Recommending a MacBook used to be easy: the original MacBook Air was great for everyone. It’s not as simple anymore, however, thanks to PCs getting better and Apple’s rising prices.
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Yes, this year’s MacBook Air (starting at $1,099, tested at $1,299) is $100 cheaper than last year’s model, but the lack of a sub-$1,000 model in Apple’s lineup hurts. Also, the MacBook Air’s Y-series Intel CPU is going to be great for some, but it’s not as speedy as U-series chips in PCs and the new 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Still, the new MacBook Air delivers a solid overall experience. Its battery life is good for a premium laptop, its bright, crisp Retina display now features Apple’s True Tone display technology and its gold colorway looks really slick. Everyday users will likely find the Air to be very good, while those who need to get serious work done are probably better off with the $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro.
MacBook Air 2019 price and configuration options
The MacBook Air is pricier than many 13-inch PC laptops, but it’s now the most-affordable MacBook. It starts at $1,099 with an 8th Gen Core i5-8210Y CPU, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. We tested the 256GB SSD model, which adds $200 to the price.
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Other upgrades include 16GB of RAM for $200, the upgrade I’d take most often as I keep a lot of apps running simultaneously. There is no CPU upgrade option, unfortunately.
A slim wedge of machined aluminum, the latest MacBook Air is very similar to the iconic (but now retired) laptop that inspired it. And while this very iterative design has started to age on the MacBook Pro, we tested a gold version of the Air that quite the looker. The Air is also available in the space gray and silver options that the MacBook Pro is sold in.
At 2.8 pounds and 0.2~0.6 inches thick, the 13-inch MacBook Air is a little heavier than the Dell XPS 13 (2.7 pounds; 0.3~0.46 inches) and the HP Spectre x360 (2.8 pounds; 0.6 inches), but lighter than the 13.9-inch MateBook X Pro (2.9 pounds, 0.6 inches) The new 13-inch MacBook Pro (3 pounds; 0.6 inches) is a little heavier than the Air.
Apple’s USB-C-only vision is future-forward at best and frustratingly limited at worst. The MacBook Air features dual Thunderbolt 3 ports on its left side, and you’ll use one of those to charge the MacBook Air.
There’s also a headphone jack, because what’s good for the iPhone isn’t best for the MacBook. The 13-inch MacBook Pro also starts with this port selection, but it can be upgraded to four Thunderbolt 3 ports.
This port layout suggests you own — or are willing to buy — a USB Type-C hub to gain additional ports such as the SD memory reader and USB Type-A port that many still need.
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The MateBook X Pro and Spectre x360 feature both Type-C and Type-A ports, while the XPS 13 gives you three Type-C ports, all of which can draw power and two of which are Thunderbolt 3. The XPS 13 also includes a microSD Card slot.
The MacBook Air offers the same keyboard you’ll find on Apple’s MacBook Pros, which is shallow and clicky, but provides a decent typing experience. Testing it on the 10fastfingers typing test, I click-clacked my way to 73 words per minute with 96% accuracy, a short fall from my 80 wpm average.
The Air’s keys feature 0.7 millimeters of travel, which is quite short (we look for at least 1.5 mm). We found 71 grams of required actuation force in those keys, which helps make up for their shallow depth, as our preferred measurements start at 60g.
The MacBook Air”s keyboard is shallow and clicky, but provides a decent typing experience.
Apple’s given the MacBook Air the 4th generation of its Butterfly-switch keyboard. The previous generations had a reputation for being failure-prone. This 4th edition of the Butterfly switch features a different material designed to provide increased reliability, but it didn’t feel much different to me, and it’s hard to say how it will hold up over time.The XPS 13, Spectre x360 and MateBook X Pro laptops feature scissors-style key switches, which don’t have the issues that many MacBook owners have reported.
Touchpad and Touch ID
While pinching and zooming on the MacBook Air’s 4.6 x 3.1-inch touchpad, I saw that the surface provided smooth and fluid shrinking and zooming. Apple’s Force Touch trackpad also offers accurate tracking of my taps and clicks, though I miss the old trackpads that actually moved when you clicked them down, instead of the haptic feedback that Macs now use to simulate clicks.
The MacBook Air gives you the best of Apple’s touch-sensitive interfaces. Instead of being stuck with the MacBook Pro’s OLED Touch Bar screen (which never got a killer feature), you get the company’s Touch ID biometric scanner plus physical F1-F12 function keys. That Touch ID button allows for superfast system unlocking, confirmation of your identity for Apple Pay and also functions as a power button.
As I watched the trailer for Midsommar, I noticed solid color reproduction from the MacBook Air’s high-res screen. From bright white linens to the rich clay-colored exterior of the ceremonial barn and the strong yellow sunflowers of the May Queen crowns, hues rendered accurately throughout the clip. The 4K film Tears of Steel looked especially crisp on the MacBook Air’s screen, showing off tiny bits of ragged fabric of war-torn clothes and all of the scratches on giant spray-painted mech robots.
The MacBook Air also features Apple’s True Tone display technology that adjusts the color temperaturet based on ambient lighting. I find True Tone to look a lot more consistent on the Air — as I brought the laptop from office to office — than it ever has looked on my iPhone XS Max, where I’ve often thought it rendered colors incorrectly.
The 4K film Tears of Steel looked exceedingly crisp on the MacBook Air’s screen, showing off tiny bits of ragged fabric of war-torn clothes and all of the scratches on giant spray-painted mech robots.
Our colorimeter rated the MacBook Air’s screen for producing 100% of the sRGB spectrum, a rating that’s definitely respectable, even though it’s less than the 129% premium laptop average. The MateBook X Pro is just a notch higher at 104%, while the screens in the Spectre x360 (150%), the MacBook Pro (165%) and the XPS 13 (4K: 119%; 1080p: 126%) posted higher ratings. The
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The MacBook Air’s panel produces 343 nits of brightness, which is very close to the 346 premium laptop average. We saw brighter numbers from the XPS 13 (4K: 375 nits; 1080p: 357 nits) and the 497-nit MateBook X Pro, while the Spectre x360 (287 nits) was dimmer. Still, I’d have liked the Air to be a bit brighter, like the 428-nit, 13-inch MacBook Pro, as the hyper-saturated colors in the video for Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” darkened a bit when I viewed the laptop from 45 degrees to the left and right.
Audio and “Hey, Siri”
The MacBook Air continues Apple’s strong legacy in audio, with speakers that you can trust to amplify your favorite songs. Listening to Eilish’s “Bad Guy” fill one of our medium-size conference rooms, I noted accurate vocals, crisp snapping and sturdy bass.
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Putting the MacBook Air’s Siri skills to the test in our chatty newsroom, I found the laptop could easily parse my voice, and not include the banter behind me. The virtual assistant proved capable of performing decent requests, such as showing directions from our office to Central Park in Maps, opening my favorite apps and creating reminders.
Armed with a Y-Series Intel Core i5-8210Y CPU with 8GB of RAM, the 2019 MacBook Air has the same “just enough” kick of performance we saw in the 2018 MacBook Air.
I saw no stutter as I multitasked in Chrome on the Air, splitting a 1080p episode of the Hot Ones YouTube show with a baker’s dozen of browser tabs (including Giphy, Google Forms and the Google Doc in which I worked on this review). That responsiveness continued as I started chatting in our company Slack, using the Things productivity app to manage my to-do’s and writing in the Bear text editor.
In benchmark testing, though, the MacBook Air got shown up by the competition, which all rock faster U-Series processors. Take the Geekbench 4 general performance benchmark, where the Air netted a score of 7,880, which is just 53% of the 14,678 premium laptop average.
We also saw higher marks from Apple’s rivals, such as 14936 from the XPS 13 (Core i7-8565U; 16GB of RAM), a 14,935 from the Spectre x360 (Core i7-8565U; 8GB of RAM) and a 17,134 from the MateBook X Pro (Core i7-8565U, 16GB of RAM). Want that kind of power from a MacBook? The 13-inch MacBook Pro (Core i5-8257U; 8GB of RAM) notched a 17,366 on the same test.
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The 256GB SSD in the MacBook Air landed a write-speed rate of 1,011 MBps on the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, which is fast, but not the fastest. The MateBook X Pro’s 1TB NVMe SSD hit a blisteringly fast rate of 2,190 MBps, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s write speed was a similar 1,220 MBps.
On our Handbrake video-editing test, the MacBook Air took a whopping 36 minutes and 6 seconds to transcode a 4K movie to 1080p. That’s much longer than the 21:55 category average, the 19:20 from the XPS 13, the 14:42 from the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 22:50 from the MateBook X Pro.
The MacBook Air offers OK battery life, so you can probably forget its USB-C cable at home if you’re out for a chunk of the day. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test (web browsing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits), the Air’s battery hit empty after 8 hours and 51 minutes, more than half an hour longer than the 8:19 premium laptop average.
The Spectre x360 (12:07) lasted much longer, as did the 1080p version of the XPS 13 (12:22). The 4K XPS 13 (7:50) and MateBook X Pro (8:19) ran dry in less time. The MacBook Pro lasted longer, at 10:48.
The MacBook Air’s 0.7-megapixel webcam proves that practically every laptop, even a $1,099 laptop from Apple, may disappoint you when it’s time to take a Skype call or shoot a selfie.
The photo I took of myself on the Air in our office is splotchy and offers little in detail. I barely recognized my colleague in the background. Color quality isn’t great, either, as my white shirt bore a pink hue (likely picked up from our warm lighting).
True to its name, the MacBook Air stays as cool as a breeze. After we streamed 15 minutes of HD video on the laptop, we caught temperatures on its touchpad (82 degrees Fahrenheit) keyboard (91 degrees) and underside (88 degrees) that don’t come close to our 95-degree comfort threshold.
macOS Mojave (macOS Catalina beta if you’re feeling risky)
The MacBook Air currently ships with macOS Mojave, which brought in a few new features I love, including Quick Look Markup for editing images quickly and Stacks for keeping the desktop organized. I’ve grown to like the systemwide dark mode, but it’s more about aesthetics than productivity or performance.
One thing I have to commend Apple for, even though it can be taken for granted, is the complete absence of bloatware on the Air. Many PCs can’t say the same about their set of pre-loaded applications, such as the Spectre x360, which has five HP documentation apps that should be merged into one, plus a pair of Candy Crush titles, Fitbit Coach, Netflix and LinkedIn.
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Want to taste the future of the Mac? You can install the macOS Catalina Public Beta to see how Music, Podcasts and TV apps make sense in a post-iTunes world, and try out the Sidecar mode if you own an iPad. Just beware that betas are buggy and slow your performance. Check out my review of the Catalina Public Beta to learn more.
The MacBook Air’s decent battery life, sharp screen, strong sound and elegant gold colorway make it a solid entry-level laptop for Apple fans. If only its processor had a little more kick to it, it would be a lot easier to recommend the Air.
For faster performance, you could spend $200 more to upgrade to the MacBook Pro. If you’re not tied to the Apple world (and you’re OK with a lower-res screen), look at the 1080p Dell XPS 13 we tested, which is faster, lasts longer and costs $100 less than our MacBook Air, at $1,199.
But for those who want to save a little money, don’t need the Touch Bar and have a modest workload, the new MacBook Air is a solid option. I just wish I could trust that keyboard. For that, only time will tell.
Credit: Laptop Mag