As if it were the phoenix, the MacBook Air managed to revive what, at least from the outside, looked like its ashes. The new version is more powerful, more compact and much more attractive. This is our in-depth analysis.
When Apple introduced the twelve-inch MacBook about three years ago, they all sensed that this tiny, cutting-edge laptop would eventually be the perfect replacement for the famed and important MacBook Air range. In fact, I think that even in Apple they saw it that way. Officially they have never come to recognize it, but the abandonment suffered by the Air range since 2014, coupled with the progress of the MacBook of 12 “during the last three years, seemed to indicate that the underlying strategy was just that.
Three years later, however, it seems that something has not gone as expected. Apple has introduced a major renewal of MacBook Air, that range that seemed forgotten since 2014. And simultaneously, in addition, has left without updates to the 12-inch MacBook, which is still marketed with microprocessors of 2017.
The papers seem to have been exchanged, and now it is the 12” MacBook that, for at least a few months, runs aimlessly. Not only has it not received the annual microprocessor update; also its identity within the portfolio, the “ultra-thin laptop”, has been supplanted by a more capable and complete team such as the Air.
Honestly we do not know if the 12-inch MacBook will disappear or mutate to cover a new segment of the market. The only thing we can say is that, today, the MacBook Air takes its place. And it also makes it much better.
More compact, more attractive, more Air
The new MacBook Air is a completely different machine than we knew -and we adored- in 2014. The 2018 version embraces the design line already implemented in the rest of MacBooks, significantly reduces its thickness and, despite maintaining a screen of it size (13.3 inches), reduces the total surface of the equipment by means of an important trimming of the frames that flank both the keyboard and the screen. The result is an extremely portable device and, at the same time, the most beautiful MacBook to date.
In the hand, in addition, it feels really light. And yes, the difference is barely 100 grams with respect to its predecessor, but its solid construction – appreciable even in such simple details as the hinge stiffness or the aluminum treatment – deceives our senses and generates a kind of prejudice for the which we expect a weight greater than 1.25 kilograms certified by the scale.
That positive feeling also continues in aspects such as the keyboard or trackpad, two areas in which Apple continues ahead of the rest of the industry. Anyone who has used a 12-inch MacBook or a next generation MacBook Pro will not find substantial differences: it is still the same trackpad with haptic feedback and the same keyboard with a butterfly mechanism (3rd generation, in this case). However, whoever comes from a PC with Windows or a Mac before 2015/2016, will find in this Air a substantial improvement.
Some appreciations in this regard:
This is the best keyboard ever mounted on a Mac. Although the first sensation is strange – the path of the keys is smaller, and the sound is more opaque than usual – the keyboard with butterfly mechanism is extremely pleasant and comfortable. And as in previous generations, it is backlit. A pleasure to work with him.
The surface of the trackpad and the haptic feedback emulates the physical click perfectly. Increasing trackpad size and haptic feedback are not new attributes for Apple’s MacBook. However, it is for the Air range. It works perfectly.
Retina screen, finally
The Retina display is already a hallmark for any Apple product. This term -with a marketing approach- refers to screens with pixel densities high enough to make them indistinguishable to the naked eye. Or put another way: a screen is considered Retina when, at the distance of usual use of the product, the client cannot differentiate individual pixels.
The technology was first launched in 2010, and since then it has been expanded and refined through Apple’s different product ranges. It is present on iPhones, iPads, MacBooks and even Apple Watch.
The MacBook Air, in one more example of the stagnation that has suffered since 2014, has been the only great product of the brand that has remained outside of this technology. Luckily, yes, the new version ends with that lack and integrates a retina display with features relatively matched to those of the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
In a nutshell:
• It has a size of 13.3 inches. The most popular in modern laptops.
• It has a pixel density of 227 ppi, making the pixels indistinguishable at the usual distance for a laptop.
• It uses IPS technology.
• The aspect ratio is 16:10, the same as in the rest of Apple’s laptops.
• It lacks TrueTone technology, newly introduced in the MacBook Pro 2018.
On the other hand, image professionals (filmmakers, photographers, etc.) should also consider these two aspects:
• The maximum brightness is 300 nits, somewhat lower than the 500 nits of the MacBook Pro, although it is still enough to work with the computer in bright environments.
• The color space does not become DCI-P3, as it does in MacBook Pro.
To this day, no one offers screens as precise and admirable as those of Apple. Year after year, the American company establishes new quality standards in all product ranges, and also does so by maintaining homogeneity and reducing the error rate – something extremely important when working on a large scale.
The screen of the MacBook Air is no exception to that rule. It may not be the most spectacular and avant-garde on the market, but it is still a really good panel in all senses (accuracy of calibration, contrast, homogeneity, distortion from different angles of vision …)
Good performance but not great
The most critical point of the new MacBook Air is, without a doubt, the microprocessor that houses inside. The choice of Apple, a Core i5 of eighth generation and Series Y is, at least, particular, as most teams of the competition opt for chips of the U series.
In this sense it is necessary to make a series of important assessments:
• The MacBook Air does not seek to satisfy the most demanding users. Apple says its performance is good in “day-to-day tasks” such as making presentations in Keynote, browsing web pages with Safari or editing videos in iMovie.
• The biggest technical difference – and perhaps the most obvious one – between the U series and the Y series is the number of nuclei. While the Core i5 series U have four cores, those in the Y series have two cores. The Y-series processors, therefore, are less powerful than the U-series processors.
• The Y-series chips, in general, generate less heat when they go into operation. This virtue makes it possible to lower the cooling systems – or even eliminate them, as in the 12-inch MacBook – and, consequently, to thin the computer’s chassis.
• The MacBook Air, despite its reduced thickness and the use of processors of the Y series, mounted a small fan that “oxygenates” the inside of the computer. Its inclusion helps the processor operate at higher frequencies for a longer period of time.
During the last week I used the MacBook Air for a wide range of tasks: write documents, send emails, retouch images in Adobe Photoshop, reveal dozens of photographs in RAW format through Adobe Lightroom, etc. But there was only a single moment when I really felt that the MacBook Air was beginning to touch its ceiling: after several hours of photo editing in Lightroom. That is to say: I had to spend an afternoon revealing photographs in a professional program such as Lightroom to feel how the laptop was beginning to reach its limit.
Let’s put this in context: Adobe Lightroom is a photographic software that, when used intensively – applying multiple corrections to RAW files of a certain weight -, requires a large processing capacity. And in that scenario of relative stress, the MacBook Air met expectations.
To affirm that the MacBook Air is a sufficiently capable and fast machine would not be, therefore, no deception. It offers a more than positive performance for the vast majority of situations. And the contribution of the fan, in addition, helps maintain higher frequencies for a longer time – something that did not always happen with the 12-inch MacBook.
So, how important is this microprocessor to be a Core i5 of the Y series instead of the U series? For the average user, none. The vast majority of people who buy this MacBook Air will find a quick response, smooth transitions and more than acceptable performance under somewhat more complex workflows.
However, looking back and comparing this Air with other older Macs, the performance leap of your CPU is less than one would expect after four years of development. My personal computer is a 2014 MacBook Pro. And although I find this MacBook Air faster than my old Pro, the difference has not been as noticeable as I imagined before its presentation.
This situation would not occur if Apple had incorporated a U-series processor, present in similarly priced equipment (such as Surface Laptop 2). However, the decision is not as simple as “let’s put a processor or another.” There are many aspects that Apple has had to assess in their choice: thermal efficiency, energy consumption, manufacturing costs, production capacity, evolutionary delays experienced by Intel architectures, etc.
Fortunately, the choice of the Core Y does not exactly weigh the performance of the MacBook Air. This equipment, thanks also to the high speed SSD and the higher frequency RAM, offers a very good performance in the area in which it is expected to penetrate. And whoever wants or needs extra power, can always look up at the MacBook Pro, with much more advanced processors.
• More and better ports. The new MacBook Air has two USB-C ports, unlike the 12 “MacBook, which only has one. This provides great versatility when it is necessary to recharge the machine and connect an accessory simultaneously. In addition, both ports are faster: they work with USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10 Gbps) and Thunderbolt.
• Greater privacy and efficiency. Like the Pro models, this Air integrates Apple’s T2 chip, which manages image signals, the boot manager, the device’s encryption and access to sensitive elements such as the FaceTime camera and microphone. Being isolated from the main processor and the rest of the hardware, the MacBook Air is significantly safer than other computers.
• Touch ID. Together with the T2 chip, a fingerprint sensor is integrated, which allows to log into the computer and authenticate payments through Apple Pay, among other things. It works perfectly.
• Highest resolution FaceTime camera. Unlike the 12-inch MacBook, it mounts a FaceTime 720p camera. This, together with the image processing algorithms performed by the T2, substantially improves the quality of the video captured by the team.
• The best autonomy of the range. Although it does not shine like its predecessor -which, in some cases, reached 14 hours of use-, the autonomy of the MacBook Air 2018 is extremely good. Without demanding applications (such as Lightroom or Photoshop), the team can handle a day’s work (between eight and ten hours) with ease.
For me, as for many other people, this MacBook Air is the ideal equipment. It uses first class materials, its chassis is solid, it can be transported with extreme ease, it has a high quality screen and its autonomy is high enough to cover a normal work day.
It is also fast. Very fast, in fact. The new generation of SSD, the higher speed of RAM and the processor Core i5 eighth generation make this MacBook behaves like a charm against a wide range of situations.
However, I look at my old MacBook Pro (2014) and I see that the benefit jump, although noticeable, is not as wide as I expected. It is a small thorn. The only one, in fact, that I have left after working for a week with this MacBook Air. Its performance is very good, without a doubt. And I understand the limitations that Apple has been able to find along the way (thermal efficiency, energy efficiency, Intel’s inefficiency in its developments, etc.). But after four years in fallow I expected that this new version of the MacBook Air was a small step above (as far as processor is concerned).