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Apple MacBook Air (2020) overview: The Mac Starter Package

“The MacBook Air is a great choice for budget-conscious Mac fans.”

New keyboard is an improvement

More affordable

Better graphics

Outstanding workmanship

Performance is still lacking

Bezels are out of date

The MacBook Air is important. This is the entry point to the Mac lineup. It’s the college laptop, the freelancer companion, and a favorite of any Mac fan on a budget.

Many people get a first impression of the Mac here. That means it has to balance both performance and price. I tested two versions of the new MacBook Air to see how each of them does this tightrope walk.

The Core i3 model costs $ 999 and the Core i5 costs $ 1,199. Everyone wears the new “Magic Keyboard” as a heading function. Is the latest MacBook Air the perfect introduction to the Mac or, like many newer entry-level Macs, a bad first impression?

keyboard

Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The Magic keyboard is a highlight of the MacBook Air. It is responsive, clicks and offers a full millimeter of travel. It’s a joy to tap on it, and a real relapse to the popular MacBooks sold before the 2016 MacBook Pro redesign, which introduced the butterfly switch keyboards.

You can’t say that about the last two years of the MacBook Air. Apple blew up the hapless keyboard mechanism from the MacBook Pro for the 2018 redesign. It did not work. A flat key stroke made typing particularly daunting for long periods. It was loud – and worst of all unreliable.

Fortunately, those days are gone and the MacBook Air now has one of the best keyboards on a laptop. It even holds a standard feature set full of old-fashioned buttons instead of jumping to the touch bar, a feature I don’t miss. The touch bar has never added much meaningful functionality. I take reliable and convenient escape and mute buttons every day.

Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

At the top right of the function line is a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which also acts as a power switch. It’s really time for Apple to move to face recognition on Mac, a feature Apple introduced on iOS devices. Still, Touch ID works very well. It’s the fastest and most intuitive fingerprint sensor you’ll find on a laptop.

Let’s not forget the trackpad while the keyboard steals the limelight. It’s big, its pursuit is second to none, and its Force Touch click is practically silent. This is not a surprise. Mac laptops have long had great touchpads. However, it should be remembered that Apple remains the leader in this area.

performance

The MacBook Air has never been a powerful laptop and never claimed it. This is the option for users whose requirements consist of word processing, email and online apps. Think of it as a Chromebook, except for Mac apps.

In 2020, however, the air received a respectable boost. This is the first Air with a quad-core processor, which is an important upgrade. More cores and threads usually mean more muscles for heavy use and multitasking. Quad-core chips have become the standard for most laptops, including small laptops like the Surface Pro 7, Dell XPS 13, and MacBook Pro 13-inch.

Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The jump to the quad-core doesn’t make the Air a workhorse. It is still behind the competition.

I tested both the Core i3 ($ 999) and Core i5 ($ 1,099) models, both with 8 GB of RAM. These will likely be the most popular options due to their attractive pricing. The processors used by Apple are part of Intel’s 10th generation Ice Lake family, but they’re not the same chips you’ll see with most MacBook Air competitors. These are variations of the Y-series chips, which Intel produced in collaboration with Apple exclusively for its laptops.

The cheapest $ 999 Air has the Core i3-1000NG4, a 9-watt chip with just two cores and four threads. On average, this means a 15% increase in benchmark performance over the Core i5 MacBook Air two years ago. This is not essential and you are unlikely to notice this increase in daily performance. Nevertheless, it does the daily chores well. Apps open quickly, and if a few dozen Chrome tabs are open, it won’t slow down.

Doubling the cores does not mean double the performance.

What about the quad core i5-1030NG7? Doubling the cores certainly doesn’t mean double the performance. Since it is still a 9 watt chip, there is an upper limit on the possibilities. Compared to the Core i3 model, the Core i5 model is 27% better in multi-core benchmarks thanks to these two additional cores, but only 8% faster in single-core benchmarks. This is probably because these two processors have a low base clock rate of only 1.1 GHz in common.

The performance feels appropriate here too. The problem is not everyday use, but the comparison of the MacBook Air with other laptops that are sold at the same price. The HP Specter x360 for $ 1,100 also has a 10th generation Ice Lake Core i5 processor, but offers 30% faster multi-core performance over the Core i5. The difference is the performance. A 9-watt processor will never hit clock speeds that can compete with a chip that can consume up to 25 or 35 watts in short bursts.

Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

Of course, the MacBook Air benefits the most in Apple applications. If you stick to restricted solutions like iMovie and GarageBand, you can create light content on the side. Just don’t be crazy about the Air’s upgrades. You can buy a Core i7 model that can hold up to 32 GB of RAM, which greatly increases the price. Still, it will lag behind the competition. The MacBook Air is not a device on which you want to run Logic or Adobe Premiere. So don’t try to make it a workstation.

Apple prides itself on quiet products, but the MacBook Air can be noisy. You can’t access a zoom call on both Core i3 and Core i5 models without the fans turning on. These laptops have a larger CPU heatsink than previous models, but I still wish they would handle thermals more efficiently.

Graphics and games

Switching the MacBook Air to 10th generation Ice Lake processors brings another important improvement: the graphics. Macs have never been slot machines, but with Apple’s increasing focus on supporting Apple Arcade, a decent graphics option is important.

All versions of the Air contain Iris Plus graphics, although the Core i5 and Core i7 models each have 25% more execution units. This leads to acceptable entry level games as long as you are ready to pull the graphics settings down.

Fortnite is not playable on the Core i3, but it is manageable on the Core i5. With a resolution of 1,440 × 900 and medium settings, the Core i5 MacBook Air managed about 40 frames per second. That may not sound impressive, but it is a huge leap over what the previous MacBook Air can do.

Just don’t expect to play challenging games like Battlefield V or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Windows laptops are still much more suitable for gaming, and no modern Mac questions this longstanding fact.

Design and display

Nothing has changed on the casing of the MacBook Air. It is still a single piece of aluminum carved into a light wedge shape. It is rock hard, perfectly processed and still very attractive in its simplicity. The golden color stands out, but you can’t go wrong with Space Gray either.

It’s still the thinnest and lightest Mac you can buy at 0.6 inches and 2.8 pounds thick. This is pretty small, although some Windows competitors are smaller these days. The XPS 13, Surface Laptop 3 13 and ThinkPad X1 Carbon are all leaner and lighter.

Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

Part of the problem is Apple’s stubborn refusal to downsize its bezels. The company has taken extreme measures to reduce the size of its phones for years, and has even used a notch to accommodate its camera. Fortunately, four years have gone out of fashion here. That’s not a good look for a design-first company like Apple. This feels even more inexcusable after Apple trimmed the bezel of the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

But the screen between these chubby bezels is good. Apple has only ever offered one display option for its laptops, and this continues to be an advantage with these cheaper options. Even at $ 999, you get a sharp 2,560 × 1,600 screen with great contrast. It is simply the best laptop screen at this price. You pay over $ 1,500 to get a higher resolution screen from Dell or HP.

With the port selection, Air offers just enough to get you through.

The MacBook Pro screen is of course still blowing the air when it comes to color rendering. The Air achieves 100% of sRGB and 79% of AdobeRGB, which makes it colorful for everyday use, but somewhat inadequate for photographers and video editors. It also offers a maximum brightness of only 389. This is bright enough in most circumstances, although the XPS 13 and MacBook Pro are brighter.

When it comes to port selection, Air offers just enough to get through – and nothing more. Both USB-C ports are Thunderbolt 3, which means they’re fast and can process multiple 4K monitors with ease. I wish they had put at least one on each side for simplicity.

Well. Limited ports are a fight that Apple has already won. As long as there is more than one, I’m happy enough.

Battery life

Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The MacBook Air was once the king of battery life. These times are long gone. The lower screen resolution of the Specter x360 and XPS 13 makes it a battery life champion that easily lasts well beyond an entire working day.

The MacBook Air isn’t bad, but it can’t quite keep up. In all of our testing, it’s a few hours behind these devices, including easy internet usage (nine and a half hours), video playback (10 hours), and heavier applications (three hours). With my usual selection of Chrome tabs, web apps, Slack and Spotify, the MacBook Air lasted an average of six hours.

These tests were carried out on the Core i3 model. I do not expect the Core i5 model to change these results significantly, but I will update this test later with my final tests.

Our opinion

The new MacBook Air is a respectable choice for price-conscious Mac fans. The price reduction, the improved keyboard and the additional memory (now from 256 GB) are all improvements in the quality of life. However, the performance remains below average regardless of the configuration selected.

Are there alternatives?

Apple has been slowly lowering the price of the MacBook Air in recent years, and that positions it much better than the competition. The dual-core configuration for $ 999 is in direct competition with Dell’s XPS 13, which also uses a dual-core i3 processor. Many premium laptops do not offer lower performance configurations.

Laptops like the ZenBook 13 UX333 or the HP Specter x360 offer you better battery life and performance for less money, even though you forego the screen resolution and the high quality workmanship.

If you’re using a Mac, the MacBook Pro 13-inch is also an option. The screen and processor are a big step up and still the better choice for photographers. Unfortunately, the keyboard is the older version with the butterfly mechanism and it is expensive to update memory or RAM.

How long it will take?

Apple laptops have a reputation for quality, and Apple supports products more often than other manufacturers when problems arise. This makes the MacBook Air a good choice if you want to keep it for five years or more.

Though performance is already behind the curve, it should remain reasonable if your daily use consists of internet surfing, basic productivity, and online streaming.

Should you buy it

Yes. This is a solid option for Mac buyers who want an affordable daily driver.

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