In 2018, the Apple MacBook Air was the last Mac laptop to be updated with Apple’s controversial butterfly-style keyboard, following its introduction several years earlier on the now-discontinued 12-inch MacBook. Now, in an apparent admission that people just don’t like the extremely shallow key travel of those butterfly switches, Apple has once again updated the MacBook Air (starts at $999; $1,299 as tested) with a new, more comfortable keyboard. The redesign also brings higher storage capacities and Intel’s latest 10th Generation Core processors to the MacBook Air, though raw computing performance isn’t the new Air’s strong suit. Even so, if you’re a macOS fan who uses a laptop mainly for tasks like writing emails and browsing the web, the 2020 edition of the MacBook Air is easy to recommend for general use.
Why Keyboards Matter
Everyone from novelists to secretaries once typed on typewriters, an arduous process that involves striking metal levers with a great deal of force. Today, many of those same people who used to write novels at desks or dictate notes to their secretaries are sitting at coffee shops hacking away at an Apple laptop keyboard instead. But some are no happier than they were in the typewriter era.
Animosity toward Apple’s recent laptop keyboards has been strong and consistent. They have been the subject of lawsuits and scathing op-ed columns. A member of the Hollywood cognoscenti even made headlines by denouncing them at the Academy Awards this year.
Up until recently, Apple had addressed its MacBook keyboard problem in a bunch of small-bite ways. The company agreed to offer free repairs for keyboards that failed when bits of debris got caught in them. It talked up the benefits of the butterfly switch’s supreme downpress stability and space-saving design. But the unsettled rumbling never stopped.
Finally, last year Apple shifted course and launched a 16-inch version of the MacBook Pro with a “new” Magic Keyboard that’s essentially a return to the way Mac laptop keyboards used to be. That was all well and good, but the pricey, powerful 16-inch MacBook Pro is aimed at users like record producers and video editors, not the far greater numbers of college students and freelancers who just need a workaday Mac with a more comfortable keyboard.
The prayers of these macOS-loyal students and freelancers who held onto ancient MacBook Airs in the hopes of riding out the keyboard fiasco have been answered. The same Magic Keyboard that made its debut on the 16-inch MacBook Pro is now on the MacBook Air, whose starting price is less than half that of the MacBook Pro’s and an even lower $899 for students and educators.
Beneath every keycap on the new MacBook Air, there’s a rubber dome and a switch that resembles a scissor. This configuration is similar to the way most keyboards have been made for the past 30 years, and the keys now move a respectable 1mm when you depress them fully. I typed part of this story on the new keyboard, and I found the keys to be only slightly less comfortable than what I consider to be the gold standard of laptop keyboards: Lenovo’s ThinkPad T series.
The typing experience is markedly different from that of the previous MacBook Air’s keyboard, which uses the much-maligned butterfly switch. In that design, while the feel is admittedly quite stable, the keys themselves hardly move at all when you strike them. It’s more akin to tapping on a smartphone screen than typing on a laptop. I actually don’t hate the feel of the butterfly switch as much as some professional writers do, but I recognize it’s not ideal for someone who must type all day long. And given the choice, I would take the new design in a heartbeat.
The new Magic Keyboard’s other main benefit is redesigned directional arrow keys. They’re now arranged in an inverted “T” shape, which makes them easier to locate by feel. Both keyboards are backlit and have physical Escape keys, compared with the virtual Escape key located in the Touch Bar of the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The only possible downside to the new keyboard is that it requires a smidge more vertical space, which means the new MacBook Air is ever-so-slightly thicker and heavier than its predecessor. Still, it’s almost nothing: The 2020 MacBook Air is 0.63 by 11.97 by 8.46 inches (HWD) and 2.75 pounds, versus 0.61 by 12 by 8.4 inches and 2.8 pounds for the previous model. It’s only worth mentioning as proof that the old butterfly keyboard can’t claim meaningful space savings as a benefit.
More of the Same (Excellent) Design
Other than the new keyboard layout, the rest of the MacBook Air’s physical features are virtually identical to those of its predecessor’s. If you just bought a 2019 MacBook Air and you’re satisfied with the keyboard and core computing components, you can stop reading here and save the cost of an upgrade.
On the other hand, if you’re eager to replace an aging laptop with the new MacBook Air and are unfamiliar with the modern features you’ve been missing, you’re in for a treat. This laptop is superbly designed. The sleek, aluminum chassis is available in Space Gray, Rose Gold, or Silver. The oversized Force Touch trackpad has virtual haptic feedback instead of a physical switch, so clicks feel uniformly satisfying no matter where your finger happens to be located on the pad. And the Touch ID sensor in the upper right corner of the keyboard lets you log into your macOS account without typing a password. The sensor doubles as a power button, though you mostly won’t need that feature, since the MacBook Air fires up automatically as soon as you open the lid.
The webcam offers reasonably good 720p video quality, though it can’t match the superior quality of some laptops and all-in-one PCs—including the Apple iMac—that feature 1080p cameras. Stereo speakers produce surprisingly robust sound for such a small laptop, though I found high notes to be rather tinny when watching a movie trailer.
Best of all is the MacBook Air’s superb Retina Display, a 13.3-inch screen with a 16:10 widescreen aspect ratio and a native resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels. The resolution is far better than full HD, but not as good as 4K (generally, 3,840 by 2,160 pixels). To my eyes, any resolution above full HD offers a decadent laptop viewing experience, though, at this screen size.
The MacBook Air lacks OLED technology or support for high dynamic range (HDR), but it partially makes up for those missing features with True Tone, which automatically adjusts the white balance of the display to match the ambient light in the room. True Tone, also available on many other Apple devices, has a subtle but noticeable effect. To me, it just feels more classy than a non-adjusted screen does as I move from space to space, like I’m watching an arthouse film even when I’m really just typing into Microsoft Word. If you don’t like the modest changes True Tone makes, though, you can turn it off in the System Preferences app.
No Touch Screen, Few Ports
The major downside to the Retina Display is the lack of touch support. Apple steadfastly refuses to mimic the excellent touch support of iOS on the Mac, except for the MacBook Pro’s idiosyncratic Touch Bar that is useful mainly for certain highly specialized tasks like scrubbing through video timelines. The Touch Bar isn’t available on the MacBook Air, and for most users, it’s no great loss.
Potentially a bigger problem for some users is the MacBook Air’s lack of ports. There are only three: two USB Type-C ports, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Both of the USB ports support Thunderbolt 3, which makes for lightning-fast data transfer speeds and is frequently absent on comparably priced Windows 10 laptops. But one of the USB ports must be used to charge the laptop, which leaves you with only a single free port for connecting all of your peripherals, from external displays to the charging cable for your phone. You’ll also need an adapter or special cable for many of these peripherals, from HDMI monitors to USB Type-A external hard drives and simple flash drives.
As constraining as the MacBook Air’s port selection may be, it’s the same loadout as the entry-level MacBook Pro has, and some super-thin Windows laptops are also ditching all ports except audio and USB-C. So the MacBook Air isn’t unique in its bantamweight I/O selection.
If you rely exclusively on wireless connections, you’ll never need to plug in any peripherals, anyway. The MacBook Air’s Wi-Fi supports the 802.11ac standard, which is quickly giving way to the more modern 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) standard on many other new laptops. Apple declined to explain the lack of Wi-Fi 6, but it’s clear that the company thinks 802.11ac is sufficient for the MacBook Air, and that’s probably correct, at least in the near term. We haven’t found that Wi-Fi 6 offers immense speed gains or greater signal stability. But it’s nevertheless odd to see a new laptop released in 2020 without it.
Apple offers a one-year warranty and 90 days of telephone technical support with the MacBook Air, though Apple Store employees are often willing to fix common issues—especially software and keyboard problems—even if your MacBook Air is outside of its warranty period. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to take advantage of in-store help immediately, since Apple stores were closed at this writing due to the 2020 coronavirus outbreak.
Peeking Under the Hood
Previous versions of the MacBook Air typically have had less-powerful Intel processors than the ones found in the MacBook Pro. With the current update, the MacBook Air can claim to offer the most cutting-edge (though certainly not the most powerful) Intel processors of any Apple notebook. You can choose among Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors, all from Intel’s latest 10th Generation family.
Apple isn’t beholden to Intel’s meticulous marketing agreements, so you won’t see an Intel sticker on the MacBook Air as you would nearly any other Intel-powered laptop, and Apple also doesn’t disclose the exact CPU models it uses. However, our tests identify the processor in our MacBook Air review unit as a Core i5-1030NG7 from Intel’s “Ice Lake” family of processors. It’s a quad-core chip with Hyper-Threading, which means that each core can handle two software instruction threads at a time, for a total of eight. It’s got an extraordinarily low base clock speed of 1.1GHz and a maximum boost clock of 3.5GHz.
The Core i5-1030NG7 is rated for a maximum power consumption of just 10 watts, compared with 15 watts for most other current members of the Ice Lake family. This lower power consumption and low base clock speed mean the chip won’t get as hot or eat up the battery, but they also limit theoretical performance, as you’ll see from the benchmark results below. A slightly larger chassis to accommodate the new keyboard raises the interesting question of whether engineers also redesigned the cooling equipment to allow for better computing performance, but, alas, Apple said this is not the case. Any performance gains between the old and new model therefore come from the CPU itself, not the supporting cast of characters.
In addition to the Core i5 CPU, our review unit also features 8GB of memory and a 512GB SSD. Other storage options range from 256GB to 2TB of storage (all of them SSDs), and you can also bump up the memory to a maximum of 16GB. Overall, our review unit is well equipped for its $1,299 list price. It’s not a screaming-good value, but it’s the most competitive that a MacBook Air has been price-wise relative to Windows alternatives in at least three years.
Intel Iris Plus on-CPU silicon handles graphics processing for all MacBook Air configurations. Apple laptops have long featured various iterations of Iris Plus graphics, which are superior to Intel’s base-level HD or UHD integrated graphics in part because they have their own dedicated access to memory. Graphics computations still occur on the same chipset as the CPU, so performance won’t be as good as a dedicated GPU like the AMD Radeon units in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, but the MacBook Air is more than capable of playing basic games like Minecraft or Fortnite.
Also, the new Iris Plus graphics in the MacBook Air supports external displays with up to 6K resolution. So if you were wondering, yes, you can now plug your $5,000 Apple Pro Display XDR into a $1,000 MacBook Air.
How Fast Can It Go?
For basic tasks like web browsing and streaming videos, the MacBook Air performs extraordinarily well. I never once experienced lag or sluggishness, even while scrolling through a web page in Safari while a YouTube page in another tab was playing a video. I did notice a few hiccups when opening complex apps like Adobe Photoshop or Garage Band, but in most cases they were trivial. In an admittedly unscientific test, it took five bounces of the Garage Band dock icon for the app to open on the MacBook Air, and six bounces for the app to open on the 2019 13-inch MacBook Pro. I’m calling that a wash.
On standardized benchmark tests that measure more intensive multimedia tasks, however, the MacBook Air I tested is decidedly deficient. I compared the new laptop’s performance on our benchmark tests with that of its predecessor, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and two Windows competitors: the Dell Inspiron 14 7000 and HP Spectre x360. All of these machines cost around $1,200 in the configurations we reviewed, and they all weigh around 3 pounds or less. See their basic specs in the chart below.
In general, the MacBook Air performed significantly better than its predecessor (also a Core i5 model) did on our tests, but significantly worse than the MacBook Pro and the two Windows machines did.
Consider the CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads, and it does not reflect well on the MacBook Air’s raw CPU muscle.
The same is true of our Handbrake video-editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that’s highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video. The MacBook Pro is clearly the better choice for this task.
The MacBook Air also took nearly four minutes to complete our image editing benchmark, in which we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We typically use an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Adobe Photoshop for this task, but in the 2020 MacBook Air’s case, we used the most current version of Photoshop, since older versions are 32-bit and therefore incompatible with the 64-bit-only macOS Catalina. The difference shouldn’t materially affect the results.
Take these deficiencies in context, however. Many people in the market for an ultraportable laptop will never run full-fat Photoshop or convert a 4K video to 1080p. If you need to do such tasks frequently, you should consider investing in a more capable machine. The 16-inch MacBook Pro completed our Handbrake test in just 7 minutes, for instance, obliterating any meaning in the difference between the MacBook Air (25 minutes) and the Inspiron 14 7000 (18 minutes). On the other hand, if you need to do these kinds of muscle tasks just once in a while, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is clearly a better choice for around the same money as the MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air’s storage performance is excellent, registering at 1,324MBps write speeds and 1,169MBps read speeds on the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. That means it’s theoretically suitable for editing video files of up to 2160p at 60 frames per second (fps), though the rest of the system obviously isn’t ideally suited to such high-res file crunching, if our Handbrake test is any indication.
The MacBook Air’s rated battery life is also excellent. Apple estimates it will last for up to 11 hours of wireless web browsing. On our own battery life test, which involves looping a locally stored 720p video file at 50 percent screen brightness with the Wi-Fi turned off, the laptop lasted for nearly 15 hours. That’s about four hours shorter than the previous model, although still excellent.
No battery test can perfectly simulate every user’s actual daily workflow, however, so your results will almost certainly be different than ours or Apple’s.
Putting on a Superior Air
Thanks almost entirely to its redesigned keyboard, the 2020 MacBook Air is unquestionably better than the model it replaces. Keyboard comfort is a critically important feature in a laptop for many people, and Apple has clearly realized the errors of its years-long insistence on keys with virtually zero travel distance. The new laptop also has better computing components and a lower price than its predecessor. There’s little not to like, and at this point you might be wondering why we decided not to bestow an Editors’ Choice award for best Mac laptop.
It’s a close call, and the deciding factor ends up being lackluster performance on intensive computing workflows. Plenty of people buy Macs to edit videos or compile software code, and many of them can’t afford a 16-inch MacBook Pro. In the under-$1,500 range, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is clearly a better choice than the MacBook Air for such tasks, its shallow keyboard notwithstanding. Furthermore, we suspect that, if the Apple-update pattern holds true, a redesigned entry-level MacBook Pro incorporating the Magic Keyboard is coming in the not-too-distant future.
That’s the happy-medium model we’re holding out for. For now, though, the new MacBook Air is an excellent choice if you’re itching to replace an older MacBook model and you just want a normal typing experience.