Apple MacBook Air (2020) review: The Mac starter kit

MacBook Air 2020

MacBook Air (2020)

“The MacBook Air is a great choice for Mac fans on a budget.”
  • New keyboard is an improvement
  • More affordable
  • Better graphics
  • Excellent build quality
  • Performance still lacking
  • Bezels are outdated
MSRP $999.00

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

It’s also where many people get their first impression of the Mac. That means it needs to balance both performance and price. I tested two versions of the new MacBook Air to see how each of them walks this tightrope.

The Core i3 model starts at $999, while the Core i5 is at $1,199. Each sports the new “Magic Keyboard” as a headline feature. So, is the latest MacBook Air the perfect introduction to the Mac or, like many recent entry-level Macs, a poor first impression?

Keyboard

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The Magic Keyboard is a highlight of the MacBook Air. It’s responsive, clicky, and features a full millimeter of travel. It’s a delight to type on, and a true throwback to the much-beloved MacBooks sold prior to the 2016 MacBook Pro redesign that introduced the butterfly switch keyboards.

That couldn’t be said of the previous two years of MacBook Airs. Apple brought the ill-fated butterfly mechanism keyboard from the MacBook Pro to the Air for the 2018 redesign. It didn’t pan out. Shallow key travel made it off-putting to type on, especially for long periods of time. It was loud — and worst of all, unreliable.

Fortunately, those days are gone, and the MacBook Air once again has one of the best keyboards on a laptop today. It even keeps a standard function row full of old-fashioned buttons instead of leaping to the Touch Bar, a feature I don’t miss. The Touch Bar never added much in the way of meaningful functionality. I’ll take reliable, convenient Escape and Mute keys any day.

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A Touch ID fingerprint sensor is located on the top right of the function row, which doubles as a power button. It’s really time for Apple to move to facial recognition login on Mac, a feature Apple has nailed on iOS devices. That said, Touch ID works extremely well. It’s the quickest, most intuitive fingerprint sensor you’ll find on a laptop.

While the keyboard steals the spotlight, let’s not forget about the trackpad. It’s large, its tracking is second to none, and its Force Touch click is virtually silent. This is not a surprise. Mac laptops have long had great touchpads. Still, it’s worth remembering that Apple remains a leader here.

Performance

The MacBook Air has never been a powerful laptop, and it never claimed to be. It’s the option for those whose needs consist of word processing, email, and online apps. Think of it as a Chromebook, except with Mac apps.

In 2020, though, the Air has received a respectable boost. This is the first Air to have a quad-core processor, which is an important upgrade. More cores and threads usually mean more muscle for running heavy applications and multitasking. Quad-core chips have become the standard for most laptops, even small laptops like the Surface Pro 7, Dell XPS 13, and MacBook Pro 13-inch.

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That said, the leap to quad-core doesn’t make the Air a workhorse. It’s still behind the competition.

I tested both the Core i3 ($999) and Core i5 ($1,099) models, both with 8GB of RAM. These will likely be the most popular options thanks to their attractive pricing. While the processors used by Apple are part of Intel’s 10th-gen Ice Lake family, they aren’t the same chips you’ll see in most of the MacBook Air’s competitors. They are variations of Y-series chips Intel has partnered with Apple to make 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 dishes out a 15% performance boost in benchmarks over the Core i5 MacBook Air from two years ago. That’s not substantial and you likely won’t notice that increase in day-to-day performance. Still, it handles daily tasks well. Apps open quickly, and having a couple of dozen Chrome tabs open won’t slow it down.

Double the cores doesn’t mean twice the performance.

What about the quad-core Core i5-1030NG7? Well, doubling the cores certainly doesn’t mean twice the performance. Because it’s still a 9-watt chip, there’s a ceiling on what it can do. Compared to the Core i3 model, the Core i5 model is 27% better in multi-core benchmarks thanks to those two extra cores, but it’s only 8% faster in single-core. That’s likely because these two processors share a low base clock speed of just 1.1GHz.

Again, performance feels adequate. The problem is not everyday use, but how the MacBook Air compares to other laptops sold for the same price. The $1,100 HP Spectre x360 also has a 10th-gen Ice Lake Core i5 processor, but it serves up 30% faster multi-core performance over the Core i5. The difference is the wattage. A 9-watt processor will never push clock speeds that can compete with a chip that can suck down up to 25 or 35 watts in short bursts.

Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

Apple applications, of course, are where the MacBook Air benefits the most. If you stick to limited solutions like iMovie and GarageBand, you can handle some light content creation on the side. Just don’t go crazy on the Air’s upgrades. You can buy a Core i7 model, with room for up to 32GB of RAM, and that will raise the price sharply. Yet it will still lag the competition. The MacBook Air is not a device you’ll want to run Logic or Adobe Premiere on, so don’t try to make it a workstation.

Apple prides itself on silent products, but the MacBook Air can be loud. You can’t hop on a Zoom call without the fans kicking in, on both the Core i3 or Core i5 models. These laptops have a larger CPU heatsink than previous models, but I still wish they handled the give-and-take of thermals more efficiently.

Graphics and gaming

The MacBook Air’s move to 10th-gen Ice Lake processors comes with one other major enhancement: graphics. Macs have never been gaming machines, but with Apple’s increased focus on supporting Apple Arcade, a decent graphics option is important.

All versions of the Air include Iris Plus graphics, though the Core i5 and Core i7 models both have 25% more execution units. This translates to acceptable entry-level gaming, so long as you’re willing to pull graphics settings down.

Fortnite is completely unplayable on the Core i3, but it’s manageable on the Core i5. With resolution at 1,440 × 900 and settings at Medium, the Core i5 MacBook Air managed around 40 frames per second. That might not sound impressive, but it’s a large leap over what the previous MacBook Air can do.

Just don’t expect to play demanding games like Battlefield V or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Windows laptops remain far better for gaming, and no modern Mac challenges that long-standing fact.

Design and display

When it comes to the MacBook Air’s chassis, nothing has changed. It’s still a single chunk of aluminum, carved in a slight wedge shape. It’s hard as a rock, perfectly crafted, and still quite attractive in its simplicity. The gold color is a stand-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 thick and 2.8 pounds. That’s quite small, though a number of Windows competitors are smaller these days. The XPS 13, Surface Laptop 3 13, and ThinkPad X1 Carbon are all slimmer and lighter.

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Part of the problem is Apple’s stubborn refusal to shrink the size of its bezels. The company has pursued extreme measures to shrink the bezels of its phones for years now, even resorting to a notch to house its camera. But here, it’s happily four years out of fashion. That’s not a good look for a design-first company like Apple. This feels even more inexcusable after Apple trimmed the bezel on the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

But the screen housed between those chubby bezels is good. Apple has always offered just one display option for its laptops, and that continues to be an advantage on these lower-priced options. Even at $999, you get a sharp 2,560 × 1,600 screen with great contrast. It’s easily the best laptop screen at that price. You’ll be paying over $1,500 to get a higher-resolution screen from Dell or HP.

With port selection, the Air gives just enough to get you by.

The MacBook Pro screen, of course, still beats the Air when it comes to color reproduction. The Air hits 100% of sRGB and 79% of AdobeRGB, making it plenty colorful for daily use but a bit lacking for photographers and video editors. It also offers a max brightness of just 389. That’s plenty bright under most circumstances, though the XPS 13 and MacBook Pro are brighter.

In port selection, the Air provides just enough to get by — and no more. Both USB-C ports are Thunderbolt 3, meaning they’re fast and can handle multiple 4K monitors no problem. I wish they had at least put one on each side, for convenience sake.

Oh well. Limited ports is a battle Apple has already won, and as long as it has more than one, I’m happy enough.

Battery life

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The MacBook Air was once the king of battery life. Those days are long gone. The lower screen resolution of the Spectre x360 and XPS 13 makes them battery life champs, easily lasting well past a full day of work.

The MacBook Air isn’t bad, but it can’t quite keep up. It’s a couple of hours behind those devices in all our tests, including light web use (nine and a half hours), video playback (10 hours), and heavier applications (three hours). With my usual assortment of Chrome tabs, web apps, Slack, and Spotify, the MacBook Air lasted around six hours on average.

These tests were done on the Core i3 model. I don’t expect the Core i5 model to alter these results much, but I will later update this review with my final testing.

Our take

The new MacBook Air is a respectable choice for Mac fans on a budget. The price cut, improved keyboard, and extra storage (now starting at 256GB) are all great quality-of-life improvements. Its performance remains sub-par, however, no matter the configuration you choose.

Are there any alternatives?

Apple has slowly lowered the price of the MacBook Air over the past couple of years, and that positions it much better against the competition. The $999 dual-core configuration has direct competition with Dell’s XPS 13, which also uses a dual-core Core i3 processor. Many premium laptops don’t offer lower-powered configurations.

Laptops like the ZenBook 13 UX333 or the HP Spectre x360 will serve you better battery life and performance for less money, though you’ll give up the screen resolution and the high-end build quality.

If you’re set on a Mac, the MacBook Pro 13-inch is also an option. Its screen and processor are a big step up and it is still the better choice for photographers. Unfortunately, the keyboard is the older butterfly-mechanism version, and it’s expensive to upgrade storage or RAM.

How long will it last?

Apple laptops have a strong reputation for quality, and Apple is more likely than other manufacturers to support products when issues arise. This makes the MacBook Air a good bet if you plan to hold on to it for five years or more.

While its performance is already behind the curve, it should remain adequate if your everyday use consists of web browsing, 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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