Apple MacBook Air (2020) full review

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A few years ago, it was easy to say to people that if they wanted a MacBook, they should probably just buy the cheapest MacBook Air. While that laptop was not necessarily cheap by everyone’s standards, it gave the core Mac experience at a price that didn’t require the kind of heavy investment needed for a MacBook Pro.

Unless you were video editing or working with a lot of professional apps, you really didn’t need a MacBook Pro. But that changed when Apple let the MacBook Air languish for over three years, lazily updating the internals now and then as the company pushed its new, thinner MacBook 12in. It’s very telling that the 12in MacBook is now discontinued.

The aged design, display and specs of that old Air meant we said people should go for the more expensive but underpowered 12in, or plump up the extra cash for a Pro they probably didn’t need to get a nicer screen and solid performance.

Thank goodness then that this 2020 MacBook Air finally means we can say this is the best MacBook for most people. Despite not having a redesign or upgrade to the Retina screen since 2018, the new Magic Keyboard on this latest model means the Air is the best it has been for years, despite its flaws. 

Design & Build - Magic trick

The chassis of the Air is the same as it has been since the 2018 reboot with two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports and a headphone jack, a sleek wedge design and a 16:10 screen. Our gold review unit is an attractive subtle hue, though silver and space grey might work better for you.

The addition of the scissor switch Magic Keyboard from the dire, flat butterfly keyboards of old is the most welcome update though. Apple went five years trying to make the butterfly design work before returning fully to proper scissor switch keys. The board here is stable and less clacky than the classic old Air’s, with good travel (1mm) and spacing.

The welcome addition of the row of function keys means the Air is the MacBook to get if you don’t want Apple’s divisive Touch Bar, now that every model of MacBook Pro has the display strip on it. The Air also packs in a Touch ID fingerprint scanner into the power button which has proven excellent for signing into the laptop, authorising App Store downloads and system changes and using Apple Pay online. After a few uses of it you won’t believe you used to type your password out that much.

A generous glass trackpad is the best in the business with no moving parts and clicks thanks to Apple’s still-awesome Force Touch haptics. The responsiveness and accuracy are second to none and still better than practically every Windows laptop going.

When closed the Air is 16.1mm at the hinge and tapers down to just 4.1mm in a 1.29kg package. All in all, it’s not revolutionary but if you’re coming from an old school MacBook Air you’ll appreciate the step up in quality, the improved keyboard and the sleeker dimensions.

Display - Get in ya Retina

I like the MacBook Air’s 16:10 13.3in LCD screen despite the black bezels around the edge. They’re pretty normal for laptops up to this price but a few Windows machines like the Dell XPS 13 barely have any at all, so if you’re picky about that sort of thing have a shop around.

The display has a 2560x1600 resolution but bear in mind it doesn’t support the P3 wide colour gamut, so if your work requires such colour accuracy you won’t find that standard here. Similarly, those looking for complete accuracy for photo editing will want to turn off True Tone - the screen tech that adjusts the warmth of the display from ambient light. But most people should leave it turned on as it cuts out harsh blue light, as does the Night Shift mode that you can schedule to come on in the twilight hours.

With 400nits of brightness this is a sumptuous screen for working on indoors, but take it outdoors and the reflectivity makes it virtually impossible to see, despite the decent amount of brightness.

Specs & Performance - Basics covered

My review unit was the £999/US$999 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 with 8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X RAM, Intel Iris Plus Graphics and 256GB PCIe-based SSD. The last two generations of Air had Core i5 as standard, but Apple has scaled back to an i3 to get this entry level unit costing under a thousand sheets.

There’s a £1,299/US$1,299 option that gives you a 1.1GHz i5 and doubles the storage to 512GB, and you can configure up to i7, 16GB RAM and 2TB storage if you want to. Confusingly, the base MacBook Pro starts at £1,299/$1,299 too, but with the same RAM and storage as the cheapest Air. Its 8th-gen Core i5 processor muddies the waters even more.

I would recommend the Air at this price as it gets you a newer i5 with 512GB storage in a smaller shell without a Touch Bar. You have to pay £1,799/$1,799 before you get a 10th-gen Intel powered Pro in 2020.

The Intel chips in all the new Airs are 10th-gen, so the move to an i3 from 2019’s 8th-gen i5 really isn’t that noticeable. I used the Air for over a month for all my work, using Chrome for several projects and running Photoshop for light editing with other apps like Spotify, Todoist and Slack running in the background.

I saw occasional lag when running this much at once and when I tried to run as much as I do on my specced-out Surface Book 2, the Air stumbled slightly with the loading wheel. But for lighter users who need a laptop for browsing, writing and entertainment there shouldn’t be any issue.

In case there was any doubt, I do not recommend the Air for gaming. macOS is a casual gaming platform at best and the limited thermal cooling of the laptop prevents you pushing it.

Here you can see benchmarks against this year’s Core i5 MacBook Air and some competing recent Windows laptops. All you need to see is the Geekbench 4 multi-core score and the battery test result (one 720p video looped on 120 nits brightness until dead) to see that the Core i3 Air is not the best of the bunch.

If you want double the power and more hours from a charge, Windows at this price point is the way to go.

The biggest crime on this laptop is its webcam. For Apple to still be shipping 720p webcams in MacBooks is mad, particularly when we’re all using them so much during the coronavirus pandemic. The grainy results are, frankly, trash and are outperformed by virtually any other Windows laptop webcam from the past few years. Sort it out, Apple.

Battery & Charging - Unplug and pray

As with a lot of laptops, Google Chrome is a greedy RAM hog here and it noticeably affected performance with many tabs open. I also believe it contributes to the Air’s less than stellar battery life away from the charger (a 30W brick).

Apple claims the machine can do 11 hours before a charge but with my workflow in full steam I usually got a maximum of five before my eyes were darting to the percentage counter. There’s no way I squeezed anything near 11 out of the Air, and a lot of it is down to how much drain third-party apps place on the system.

When I tested using just Safari and writing in Pages the Air hummed along much happier and drained far less power. If you live in Apple’s apps then of course a MacBook Air is a no brainer but if you use a lot of Google services and power hungry apps then a Windows computer might suit you better.

Software - Where the value's at

The Air ships with macOS Catalina, which I updated to 10.15.5 during my testing. If you’re coming from Mojave or older, Catalina is the version that killed iTunes and split it into Music, TV and Podcasts as three separate apps.

It also has a redesigned Photos app, Screen Time ported from iOS, improvements to old apps like Notes and Reminders and my personal favourite Sidecar, the software that lets you use an iPad as a second display.

Version 10.15.5 also added Battery Health Management, an under-the-hood setting on by default to help preserve your battery’s lifetime if you keep it plugged in all the time.

Quietly the best part of macOS is Apple’s included apps (full list below). It’s often overlooked that you get Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Garageband, iMovie and more for the asking price. No Windows laptop, not even Microsoft’s Surface line, come with Office installed for free so bear that in mind.

Buying a Mac gets you a full and free range of productivity, messaging, video, entertainment and production apps that for most casual users doesn’t require you to purchase any additional third party software to get stuff done. Sure, there’s an Apple premium price attached to every MacBook, but don’t forget about the value of the included software.

Add to that features like AirDrop’s dummy-proof file sharing between iPhones, iPads and other Macs and you can easily slot into Apple’s cosy ecosystem. I even found myself using Siri on the MacBook Air more than I use it on iPhones or iPads because it's a good way to turn settings on and off and search for files. Don't expect miracles, but it's better than Google Assistant for doing device-based tasks as opposed to getting good web search results. 

Despite some internet grumbling from Mac fanatics, macOS Catalina is a stable enough build in my experience. But I feel that Apple should move away from updating the OS annually, as most complaints come when people upgrade to the new system and find their workflows changed or programs behaving differently. The advantage of Windows 10 is that it’s a constant OS with new build updates from time to time that don’t interfere in the same way.

Apple used to do this, but now insists on annual overhauls. Power users sometimes don’t update to the new version for a few weeks while they read up on what it might break. This shouldn’t be the case.

Price & Availability

The Air starts at £999/$999 for the Core i3 direct from Apple, though you might consider the £1,299/$1,299 option with Core i5 that doubles the storage to 512GB. But it might be canny to upgrade the RAM to 16GB if you can afford it when you buy as the main issue I had with the Air was memory management under heavy load.

That starts pushing the price up and you might be tempted to look at the latest Huawei Matebook X Pro (£1,399+) or the 2019 HP Envy 13 (£899) for something with similar or more power if you're not locked into Apple's ecosystem.

If it really has to be macOS then a MacBook Pro will be better if you’re rendering photo or video, but then the price practically doubles compared to the entry level Air.

Check out the rest of our best laptop chart for more options, and to see how the Air stacks up against the competition.

Verdict

Apple has got the MacBook Air back under £1,000/$1,000 with 10th-gen Intel chips, a great display and a superlative keyboard. For many Mac fans this will be enough, but if you’re on the fence and also checking out Windows options then you will be able to find more processing power for this price or less.

Battery life is disappointing unless you only use Apple’s apps and performance creaks when multitasking on the Core i3. But for the light computing needs of the majority of people the entry-level 2020 MacBook Air is the best MacBook option at the best price Apple currently offers.

Specs

Apple MacBook Air (2020): Specs

  • 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3, Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz, with 4MB L3 cache
  • 8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory (configurable to 16GB)
  • 256GB PCIe-based SSD (configurable to 512GB, 1TB or 2TB SSD)
  • Intel Iris Plus Graphics
  • 13.3in LED-backlit display with IPS technology (2560 x 1600, 16:10 aspect ratio), True Tone
  • 720p FaceTime HD camera
  • Built-in 49.9 watt hour lithium polymer battery
  • claimed battery life up to 11 hours wireless web/12 hours Apple TV playback
  • Touch ID
  • 2x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports
  • Stereo speakers, 3x microphones, 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0
  • 30.41 x 21.24 x 0.41–1.61cm
  • 1.29 kg

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