It's over a decade since the very first MacBook Air went to market, heralding in the era of the ultra-thin notebook. Indeed, it was the thinnest available at the time. But oh how times move fast and the MacBook Air had been becoming something of a relic; a laptop surrounded by Windows-based competitors pushing thinner and lighter designs and more powerful specifications.
It's all change with the 2018 model. Arriving in a smaller footprint, this 13-inch only laptop is far more than a facelift: it's the Air reimagined, picking aspects from the 12-inch MacBook and current MacBook Pro crop in an altogether more modern and attractive proposition. Which begs the question: does the 2018 MacBook Air make sense given its surrounding MacBook options and considerable price bump?
Design: So what about the MacBook?
- 13-inch Retina display (2650 x 1600 resolution)
- Touch ID fingerprint login (no Face ID)
- Finishes: Space Grey, Gold, Silver
- 2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- 15.6mm thickness
As users of the MacBook Air for the previous three generations, upon setting up the 2018 model it's clearly far, far smaller. The bezel around the 13-inch screen is considerably less than before, giving this Air an air of 'wow' about it and allowing that smaller footprint to be possible. That said, in typical Apple fashion, it's a case of playing catch-up: we've seen Windows 10 machines, including the Dell XPS 13, that offer less outer edge bezel by comparison.
In terms of resolution, the 2018 Air gets as big bump in pixel count, as this is now a Retina-designated screen. That means there are enough pixels to work on a Full HD project at pixel-for-pixel ratio with tools surrounding the video, as one example. It's not a 4K panel, as we've seen in some machines such as the Lenovo 920, but having used Ultra-HD laptops before we've found the battery often takes a big hit – Apple has hit the sensible sweet spot here.
The screen is bright, crisp and clean, while avoiding the irksome reflective coatings of MacBooks old. The only real complaint we have is the way some software handles this resolution: having transferred our whole work life from our 2017 to this 2018 model, it's the silly little things like the login icon being pixillated to excess, or the drop menus in some apps showing in perplexingly low resolution. A small gripe, but a sometime presence nonetheless (one we thought had been ironed out since the introduction of Retina screens in the MacBook Pro some years ago).
There's always some degree of trade-off when technologies update, with the 2018 Air going minimal when it comes to ports. There are two USB-C ports (read Thunderbolt 3) – one used for charging but which can double-up as a conventional port – alongside a 3.5mm headphone jack. And that's your lot. The absence of full-size USB is forgivable these days, especially for an ultra-thin device, but it's the absence of the SD card that really gets us – it's something we use a lot for work purposes and a big shortcoming that could, theoretically, have beeen fitted into this device (it's been an Air staple for some time).
As an added bonus there is Touch ID fingerprint scanning to login, by using the small scanner to the top right of the keyboard. If you have Apple Pay then this will be the avenue for making payments in a much quicker and easier fashion too. There's no Face ID face detection login like you get on the latest iPhones, though, which feels like an omission given the company's ecosystem.
Keyboard and trackpad: Highs and lows
- Third-generation butterfly mechanism keyboard, full backlight
- Large trackpad with Force Touch (dual level control)
The 2018 MacBook Air also says hello to a new keyboard. A first glance it looks great: large size, dark keys are easy to locate when touch typing, while the backlight is uniform and well implemented.
It's in use, however, that issues come to light. This is Apple's third-generation 'butterfly' keyboard, replacing the second-generation which ran into all kinds of issues with unresponsive keys. This newer generation should fix that, but we've had repeat issues with the 't' and 'n' keys proving to be temperamental in use (if you see ypos in his review the, well, sorry).
That's not all though: this is a loud keyboard, with considerable 'clack' from those short-travel keys. Try and type less assertively and the unresponsiveness becomes a greater problem, so you'll need to hit those keys with vigour. Your Starbucks novelist colleagues may no longer be your friends as a result.
We're all for change and can see the potential of this keyboard. Especially as our previous Air had issues with its keys falling off, which is why this newer keyboard system is Apple's preference. But it needs a fourth-gen version with less noise and better responsiveness to really hit the mark.
Next up is the trackpad, which is huge by comparison to the outgoing Air models. We love this scale, which also adds Force touch – Apple's 'two layer' system – so you can get multiple use out of shallow and deep presses. If you've not used it then it can be a little fiddly ay first, and we're not sure that many will utilise the second 'layer' all that often, but if you learn some new tricks then it's a handy feature to have.
As trackpads go, this large scale glass-topped offering feels great on the fingers and is centrally positioned for ease of use. It's a definite improvement over the smaller one of the last-gen Air.
Performance and battery life
- 8th Gen Intel Core i5 processor (1.6GHz dual core)
- 8GB RAM as standard (16GB upgrade available)
- 128GB SSD (256/512GB/1.5TB as upgrades)
Now, the Air has never really been a powerhouse machine. It's designed more for portability, with ample productivity, while ensuring longevity doesn't suffer. All of the 'ivities', then. That balance has been maintained in the 2018 Air, too, as its Intel Core i5 processor, at dual-core 1.6GHz, is a middling power offering – and some users might feel that when it comes to productivity.
For us, we've found the 2018 Air to act much like our 2017 model. It'll deliver Photoshop batch tasks in and around the same timeframe, it won't hang or pause for day-to-day activities, while delivering around 10 hours of battery life without issue.
The USB-C charging port is also a lot more versatile than MagSafe (ignoring that accidental tugs on the cable won't auto-release, which can cause flying laptop carnage), for the simple reason you can use it as a functional port when not charging.
Furthermore it's possible to add a portable charger to expand this Air's life. We typically have a 4,000mAh battery pack in our bag when travelling, ensuring that even long-haul flights won't be a problem should you forget to top-up prior to travel. Note: due to power levels, such chargers can't recharge, only facilitate extended use.
Which comes back to the Air's big strength – that it'll keep going, beyond a MacBook Pro's offering, and will outshine most Windows 10 machines that are of this physical scale too (not all, though, with the Dell XPS 13 being a prime better example).
Specs can't be adapted too much in a shell of this size either. There's the option to double the RAM from 8GB to 16GB (a £180 cost), while the 128GB base SSD can be doubled to 256GB (£200 extra; 512GB and 1.5TB options are also available for more). If you're adding more storage then the specs don't get a boost across the board – there's no Intel Core i7 to be seen here, ensuring the Air will tick the longevity box.
The Core i5 isn't fanless, though, requiring mechanical cooling to keep it churning. Typically it's quiet to the point of almos silence, but if it does decide to kick in then it's surprisingly noisy – we had one instance where a printing document caused Firefox to hang, which upset the laptop and sent the fan into overdrive, to the dismay of our ears (Force Quit in that app soon levelled things out again).
As an update model, the 2018 MacBook Air delivers a lot of what people have been waiting for – more resolution, less bezel, a smaller footprint – in a long-lasting and largely great package. It's far more than a facelift.
However, it's not without its share of problems. The third-generation butterfly keyboard has, in our hands, been problematic. The lack of an SD card slot also disrupts our workflow. But the biggest thing for many will be the notable price rise: at £1199 for the base model, the 2018 Air is nearly 25 per cent pricier than the outgoing model.
The way the MacBook line-up now appears is somewhat confounding too: the 12in MacBook is pricier than the Air, which makes zero sense in our mind and puts the baby in the range's existence into question; while the MacBook Pro entry-level model is also around the same price as the Air, meaning more power is available if you forego Touch ID.
Straight out of the box, the 2018 MacBook Air gave us a 'wow' moment. As longtime Air users it looked like the update we'd been dreaming about – and while that's true in some areas, in others (mainly the keyboard) it's a little short of the mark.
Still, with its great screen and long battery life, the foundation of where the new-look Air will go looks promising – so long as it fits more logically into the MacBook line-up in the future.
This review was originally published on 11 November 2018.
Want more power and a keyboard with extra travel? The MacBook Pro is your answer.
Dell XPS 13
Ok, so it's not a Mac, but if a Windows 10 machine works for you then the Dell has greater battery life than the Air and its design is great too.