Photo by Apple
New MacBook Air Is a Compelling Upgrade in a Confusing Laptop Lineup
At the company’s scheduled special event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Apple executives and attendees alike were unusually energetic and enthusiastic. That may have been due in part to quantities of jet-lag-busting caffeine for those flying in from the West Coast, or the presence of lots of Apple retail employees in the hall, but we’d like to think it was more due to the excitement surrounding the update to the MacBook Air.
With all due respect to the MacBook Pro, Tim Cook called the MacBook Air “the most beloved notebook ever” and invoked the memory of Steve Jobs pulling the original MacBook Air out of an envelope. Fans of the model, including many of us here at TidBITS, have waited a long time for an update—the previous version of the 13-inch MacBook Air remained untouched since June 2017 with the release before that coming in March 2015.
Put simply, Apple delivered a revamped 13-inch MacBook Air that answered nearly every concern about the previous models. It’s a compelling upgrade except for how it fits into Apple’s increasingly large and muddled laptop lineup, where its $1199 starting price puts it between the previous MacBook Air, which remains for sale at $999, and the aging 12-inch MacBook and the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro at $1299. (Apple discontinued the 11-inch MacBook Air almost exactly 2 years ago on 28 October 2016 and did not resurrect it.)
The most significant change to the new MacBook Air’s specs is the inclusion of a 13.3-inch Retina display. Previously, the display maxed out at a resolution of 1440 by 900; now it boasts a native resolution of 2560 by 1600 at 227 pixels per inch.
Specs don’t do Retina displays justice, however, and speaking as someone who has used a non-Retina MacBook Air for many years, I think this change alone will make the new MacBook Air significantly more competitive with Apple’s other laptops.
CPU, Storage, Graphics, and RAM
Driving that screen is an eighth-generation 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.6 GHz and 4 MB of L3 cache. The previous model had a 1.8 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 whose Turbo Boost only went up to 2.9 GHz and that had only 3 MB of L3 cache. However, you could also bump the previous model to a 2.2 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7; there is no CPU upgrade option for the new MacBook Air.
In its press release, Apple talks about performance only generally, saying “delivering the performance you need for everyday activities like organizing your photos, browsing the Web, creating presentations or viewing and editing videos.” Reading between the lines, that says to me that the new MacBook Air isn’t notably faster than the previous model when it comes to pure processing power. Check out the comments for benchmark discussions.
However, Apple does say that the SSDs in the new MacBook Air are up to 60% faster than the previous model, which will speed up launching apps and opening large files. Also, the previous model’s SSDs maxed out at 512 GB, whereas the new model starts at 128 GB and lets you upgrade to 256 GB for $200, 512 GB for $400, or 1.5 TB for $1200.
In terms of graphics processing, Apple moves from the previous model’s integrated Intel HD Graphics 6000 to Intel UHD Graphics 617. The company said nothing about how that might affect performance, so again, I suspect it’s not significantly better. If you want faster graphics, you can connect an eGPU (external GPU) via Thunderbolt 3. I can’t see anyone bothering to do that with a MacBook Air; if you care deeply about faster graphics, get a 15-inch MacBook Pro, which comes with a Radeon Pro and can soon be configured with a Radeon Pro Vega for even more performance.
Finally, the previous MacBook Air started with 4 GB of RAM and let you upgrade to 8 GB when you ordered. The new model starts at 8 GB and lets you upgrade to 16 GB for $200. Frankly, I recommend the 16 GB—you won’t regret it. The new RAM is also faster, at 2133 MHz, up from 1600 MHz.
Touch ID and T2
There’s no Touch Bar in the new MacBook Air—it seems that Apple isn’t really serious about it as an alternative control device for the Mac in general. However, the new MacBook Air does feature a Touch ID sensor in the upper-right corner of the keyboard. That will improve security and ease working with Touch ID-capable software like 1Password.
To make Touch ID possible, the MacBook Air includes Apple’s T2 security chip with a Secure Enclave. Although the T2 could in the future prevent repair by shops that aren’t authorized by Apple, it offers some very real improvements right away. It ensures that software loaded during the boot process hasn’t been tampered with, encrypts all data stored on the SSD, and enables “Hey Siri.”
Although Touch ID is extremely welcome, it’s interesting that Apple chose not to jump to Face ID as it did for the new iPad Pro, which has roughly the same physical limitations. We suspect that Face ID may be more expensive or that there may be engineering challenges with integrating it into macOS, but it’s hard to imagine Apple won’t go there in the future.
Butterfly Keyboard and Force Touch Trackpad
The main change that gave us pause is Apple’s reliance on the third generation of its butterfly-switch keyboard, which has proved controversial in the MacBook Pro due to short key travel and key failures. If keyboard feel is all-important to you, you’ll want to give this one a try in person before buying.
The company made a big deal about how each key is backlit with its own low-power LED for more accurate illumination, but I have to say, accuracy in key backlight levels doesn’t even appear on my priority list.
Apple’s switch to the new Force Touch trackpad is largely uncontroversial. We’ve heard hardly any complaints about it, and those were mostly about it being too big. It’s 20% larger than the Multi-Touch trackpad in the previous model and provides additional capabilities.
Unsurprisingly, Apple dropped nearly all the ports from the previous model, replacing USB-A, Thunderbolt 2, MagSafe 2, and an SDXC card slot with a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left side. As with the MacBook Pro, you’ll use the Thunderbolt 3 ports for charging and connectivity. Those Thunderbolt 3 ports also support up to one 5K external display or two 4K displays.
Although the new MacBook Air suffers from the same annoying dongle requirements as the MacBook Pro, the audience for this Mac is less likely to be stressed about it. However, if you want to connect an external display and a hard drive for backup while still charging, you’re going to need a special cable or Thunderbolt 3 dock.
The only other port is the 3.5mm audio jack, which moves to the right side. However, you might not have to pop in those earbuds since the new MacBook Air features redesigned stereo speakers that are 25% louder and have twice the bass. It also has three microphones, up from two in the previous model, and retains the 720p FaceTime camera.
Gone is the aluminum bezel around the screen—the new MacBook Air has a much thinner black bezel. Apple took advantage of that change to reduce the size of the MacBook Air significantly, boasting that it’s 10% thinner, has 17% less volume, and at 2.75 pounds (1.25 kg) is about 7% lighter. So it’s quite a bit smaller and lighter than the previous model, which is welcome. The industrial design, which is thicker at the hinge and tapers to the front edge, remains the same, although it’s a touch thinner in the back and thicker in the front.
Apple spent quite a bit of time in the presentation talking about how the aluminum case in the MacBook Air is now made entirely of 100% recycled aluminum. That’s a good thing.
Price and Availability
The new MacBook Air starts at $1199 for a configuration that includes 128 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM as the only build-to-order options. However, you can choose from space gray, gold, and silver, which, happily, don’t affect the price at all.
You can place an order now for delivery starting on 7 November 2018.
The MacBook Lineup Gets More Confusing
During the presentation, everyone in our SlackBITS channel was extremely positive about the changes Apple brought to the MacBook Air, and in general, I agree. However, as I was writing this article and comparing the new model against other machines in Apple’s laptop lineup, I’m a bit more conflicted. It’s not the specs; it’s that $1199 price.
That’s because the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro costs only $100 more and bests the new MacBook Air in nearly every way other than Touch ID, a 1.5 TB SSD option, and 120 grams of weight. That MacBook Pro offers significantly better performance thanks to its 2.3 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 or 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7. Also, its Retina display can display more colors and at 500 nits is brighter than the MacBook Air’s 300-nit screen.
For $200 less, you can still buy the older model of the MacBook Air, which has all the old ports but is larger and heavier, and lacks the new model’s Retina display and Touch ID. Even more oddly, Apple has retained the 12-inch MacBook, an overpriced, underpowered machine hobbled by a single USB-C port. At $1299, it’s more expensive than the MacBook Air, and the only reasons to buy it remain its diminutive size and weight.
If you look at Apple’s Mac model comparison page, you can see that the company is now selling six laptops in five form factors, and it’s now even harder to decide among them. We could see that as an embarrassment of riches, or we could just wish that Apple would better differentiate its models by price, size, and performance.
“I have to say, accuracy in key backlight levels is really low on my priority list.”
Well phrased, Adam!
…“it’s 14 mm thinner in the back and 11 mm thicker in the front”…
Are decimal points missing? Those dimensions are just over and just under a half inch each, which seems like an awful lot of change.
Whoops! Yes, just moving too quickly. Fixed now.
Adam, does anything change for your recommendation after hearing that the new “Air” uses the Y-series processor that means it’s significantly lower performance than a current U-series processor that the real Airs have traditionally used?
I talked a little about that with regard to Apple not saying that performance was better. I’d like to see some benchmarks to learn how the new model stacks up against various older ones. For instance, I have the 2 GHz Intel Core i7 from 2012 and I don’t have any idea how to compare that to the new chip.
Hopefully someone will get one and run benchmarks soon.
Yup, I will definitely wait for benchmarks from somewhere before buying. I have an older one and have been waiting for a new Air with competitive performance, not the minuscule speed bump of last time, so I need to see numbers first.
I think numbers from Geekbench are useful. Here are multicore numbers for the most relevant Macs:
9071 2.3GHz Core i5-7360U MacBook Pro (13-inch Mid 2017)lowest-end MBP still on sale
6882 2.2GHz Core i7-5650U MacBook Air (13-inch Early 2015)fastest MBA
6120 1.8GHz Core i5-5350U MacBook Air (Mid 2017)fastest i5 MBA
6974 1.3GHz Core i5-7Y75 MacBook (Mid 2017)fastest i5 12-inch MacBook
So the 7th gen. Core i5 “Y” processor in the little MacBook is slightly faster than the fastest processor ever put in a MacBook Air. I expect the 8th gen. 1.6GHz Core i5 “Y” processor in the new MacBook Air to be faster than any previous MBA or 12-inch MacBook but slower than the non-Touch bar MBP.
Geekbench has no reports of devices with the i5-8210Y used in the new MacBook Air but they do have one report of a Google device with an i5-8200Y, a 1.3GHz 8th gen. chip, scoring 8164 (note their non-Mac reports seem to misreport the burst frequency as the base frequency). That’s not much to go on but given there’s a chip generation change and the other information, a multicore score for the 1.6GHz Core i5-8210Y in the high seven-thousands seems plausible. That would put it in the middle of the pack of the various MacBook Pro 13-inch Late 2016 processor configurations.
Of course the lowest-end 8th gen. processor currently on the Mac benchmark chart crushes these numbers because it has 4 cores instead of 2:
16462 2.3GHz Core i5-8259U MacBook Pro (13-inch Mid 2018)slowest 8th gen. Mac on chart today
The new model starts at 8 GB and lets you upgrade to 16 GB for $200. Frankly, I recommend the 16 GB—you won’t regret it.
I’m curious about the above comment from the Tidbits article. I’ve had my little 11-inch Air with 4 GB of RAM since 2013, often wishing I had 8 GB but getting along anyway. I’m probably going to get the new Air and the additional 200 bucks on top of the already $200 increase makes me ask the question. I’m a retired photographer but frankly don’t do much with photos (Photoshop Elements) beyond basic color, contrast and tonal corrections. How will the additional RAM help me?
It’s hard to give specific examples, but if you find your Mac slowing down or showing the spinning pizza of death, it’s possible that you’re RAM constrained. You can check the memory pressure graph in Activity Monitor to see.
I also see more RAM as future-proofing the Mac. If you want to keep it for a long time, it’s worth spending a bit more up front to ensure that memory-hungry apps of the future don’t bring it to its knees.
I think you’ve convinced me to go to the 16 GB, Adam. When I started with a Mac Plus back in about 1986, I was running Aldus PageMaker with two floppy discs. Everything has changed to bigger. I’m mainly an iPad user so this could easily be the last Mac I buy. Thanks for your reply, Adam.
If your current Air doesn’t have an SSD you’ll be getting a speed boost with the new model. But in my experience Photoshop, or any Adobe app, seems to always be as piggy as it can possibly get and will gobble up whatever RAM it find. Even if you aren’t doing anything much and have a bunch of photos, pallets, etc., or will want to open or switch between apps, you will probably notice the difference, especially if your files are big. Photoshop files aren’t known to be small.
If you aren’t going to be using Photoshop much, then maybe you’ll be OK without extra RAM. But I’m awfully low in the patience department, and I’ll be spending more for RAM when I buy either a new Mini or Air even though I’m semi retired and won’t be using CS5 much anymore either.
Initial benchmarks are showing a small performance improvement.
It’s really looking like that, despite the name, the new MacBook Air is really an upgrade to the MacBook, with a larger display, newer gen 3 keyboard, and better ports (2 Thunderbolt rather than 1 USB-C) and a wedge shaped case to make it feel like an old Air. And priced more like the MacBook as well.
I think you’re right, Doug. I wonder if we’ll see an update to the MB at all. It could be morphed into a smaller MBA, kind of a remake of the 11" MBA. But I cannot see it remain wedged in between the new MBA and the non-TB MBP. That said, I’m not really sure what the future could be for the non-TB MBP either.
The new MBA looks quite nice to me. It leaves little reason to go for the MB, and it offers a less expensive alternative to the TouchBar 13" MBP.
I’d like to see some housekeeping in the portable Mac area. Maybe offer something cheaper that’s not totally out of date ($999 MBA) for education/entry-level—an 11" MB perhaps? Could be inexpensive, but 11" might not cut it. Hopefully next year with a refreshed MBA, the current MBA could be kept around at a low entry price point. And then get rid of the non-TB MBP. Not because I find the TouchBar so great, but simply because the MBP should be “Pro”. More than two TB3 ports and decent CPU horsepower is simply justified in that area and at those price points. Most importantly, now with an attractive MBA there is a less expensive alternative for the 13" crowd.
Yep, the Geekbench score is what I was guessing, high seven-thousands.
The case design is what defines the Air, the 12-inch MacBook’s case basically defines it as well. It makes no sense to me to say this is really a 12-inch MacBook but with a larger screen, more ports, a lower price, and a very different case design. It walks like an Air, it quacks like an Air, it’s an Air.
I’ll buy the Air when I need the cheapest laptop that’s not using 2015 hardware but the non-TouchBar MBP for only $100 more is still quite enticing; it’s 2017 hardware but its performance is still markedly better than this Air, the screen is better, it’s only slightly heavier, and I think it’s still slightly thinner.
I’m looking to update my 15" MBP (late-2013 retina display.) Is there any hint of new models on the horizon?
It looks like the current model (introduced late 2017?) is not available without a touch bar, which I am not interested in.
I plan to update from High Sierra to Mojave soon, but at that point I will have a 5-year old machine and future OS updates could begin to become problematic.
Thanks for any responses.
13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros with Touch Bars were updated in July 2018 with 8th gen. processors. Apple is still selling the 13-inch Mid-2017 MacBook Pro with no Touch Bar and only two Thunderbolt 3 ports, that’s the model that’s only $100 more than the new MacBook Air (all 15-inch models have the Touch Bar).
Now is a fine time to buy a MacBook Pro unless you want to wait a month to custom order a 15-inch model with a AMD Radeon Pro Vega card. It will ship with Mohave installed but because the hardware pre-dates it, I expect it’s still possible to replace it with High Sierra if some software compatibility problem was encountered.
Good points, Curtis. I didn’t realize the price difference was that small between the updated MBA and the not updated non-TB MBP. The MBP definitely has the brighter screen with wide color. The Air OTOH has better battery life and is still a quarter lb lighter.
But I guess to make it totally fair comparison, you’d have to factor in that at $100 price difference, the MBP would only come equipped with a 2.3 GHz 7th gen Core i5. In real world applications, I suppose that’s not going to be vastly better than the Air’s 1.6 GHz 8th gen Core i5. Their Geekbench scores appear to be very similar. The non-TB MBP could be equipped with a 2.5 GHz 7th gen Core i7, but then that price difference is already $400.
9071 for the MBP and 7828 for the new Air (multicore) is a fairly substantial difference, 16%. 4314 and 4248 (single core), respectively, are close, less than 2%, but even the base 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar single core is only 6% faster than the Air. The Air’s single core performance is quite impressive for a much slower clock speed.
Single-core is indeed impressive. It will be interesting to see what people report using it for real-world tasks. I wonder how much you’ll notice the lower multicore performance.
To me, personally, the $400 CPU bump would be worth it. Heck, who am I kidding? I’d go for the TB-version with the 2.7 GHz i7 anyway. Darn it, $2500 for a 13" laptop in 2018. I’m such a sucker.
Actually, I’m just shocked that the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro haven’t yet been merged into a single product.
When the MacBook Air first came out, it seemed lto me It was an experimental piece of equipment to show the future direction of the MacBook Pro. The Air was a sculptured single piece of aluminum. It had no optical drive which made it over a pound lighter than the Pro. It used SSDs rather than a mechanical drive.
Yet, here we are a decade later and now confused. In that single slot of that 2x2 matrix Steve Jobs once drew sits three different models available in five different configurations. We have two MBAs, two Pros, and a plain MacBook.
The original MBA was a machine so small, it could fit in a manilla envelope. It was light, used SSDs and had no optical drive. The MacBook Pro now has all of these attributes. Why do we still need an MBA and the Pro?
I’d argue the current MBA is basically the iBook in Steve’s matrix. You need something less expensive and more rugged (Steve’s era) or more portable (today) than the MBP.
The biggest constraint of the new Macbook Air is the SSD, which has only 128 GB in the base configuration. If you get the model with 256 GB, you pay $ 1.399, $100 more than for the Macbook which has 256 GB in the base configuration. So in the end the Macbook is cheaper then the new Macbook Air if you are not willing to live with only 128 GB of storage.
Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum