Apple MacBook Air (2018) First Impressions

Posted on November 11, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Mac and macOS with 34 Comments

Apple’s new MacBook Air offers a more modern—and, yes, more expensive—take on this venerable and influential product line. The improvements should please fans who waited far too long for this update. But I’m perhaps more interested in how the 2018 MacBook Air stacks up against comparable PCs like Surface Laptop 2.

So let’s get the price out of the way first.

The new MacBook Air is expensive: It starts at $1199 for a version with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of SSD storage. That’s about $200 more expensive than the dated model it replaces. And it’s about $200 more expensive than a similarly-configured Surface Laptop 2. That’s a premium of 20 percent, which isn’t so much an “Apple tax” as it is an example of what I called Apple Jacked.

I know. That Apple products are expensive isn’t new nor shouldn’t be a surprise. But as configured to my liking—16 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage—the new MacBook Air set me back just under $1700 after taxes and fees. That you can spend that much, or more, on a non-Pro MacBook is somewhat alarming.

Apple justifies these prices with some upgrades that are impressive only because it waited so long to deliver them. The biggest improvement, of course, is the display. Where the previous generation MacBook Air was saddled with a low resolution 1440 x 900 display since 2012, the new version has a significantly improved Retina display with a resolution of 2560 x 1600, or 227 pixels per inch (PPI).

MacBook Air (2018) top, MacBook Air (previous gen, bottom)

That’s a big difference. But the 16:10 MacBook Air display also offers a higher pixel density than that of the 3:2 Surface Laptop, whose 2256 x 1504 panel hits 201 PPI. I do prefer 3:2 displays, of course, but the Apple display is crisp, bright, and wonderful to behold. All it’s lacking is the True Tone functionality that Apple reserves from its more expensive MacBook Pro and iPad Pro products. But then Surface Laptop 2 lacks this feature as well.

The other major upgrade in the new MacBook Air is the Touch ID button, which sits at the upper-right of the keyboard. This sensor enables simple, one-touch sign-ins, both for the Mac itself and for other authentications, such as when using Apple Pay. Only the MacBook Pro offers this nicety, and then only on the expensive models that also come with the lackluster Touch Bar. The MacBook Air’s implementation is unique as it comes with a normal function key row, which I prefer.

Surface Laptop 2 doesn’t offer a fingerprint reader. But it does come with a Windows Hello-compatible camera, which uses facial recognition—similar to Apple’s FaceID technology—for sign-ins. I happen to prefer a fingerprint reader to facial recognition, but whatever: Microsoft has offered a more elegant way to sign-in to its PCs for years, and many people prefer Windows Hello facial recognition to fingerprint readers or other authentication methods. So this is kind of a wash.

I felt that the typing and touchpad experience on the previous generation MacBook Air were nearly ideal given the time frame in which they were first released. That both are completely different in the new MacBook Air is both a curiosity and a source of debate.

The new keyboard is, of course, the more controversial of the two. This is a third-generation “Apple” butterfly keyboard, meaning short, loud key throws and, potentially, some reliability issues. We’ll see. But I’ll say this: I actually don’t mind the short throws, and I feel like I could get used to this keyboard very easily if I used it regularly.

I’ll also say this: The new keyboard is less desirable than what I consider to be today’s best laptop keyboards. Those on Surface Book 2, Surface Laptop 2, and virtually any HP, for example, are superior. Modern ThinkPad X1 keyboards, which feature scalloped keys and slightly longer key throws, are also preferable.

The Force Touch trackpad is another story. Apple has, for years, provided the single best touchpad experience in personal computers, and often by a wide margin. Some PC makers—again, Surface and HP primarily, and of course Lenovo’s excellent TrackPoint system—have caught up with some PC models in recent years. But Apple has pretty much never ceded its crown.

Well, the Force Touch trackpad is even better. This is the new standard for touchpad excellence. And while I’m not a huge fan of the huge touchpads you see on some PCs today—like the ludicrous one on the new MacBook Pros—the MacBook Air trackpad, perhaps thanks to the smaller form factor of the Air itself—seems more reasonably-sized. So far, it’s been highly accurate and free of palm rejection errors.

I’ve seen the complaints about expansion, but I think Apple hit the right mix for this particular laptop, save one niggling complaint: It should have split the two available USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports so that there was one on each side of the device. As it is, the two ports are right next to each other on the left side, as they are on the low-end MacBook Pro. Splitting them up would make for more versatile usage, and it would be friendlier to lefties too.

The previous-generation MacBook Air provided more expansion, with two full-sized USB ports (one on each side, by the way), miniDisplayPort 2 for video-out, and even a full-sized SD card slot. But minimal is in these days, and the new Air’s port allotment is superior to that of Surface Laptop 2, for sure. That machine offers a single USB-A port and a single miniDisplayPort 2 for video-out. Both are outdated.

MacBook Air (2018) top, Surface Laptop 2 (bottom)

Apple’s move to USB-C for power is smart. It’s more modern than Microsoft’s Surface Connect—because it’s Thunderbolt 3-powered—and it lends itself well to modern expansion docks and even external GPUs. Some have complained that the move to USB-C has eliminated the magnetic safety of the old MagSafe system. But what I miss more than that is Apple’s old power cable management system, where you could coil the cord around the wall wart.

Apple says that the speakers in the new MacBook Air are 25 percent louder than those of its predecessor. That may be true, but they don’t get particularly loud from what I can tell. That said, they are crisp and clear, with no distortion even at the highest volume settings.

Overall, I really like the form factor, but then I was always a sucker for the MacBook Air. So is the entire PC industry: Every Ultrabook you’ve ever seen or used owes its existence to the MacBook Air. So, too, does Surface Laptop 2. But Apple has done a nice job with its favorite types of improvements—smaller footprint, thinner and lighter form factor—while retaining the essence of the MacBook Air product line.

MacBook Air (2018) top, MacBook Air (previous gen, bottom)

Whether this system provides the same value as its predecessor is less certain. Its low-power Y-series processor hasn’t proven problematic yet, but it’s still less powerful and future-proof than the mainstream U-series processors found in Surface Book 2 and other competitors. And with the price hike, the value proposition drops even further than usual.

MacBook Air (2018) top, Surface Laptop 2 (bottom)

So we’ll see. I’ve only just unboxed the new MacBook Air and have configured the apps I use most frequently. I did write this entire article on the device, but there’s a lot more testing to come. More soon.

 

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Comments (39)

39 responses to “Apple MacBook Air (2018) First Impressions”

  1. djross95

    Hi Paul, I'd be most curious about two things: whether the new butterfly keyboard proves to be reliable over the mid-to long-term, and if the processir bears up under normal (ie, non-pro) usage loads. If both of these issues check out, then this would be an attractive laptop, especially when purchased used or refurbished to knock the price down a bit.

  2. nbplopes

    With the ever increasing prices way beyond inflation Apple it’s becoming in my book just another company ran by fk heads. Money does corrupt the mind I guess, over and over.


    Playing prices aggressively against their customers, pricing them out. This while being one of the most profitable company in the world. Can’t they be the most profitable company in the world while keeping and increasing their market share? How much profit they need until increasing the market share makes sense to them?


    On the topic. Do not understand why people would buy this instead of the MacBook Pro. There is almost no difference in price and offers a lot less longevity.

  3. adam.mt

    I find Paul's comment on the HP Envy x2 review interesting given he's just spent $1700 on this 8GB Air - "A PC with a Y-series processor and only 4 GB of RAM should be closer to $500 than $1000"


    Review on another site suggests performance is pretty much identical to the old Air, few percent improvement, which seems rather poor given the long time for upgrade and price hike.


    If the MacBook Pro doesn't cost much more then surely that's the model to buy?

    • Paul Thurrott

      A couple of things. I spent $1700 on a MacBook Air because I need a modern Mac to compare against the PCs I review. It was upgraded by $400 with additional RAm and storage. The Y-series processor in the MBA runs at 7-watts vs. 5 for the Envy. The Envy is a dog where the MBA runs normally. This could be a number of things: The efficiency of the OS, the extra wattage, and/or the extra RAM (16 v. 4). What I wrote in in the Envy review is that 8 GB should be the minimum for a Windows PC. It would be workable at that level, I suspect.
  4. scarper86

    If I'm paying seventeen fricking hundred dollars for a laptop, then there is no way I'm settling for a keyboard that is "less desirable" when there are "superior" and cheaper alternatives. It's amazing the excuses people make to rationalize overpaying for inferior hardware when it comes to Apple. If they were at least better built than the competition then that might be an argument, but considering the failure rate of these crappy keyboards and the other reliability issues of Apple laptops over the last few years it makes no sense. Top that off with Apple's poor record of taking care of customers with these poorly designed computers (CBC Attacking the Apple Empire) makes me shake my head.

  5. waethorn

    You've had the laptop for how long, and it already shows that greasy fingerprint sheen on the keyboard? LOL, That's a piece of junk!

  6. longhorn

    The Surface Laptop will only last as long as its battery lasts. If the battery loses strength on the MBA then Apple can replace it. iFixit score 0 vs 3. You can also resell the MBA at a considerably higher price. These are factors to include in a price comparison.


    I think it's a shame. The Surface Laptop could beat this overpriced MBA if Microsoft only knew how to look beyond the surface. Maybe MS designed the Surface Laptop as they did because they want to sell you Hardware as a Service. That's the only concept that makes sense with products that can't be repaired. If a problems occurs they just give you a new one, because with Hardware as a Service you are always covered by warranty.


  7. trevorcurtis

    Checking out the new MacBook Air at Best Buy, sitting next to a 13" MacBook Pro, it is quite clear that the Air's display is dimmer and has slightly lower color quality. The brightness is notably lower than the MacBook Pro at full brightness. I don't know if anyone has noticed that by putting the two machines together, but I did read that the brightness was disappointing in a review online somewhere. The new Air may have a Retina Display, but it doesn't seem to be the equal of a MacBook Pro LCD display.

  8. NT6.1

    I knew they would ruin the MacBook Air.

  9. madthinus

    The real question: Are you keeping it?

    • Paul Thurrott

      Yeah, I think so. I need to see where performance and battery life end up. But I like the form factor and portability quite a bit. And I do need for a modern Mac for testing.
  10. brettscoast

    Good wrap up Paul


    Besides price the other letdown is these are 8th gen core i5 dual core not quad core parts which is a let down considering dell, lenovo & other PC makers offer quad core core i5i7 in their configuration options.

  11. warren

    iFixit posted their teardown of the new MBA the other day.


    Of interest is the T2 chip, which is almost as large as the entire package for the Core i5 + Intel UHD 617 graphics chips put together.


    It also looks like they've made some improvements to repairability.... the headphone jack is on its own little motherboard, as are the Thunderbolt ports. Since these are things that can be easily damaged, this is good news.

    • waethorn

      In reply to warren:

      But how hard is it to even get at those parts?


      • warren

        In reply to Waethorn:


        I get the impression that it's a little bit easier than other recent MacBook products. Keyboard replacement pretty much requires destroying the machine, and there are still a lot of interdependencies (the trackpad and keyboard use the same cable, e.g.).... but removing the battery no longer requires using solvents to dissolve glue.


        Of course.... if Apple continues going after the Louis Rossmann's of the world and actively tries to prevent third-party repair shops and Amazon resellers from sourcing batteries, the improved repairability won't matter that much.

  12. remc86007

    So it costs more and has worse specs than a 1st gen Surface Laptop? That's fun.


    I guess it doesn't really matter as long as it can accomplish its primary function: browsing Facebook and Pinterest while simultaneously sending and receiving a high volume of emojis through iMessage in Starbucks and lecture halls.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to remc86007:

      I'm curious to see if the specs are "worse" than a first-gen Surface Laptop. I assume by worse you mean it doesn't perform as well? I'll find out.

      • Andi

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Paul, a pound for pound refresh would have been a 15W Intel SoC for the Air. Instead it is a 7W chip. This is a downgrade and to add insult to injury they priced it higher than the previous version.


        The first gen Surface Laptop is a 15 W part. It is likely that despite the meager architectural improvements of the Amber-Lake CPU in the MBA, the Surface Laptop is still a faster machine for less money.

  13. ivan19998

    Sure thing, CPU is powerful enough to run the tasks typical for ultrabooks. It’s definitely a good laptop overall. Yes, it’s pricey but very solid and well done.

  14. FalseAgent

    lovely laptop, shame about the price and the performance

  15. PeterC

    Ouch, it’s those prices that stop me returning to Mac OS, just too expensive. I’ve got to retire quite a bit of kit soon and now I’m iOS for my mobile needs I’m reviewing the big switch away from windows, but those prices....


    Does Mac OS offer some “continuity safety” these days where windows is disappearing up it’s own derrière?

    • wright_is

      In reply to PeterC:

      I switched to Mac in 2007/2008 and I bought my daughters Macs as well. We got burned. The MacBook Pro the eldest daughter got (she was going to get a "normal" notebook, I paid the difference, so that she could get an MBP). I got an iMac and the youngest a Mac mini.

      Apple abandoned both the iMac and Mac mini "very" quickly. They stopped getting new versions of the OS (and thus a lot of programs also never got further updates, because they required newer versions of macOS) in 2012 and stopped getting security updates in 2014. The Bootcamp side of those devices are still getting updates from Microsoft... :-S

      When it was time for the next round of upgrades, I went back to Windows. I was looking for a Core i7 quad core, 8GB RAM laptop with BluRay, the best I could manage on the Mac side was a dual core i7 and DVD for 3,000€. I went with a quad Core i7 Sony Vaio with BD for 1,300€. That was handed down to my wife a few years ago and is still going strong.

      It is a shame, the prices are too high and, after the longevity of support being so minimal, I really couldn't justify the price jacking.

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