Apple MacBook Air (2018) Review

Posted on November 30, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Mac and macOS with 51 Comments

The new MacBook Air arrives several years after its trend-setting predecessor. Can it succeed in a crowded market of excellent competitors?

Why yes. I think it can.

Design

Apple released its second-generation MacBook Air in 2010, and the design was instantly iconic, triggering several years of PC copycats. We may never know why Apple took so long to update that product—my money is on Intel continually missing its ship dates for more efficient mobile chipsets—but it was clear that the next version would need to retain the tapered, wedge-shaped design of its predecessor to be considered a MacBook Air.

Well, Apple did exactly that. And while the new MacBook Air is a bit thinner and lighter than the previous version, it is considerably smaller and will thus take up much less space in a bag. It’s made of 100 percent recycled aluminum, not that anyone will notice the difference. And it’s available in three colors: Silver, the Space Gray I chose, and Gold.

MacBook Air (2018, top) vs. previous-generation design (bottom)

Apple quality is readily apparent everywhere. The display lid opens smoothly with a single finger, and there’s a little cutout in the middle bottom of the keyboard deck, as on the previous Air, so that your finger automatically moves to the correct location. The bottom of the display rotates down below the back of the keyboard deck as it opens, helping reduce its height. And the hinge mechanism is smooth and effort-free; you can easily position the display where you want it and make tiny adjustments as needed. It will always stay in place.

The only thing problematic from a design perspective is that the needle has moved considerably over the past 8 years. And where the previous MacBook Air was an instant classic, the new one is simply yet another thin and light laptop in a market overflowing with such devices. It has the same look, feel, and quality as the smaller MacBook and the larger MacBook Pro. And it retains the basic look and feel of its predecessor. It’s competent, not world-changing.

And that’s fine. The new MacBook Air is an improvement over the previous version in virtually every way. The only thing I miss, really, is the light-up Apple logo on the outside of the display lid. In the interest of thinness, that’s just a reflective silver now.

Display

Faithful MacBook Air owners have been clamoring for Apple to add a Retina-class display to their favorite laptop for years. With the 2018 MacBook Air, their wish has been granted: It ships with a stunning 13.3-inch LED-backlit IPS panel with a resolution of 2560 x 1600, good for 227 pixels per inch (PPI). This display is more pixel-rich than that of Surface Laptop 2 (201 PPI), though I prefer the 3:2 aspect ratio that Microsoft uses.

But Apple has succeeded where it matters. This 16:10 panel sits inside much smaller bezels than did its predecessor, and those bezels are black, which helps to make the display appear to float in space a bit. Most PC-based laptops, with their 16:9 displays, have a huge lower bezel, but the MacBook Air does not. It’s an elegant, balanced design.

I’ve seen a number of reviewers ding the MacBook Air display for being a bit dim. This has not been my experience, and I tend to use the Air with the brightness set to 40 percent or less most of the time and find it to be, if anything, too bright. But here are the numbers: The MacBook Air display provides a brightness of 300 nits, compared to 500 (!) for the MacBook Pro. That may explain the complaints, as many reviewers come at this product from the MacBook Pro they normally use. By comparison, Surface Laptop’s display hits about 350 nits.

So I’ll say this: If you intend to compute outdoors in bright sunlight, the MacBook Air may not be your best choice. But I think its display is fantastic.

Components and ports

The new MacBook Air comes with any Intel Core processor you want as long as it’s a dual-core Core i5-8210Y. Yes, that’s a Y-series processor—formally Core M—that is far less powerful than the quad-core U-series processors we typically see in this form factor and price class. And no, there are no upgrades available, not to Core i7 chips, and not to any U-series processor.

And … it doesn’t matter. As I noted in Apple MacBook Air (2018) Check-In: Performance, this laptop performs wonderfully in the everyday tasks that any MacBook Air buyer would want. Increasingly, I believe this is because macOS is more efficient than Windows 10. But whatever the reason, performance is excellent across the board.

The Air is also quite quiet. There’s a fan for those rare moments when you are pushing the processor a bit too hard, such as with video rendering. But not in normal use.

Beyond the processor, the new MacBook Air ships with Intel UHD Graphics 617 integrated graphics, 8 or 16 GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM, and 128 GB, 256 GB, 512 GB, or 1.5 TB of fast PCIe-based SSD storage.

Connectivity is mostly modern: The Air comes with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2. That said, there’s no LTE option, which I find increasingly anachronistic.

Expansion comparison: MacBook Air (2018, top) vs. previous-gen MacBook Air (bottom)

Expansion is both modern and excellent. The 2018 MacBook Air provides two USB-C ports, and both are Thunderbolt 3-capable, so either can be used for charging, display-out, storage, or even an external GPU, which could turn this laptop into a credible gaming laptop. My only gripe: Both USB-C ports are on the left side of the Air; I would prefer the versatility of having one on each side.

On the right, you’ll find only a headphone jack. There’s not even a Kensington lock port.

Audio quality from the stereo speakers is exceptional and distortion-free. I’ve been consistently impressed by when playing music or videos, and the stereo separation is excellent.

Every new MacBook Air comes with Apple’s excellent Touch ID sensor, which looks like a key in the top right of the keyboard. This sensor is used to sign-in to the device, to approve Mac App Store purchases, and to use Apple Pay with websites. It’s lightning quick and works well, but I’m a bit surprised that Apple hasn’t added Face ID to its Mac lineup yet too.

That said, the sad little 720p webcam that Apple does provide in the display lid may explain the rationale. The lid is just too thin. And the quality of the camera that does fit isn’t all that impressive.

Keyboard and touchpad

The 2018 MacBook Air arrives with Apple’s third-generation butterfly keyboard. Allegedly designed to provide more stability than traditional scissor mechanism keyboards, previous versions of this design have proven unreliable in real-world use and are unusually loud.

I’ve used hundreds of laptops, and I’ve never once thought that key stability was an issue that needed to be solved. But Apple has addressed the complaints with its design and this latest generation butterfly keyboard is quieter than before—though still a bit loud.

I’m surprised to say that I really like it. The key throw is short and stiff, but enjoyable. And the backlighting is fantastic, with an ambient light sensor to ensure that it’s never too bright or too dim.

I still have concerns about reliability, of course. Apple added a condom-like cover inside each key to address this issue—this also contributes to the quieter key presses—but only time can tell if this effort was truly successful. I’ve experienced no reliability issues, at least so far. But I’ve only had the laptop for three weeks at the time of this writing.

There’s nothing controversial about the touchpad, however. Apple’s Force Touch Trackpad is a marvel and is easily the single best touchpad I’ve ever used. Unlike other touchpads, the Force Touch Trackpad is a fake; it is a non-moving slab of glass that uses haptic feedback to fool your fingers into thinking that the touchpad is moving. And it doesn’t just work, it’s incredible. The touchpad is large by Windows PC standards—it’s about 20 percent bigger than the version in the previous MacBook Air—but it’s quite a bit smaller than the enormous touchpads Apple ships on MacBook Pro. I love it. It may literally be perfect.

Portability

Tipping the scales at just 2.75 pounds, the 2018 MacBook Air is thin, light, and delightfully portable. Its predecessor was considerably bigger and weighed 2.96 pounds; Surface Laptop 2, its most obvious competitor, is likewise bigger, but the Core i5 version, at 2.76 pounds, is roughly the same weight.

Size comparison: MacBook Air (2018, top), Surface Laptop (middle), previous-gen MacBook Air (bottom)

As was the case with the Acer Chromebook Spin 13 I recently reviewed, testing the MacBook Air’s battery life has proven unusually challenging. In this case, I opted to stream purchased HD video over Wi-Fi using iTunes, Apple’s default media player application. By default, iTunes will try to download each movie you play, so I disabled that. But I had to babysit the laptop during the testing to ensure that movies played back-to-back. (I couldn’t get repeat to work for whatever reason.)

Thinness comparison: MacBook Air (2018, top), Surface Laptop (middle), previous-gen MacBook Air (bottom)

No matter. The new MacBook Air delivered over 12 hours of life during this test, right in-line with Apple estimates (12 hours of wireless web use/13 hours of iTunes movie playback). That’s excellent battery life, though it’s behind Surface Laptop, which exceeded 14 hours.

Software

Unlike Windows 10, Apple’s macOS ships with absolutely no crapware and no superfluous features. The MacBook Air comes with the latest macOS version, Mojave, which adds an excellent new Dark mode, a nicely updated Mac App Store, four iPad apps (Apple News, Stocks, and Home, and Voice Memos), and various improvements to the user interface. It’s clean, minimalist, and modern, but it also comes with a bit of a learning curve for the typical Windows user. As is so often the case, taking the time to learn the system’s unique features and idiosyncrasies will pay off.

It is worth pointing out that macOS includes several useful productivity and creative apps. These include Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheets), Keynote (presentations), Photos, iMovie, and GarageBand (for creating music). Of course, macOS also includes Apple apps for email, calendar, contacts, note-taking, video calls, web browsing, electronic payments, music and video (iTunes), and much more. Each goes well beyond anything that Microsoft bundles with Windows 10, and none are burdened by the need for an ongoing subscription.

The newly redesigned Mac App Store

While I find Windows 10 more efficient than macOS for various reasons—familiarity, for sure, but also for its more complete set of keyboard shortcuts—there’s little to quibble about on the Mac side of the fence. Apple has created a compelling and modern desktop platform that will appeal to professionals, power users, and average consumers alike. And it is visually more consistent and attractive than anything Microsoft has ever made.

Pages, Apple’s word processing application

Pricing and configurations

In keeping with the price hikes that Apple has been making across the board over the past year, the 2018 MacBook Air is about 20 percent more expensive than the version it replaces. That’s unfortunate, and it’s the one black mark for an otherwise exceptional laptop. But it is what it is: The MacBook Air is a premium product, and while many will complain about the price, I feel that most customers will find it to be worth the expense.

That expense starts at $1200. For that price, you get a dual-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 (Y-series) processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of SSD storage. But you can double the storage for $200, or pay much more for 512 GB ($400) or even 1.5 TB ($1200!) upgrades. You can also upgrade the RAM, to 16 GB, for $200.

Those are all reasonable prices, honestly. Indeed, Apple’s RAM and storage upgrades are more reasonable—and more flexible—than what Microsoft offers on Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2. That said, there’s no processor upgrade available yet. So you’re pretty much stuck with the Y-series Core i5.

I purchased the 2018 MacBook Air for my own use, and I upgraded both the RAM, to 16 GB, and the storage, to 256 GB, for a total cost of $1600 before taxes and fees. But I feel that most MacBook Air buyers will find the $1200 entry-level configuration adequate or perhaps upgrade to 256 GB of storage for a total of $1400 (before taxes and fees).

Recommendations and conclusions

The 2018 MacBook Air isn’t as trendsetting as its predecessor, and it arrives in a market that’s crowded with high-quality Windows-based Ultrabooks, most of which are less expensive, more powerful, or both. So it may not present a compelling option for those tired of the Windows 10 upgrade treadmill who are looking to switch.

But the new MacBook Air achieves what I believe to be Apple’s core aim: To deliver a more modern take on a beloved product that will entice existing MacBook Air customers to upgrade. With its stunning Retina display, classic good looks, TouchID security, and virtually infinite expansion capabilities, the 2018 MacBook Air is very much the no-brainer upgrade that Apple and its fans needed.

On that note, the MacBook Air is highly recommended. I think it’s going to be a best-seller for Apple this holiday season and beyond. And I’ll be keeping the one I purchased for personal use and for testing purposes.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Classic thin and light design
  • Gorgeous Retina display
  • Surprisingly good keyboard
  • Superior touchpad
  • TouchID for fingerprint sign-ins
  • Two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 capabilities
  • macOS comes with no crapware

Cons

  • Expensive

 

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Comments (51)

51 responses to “Apple MacBook Air (2018) Review”

  1. RM2016

    What is the crapware in Windows 10 from your perspective? Also, I'd be interested in your take on the long term difference of typing on Alcantara of the Surface Laptop and metal of the Air.

  2. Bob Shutts

    Paul, I thought I was the only crazy person who likes this keyboard. :)

  3. fraXis

    Great review Paul. I was waiting to see your final review before I pulled the trigger on the Air. Going to Apple to get one. :-)

  4. MacLiam

    For some time now I have thought there might be a macOS device in my future, but I had never thought the MBA would be a candidate. Your comments have made me reconsider that position. After the seasonal rush is over, I will be heading to the nearest Apple Store to check it out.


    This was another helpful review, and I thank you. Over the last few years you have both helped me to avoid some planned purchases (Pixel phones, for example) and encouraged me to consider items that weren't on my radar.

  5. dcdevito

    I just can't like Macs anymore. Win10 (and my PC) has spoiled me.

  6. DaveHelps

    If/when you get around to Parallels testing, I’m curious to know if the TouchID sensor is Windows Hello compatible.

  7. Daekar

    Would rather buy a nice HP or Lenovo and just put Elementary OS, Mint, or something similar on it. Especially within a few years, if things shake out to be as platform-agnostic as Paul is predicting, there is no reason to pay the Apple tax at all.


    Don't care how "good enough" it is, that's a pretty lame excuse. If I'm paying over $1000 for a computer, it damn sure is going to be better than "good enough." I wouldn't let anyone in my family buy a dual-core anything now.

  8. Shawn Moshier

    Paul, this is job well done. Thank you.

  9. wright_is

    You say no crapware, then spend the next to parapgrahs describing the included crapware... :-S

  10. shoman24v

    How can the only con be that it is expensive? Not that it is only offered in 1 aging dual core configuration, or without dedicated graphics? You can buy a similar class Windows laptop with an i5 8250U quad core, Geforce MX150 w/2gb ram for practically half the price of the new air. Case in point, Acer Swift 3, and it doesn't need a dongle for everything you want to hook up to it. While I understand the Air is quite nice, and Mac OS does perform beautifully over the Windows OS, the price point of this machine, with it's hardware configuration, does not compare well to other devices in this class.

  11. Th4

    Still no touch screen? Personally, I'd call that a con, but surely worth a mention in the review...

    • curtisspendlove

      In reply to Th4:

      macOS would be a terrible touch OS. The touch targets for Window widgets (maximize, minimize, close) and other things are just too small.


      I know people want it. And I’m sure Apple are experimenting. But until they make modifications to macOS to be more touch friendly you won’t be seeing a “we have finally solved touch screens” segment of a keynote.

  12. Jeffsters

    I do so love reading these posts...like eating their young. It’s glorious.

  13. dontbe evil

    the most overpriced and underpowered MacBook evaaaaaaaaa

  14. Necron

    Very nice review, thanks! I’m using MBP 15” (late 2013) and cosidering replacing it with new Air. But personally for me it’s screen which can be dealbreaker. I’m sort of person who complains about lack of brightness. My current laptop is just a bit below in that aspect of what I prefer. And new Air appears to be the same according to specs

  15. remc86007

    So paying quad core money for a dual core, TDP restricted chip, in 2018 is not a con? I don't disagree that the chip is probably acceptable for most MBA customers, but really? That's the metric we use for judging computers now? Computers are increasingly becoming exclusively productivity machines. Photoshop, video editing, design work, etc. are not outside the realm of what these machines will be used to do. I assure you that millions of these things will be used to do simple, but CPU intensive tasks like converting RAW files to JPEG. That task will be much, much slower on this dual core, tdp limited chip than it would be if Apple didn't make the exclusively profit margin driven decision to put a dual core in this machine. God forbid the thing hits its TDP due to iGPU usage and starts running at its base clock of 1.6GHz...that sounds familiar...oh, right, that's the clockspeed of the $400 Surface Go dual core that Paul goes out of his way to criticize.


    Lets not forget this thing, at its most expensive configuration, is $2,600. There is just no way that someone paying for a 1.5TB SSD is going to think this thing "performs wonderfully in the everyday tasks that any MacBook Air buyer would want."

    • shameermulji

      In reply to remc86007:

      "Lets not forget this thing, at its most expensive configuration, is $2,600. There is just no way that someone paying for a 1.5TB SSD is going to think this thing "performs wonderfully in the everyday tasks that any MacBook Air buyer would want."


      Have you used one? Unless you have, that's a bold assumption. This computer performs a lot better than its paper specs indicate


      "oh, right, that's the clockspeed of the $400 Surface Go dual core that Paul goes out of his way to criticize."


      Just because the clock speeds are not the same doesn't mean much. The Intel processor architectures used in both devices are different. The Surface Go's processor is based off of a much older Kaby Lake architecture while the Retina MBA is using a processor based on the recently announced (August 2018) Amber Lake architecture. The rMBA processor has much better performance.

    • Bob Shutts

      In reply to remc86007: I have the 2018 MBA Air (512 gig SSD-16 gig RAM) and I think Paul's assessment is accurate. The build quality and screen are hard to beat. Everyday tasks are super quick. I do not edit video, but I have been doing some batch photography stuff and everything runs smoothly.
      I downloaded Geekbench 4.0 and ran it on the Air:
      Single core: 3234
      Multi core: 7479
      This compares favorably with my late 2016 MacBook Pro (13")
      Sing Core: 3842
      Multi Core: 7540
      I have a feeling this device will serve my needs for years to come.
    • F4IL

      In reply to remc86007:

      It is not a con because it is not an overall system performance determinant. Here's a small example to illustrate the point. Thanks to APFS, if you perform an in-place file copy of a 40GiB video sample on the new Air, it takes roughly one second. Doing the same on a windows laptop with an i7 requires more than 4 mins. Does that count as a con?


      Just like the Surface Go review, Paul is evaluating overall system performance for average use case scenarios.

    • NT6.1

      In reply to remc86007:


      The MacBook line is crap. Buy a 2015 MacBook Pro or a Windows laptop.

    • curtisspendlove

      In reply to remc86007:

      I assure you that millions of these things will be used to do simple, but CPU intensive tasks like converting RAW files to JPEG.


      I’m assuming you’re thinking images coming off of DSLRs and the like.


      I think you are far overestimating the cross section in the Vern diagram of people who buy a pro level camera and a MacBook Air.


      Also, the average person will just set up an import from their camera and walk away, fire up twitter or Facebook on their phone, or Netflix and chill. And come back when the photos are done.


      :: shrug ::


      The people that need the speed will buy a MacBook Pro. Or a beefy Windows machine.

      • docmars

        In reply to curtisspendlove:


        I would gladly buy a 2018 MBP if it had this Air's keyboard. The fact that the Touch Bar is the only option is outrageous to me. So, I got a 2017 13" MBP instead, and I'm not very pleased with it, sadly.


        Here's to waiting for the next generation of MBPs with this Air's keyboard as an option, which will be until at least mid-summer, if not later. It's a real bummer.


        Meanwhile, I get to listen to my 2017's fan go absolutely insane while playing an HD video on YouTube while it sounds like a buzzing lightbulb from the early 1900's when it goes above 5000rpms. ;)

  16. Michael_Miller

    The key differentiator for these light and thin laptops is MacOS vs. Windows 10. It is one or the other for users and you tend to like one and hate the other. I submit that there is room for both and Mr. Thurrott is proving that.

    • shameermulji

      In reply to Michael_Miller:

      That's essentially what it comes down to; macOS vs Win10. For the most part, this is the key part of the post;


      "But the new MacBook Air achieves what I believe to be Apple’s core aim: To deliver a more modern take on a beloved product that will entice existing MacBook Air customers to upgrade. 



  17. Tomworthjr

    For some reason, I am still more enticed by the Surface Laptop 2 than by the latest MBA. But I can't abide buying a laptop in 2018 that ships with just a single USB-A port, rather than multiple ports (say, a USB and an SD card slot) or, if it must be a single port, then it needs to be USB-C, preferably with Thunderbolt 3.

    • ChristopherCollins

      In reply to Tomworthjr:

      When I bought my last laptop, making sure to have USB C and Thunderbolt on at least one port was an item on my checklist. In fact, it steered me from Surface Lapotop to MBP. I ended up with the 13" model (Quad Core) and every single thing I've ever used has needed an adapter/dongle. Maybe in another year, I'll have some USB C items or need Thunderbolt, but at this point I wonder why I even worried about it. I was thinking too much like a video editor or graphics designer (I'm neither). Unless you need to drive an external 5K display or need super high speed external storage, Thunderbolt and USB C isn't necessary at this point.

  18. FalseAgent

    paul, why not try installing windows 10 via bootcamp just to see how it performs? This processor is unique to this laptop and not found anywhere else, so not much is known about it.

    • jdmp10

      In reply to FalseAgent:


      I've only installed Windows 10 via Bootcamp on Apple machines that were very powerful so my experience could be because of that but those machines ran Windows 10 smoother than any equivalent PC at that time. Both the iMac and MBP I had at the time were running the highest available spec QC i7 but I also had HP Elitebook's with i7's and 32GB of RAM, same amount of RAM as the Macs but the HPs just didn't have the smoothness as the Macs. With a reasonable specced MBA, it should be able to run W10 via Bootcamp pretty well.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to FalseAgent:

      I did do that. Will be writing about that soon.

  19. skane2600

    Crapware is often in the eye of the beholder. The iPad apps seem to potentially qualify. Stocks?

  20. lundp

    Just reading your review as I consider purchasing a new MacBook Air for my wife (to replace her 2012 MacBook). Do you think the gold colored unit is a good 33 wedding anniversary gift? ;-)

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