Over the past 10 years, one laptop has arguably been the standard bearer for the industry – Apple’s MacBook Air.
o when a new one comes along, it’s worth paying attention to. I’ve had almost a week to test the new 13-inch model out and I’ll cut to the chase: this is a really solid new laptop which is worth upgrading to, both from older MacBook Airs and also recent MacBook Pros.
There’s nothing to dislike about it, except possibly the bare minimum of external connection ports (two USB-C) and, for the legions now forced to work from home over Zoom or Skype, a so-so webcam.
Otherwise, the MacBook Air really is a very solid upgrade with more of what more people want from their laptop – extra storage, a better keyboard and a cheaper entry-level model.
That new keyboard is arguably the headline upgrade. For anyone following it, Apple has had an unusual amount of criticism over its ‘Butterfly’ keyboards on laptops sold over the past three to four years.
It first moved away from that in last year’s 16-inch MacBook Pro, to almost universal praise. It has now followed that with this new MacBook Air, which contains a scissor mechanism that “locks into the keycap at the top of travel to mitigate wobble and provide a stable key feel”.
This includes 1mm of ‘keyboard travel’ and a general feeling of satisfying solidity. It may be a small thing, but its inverted-T arrangement for arrow keys is also somewhat helpful for navigation.
The test model I’m using has 8GB of Ram, an Intel Core i3 dual-core processor and 256GB of storage. In other words, it’s the entry-level version of this generation of MacBook Airs.
Yet I haven’t found it wanting for anything I’ve used it for, including some photo and video-editing. The one thing that taxes it is video conferencing, which burns through battery life, halving it from around 10 hours if you’re on Zoom, Hangouts or Skype a lot.
Even still, if I was buying one, I’d pitch in the extra €50 to take it up to a quad-core Intel i5 processor, rather than the i3. For the money, it seems like a no-brainer as a marginal upgrade.
If I was thinking about this as a five or six-year laptop – as many MacBook Airs end up being – I might also consider the 16GB configuration, although this is a steeper additional upgrade cost of €250.
For ‘normal’, non-demanding use, the existing 8GB should still be fine in a couple of years.
Otherwise, it has the same high-definition Retina screen as the previous model, but this time can support a 6K display if you want to hook it up.
As mentioned above, it also uses two USB-C ports for just about everything, including charging. That’s it for the ports, other than a 3.5mm jack for headphones.
For these stay-at-home work days, the webcam is adequate at 720p, although it’s possible those who now need Zoom on much of the day won’t agree with this – 720p is a relatively low-resolution camera in an era when even budget smartphones have cameras with either 1,080p or 4K resolution.
Personally, I can’t get exercised about it. The most I ever use a laptop’s webcam for is video calls or work conferencing meetings, neither of which command anything worth much more than 720p. If a high-end webcam is really important to you, you’ll need to get an external device from Logitech or a similar company anyway, as most laptops come with mediocre webcams.
Otherwise, its three-mic array is perfectly decent. The speakers appear to be fairly excellent too. I’ve been blasting Netflix and YouTube on it, and it sounds good. They’ll definitely do for any video calls or online conferencing.
As always, I have found the design and tactile finish on the MacBook Air to be a high point, with matt aluminium in a choice of silver, ‘space grey’ or gold.
The price is a bonus. MacBooks are never at the cheaper end of the market and this one isn’t either. But €1,229 is a lot better than the €1,329 the last one cost (even though I’d spend at least another €50 on that processor upgrade).
Otherwise, the power specs on this are great for the everyday user. It’s configurable up to 2TB of internal storage, an Intel i7 processor and 16GB of Ram.
I suppose an early takeaway is an existential one – with a really good, powerful MacBook like this, why would I get a MacBook Pro now?
The quick answer seems to be that Apple appears to be differentiating ‘pro’ use on the display size. The MacBook Air only comes with a 13-inch screen.
For most, that’s a sweet spot. But for someone who needs a laptop for heavier-duty needs, like video-editing, graphics or other data-intensive applications, it’s likely that extra screen real estate is prized.