Apple’s MacBook Air has experienced some extreme peaks and valleys over the past decade: the second-generation design introduced in 2010 was, for years, the standard by which all midsize laptops were judged. The Air was Apple’s most popular Mac and one of the best and most popular laptops ever made. That history, and the strength of the Air brand, meant that people just kept buying the MacBook Air, even as Apple let it fall far behind the rest of its laptops.
It was weird: at one point, Apple openly pointed out that the base model 13-inch MacBook Pro was a better choice than the Air during a keynote, and people still bought the Air instead.
Eventually, the stubborn popularity of the Air and a renewed commitment to the Mac led Apple to completely redesign the MacBook Air around a Retina Display in 2018. But Apple also gave it one of its troubled butterfly keyboards, which developed a reputation for unreliability and a worse reputation for costly fixes.
When Apple updated the new Air last year, it stuck with that butterfly keyboard, which meant that there was still a question mark hanging over it. And the Intel chips inside struggled with even moderately demanding tasks.
That brings us to now: the 2020 MacBook Air comes with the new scissor-switch keyboard Apple introduced in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and the processors have been upgraded to Intel’s new 10th-generation parts. Apple also lowered the price by $100: the MacBook Air now starts at $999.
It’s been a long road back, but this new MacBook Air is right where it needs to be: squarely in the mix of being the best laptop for most people.
The base MacBook Air starts at $999 with a 1.1GHz dual-core Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. But almost everyone should spend at least $100 more on the upgrade to the 1.1GHz quad-core Core i5. I’ve been reviewing the step-up $1,299 configuration that has a quad-core Core i5 and doubles the storage to 512GB, which is the version I think most people should get. You can’t upgrade the storage later, so best to load up when you can.
Along the left side, there are two Thunderbolt 3 ports; the new Intel chips have Iris Plus graphics, which means you can now run a 6K display from a MacBook Air. (I wasn’t able to test this, as our Pro Display XDR is in the office, and I don’t currently have access to it. But I’m willing to bet that running a 6K display involves a fair amount of heat and fan noise from the Air. I’ll update if and when we learn more.)
On the other side, you’ll find a headphone jack because normal people doing normal laptop things often need to plug in headphones. I implore you: use wired headphones for your videoconferencing. You will be much happier, and you will not find yourself delaying the start of every meeting so everyone can dink around with Bluetooth.
But you’re not here for telecommuting tips — you’re here to learn about the new keyboard. Reliability aside, I was absolutely not a fan of the butterfly keyboards, and I kept my 2015 MacBook Pro around as long as I could because I so much preferred its traditional keyboard. I’m happy to say that the keyboard on the new MacBook Air is a solid return to form. It feels just like the keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro I’ve been using for several months, which is to say, it feels very good. The keys have 1mm of travel, the inverted-T arrow key layout is back, and everything is just clicky enough without being too loud. Overall, the whole thing is very solid and very satisfying.
I don’t really want to give Apple too much credit for updating this keyboard since it took the company way too long to get away from the butterfly design after people started calling out the problems. And I don’t think Apple gets the benefit of the doubt on reliability anymore. It’s just going to take time to earn that trust back. But history aside, the keyboard is one of the single most important parts of a laptop, and the new MacBook Air’s keyboard is extremely good.
I also greatly prefer this keyboard with a standard top row and function buttons to the Touch Bar keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro. I know people who love the Touch Bar — maybe you do, too — but I don’t love it, and I think it’s really telling that Apple still hasn’t put a Touch Bar on its most popular laptop. Physical volume and brightness keys forever, is what I’m saying.
The other thing the Air doesn’t have is a touchscreen. There’s nothing much more to say about it at this point; if Apple can add trackpad support to iPadOS, it can probably figure out touch support in macOS. But the company doesn’t seem interested in that, so I wouldn’t expect to see it happen anytime soon. At least the trackpad is great: it’s huge like on all modern MacBooks, but it still feels great to scroll and click on.
So that’s the keyboard. From a physical hardware perspective, it was the only thing Apple needed to fix. It still looks and feels like what you’d expect a MacBook Air to look and feel like. It has the classic wedge shape, it’s not flimsy at all like other ultrabooks, and the bezels around the screen are fairly minimal.
The other big news is the processor selection, which consists of three special versions of Intel’s 10th-generation Y-series chips. Previous MacBook Airs offered but one anemic dual-core processor choice; now, you can spec an Air out with a 1.2GHz quad-core Core i7 if you wish.
Our review unit is the step-up configuration, with a 1.1GHz quad-core Core i5 chip and 8GB of RAM. It’s been fairly capable: I’ve been working in Chrome, Slack, Zoom, and Lightroom like I normally do, and things have clipped right along. That feeling is backed up by a single-threaded Geekbench 5 score of 1001, which is basically in line with the 16-inch Core i9 MacBook Pro’s single-threaded score of 1109.
But I wouldn’t call the Air a rocket; I can definitely push the limits pretty easily. Just opening Lightroom is enough to make the fan speed up, and after a couple of edits, it’s going full blast. Heavy sustained workloads cause the system to do some aggressive thermal throttling, basically capping the max speed of the processor in order to manage heat.
Apple told me this throttling is by design. The company doesn’t think most people need hardcore sustained performance, so the Air is built around Intel’s turbo boost feature, which can quickly ramp the processor to 3.2GHz to get something done and then ramp it back down to 1.1GHz to preserve heat and battery life. This is a pretty normal strategy now.
But if you push the Air for a little while, things will get hot, and the system won’t allow the processor to get all the way up to 3.2GHz. In my tests with Cinebench, clock speed was capped at around 1.5GHz under sustained workloads. And that fan was blowing its heart out.
In day-to-day use, I never really noticed any of this thermal management, which is the entire point. But it’s also clear that there isn’t a ton of performance headroom if you need to sit around rendering 3D graphics or exporting videos all day long. You’ll definitely hear that fan, and you might experience some slowdowns.
A lot of people tweeted questions at me about the performance difference between the Core i5 Air and the Core i5 13-inch MacBook Pro. U-series processor differences aside, it really comes down to thermal design: Apple told me that the MacBook Pro is the better laptop for people who need to push their machine to the limit all the time. It has a more forgiving thermal design and faster turbo boost clock speeds. Basically, the MacBook Pro can run hotter and faster for a longer period of time than the MacBook Air, which means better performance for heavy sustained tasks.
My sense is that the people with those needs know exactly who they are; they should wait for a refreshed MacBook Pro with an updated keyboard. Everyone else will likely find that the MacBook Air’s performance is totally fine for most day-to-day tasks, but that they’ll hear the fan run every so often.
I have to say that the Air’s battery life was just average: Apple claims that the new Air can get up to 11 hours of battery life if you’re just browsing the web in Safari, but my pretty boring workday of running Chrome, Slack, and Zoom killed the battery in just five hours with the screen brightness turned all the way up. I probably could have extended that a little if I’d turned down the brightness, but this is not the world’s brightest screen to begin with — it averages about 400 nits of brightness — so I wasn’t eager to back it down.
I don’t think this is entirely Apple’s fault — all three of these apps are battery hogs — but at this particular moment in history, I don’t think I’m alone in having Zoom and Slack open all day every day. And while Safari is much more efficient than Chrome, Chrome is still just a fact of life for a lot of people. It’s great that the Air can get terrific battery life if you restrict yourself to Apple’s own apps, but my friends, we live in a society.
Speaking of Zoom, the webcam in the Air is the same old 720p webcam Apple’s been using forever. It’s fine. It is aggressively fine. I hope someone on the Mac team talks to someone on the iPhone team about cameras before they release another laptop with this webcam.
I can easily keep going with minor observations about the MacBook Air: USB-C is still some sort of elaborate logic puzzle. The Retina Display is commendably sharp, but it doesn’t have the P3 wide color gamut of the MacBook Pro, and it’s weird that Apple calls it 2560 x 1600 when it runs at an effective 1440 x 900 by default. (You can set it to the equivalent of 1680 x 1050, and you should do that.) The gold model is slightly pinkish, which is very striking. It doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6 because Apple’s using a different Wi-Fi module than the one that’s normally packaged with these Intel chips, but no one has Wi-Fi 6 yet so whatever. It’s nice that it uses a 30-watt charger, which means any number of third-party USB PD devices will charge it just fine. We’re at the point where macOS Catalina comes out of the box with almost every Apple app preloaded in the Dock, including Podcasts and Apple TV, help.
But really, the most important thing is that, for the first time in several years, I feel confident saying that most people in the market for a Mac laptop can just buy a MacBook Air and expect it to competently and reliably do most things for a long time to come. That’s a big win and a solid return to form.
Photography by Nilay Patel / The Verge