Home / PC & Laptops / New MacBook Air Review: Your Next Laptop Has Arrived (Three Years Late) – Wall Street Journal

New MacBook Air Review: Your Next Laptop Has Arrived (Three Years Late) – Wall Street Journal

MacBook Air, my MacBook Air,
For me, you were always there.
I loved you first in two thousand and ten.
Two thousand fourteen, I loved you again.

In design as thin as a carving knife,
You still managed all-day battery life.
And when your price dropped to $1K,
Everyone, it seemed, bought an MBA.

Lately, though, my heart’s grown colder,
And Windows laptops have grown much bolder.
Why, oh why, did I have to wait,
For a MacBook Air update this great?

I won’t apologize for how the MacBook Air inspires the laptop Shakespeare in me. With a balanced equation of portability, power and battery life, Apple’s once-envelope-pushing machine changed how we worked on the go and forced a sea change in the Windows laptop industry.

That’s why the new MacBook Air, which starts at $1,199 and will be in stores Tuesday, is a big deal. For the first time in more than seven years, Apple has given the seminal product a redesign, with a higher-resolution display and a thinner, lighter body.

For the first time in more than seven years, Apple has given its most popular laptop a redesign, with a higher-resolution display and a thinner, lighter body.

For the first time in more than seven years, Apple has given its most popular laptop a redesign, with a higher-resolution display and a thinner, lighter body.


Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

With the redesign, the MacBook Air remains the best choice of all of Apple’s laptops. The MacBook, released in 2015, is svelte but slow with sad battery life. The MacBook Pros, refreshed in 2016, have the speed, but they’re bigger and only run 10 hours on a charge—not 13 like the old Air. The new MacBook Air is as balanced as its predecessor, in a more modern design.

The bad news? It’s three years late. Once the leader, the Air is now the follower, and the competition is pulling ahead in features, ergonomics and battery life. While there’s a lot to love about the Air, there is still a lot to be desired.

What’s to Love

The old Air’s display was like looking through an old screen door; the new Air’s 13.3-inch “Retina” display is like peering through just-Windexed glass, with a crisp, vibrant view. Images did look slightly brighter with higher contrast on the MacBook Pro’s wider-color-gamut display. However, you’d only notice if you kept them side-by-side.

The old Air had a bezel the width of a bus lane. The new Air’s display doesn’t stretch all the way to the edges like the ones on the iPhone XS or XR, but the unassuming bezel is to thank for the 2.75-pound laptop’s much smaller footprint, versus its 2.96-pound predecessor.

Even though the new MacBook Air, left, has the same size screen and keyboard as its predecessor, it is substantially smaller, with much thinner bezels around the display.

Even though the new MacBook Air, left, has the same size screen and keyboard as its predecessor, it is substantially smaller, with much thinner bezels around the display.


Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

Instead of embracing touch screens on its laptops, Apple has decided to expand the trackpad to the size and shape of Kansas. OK, it’s actually 4.7 inches x 3 inches, and it’s wonderfully responsive, accurate and smooth. Like the other Mac laptops, it supports “Force Touch” (an unfortunate choice of words Apple continues to use). That means an extra-firm press can launch hidden menus or shortcuts. My favorite: In Safari, holding down on a link shows a preview of the website.

This Thanksgiving let us all give thanks for the lack of a Touch Bar. The MacBook Pro’s touch-screen strip has proved to be nothing more than a novelty.

Apple added a handy Touch ID fingerprint sensor to the Air, without also burdening it with the Touch Bar found on higher-end MacBook Pro models.

Apple added a handy Touch ID fingerprint sensor to the Air, without also burdening it with the Touch Bar found on higher-end MacBook Pro models.


Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

Absolutely not a novelty: Touch ID. The fingerprint sensor, embedded in the upper right corner of the new Air’s keyboard, beats typing in passwords. But why no Face ID, after two iPhone generations and a new iPad, not to mention Apple’s insistence that face recognition is more reliable and secure? Windows Hello,

Microsoft
’s

facial recognition for PCs, is quite good.

What’s to Like

Performance should be the deciding factor between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. If your days are filled with some combination of web browser tabs, email, documents, presentations, spreadsheets and light video or photo work, you won’t feel a performance difference between the Air and the Pro. In my tests, applications performed as snappily. But I saw a difference in more processor-intensive tasks—exporting or rendering video files, opening large batches of files, etc. For instance, the 2017 MacBook Pro exported a 4K video 45% faster than the new Air.

If you’re considering the small MacBook instead of the Air… just don’t. It costs more, runs slower and has shorter battery life.

The old Air’s battery life was once industry-leading: Thirteen hours—two cross country-flights—without needing a charge. The new Air delivers just around the same, depending on your usage and screen brightness. I made it through a full workday of intermittent use, plus more work after dinner, without needing to charge.

However, my tests indicate that the old Air still lasts longer. On my battery test, which cycles through websites with brightness set around 70%, the new Air lasted 11 hours, while the old Air went 12.5 hours and the 13-inch MacBook Pro went 10 hours. It’s understandable given the much sharper display and thinner body, but that doesn’t change the fact that its Windows competitors are running longer: The newest Surface Laptop lasted nearly 12 hours in my test, while the HP Spectre x360 went 15 hours. (I tested it three times just to make sure.)

Instead of an assortment of ports and an SD card reader, the MacBook Air has two multipurpose USB-C ports. Compatible monitors can charge the new MacBook’s battery when connected.

Instead of an assortment of ports and an SD card reader, the MacBook Air has two multipurpose USB-C ports. Compatible monitors can charge the new MacBook’s battery when connected.


Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

The Air now has two USB-C ports, which have taken the place of the charging, USB, video output and SD card slots. What does that mean for you? Single-cable charging through an external monitor—if you have the right monitor, like this fancy LG or this affordable Lenovo. Also, dongles. The headphone port, however, survives another round.

What’s to Hate

Hate is a strong word for the keyboard so I’ll just say I strongly dislike it. You’ll get used to the Air’s flatter keys—which don’t press down much—the way you get used to a crammed middle seat. This summer Apple made some improvements to this new keyboard design, but I’d still rather have a slightly fatter laptop and keys that move like keys.

Instead of putting touch screens on its newest laptops, Apple made the trackpad bigger. Like the one on the MacBook Pro, the Air’s is responsive, accurate and smooth.

Instead of putting touch screens on its newest laptops, Apple made the trackpad bigger. Like the one on the MacBook Pro, the Air’s is responsive, accurate and smooth.


Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

Hate is the right word to describe my feelings on the 128GB of storage that comes with the $1,199 entry-level model of the Air. Not only does the laptop cost $200 more than its predecessor, but it starts with an amount of storage that was paltry even four years ago. It’s a blatant upsell, just like iCloud storage and 16GB iPhones.

If you’re in search of a new Mac, the Air is the best choice. I’ve ordered one already. If you need more power, go on up to a higher-level Pro—the entry-level model doesn’t have Touch ID or the improved keyboard.

Apple’s lithe laptop was once ahead of the Windows pack, but now, front-runner HP Spectre x360, right, beats it on battery life and perks.

Apple’s lithe laptop was once ahead of the Windows pack, but now, front-runner HP Spectre x360, right, beats it on battery life and perks.


Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

If Windows is an option, then get the new HP Spectre x360, which comes out in early December. Starting at $1,250, it has better specs (256GB!), crazy battery life, a striking design and a touch screen. I leave you with this:

MacBook Air, MacBook Air,
For you I truly still do care.
But we’re living in the laptop’s golden age,
And you no longer hold center stage.

—For more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and headlines, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com


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