Apple MacBook Air (2018) full review
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Apple was going to discontinue the MacBook Air, given the lack of attention it's had over the past three years. Short of making the build-to-order options on the 2015 MacBook Air the standard options, Apple had left the one-time lightest Mac untouched.
Despite the lack of attention, the MacBook Air has remained a popular choice for people looking to get a Mac but not wanting to spend a fortune. That’s probably what saved the MacBook Air, which was finally updated at Apple’s special event on 30 October 2018. For a comparison with the last generation, see MacBook Air 2018 vs MacBook Air 2017 and if you'd like to find out how the MacBook Air compares to the other 13in laptops Apple makes read MacBook Air versus MacBook Pro.
Here, though, is our full and in-depth review of the 2018 model.
Price & Availability: Feeling flush
Rumours suggested that a new MacBook Air 2018 was in the works and it turns out they were correct, apart from one detail. We’d been lead to expect the new MacBook Air to cost less than £1,000/$1,000, but prices for the new model start at £1,199/$1,199 with the model with extra storage costing £1,399/$1,399.
Weighing in at over a grand means it’s more than the old entry-level MacBook Air, which cost £949/$999. The surprise is that Apple has kept that geriatric MacBook Air on sale, still at the same price. It might mean that you can still get a Mac laptop for less than a £1,000, but you really shouldn’t unless you are desperate to have the older USB-A port (aka USB 3) which is not available on any other MacBook.
You need to consider whether you want to be future-proofed or stuck in the past. Whatever you do, don't buy the old model from Apple, if you shop around you can actually get some very good deals now there's a new Air in town. Many UK retailers are selling the older model for under £800 and it's likely US retailers are offering similar deals. Check out the best MacBook Air deals.
If you want to buy a new MacBook Air, you can now order from Apple. It went on sale 7 November 2018.
Design & Build: Good as gold
The MacBook Air was previously only available in the silver aluminium finish, but now, taking a leaf from the MacBook book, it is available in three different colours: Gold, Silver and Space Grey.
Check out our round up of the best MacBook Air (2018) cases here.
It seemed that everyone at the Apple event in New York loved the Gold model, as seen below. This is the one we have on review and we suspect that it's the one that’s getting all the attention because it’s so different. It’s a very different shade of gold to what we’ve seen from Apple before, we’d say it’s more like brass or copper. It’s dark not pale.
To be honest we’re not sure that we like it as much as the gold MacBook or the gold iPhone shades, but assume that Apple is trying to make it appeal to men with this particular shade. We expect that the Space Grey option will prove popular. But if you want everyone on the train to know that you have a new MacBook Air the gold model is the one to get.
More than the colour choices we’d say we love the fact that this MacBook Air is built from 100 percent recycled aluminium. Although, this is more of a pat on the back for Apple, and for anyone who buys one, for being a little bit more environmentally friendly.
The colour and the materials it’s made from aren’t the only physical changes though. While it’s still recognisable as a MacBook Air, thanks to its wedge design with the edge tapering off at the narrowest point, in terms of dimensions, it’s smaller and thinner than before.
The new model’s dimensions are as follows:
- 30.41 x 21.24 x 1.56cm (tapering to 0.41cm at it’s narrowest point)
The old model measured:
- 32.5 x 22.7 x 1.7cm (tapering to 0.3cm)
It now weighs 1.25kg, compared to 1.35kg previously, which is negligible but an improvement nonetheless. We use an old 2015 MacBook Pro and there is a decent difference in the weight between these two models. We didn’t feel weighed down at all by the new MacBook Air when we carried it between work and home. At 1.25kg it weighs about the same as a 700 page hard back book.
It’s interesting to note that narrowest edge is slightly bigger than before, by just over a millimeter. This tiny detail is insignificant given the 2cm lost from the length and 1.5cm lost from the width. And the fact that it’s thinner overall. The tapered design of the MacBook Air has always been a clever way to shave weight from the unit.
The real achievement is that Apple has slimmed down and shrunk the MacBook Air while maintaining the same screen size of 13.3in. This is thanks to the slimmer bezels around the edge of the display (which seems to be a theme this year).
Screen: Eye catching Retina display
The MacBook Air has finally got a Retina display and it's one of the most obvious upgrades. The Retina display first arrived in 2010 with the iPhone 4, and has been available on all other Macs since the MacBook arrived in 2015. So it’s been a long time coming.
The Retina display is just as good as the Retina displays on other Macs, so if you have been using a MacBook or recent MacBook Pro, then the screen will be comparable. But if you are moving up from the old MacBook Air, the screen couldn’t look more different. It’s a big leap from the previous generation’s 1,440x900 pixels to the new 2,560x1,600 native resolution at 227 pixels per inch (the same as the 13in MacBook Pro). It’s still a 16:10 aspect ratio.
Thanks to the Retina display your photos will look beautiful with vibrant colours, text is crisp and clear, and if you watch movies on your laptop then you will benefit from all those extra pixels - the native resolution is now enough to view a movie in Full HD (1,920×1,080) - it wasn't previously. The only disappointment is that it doesn't offer True Tone, which is reserved for the MacBook Pro and adjusts the light according to the local conditions, it’s unlikely to be hugely missed feature though.
On the older MacBook Air the screen was surrounded by thick aluminium bezels, but this time around the glass stretches almost to the edge of the laptop, with a tiny metal rim around the edge that is hardly noticeable. The screen itself starts less than a centimetre from the edge, but because the glass bezels are black it looks a lot better and more modern.
When we met with Apple we asked why the company hadn’t added Face ID as a means to unlock the new Air, they told us that Face ID makes sense on the iPhone because that device is thicker, and can accommodate the technology required. To add such technology to the MacBook Apps would need to make the display thicker.
Instead of Face ID, Touch ID makes an appearance in the form of a new sensor above the keyboard. We’re glad that Apple continues to add Touch ID to devices, despite removing it from iPhones, and now the iPad Pro 2018.
Touch ID is easy to set up on the MacBook Air. You either do so the first time you turn on your new Mac, or just go to System Preferences > Touch ID and follow the steps that are similar to setting up Touch ID on an iPhone. You can store three fingerprints (on the iPhone it’s five). We think you are more likely to use the same finger for Touch ID on your Mac, we naturally tended to use our right hand index finger.
You could, of course, set up for three different users, which might make sense if you share the MacBook Air with your family. However, you can also set up an account for each user on your Mac in System Preferences > Users & Groups, in which case you could enable each person using your Mac to register three fingerprints to be used when they are logged into the Mac.
When you log on your password is required to enable Touch ID, however, the next time your Mac goes to sleep because you’ve left your desk for a few minutes you can unlock it just by touching your finger on the Touch ID pad - similar to the way your Mac can unlock thanks to the proximity of your Apple Watch.
You can also use Touch ID rather than enter your password every time you want to make a change in System Preferences. You’ll also be able to use authorise Apple Pay payments using Touch ID on sites that use Apple’s payment system and on the Mac App Store (once you have confirmed that you want to use Touch ID for future purchases).
We’re glad that Apple hasn’t added the Touch Bar, as seen on the MacBook Pro, to the MacBook Air as we feel that the Touch Bar is a gimmick that doesn’t really add much other than an extra layer of complication. Read about how the MacBook Pro compares to the MacBook Air here. Touch ID makes much more sense as an addition than a Touch Bar, as it's about security for the average punter.
Speaking of Apple Pay, when you initially set up Mac you can run through options for setting up a card to add to Apple Pay, or you can do so via System Preferences > Wallet & Apple Pay > Add Card. Either way, you can hold your bank card up to the camera and details are automatically added.
You can only set up Apple Pay for one user on the Mac, even if you have multiple users. We find it slightly frustrating that we have to add our details to Apple Pay on each device we own, but there is a reason why you need to do that - Apple doesn’t hold your actual account information anywhere, instead it creates a Device Account Number, and when you use Apple Pay it uses that Device Account Number instead of providing your card number. You can see your transaction information in System Preferences > Transactions.
Another addition is Apple’s T2 chip that also appears in the MacBook Pro and iMac Pro. The T2 is an Apple made processor that looks after security features as well as powering Siri so that it’s always listening. (On Macs without the T2 chip you trigger Siri by pressing and holding Command and Space together.)
You can set up Hey Siri during setup, but if you skip that step, go to System Preferences > Siri and tick the box beside Listen for “Hey Siri”. Before you go through teaching Siri to understand you make sure you are set to use the right language. We were in English United States by default and had to do everything again.
Before Siri arrived on the Mac we thought there wasn’t much point, we don’t want to be the one in the office talking to our Mac. However, when you are using the Mac at home it’s sightly less embarrassing to speak to Siri, and there are some benefits in doing so.
You can do things that would normally take a few steps, for example: “Turn on Bluetooth”. The only problem is that with a HomePod in the room we were just triggering that, which became more than frustrating especially when the HomePod would tell us it couldn’t do something that Siri on our Mac would have been able to do. It would be good if you could direct your Siri requests to a specific device.
What can you actually use Hey Siri for? You can ask “Hey Siri read [name’s] last message to me” and it will and ask you if you’d like to reply. "Hey Siri open Pages". "Hey Siri change the wallpaper". It's still rather limited though. Here are things you can ask Siri on your Mac.
Keyboard & Track Pad
It’s worth mentioning the keyboard because it’s considerably different to the keyboard on the old MacBook Air - which we actually loved. It’s the same ‘butterfly’ keyboard as the one on the 2018 MacBook Pro, so called because of the shape of the mechanism below each key.
This is one benefit the MacBook Air has over the 2017 MacBook and the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro. They are hindered by an issue that is causing some keyboard to stop working if a bit of dust gets trapped under a key. Apple appears to have rectified this issue in the new version of the butterfly keyboard, although it’s not mentioned it. Read more about the problems with the older butterfly keyboard here.
So, what is it like to use the keyboard on the new MacBook Air? We are used to using a Magic Keyboard with our iMac and we love the feel of typing on that. Using the keyboard on the new MacBook Air feels like it takes a bit more of an effort to press the keys, we’re not sure if its just that the keys move less and are quieter though, giving the impression that we aren’t hitting the key hard enough.
A friend who tried out the new keyboard loved it, so it probably depends on what you are used to. Whatever you think of the new keyboard, the design is a requirement for a narrower laptop, so probably worth the sacrifice.
Below the keyboard is a new, larger Force Touch trackpad that’s 20 percent larger than previously. One feature that the Force Touch trackpad brings is the ability to deep press on a word and see dictionary and thesaurus entries (and even translations).
On a Mac that doesn’t have Force Touch you can just right-click. You can use the Force Touch for more than bringing up a dictionary, of course. It is used in various different ways depending on the app. For example, if you deep press on a link in Safari it will preview the page you would be taken to.
The problem we have always had activating the touch pad while typing remains, with the cursor jumping up the page and our typing continuing in the middle of another section.
Specs & Performance
The new MacBook Air’s offer the following as standard:
- 1.6GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost to 3.6GHz
- 128GB or 256GB SSD
- 8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory
- Intel UHD Graphics 617
Build to order options include:
- 16GB RAM (previously only 8GB)
- 512GB or 1.5TB storage
The 1.6GHz processor is the Intel Amber Lake Core i5 CPU with no option for anything else, even if you'd be happy to pay more for a Core i7. Apple would rather point you in the direction of a MacBook Pro if this is a requirement.
These Amber Lake Y processors are lower powered than the Coffee Lake chips found in the MacBook Pro, but they should be suitable for every-day home and work use. Because they use less power the idea is that you get more battery life.
It’s important to note that the older MacBook Air which is still on sale with a 5th-generation (Broadwell) 1.8GHz processor, which is in no way faster than the 2018 MacBook Air. We can see this causing some confusion among some consumers though.
Clearly there is a humungous leap from the old MacBook Air to the new model, but just how does the 2018 MacBook Air stand up to the other Macs on sale right now?
We ran our usual group of benchmarks to find out. It'ss no surprise that the Air beat the 2017 MacBook in the Geekbench 4.1 multi-core test with a score 7818, compared to the 2017 MacBook’s 6835. The Air also beat the MacBook in the single-core test. Both the entry-level 2017 2.3GHz iMac and the 2017 13in MacBook Pro scored better here. This isn’t surprising, the processor in the Air isn’t as high-specced as the one in these models. But it demonstrates the position of the Air in the line up - it may not be powerful enough for your needs.
In the Cinebench Open GL test we saw 35fps, in comparison to 39fps on the 2017 13in MacBook Pro and 25fps for the 2017 MacBook. In the Unigene Valley benchmark the 2018 Air got a score of 311 to the 2017 MacBook’s 267 and the 2017 13in MacBook Pro’s 448. When we ran the AJA Systems test we were surprised that it didn’t perform well in terms of write speed, while read speed was good.
The 2018 MacBook Air has a 50.3‑watt‑hour lithium‑polymer battery. Apple says battery life is “all-day” which is basically up to 12 hours. In fact you should be able to get 13 hours of iTunes video, according to Apple, more than enough for a transatlantic flight.
In our video loop test, the Air managed 10 hours and 45 minutes which is a solid result but there are laptops out there that can go longer.
Connectivity & Audio
As we mentioned earlier, the fact that Apple is still selling the older MacBook Air is interesting because it shows that the company recognises that it needs to have a machine on offer that maintains the older USB-A port.
The new MacBook Air has only two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone jack. Thunderbolt 3 comes via a USB-C connector and can be used for charging and to connect DisplayPort screens too. You’ll be able to power a 4K display or run an eGPU from one of those ports.
If you are considering moving from an older Mac laptop to the new MacBook Air you will need to consider how much of a pain it will be to move to USB-C/Thunderbolt. An adaptor costs £19.
We’d say that the Thunderbolt 3 ports are a useful addition but the lack of USB will be especially annoying for people who don't want to fork out for an adaptor. The SD card reader is also gone which will frustrate photographers and the like.
Another issue to consider: we currently use an external screen with our Mac laptop, which we plug in using a Mini DisplayPort to DVI adaptor. Buying an adaptor to use a screen with a MacBook Air can be complicated as you need to specify not only what type of adaptor you are looking for, but whether it is male or female.
You are better off buying one of Apple’s adaptors because in our experience if you use a non-Apple adapter it might not work - although our problem here is that Apple doesn’t sell a USB C to to DVI adaptor. We are hoping that this Arktek offering works (£9.99). We also have a VGA monitor available so we are going to try out the Belkin USB-C to VGA Adaptor when it arrives (Apple sells it so we have some confidence it should work, although it’s £29.95). Hopefully one of these will work - we'll update this when we receive them.
We also expect that there will be a few people mourning the loss of the trusty Magsafe power port that meant that if you tripped over the cable it would pop out without sending your Mac crashing to the floor. You may also miss the SDXC card slot that was on the older MacBook Air, but how many people use an actual camera these days?
We’re so happy that Apple has revived the MacBook Air. We were convinced that the company intended to remove it from the line up in favour of the MacBook. In fact, by updating the MacBook Air, Apple has thrown the regular MacBook into an existential crisis: with the Air now becoming the perfect laptop for anyone who values portability, the MacBook really doesn't have a lot to offer.
We're not completely sold on the gold option - but that's no big deal as there are two other colour options available. We love the fact that it's made from recycled aluminium. And we congratulate Apple on reducing the dimensions while still making a laptop that looks like the trademark Air.
Plenty of upgrades are welcome including the Retina display, new internals, Touch ID and more. Just be aware the change to USB-C might be quite a shock if you're new to it.
We're are disappointed that the rumoured under-1,000 entry-level price didn't materialise but the 2018 MacBook Air is still ones of the cheapest laptops Apple sells and we are sure it will prove very popular as it's the perfect Mac laptop for the majority of people.