can still use your fin­ger­print to log in, au­tho­rize pur­chases, and au­tho­rize pass­word man­ager apps like 1Pass­word ( go.mac­world.com/1psw). This is the best of all pos­si­ble out­comes— the Touch Bar on the Macbook Pro is a failed ex­per­i­ment that adds sig­nif­i­cant cost, but un­til now it was paired ex­clu­sively with Touch ID.

As much as I miss the su­pe­rior and qui­eter typ­ing ac­tion of the old Air’s key­board, the fact that this is now the only key­board with both Touch ID and phys­i­cal Func­tion and ESC keys makes it the best key­board on any mod­ern Mac lap­top. I sin­cerely hope next year’s Macbook Pro mod­els of­fer an op­tion to have Touch ID with­out the Touch Bar.

The ad­di­tion of Touch ID means the ad­di­tion of the T2 pro­ces­sor, as it is nec­es­sary to pro­vide the se­cure en­clave to store your fin­ger­print data. The T2 has lots of other ben­e­fits, too ( go.mac­world. com/t2rv). It pro­vides se­cure boot, han­dles disk en­cryp­tion, pro­cesses au­dio, has an image sig­nal pro­ces­sor for the Facetime cam­era (which is a dis­ap­point­ing 720p res­o­lu­tion and still not very good in low light), even dis­con­nects the mi­cro­phone when the lap­top’s lid is closed.

NOT THE CPU UP­GRADE WE EX­PECTED

The most re­cent Macbook Air re­fresh was in 2017 where the Core i5-5250u pro­ces­sor was ever-so-slightly up­graded to the Core i5-5350u ( go.mac­world.com/ i535) (a Core i7 ver­sion was also avail­able). That’s a pro­ces­sor in­tro­duced in 2015 with a 15-watt TDP (ther­mal de­sign power). It’s a lit­tle em­bar­rass­ing for a lap­top that costs

$999 to still use use such an old pro­ces­sor, and thank­fully, the new Macbook Air has jumped up to a state-ofthe-art model. It’s just not the one we wanted or ex­pected.

The CPU in the new Air is a Core i5-8210y ( go.mac­world.com/i582)— still a two-core, four-thread pro­ces­sor, but with lower base clock speed (1.6GHZ in­stead of 1.8GHZ) and a higher boost clock speed (3.6GHZ, up from 2.9GHZ). There is no other pro­ces­sor op­tion avail­able. Those higher boost clocks help make the new CPU a lit­tle bit faster than the one in the old Air ( jump­ing from a fifth-gen­er­a­tion In­tel pro­ces­sor to an eighth­gen­er­a­tion one ought to do that).

This new CPU has a TDP of just 7 watts. In­tel’s “Y” se­ries pro­ces­sors are what it some­times calls its Core-m se­ries, and they are some­what less ca­pa­ble than the “U” se­ries pro­ces­sors in the old Macbook Air—base clock speeds, cache, and GPU per­for­mance is sac­ri­ficed to keep power con­sump­tion and ther­mals down.

Core-m and Y-se­ries pro­ces­sors are used in the 12-inch Macbook, for ex­am­ple.

The new Macbook Air is es­sen­tially just as thick as be­fore, so why is there a need to drop from 15-watt pro­ces­sors to a 7-watt one? A Core i5-8250u would give us dou­ble the cores and threads and 50 per­cent more cache. I can only as­sume it’s an is­sue of bat­tery life. De­spite be­ing just as thick, the smaller foot­print only leaves room for a 7 per­cent smaller bat­tery, but the dis­play on any lap­top is a huge power draw. The new Retina dis­play must use sig­nif­i­cantly more power, and the only way Ap­ple could keep its prom­ise of “all-day” bat­tery life is to use a lower-power pro­ces­sor.

For an idea of how much faster the Core i5-8250u would be in a sim­i­lar-sized lap­top, check out Pc­world’s re­view of the Dell XPS 13 ( go.mac­world.com/nxps). Spoiler: The new Air would be twice as fast in mul­ti­task­ing op­er­a­tions with a 15-watt CPU, and the GPU would be a lot faster, too. I would gladly sac­ri­fice an hour or two of bat­tery life for a Core i5-8250u.

What­ever the rea­son, Ap­ple’s pro­ces­sor choice is a dis­ap­point­ment. The one and only CPU you can get in the new Macbook is only a lit­tle bet­ter than the Core-m you get in the 12-inch Macbook, and it’s a far cry from tak­ing the ag­ing 15-watt CPU in the old Air and re­plac­ing it with a mod­ern 15-watt model.

For­tu­nately, Ap­ple didn’t skimp on stor­age per­for­mance. While the start­ing ca­pac­ity of 128GB seems a lit­tle low, at least the SSD is blaz­ing fast for a lap­top of this size. A quick run of the Black­magic disk speed test ( go.mac­world.com/blkm) shows read speeds of about 2 gi­ga­bytes per sec­ond, and write speeds just un­der 1 gi­ga­byte per sec­ond.

Frankly, after look­ing at the per­for­mance of the A12 and A12X in the lat­est iphones and ipad Pro, I’m ready for

the even­tual switch to Ap­ple-de­signed pro­ces­sors in Mac­books.

THAT SAME GREAT ALL-DAY BAT­TERY LIFE

Be­ing able to use your lap­top—re­ally use it—over an en­tire transcon­ti­nen­tal flight is a key part of what made the Macbook Air fa­mous. Hap­pily, qua­dru­pling the pix­els in the dis­play hasn’t killed that fea­ture. Ap­ple says you’ll get up to 12 hours of wire­less web brows­ing (the same as the old Air) and up to 13 hours of movie play­back (an hour more than the old Air).

I looped a movie in itunes with the bright­ness cal­i­brated to 150 nits, and the new Air ran for and im­pres­sive 10 hours and 45 min­utes. That’s an hour less than I got re­peat­ing the same test at the same bright­ness with a 2017 12-inch Macbook, but still quite fan­tas­tic for a high-res 13-inch lap­top. I spent five hours work­ing and brows­ing the web with the dis­play bright­ness at about 70 per­cent and still had 50 per­cent charge re­main­ing. The Macbook Air is still a bat­tery champ.

IS IT A BIG­GER MACBOOK, OR A RE­DESIGNED MACBOOK AIR?

There are two ways to look at the new Macbook Air. Ap­ple pitches it as a ground-up re­design of its most beloved lap­top, and by that mea­sure it’s a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing. It’s slightly more com­pact and a lit­tle bit lighter, and it has Touch ID, Thun­der­bolt 3, a bet­ter track­pad, and bet­ter speak­ers. And of course, it has a Retina dis­play. In all those ways, it is bet­ter than the old Macbook Air.

But it has also taken away the best key­board ever on a lap­top and re­placed it with a noisy and un­com­fort­able short-throw

key­board that no­body seems to re­ally love. It’s dropped USB-A en­tirely, so you’re go­ing to have to buy don­gles and new ca­bles to use all your ac­ces­sories. The SD card slot is gone, which will an­noy pho­tog­ra­phers. Magsafe is gone, so now you have to use up one of your two USB-C ports to charge up. It’s not much faster, ei­ther—not nearly as much as it could be if Ap­ple didn’t drop from 15-watt pro­ces­sors in the old Macbook Air to a 7-watt pro­ces­sor in the new one.

And it’s quite a bit more ex­pen­sive, too. The old Air started at $999 for a sys­tem with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of stor­age, and let’s face it, over time it be­came over­priced for what you got. The new Air starts at $1,199 for the same RAM and stor­age (and you’ll def­i­nitely want to spring for the 256GB stor­age up­grade, bring­ing the price to $1,399).

Retina and Touch ID are won­der­ful ad­di­tions, but ev­ery­thing else seems like it’s just play­ing catch-up on a prod­uct that had fallen way be­hind the times de­spite hold­ing on to its thou­sand-dol­lar price tag.

On the other hand, you could look at this as a 13-inch vari­ant of the Macbook; larger and a lit­tle bit faster, with a sec­ond Thun­der­bolt 3 port, Touch ID, and bet­ter speak­ers. The 12-inch Macbook starts at $1,299 with a 256GB SSD, mak­ing the en­try-level price of this big­ger and bet­ter ver­sion $100 cheaper, or the price with the same amount of stor­age $100 more. That’s a per­fectly rea­son­able price for this up­grade.

If you’re fa­mil­iar with the 12-inch Macbook, us­ing the new Macbook Air makes it im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous that this is a slightly up­dated and scaled-up ver­sion of that model, with the “Air” name at­tached. If you’ve been wait­ing for years for Ap­ple to fi­nally re-imag­ine the Macbook Air in a way that will once again rev­o­lu­tion­ize the thin-and-light lap­top mar­ket, you’re go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed to find that it has only been brought up to the stan­dards of other mod­ern Mac lap­tops, with all the good and bad that goes with that. ■

The new Retina dis­play looks great, and the thin­ner, black bezels are a huge im­prove­ment.

The new Macbook Air (top) has al­most the ex­act same di­men­sions as the 13-inch Macbook Pro (bot­tom), save for a tapered front edge.

Isn’t it odd that Ap­ple sees value in a “le­gacy” con­nec­tion like a head­phone jack, but not in USB-A ports?

TwoThun­der­bolt 3 ports are bet­ter than one (on the 12-inchMacbook), but there’s no rea­son to ditch USB-A en­tirely.

The new but­ter­fly-switch key­board, with its low travel and noisy click­ing, is a down­grade from the old scis­sor-switch key­board.

In Geek­bench 4, the new CPU is about 30 per­cent faster than the one in the old Air, but only about 10 per­cent faster than last year’s 12-inch Macbook.

Cinebench’s CPU test shows far more mod­est CPU per­for­mance gains.

Graph­ics per­for­mance is up about 30% from the old Air and 12-inch Macbook.

The SSD is quite fast for such a thin-and-light lap­top

The new Macbook Air didn’t last as long as the 12-inch Macbook in our bat­tery run­down test, but nearly 11 hours of HD movie play­back is still fan­tas­tic.

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