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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
Design and weight
The new Magic Keyboard
Time to upgrade the FaceTime Camera to TrueDepth
The MacBook Air 13-inch is beautiful to look at and light enough to carry all day. The gorgeous Retina display and expansive trackpad are now married with the excellent Magic Keyboard. I’m impressed with the battery life and Core i5 performance but can’t guide you on the $999 model featuring the Core i3. I’m sure it will be a better performer than the 8th generation silicon, but I almost never recommend an i3 system over an i5. If you have a few hundred extra dollars, get this system. I think you’ll love it.
I’ve always had a thing for the MacBook Air. It’s the first laptop I ever saw thin enough to slide inside a Manila folder. Even to this day, it's Apple’s most popular Mac. Many companies, including mine, standardize on it.
With such an iconic design and so much acclaim, it should be easy for Apple to nail an update, but that hasn’t always been the case. For a while, Apple was barely updating the wedge system, leaving it behind on processing power and screen resolution. When it finally did upgrade, it put in the excellent Retina display, but paired it with the often-derided Butterfly keyboard system. I have a MacBook Air 2019 edition in the office (it’s trapped there due to the Coronavirus) and didn’t really mind the ultra-flat and quiet keyboard. Some, though, hated it.
With a brand new “Magic Keyboard” and the 10th Generation Core i processor (i3, i5), the new 13-inch MacBook Air is poised to become to best ultra-portable Apple has ever produced.
Apple smartly did not mess with what I think is an already excellent profile. From the outside, the exquisitely engineered aluminum chassis is indistinguishable from the 2019 model. It has all the same lines and curves, tapering from 1.61 mm at the back to a sharp 0.41 mm at the front. It’s still 11.97-inches wide by 8.36 inches deep and weighs just under 3 lbs. (2.8 lbs. to be precise, which is a hair heavier than the 2019 edition).
On the left side are two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports good for power, data, and extending the display to a larger screen, and on the other side is, bless its soul, a 3.5 mm audio jack.
It’s not until you use a single finger under the front lip to open the MacBook Air that you see a visible difference. Sitting adjacent to the gorgeous, 2560 x 1600 Retina display is a brand-new keyboard. The Magic Keyboard, as it’s called, is actually only new to the MacBook Air. Apple introduced the chiclet keyboard design on the MacBook Pro 16-inch last year. It’s a marked improvement over the previous third-gen Butterfly keyboard.
First of all, the key technology is both more traditional and maybe more advanced. It uses a scissor mechanism and rubber dome underneath each more well-defined key. Apple claims 1-millimeter greater travel. All I can tell you is that the typing experience, which I’m using right now, is sure and satisfying. Nothing rattles. Instead the keys sound is solid, if slightly muted. It’s a better typing experience than I can get on the Surface Pro type cover and matches what I find on the Surface Laptop.
The keys are all backlit, with the lighting intensity controlled by function keys. Next to those function keys is a Touch ID / power button. While the original MacBook Air Touch ID button was glossy, this one matches the matte finish on the rest of the keys. It was easy to register my finger and then use it to unlock the laptop. The only other notable change is the new inverted T arrow keys, which means the left and right keys are now half-sized keys and are aligned with the bottom of the down arrow key. The result is an array that’s easier to use without looking at it.
Below the new keyboard is the Force Trackpad. It sits between a wide expanse of metal where I comfortably rest my palms as I type. The two defining features of this trackpad are its formidable size (4.5 inches across and 5.5-inches diagonally) and that it doesn’t really move. Two levels of haptic response mimic the feeling of a regular mouse click and then a harder press that gives you a deeper click for additional functionality (like peeking at the contents of a file without opening it). It feels smooth as glass because, yes, it’s covered in glass. I love this trackpad.
As I mentioned above, this is the same Retina display as on the previous MacBook Air. It’s a 13.3-inch, 400 nit backlit LED that makes everything from Web sites to movies and Apple Arcade games look great. Yes, it is slightly smaller than the 13.5-inch touch-screen pixel display on the Surface Laptop 3, but that display is only 2256 x 1504 with a ppi of 201, as compared with the Air's 2560 x 1600 pixels and 227 ppi.
Since I spend most of my days working on a Surface Pro, I do have the bad habit of trying to use the MacBook Air’s screen as a touch screen. There’s a whole rabbit hole we could go down here about Apple’s insistence that laptops should not have touch screens even as it transforms the iPad Pro with its new cursor-friendly OS and trackpad-sporting keyboard accessory into another ultraportable. But I’ll leave that discussion for another day.
What complements the screen when using it to watch TV, movies, or play games are the powerful stereo speakers that bookend the Magic Keyboard. The sound is remarkably sharp, deep, and clear. The wide stereo and Dolby Atmos support can effectively throw audio around the room. I was especially impressed with the clarity of Apple Music playback.
Right above the screen is the same 720p FaceTime camera as the last MacBook. I do wish Apple used all that black bezel space to add the iPad Pro’s TrueDepth module so I could start using Face ID to unlock the laptop.
Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air now starts at $999 . For that sub-$1k price you get the new 10th Generation 1.1 GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 with 4 MB of L3 cache and Intel’s new Iris Plus Graphics. That’s not, however, the system Apple sent me. My test unit is the $1,299 model with a snapper 1.1 GHz Intel quad-core Intel Core i5 with 6MB of L3 cache (you can configure up to a quad-core i7). All systems are backed by 8 GB of RAM, which is what my system has, but you can double it for 16 GB of RAM.
Apple now smartly starts with 256 GB of SSD storage, though my system has a half terabyte (the model I tested was $1299). You can configure up to 2 TB.
As you might expect, Geekbench benchmark numbers are much better than in the last MacBook Air, which had 8th Gen Intel CPUs.
My experience was, in general, excellent. I had no trouble opening dozens of web pages and then launching Super Impossible Road in Apple Arcade (likely helped by the new Iris Plus GPU), but the fan did start working overtime. The system didn’t get particularly hot, just a little warm on the base. If you don’t mind fan noise, then you won’t be disappointed with the performance.
Apple rates the MacBook Air at 11 hours of wireless web browsing and 12 hours of video playback. Even stressing out the system with games, video, browsing, and a screen set to 100% brightness, I still got roughly 10 hours of battery life. I call that pretty darn good.
macOS Catalina is an excellent platform for virtually any kind of work or play. It doesn’t natively support touch like Windows 10, but the marriage of Apple hardware and software here is a heightened level of symbiosis. There are simply so many gestures you can use on the Trackpad to manage applications and multiple desktops that it’s almost like having a touch screen.
The MacBook Air 13-inch is beautiful to look at and light enough to carry all day. The gorgeous Retina display and expansive trackpad are now married with the excellent Magic Keyboard. I’m impressed with the battery life and Core i5 performance, but can’t guide you on the $999 model featuring the Core i3. I’m sure it will be a better performer than the 8th gen silicon, but I almost never recommend an i3 system over an i5. If you have a few hundred extra dollars, get this system. I think you’ll love it.
Check out my video review!