Apple recently ushered in its long-awaited refreshes to two product lines that haven’t received a lot of love lately: the 2018 MacBook Air and the 2018 Mac mini (review). Both machines have been updated with new processors, Apple’s T2 chip, modernized I/O, and several other enhancements.
The MacBook Air, though, is by far the more popular machine, and will demand the majority of the public’s attention between the two. This is the portable Mac that lots of people have been waiting for, but does it live up to its namesake? Watch our video review for the details.
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- 13.3-inch LED-backlit IPS Retina display
- 2560 x 1600 native resolution (227 PPI)
- 16:10 aspect ratio
- Eighth-gen Intel Core i5 CPU
- Intel UHD Graphics 617
- Apple T2 security chip
- Up to 16GB of faster 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM
- Up to 1.5TB of SSD storage
- Integrated Touch ID Sensor
- Third-generation butterfly keyboard with individual backlit keys
- Force Touch trackpad
- Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- Three microphones
- Stereo speakers
- 720p FaceTime HD camera
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2
- 30W power adapter + USB-C charging cable
- Supports one external 5K display or two 4K displays up to 60Hz
- Colors: gold, silver, space gray
- Tapered design
- Battery life: 12 hours web, 13 hours iTunes movie playback
- Weight: 2.75 pounds
- Width: 11.97 inches
- Depth: 8.36 inches
- Thickness/Height: Between 0.16 inches (thinnest point) and 0.61 inches (thickest point)
Finally, a Retina display…
The Retina display checks off the biggest want for MacBook Air customers, as it is the second to last product in Apple’s entire lineup, iOS or Mac, to receive a Retina update. The lowly non-Retina iMac still remains.
The Retina display in the MacBook Air packs over 4 million pixels in the machine’s 13.3-inch display. The screen features a 2560 x 1600 native resolution IPS panel that provides much-improved viewing angles over last-gen’s Air.
The new MacBook Air display also receives a significant color upgrade. While not technically classifying as a wide color display, the 2018 model supports nearly 50% more colors than the previous hardware.
The display on the previous MacBook Air was by far its weakest quality, so the screen enhancements alone make the new model a worthwhile upgrade proposition for existing customers.
Another weak link of the previous MacBook Air was its overly generous bezels. The redesigned model ushers in the type of reduced bezels with edge-to-edge glass that MacBook and MacBook Pro users have been enjoying for years. The glass, in particular, is a much-needed visual improvement, as the outgoing machine’s aluminum bezels made the display feel cramped and outdated.
Compared to the last-generation MacBook Air, the Retina-enabled machine is 0.21 pounds lighter, a not insignificant reduction in weight. The new machine is also 0.07-inches thinner, and features width and depth reductions of 0.83- and 0.58-inches respectively. In other words, it’s a more portable and travel-friendly machine than the previous generation Air, yet it still packs in the same 13.3-inch display size.
That acknowledged, the MacBook Air with Retina display remains a larger machine than Apple’s svelte 12-inch MacBook in every dimension. The width and depth differences between these machines isn’t shocking, but the MacBook Air is also thicker and heavier.
With this in mind, the real “MacBook Air”, in my opinion, is the 12-inch MacBook. I’ve always thought that it deserved the venerated “Air” moniker to begin with. Unfortunately, there have been no updates for the 12-inch model in 2018, and its future remains a question mark in Apple’s lineup.
But here’s where things get funny and slightly ironic. The MacBook Air is actually thicker at its thickest point than the current-generation MacBook Pro. If anything, that speaks to the marketing power of the MacBook Air name.
For the last few years, the MacBook Air has been the budget option as far as Apple laptops are concerned. The new MacBook Air starts at $1199, but Apple continues to sell its last-gen model without a Retina display for $999. Fully maxed out with 16GB of RAM and 1.5TB of SSD storage, the 2018 MacBook Air can cost more than a well-equipped MacBook Pro.
The entry-level MacBook Air with Retina display arrives sporting a dual core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of flash storage. Interestingly enough, the base model 2017 MacBook Pro without Touch Bar, which hasn’t received an update recently, can be had for just $100 more.
When comparing the 2018 MacBook Air with the 2017 MacBook Pro, you’ll notice a few similarities between these two machines:
- Both have a 13-inch Retina display
- Both feature just two Thunderbolt 3 ports
- Both lack the Touch Bar, and feature actual function keys
- Both have a similar thickness at the machine’s thickest point
But despite their similarities, the MacBook Air features several key differences that will matter to customers:
- The MacBook Air is 0.27 pounds lighter
- The MacBook Air features a tapered design
- The MacBook Air has longer battery life
- The MacBook Air has Apple’s T2 Security Chip
- The MacBook Air has Touch ID
- The MacBook Air features Apple’s third-generation keyboard
Although the “Air” designation is funny given the device’s thickness, the MacBook Air, at 2.75 pounds, is noticeably lighter than both the previous Air and the MacBook Pro, so it still makes sense. Various factors play into the weight difference, including that iconic tapered design.
A power-sipping CPU
Despite all of the display improvements, and the reduced footprint, Apple rates the new MacBook Air similarly to its predecessor when it comes to battery life.
- Wireless web: up to 12 hours
- iTunes movie playback: up to 13 hours (1 hour improvement)
- Standby time: up to 30 days
Even though the battery in the new MacBook Air is smaller, 50.3-watt-hours versus 54-watt-hours, the new machine features better battery life. How?
The 2018 MacBook Air features a single processor option — a 1.6GHz dual-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, which can turbo up to 3.6GHz and supports Hyper-Threading. This is a 7W Intel i5-8210Y CPU with integrated Intel UHD Graphics 617. Compared to the chips in the previous MacBook Air, which were 15W, this processor is designed to draw less power.
For most people in the market for a MacBook Air, I think the 7W i5 processor is okay, and will do everything you need for day-to-day tasks. Word processing, web browsing, and media consumption will all perform well on the MacBook Air. If you set the right expectations, even light video editing and other tasks that typically require more power, will perform decently.
Someone in the market for a MacBook Air shouldn’t be looking to heavily push its CPU or graphics as if it were a desktop — that’s why machines like the 6-core MacBook Pro exist.
Here is a Geekbench 4 CPU benchmark comparing the new 2018 MacBook Air and last year’s MacBook Pro without Touch Bar. As you can see, the MacBook Pro edges out the MacBook Air in both single- and multi-core tests.
The iGPUs on both of these machines are relatively weak, but that’s to be expected. Still, the year-old MacBook Pro has the edge when comparing GPU performance.
Cinebench R15 results paint a similar picture. Neither machine is impressive when it comes to graphics performance, but the MacBook Pro is the winner by default.
For me, as someone who works with video on a day in and day out basis, Final Cut Performance is a big differentiator. The MacBook Pro provides much better Final Cut Pro X performance when compared to the MacBook Air with Retina display. It’s possible to edit videos on the MacBook Air, for sure, but the experience isn’t nearly as pleasant as it is on the more powerful machine.
(Shorter is better)
Of course, most people don’t edit videos every day, so you’ll need to decide whether these types of things truly matter to you. For most people, the answer to that question is: No.
The final benchmark compares the PCIe-based SSDs found in the two machines. As you can see, the MacBook Pro has a faster SSD in both read and write. Both SSDs are 128GB, which makes them easy to compare. Keep in mind that when you configure a larger SSD, the write speeds will significantly improve.
Keyboard, trackpad, and Touch ID
The MacBook Air with Retina display receives Apple’s third-generation butterfly switch keyboard. The new keyboard features keys that are individually backlit, which looks more uniform when typing in dimly lit settings.
The updated keyboard addresses some of the well-documented issues that plagued previous versions, but it will still take some getting used to for anyone coming directly from the previous MacBook Air.
Alongside the keyboard is a stand-alone Touch ID sensor, the biometric technology that lets users quickly unlock, authenticate with macOS and third-party apps, and make Apple Pay purchases.
The inclusion of Touch ID is significant for the MacBook Air, because it’s the first Apple laptop to include the feature without the costly, and largely useless (in my opinion), Touch Bar found on Apple’s MacBook Pro lineup.
Touch ID on the MacBook Air is possible thanks to the inclusion of the Apple T2 security chip, the same chip that’s in the 2018 Mac mini, the MacBook Pro, and the iMac Pro. This chip does a bevy of things security-wise, and also consolidates many of the machine’s controllers into a central location. For more information about the Apple T2 security chip, be sure to read our 2018 Mac mini review.
Another big addition to the MacBook Air with Retina display is the 20% larger Force Touch trackpad. The MacBook Air was the last Apple laptop to use the diving board trackpad mechanism, so this is another welcome change. The Force Touch trackpad, though not as large as the trackpad found on the MacBook Pro, makes it so that you get the exact same feedback response no matter where you click on the surface – it’s the best trackpad on any laptop, hands-down.
Camera, speakers and microphones
The new MacBook Air’s camera is the same 720p FaceTime HD camera found in the previous generation MacBook Air. I wish the camera was 1080p, but at least it’s better than the ridiculously low-resolution 480p camera on the 12-inch MacBook.
Speakers are 25% louder on the 2018 MacBook Air, with two times the bass response than the previous generation. You’ll never mistake the machine for a proper stereo, but if you’re aware of how limited the last model’s speakers were, you’ll no doubt appreciate any effort to improve the audio fidelity.
Along with the speaker improvements, a new three-array microphone makes an appearance as well. The microphones are geared towards lending better sound input for FaceTime calls, and improving the accuracy of Siri communication.
Thunderbolt 3 I/O
As you might imagine, a lot has changed on the I/O front since the last major MacBook Air refresh. Apple has gone all in with USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, allowing for screaming fast connectivity with external storage, displays, and even external GPUs. The new MacBook Air includes a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left side of the keyboard, which also happen to be the same ports used for charging the machine.
Thunderbolt 3 is a major upgrade to the MacBook Air, and it allows interfacing with high bandwidth devices in a way that wasn’t possible on previous versions. Like I illustrated with the 2018 Mac mini, there are so many expandability options to choose from, it’s almost like being able to upgrade your computer from the outside in.
Recommended MacBook Air USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 accessories
- CalDigit TS3 Plus (review)
- Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650 eGPU (review)
- SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD (review)
- LG UltraWide 5K Display
The downside is that Apple has gone all-in with Thunderbolt 3, and left other handy ports like an SD Card reader behind. You’ll now need to use a dock or a dongle to connect an SD Card to your MacBook Air, which is annoying at best.
As a result of the adoption of Thunderbolt 3, the 2018 MacBook Air ditches the popular MagSafe connector for charging. It means that one of the USB-C ports will be occupied any time you need to charge the machine. It also means that you lose the utility that MagSafe, a magnetic-attaching power connector that easily disconnected if someone happened to trip over the cable, brought to the table.
The handy USB 3 Type-A ports that used to reside on each side of the MacBook Air have also been removed. This follows the trend of Apple simplifying its I/O on its laptops, providing Thunderbolt 3 ports, and not much else.
Depending on how you used the previous MacBook Air, the 2018 model is a downgrade in some ways. There’s no SD Card reader, no USB-A ports, and no MagSafe. There’s also a power-sipping 7W CPU, instead of the 15W CPUs that occupied the internals of previous Air models.
Performance on the new MacBook Air is better than the previous-gen model, but it may not be as drastic of an improvement as one might have been hoping for in a MacBook Air redesign. If you engage with applications that require a healthy dose of CPU and/or GPU power, you’ll definitely want the MacBook Pro.
I also wish that there were USB-C ports on the right side of the device to make it more convenient to charge the MacBook Air. Having ports on both sides of the machine is one of the more underrated features of the Touch Bar-enabled MacBook Pro; it’s one of those conveniences that you don’t fully appreciate until you need it.
But make no mistake, the MacBook Air is a major upgrade over its predecessor in a lot of ways. The IPS-enabled Retina display is a welcome presence, providing much-improved viewing angles and better colors as well.
The new MacBook Air has better battery life, better sound, and super-expandable Thunderbolt 3 I/O. It packs all of this into a footprint that’s both smaller and lighter than the laptop it replaces.
This is the mainstream Apple computer that many will be using for years to come, and thanks to Thunderbolt 3, the machine you purchase today isn’t necessarily the same machine that you’re stuck with for the long haul.
Despite some deficiencies, Apple fans who are migrating from the previous generation will be mostly happy with the 2018 MacBook Air with Retina display — it’s the mainstream Mac that will satisfy the majority of users.
What are your thoughts on the new MacBook Air? Sound off in the comments below with your opinion.