There’s not a lot that’s changed with 2019’s iteration of the MacBook Air — it’s a minor tweak on the major changes Apple introduced last year. It still has a beautiful Retina display — only now it’s True Tone so it matches the color temperature of the room. There are still two USB-C / Thunderbolt ports instead of MagSafe and traditional USB-A ports. The processor is unchanged, a Y-series chip that does the job but can struggle under heavy loads. It still has Touch ID for securely logging in. And it still — yes — has a controversial and divisive butterfly keyboard to type on.
The biggest difference for most people is that Apple has cut the price down by $100, so a model with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM now costs $1,099. That’s much closer to what I think this laptop should cost — and more importantly it’s much closer to being the entry-level price Apple should be charging for its entry-level laptop. After all, if you want to use a Mac, you only have a few options.
The real question for this new Air is whether it can live up to the classic MacBook Air that dominated the laptop industry for over half a decade. It has the same wedge shape, about the same price, and the same name. But I’m not sure it has the same pedigree. The classic MacBook Air was The Default Laptop (capitalization intended) for many people. It was the easy, obvious choice — the thing you could safely recommend to anybody.
This Air is very good, but it’s not quite that.
If you’re unfamiliar with the major changes Apple made to the MacBook Air line last year, you should definitely read that review — things are different and better now, but not radically so. What has radically changed is everybody’s perception of the keyboards on Apple’s MacBook line. Simply put: they’re hard to fully trust, as there have been so many reliability problems.
So the main question about this MacBook Air is simply one that I can’t answer after a week with the device: I just can’t tell you if this keyboard will suffer from the same double press and missed press issues that have afflicted the MacBook line since 2016. But I can tell you that I really do still enjoy typing on this keyboard. I know the design has been divisive because of how shallow the key travel is and how loud it is, but this iteration is quieter than others and feels ever-so-slightly softer and less “clacky.”
That’s because Apple finally made some more serious interventions on its keyboards. No, it hasn’t completely redesigned them, but it has tweaked them yet again to improve reliability. This so-called “Gen 3.5” keyboard has what Apple will only describe as “new materials” inside the butterfly switches. Perhaps more importantly, Apple introduced an extended keyboard service program, so if something goes awry you have four years of coverage. This MacBook Air is covered under it.
If we were able to set this whole keyboard issue aside, I would be asking a different question, the one I led the review with. Is this MacBook Air good enough to become The Default Laptop? My answer is that it depends on your needs — which is just another way of saying “no.”
Let’s set some context, though. I really like this laptop and think it’s very good. The True Tone Retina display is beautiful and makes other screens look garishly blue by comparison. Logging in with Touch ID is really convenient (and I also prefer physical function keys to the Touch Bar). The trackpad is big, accurate, and doesn’t suffer from false taps from your palms. The speakers are pretty good for a laptop of this size and class.
Most of all — keyboard aside — the overall design and quality of the hardware is top-notch. There are dozens of Windows laptops in the same price range that beat this Air on any number of metrics. You can get edge-to-edge screens, log in with your face, and find faster and more powerful processors. But very few of them have the same iconic look and feel of the aluminum Air.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems here. The webcam is not very good and even though I’ve fully acclimated to life with USB-C, I know most people haven’t and will also miss MagSafe. The screen still doesn’t get super bright, but a software update from earlier this year made it brighter than last year’s model originally allowed at launch.
There’s also the fact that Apple was unable to update the processor to something more powerful. It is still using a 1.6GHz dual-core “Y-series” Intel processor, which is not nearly as powerful as the “U-series” processor you find on the MacBook Pro and many Windows laptops.
In my day-to-day use, that hasn’t been a problem at all — but my day-to-day use involves a lot of web browsing in Safari and Chrome, Slack, Spotify or iTunes, iMessage, and Evernote. Open up all of those apps and pile on the browser tabs and you’ll eventually get to the spinning pinwheel of waiting, but if you keep yourself just a little in check, you’ll be fine. Photo editing can sometimes make me want to close other apps, for example.
There have been reports that this year’s MacBook Air has a slower SSD than last year’s. I saw slightly worse results with one benchmarking tool, but never noticed a real difference in actual use. Apple tells me that performance on this year’s model in the aggregate should be the same as last year’s.
One positive change is that Apple may have made some software tweaks in Mojave that cause the fans to spin up a little less often than before. Compared to last year’s model, I’ve heard them much less often. I am experiencing about the same battery life, just over seven hours of active use that I can stretch to a little over eight if I’m careful with apps and screen brightness.
If you have that classic MagSafe MacBook Air, this laptop will be an upgrade for you in every important way. It had better be, since it is going to be the default laptop for people who want an inexpensive Mac laptop. Apple is delivering something that’s up to snuff. But I started this by Germanically capitalizing “The Default Laptop,” and Apple hasn’t quite achieved that yet.
This MacBook Air isn’t the obvious, default choice anymore. As Dan Seifert notes in his review of the new entry-level MacBook Pro, you can spend just $200 more and get a significantly better machine that’s only marginally thicker. Or, as I noted above, if you’re willing to go Windows, there are excellent machines that don’t feel quite as throttled when it comes to performance.
All of which is to say that if you’re looking to buy an Air, there are a lot of “ifs” and “depends” to think about. There’s always a better version coming next year. Maybe Apple will redesign the keyboard or maybe Intel will finally deliver a better processor or maybe, well, there are a lot of maybes. That is the way of all tech purchases! You always have to balance what you’re willing to spend and what you’re willing to lug around in your backpack.
What made that classic MacBook Air so special is that it cut through all those caveats for so many people and did it consistently for so many years. 2019’s MacBook Air is good, but it hasn’t yet earned the title of The Default Laptop.
After all, for $200 more, you could get a MacBook Pro.
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