MacBook Air (2018) — The deserved upgrade
Review of the new Apple MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2018)
I started my journey with Apple just 2.5 years ago with buying a 2015 MacBook Air. I had to buy a new computer, and after spending some time with an iMac at my work, I knew I had to get a Mac. And for less than €999, the Air was really the only option I had. That was a great way to start with OS X and Apple’s ecosystem. It wasn’t a bad laptop either — it was always fast, reliable, and the battery lasted for a full day of work. But there was still one thing that was hard to overcome with Apple’s cheapest MacBook — the screen. Yeah, it was pretty terrible. 1440x900 pixels in Apple’s Retina garden seemed like a joke.
For some time, it wasn’t a big deal. I was using the laptop for recording a podcast, writing articles, running social media, and some basic graphic design work. But when my work started shifting more towards designing, the screen really started to bother me. I wasn’t up for getting one of the expensive 12" MacBooks with too many compromises, or MacBook Pros, with a power I won’t ever use. So when Apple finally announced the 2018 MacBook Air, I couldn’t be more excited about it.
So I’m not another reviewer whose daily machine is a MacBook Pro and is going to tell you that you should just get a MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar. I believe that the new MacBook Air is exactly what people using the old generations of the laptop were expecting, with even more great things on top of that.
There is no other way to start this review than by talking about the display, but at the same time, there is not really that much to talk about. 2018 MacBook Air finally features a 13,3" Retina display with 2560x1600 resolution. And as you may imagine, it’s so much better than what users of old MacBook Air generations had to deal with.
Beside bump of the number of pixels, the silver bezel surrounding the screen got replaced by seamless black glass. It looks exactly the same as on new MacBook Pros, although spec-wise it’s a little worse — the display gets only up to 300 nits (500 on Pro models), and there’s no support for P3 wide-color gamut. But it’s not a big deal at all — the screen still looks gorgeous, and it’s a huge step forward from old models.
The new LED matrix is also way thinner than the outdated TFT featured on the old generation, so the whole top part of the laptop got thinner as well. There is a big downside to that — the FaceTime camera. It’s just horribly bad. The drop in the video quality was something I noticed immediately. For someone who makes a lot of video calls, I’m shocked that Apple doesn’t pay more attention to cameras on their laptops. It’s still usable, but I’d expect more than what I got.
One side note about the display — because of it, I had to get my model replaced. After a few weeks of using the computer, I spotted lighter points on the screen. Of course, it’s all on Apple’s side, and I got a new machine without extra cost, but I had to mention it anyway.
When Apple introduced their butterfly keyboard mechanism in 2015 with 12" MacBook, people were really skeptical about it, including me. There was almost no key travel, and a piece of dust stuck underneath a key could damage it. With the second generation of these switches, featured in 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pro models, Apple added a bit more key travel, but the break-ability was still a huge issue. Apple finally acknowledged this problem in 2018, with the release of the latest generation of MacBook Pros with Touch Bar, and also 2018 MacBook Air, both featuring the third generation of the infamous mechanism.
And how is it to type on? Way better than I expected. The first thing I noticed was right away was how much bigger the new keycaps are. They make writing so much faster and mistake-free. What’s cool is that regardless of what part of the cap you are pressing, the whole key moves down, not only the pressed side. I’m also a huge fan of the sound of the keyboard, which is a little bit muffled compared to the second generation of the butterfly mechanism, but still really satisfying.
Although, there is one thing I hate about this keyboard, and I can’t get over it — arrow keys. On old Mac keyboard, there was a reversed-T layout, that allowed to easily distinguish if the up or down key was going to be pressed. On the new layout, left and right arrows are full-size caps, that completely ruins that. Whenever I want to use arrow keys, I’m pressing a wrong key.
But there is also one great thing regarding the keyboard. I don’t really like the idea of Touch Bar on more expensive MacBook Pros, but I love the idea of having Touch ID, which used to be limited to these machines. Cheaper MacBook Pro and 12" MacBook featured standard power key. On the new MacBook Air, Apple did a perfect job — there is no Touch Bar, but there’s a Touch ID sensor. For me, that was one of the biggest reasons to choose Air over Touch Bar-less MacBook Pro. Anyway, the sensor’s role is very important when it comes to the next thing that I want to focus on — security.
To make Touch ID on the new MacBook Air happen, Apple had to equip the computer with their T2 Security Chip. Touch ID itself, of course, allows for things like unlocking the laptop, getting access to some apps like 1Password, and using Apple Pay without iPhone or the Apple Watch. But because of the chip, there are way more things when it comes to the security.
The most important would be the fact that T2 enables Secure Boot. Because of that, there is no way for starting the computer with unauthorized software. It also takes care of on-fly date encryption, so the machine doesn’t lose any performance when FileVault is turned on.
Another great security feature that the chip enables is physically disconnecting microphones when the lid is closed — no more Zuckerberg-like tape over microphone holes. But there is one more thing regarding these microphones — you can use Hey Siri keyword to enable Apple’s assistant. I don’t really use it since I don’t use Siri on Mac almost at all, and whenever I was trying to use Siri on my HomePod, the one on the MacBook was triggered. If you don’t have HomePod, or you just don’t use Siri that often, that may not be that a big of a deal.
There is no option to talk about any of the new MacBook models released after 2016 without mentioning ports, or the lack of them. The 2018 MacBook Air features three ports: two Thunderbolt 3, and one 3.5 mm headphone jack.
Thunderbolt 3 replaces almost every port from the old generation. It can be used as HDMI, Display Port, USB, power delivery, and more. But most of the time, you will have to use an adapter or a hub. I got one from Lenovo, and it works seamlessly. Of course, it’s a bit annoying, but there are more and more devices that come with USB-C, which is the port format used by Thunderbolt 3. That means that in the future we may be able to at least charge our devices via the same cable.
Two ports on the 2018 MacBook Air are enough, but I can’t imagine having less than that. I find myself using them almost all the time — one for charging, and the other one for plugging the hub, which I use for charging my phone or headphones or just connecting a microphone. On the 12" MacBook there is only one port, which is just a standard USB-C, with speeds up to 5 Gbps instead of 40 on Thunderbolt 3.
What I miss the most is the MagSafe 2. And I don’t miss it because it would save my laptop when I’d be charging it somewhere, where the cable has to hang — that never happens to me. I miss it because of easy plugging and unplugging. It’s hard to find the port in the dark, and disconnecting the cable with something connected to the other port is really annoying.
The interesting changes were done to the headphone jack. First — yes, it’s still there. There is no more optical output, which, if you don’t know, was a thing up until now. But besides that, the port got a nice update. Before, when you plugged in a set of headphones, there was no way of using laptop’s speakers at the same time. That was because of how the audio board was designed. Now, you can actually choose the speakers as an output, even with headphones plugged into the 3.5 mm jack. But since we were forced to live in the wireless future, I’m not really going to plug anything to the port anyway.
With 12" MacBook, Apple not only re-engineered how the keyboard works, but they did the same with a trackpad by introducing one that features Force Touch. Similar to 3D Touch on iPhones, it allows for diffracting light and deeper clicks. It can be used for easier access to Look Up (deep press instead of three-finger-tap), fast forwarding media, and quicker access to App Exposé when clicking on app’s icon. The feature was developed because the MacBook was just too thin to pack a moving trackpad, so Apple made one that doesn’t move but feels like it does. If you have an iPhone 7 or 8, it works exactly the same.
The new MacBook Air, of course, features the Force Touch trackpad. It’s not as big as on MacBook Pros, but I actually think that the size is perfect — not too small, not too big. The Haptic Feedback from the trackpad is something that requires getting used to, and I’m not still there. There is feedback in some places in the UI that confuses me, and I’m not sure if I’m using too much force, or something is happening. Besides that, the trackpad is as great as always on MacBooks.
The overall feel of the device is better in every way. Apple really promotes the fact that the new MacBook Air is made from 100% recycled aluminum. It’s also 7000 series aluminum, which means that the body is much stiffer. If you’re coming from the old generation of the MacBook Air, you’ll instantly notice the difference. It’s also smaller than the old Air, which is a very welcome change.
And yes, there are new colors. I got a Space Gray one to match my iPhone X, and I really like it. There is also the new Gold color that can be found on iPhone X🅂. And if you care about stickers that Apple includes in the box, they are color-matched for Space Gray and Gold models, with Silver model getting classic white stickers.
The new body also packs upgraded speakers, that sound great, but they didn’t blow my mind. When listening to something on higher volume, the music gets easily distorted. Although, it’s way louder and deeper than what we used to have with the old model.
The performance and the battery
Like mentioned before, I don’t really do any performance-heavy tasks on my computer, although I use it for a bunch of different things. Most of my work is based in Safari or Chrome, where I use social media management services, WordPress, CRM, Gmail, Google Docs, and so on. I have Slack, Things, Calendar, and Polymail running all the time as well. I also use Sketch, Figma, and Pixelmator Pro for design work. And when it comes to podcasting, my setup features Audacity, GarageBand, and Podcasts Chapters. I was able to do all of these things on my old MacBook Air without any issue and, as you may imagine, the new generation delivers here as well. I should mention here that I have the base model, with 8 GB of memory.
What MacBook Air was always known for was the incredible battery life with up to 12 hours of screen-on time. And luckily, the latest generation is still capable of reaching the same result, even with a more power-hungry Retina display, which is possible thanks to low power 7W Intel Core i5 CPU. If you want to be able to grab your laptop in the morning without worrying about charging it during the day, there is no better option than the Air.
As someone who switched from the old generation of the MacBook Air, I have to say that the new generation is exactly what I wanted Apple to do with their most popular notebook. Not only does it still offer all of the things that people loved about the old Air, with great battery life and pretty good performance for its price, but it also makes it feel modern. Addition of the Retina display, keyboard with butterfly mechanism, Force Touch trackpad, and Touch ID, finally take the Air to the same level as MacBook and MacBook Pros.
Great job, Apple. Sad it meant taking the base price up to €1349 from €999, which, by the way, they still charge for the old, 2017 MacBook Air.