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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.