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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