The keyboard is not terrible
Great battery life
Upgrades are expensive
Keyboard is still a bit shallow
The headline just about writes itself: Apple’s embarrassing odyssey with its so-thin-it-breaks “butterfly” keyboards seems to be at an end, with a return to a classic “scissor”-style Magic Keyboard in last year’s 16-inch MacBook Pro and now the latest Air. The result is exactly what the Air has always been when Apple can stop mucking it up: the best MacBook for most people.
Though competition from Windows machines like the HP Spectre x360, Dell XPS 13, and Apple’s own MacBook Pro is undeniable, for many people their laptop-buying search should begin and end with the Air once again.
About the 2020 MacBook Air
The MacBook Air is a premium, ultraportable laptop that can be customized in a number of ways. We purchased our test unit directly from Apple, opting for the base configuration (costing around $1,000). Here are the specs of our test unit, with potential upgrades noted in parentheses:
- Processor: 10th-gen dual core Intel Core i3 (quad core i5 and i7 available)
- Memory: 8GB LPDDR4X RAM (up to 16GB available)
- Storage: 256GB PCIe NVMe SSD (up to 2TB available)
- Display: 13.3-inch 2560x1600p Retina IPS display
- Ports: Thunderbolt 3 USB-C (x2), headphone jack
- Touchpad: Force Touch trackpad
- Graphics: Intel Iris Plus Graphics (integrated)
- Wireless: 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0
- Battery: 49.9WHr Lithium-polymer battery
- Charger: 30W AC Adapter, USB-C
- Weight: 2.8lbs
- Dimensions: 11.97 x 0.63 x 8.36 inches (W x H x D), 0.16 inches at slimmest point
- Warranty: 1-year limited warranty, 90 days tech support.
What We Like
Finally: a keyboard that isn’t terrible
Before shoveling dirt onto the “butterfly” keyboard’s grave, it’s important to at least acknowledge that Apple tried to innovate and make a keyboard that was more reliable and slimmer. It didn't work out and Apple took way too long to remedy the issues, but kudos for the attempt. That's worth... something.
Okay, onto the dirt-shoveling. Unlike its class-leading design work in the mobile and tablet space, Apple's laptop strategy has been baffling. Instead of improving on a winning formula in the Air, it seems like Apple just got bored. Even when it was clear the Air only needed a few minor tweaks—slimmer bezels, a better screen, faster processors—Apple let it rot on the vine.
Instead, we got years of frustrating designs, a painfully slow 12-inch MacBook, and a disastrous redesign of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. When your most ardent supporters are stockpiling old laptops because they're terrified you're going to try to update it and screw it up in the process? It's time to re-evaluate.
The keyboard is hardly the only issue Apple has created for itself in that time, but it's arguably the worst. Apple always nails the basics, in all of its products. Using them should feel effortless. It's worth paying more for that kind of quality. Instead, we got the butterfly keyboard, which was awful and annoying before it started bricking laptops.
Why spend three paragraphs ranting about a feature that isn’t even in the 2020 MacBook Air? Because it’s finally gone. Dead. Finito. Expired. Honestly, I’m so happy that Apple finally listened on this issue that I don’t even care that it tried to slyly brand this as its new “Magic” keyboard when it’s the same old thing.
Why? Because it’s fine. Aggressively so! It's a bit too shallow for my tastes, and it's still louder than you expect. But there was one thing Apple had to fix on the 2020 MacBook Air and it’s fixed. That’s a win.
The battery life is still very good
Though years ago Apple’s MacBook Air routinely torched the competition with all-day battery life despite its slim frame, more recent MacBooks have struggled. They're usually passable, but the 12-inch MacBook feels a bit slow and the MacBook Pro is more about power than endurance.
The new MacBook Air nicely resets that balance, with new 10th-gen Intel processors that can handle a remarkable amount of work without killing battery life. That’s especially true if you prefer to use Apple’s Safari browser, which does a much better job of navigating the web without eating into your battery life than Google's Chrome browser.
In our web browsing battery test, which scrolls through 50 web sites with the screen set to 200 nits brightness (about 60% on most laptops), the MacBook Air managed a healthy seven hours and 45 minutes. That’s a bit below the best-in-class Dell XPS 13, but our test is run in Chrome so you can expect similar overall performance to Dell's model if you're happy with Safari.
The new processors are fast enough to handle most people’s workload
The 2020 MacBook Air comes with three processor choices, all of which are 10th-gen Intel processors which started shipping late last year. The base model (our test unit) is a dual core i3 processor, though you can upgrade to a quad core i5 or i7 if you need something that can handle a heftier workload.
For most people, the i5 is the best balance of speed and power, though I never felt like I was overly taxing the i3 processor—other than the internal fans spinning up during video calls.
Our benchmark results bear this out, with the i3 returning scores only about 10-15% behind the faster i5 and i7 processors we’ve tested in some of its contemporaries. Our tests specifically try to answer how well a machine can handle tasks on single cores and multiple cores at once, and it’s the multi-core workloads where the Air mostly falls behind.
That’s not surprising (again, it’s a dual core i3 vs mostly quad core processors), but it’s worth noting if you plan to do a significant amount of work in an app like Photoshop, Lightroom, or anything else that can spread workloads across multiple cores. Though some browser-based tasks can spin out into multiple cores, if you’re mostly using the machine for web browsing, writing papers/emails, and watching Netflix than the i3 should be sufficient.
The Air design is no longer cutting edge, but it is classic
Whether consciously or not, just about every laptop reviewer has an ideal laptop in their mind that looks something like the Apple MacBook Air. Though Apple didn’t invent the tapered aluminum body, chiclet/island-style keys, and massive trackpad, the MacBook Air has set the tone for the premium laptop space for a decade.
The 2020 model makes few changes to the blueprint, other than the aforementioned keyboard improvements. It’s an extremely slim laptop that is aluminum from stem to stern. Like most modern MacBooks it offers very limited ports, opting for just two USB-C ports on the left-hand side and a headphone jack on the right.
Though I’d badly prefer a return to at least one standard USB-A port and a full-size SD card slot again, credit where credit’s due: this laptop is slick. Unlike some other laptops I’ve tested recently, if you plunk down a grand on this laptop you won’t be wondering where your money went.
What We Don’t Like
The i3 processor in the base model can feel pokey
Though it’s more than “good enough” for most tasks, you can get much, much faster laptops for the same money you’ll spend on a MacBook Air or most of its $1,000-and-up competition. Even though it’s Apple’s entry-level model, you’re paying quite the premium for design.
Again, for most people this won’t matter. But if you’ve got a hard $1,000 budget, you can barely squeak into the entry-level MacBook Air and deal with an entry-level loadout, with the i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD.
That’s not a bad deal, but there are a ton of excellent mid-range laptops like Dell’s Inspiron 7000, the Lenovo Yoga C740, and the HP Envy series that offer premium-feeling designs. These mid-range models have been cribbing design flourishes from flagship laptops for years, and they usually start around $800 now, leaving a lot of extra room for upgrades to RAM, storage, and faster processors.
For example, you can get a Dell Inspiron 7000 with a 10th-gen i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD for a hair over $1,000. The same MacBook Air will run you about $1,650 and there isn’t that much difference in the design.
The screen is high resolution, but the bezels are huge
The best thing about the MacBook Air’s screen is that it’s tall. It gives you a load of room to get work done on, eschewing the wider 16:10 screens found on a lot of competing laptops. That makes the Air a little bit bigger than some 13-inch ultraportables, but it doesn’t weigh significantly more.
Otherwise, we found the screen was bright, detailed, and just barely visible outdoors at full brightness. As with all MacBooks, it doesn’t offer any kind of touchscreen support—you’ll need to jump to the iPad Pro if you want a work-ready device that is touch-friendly.
It only has ports on one side
I am very sure that this design decision was made by someone way above my pay grade, but putting all the USB-C ports on the same side is just annoying. The first 30 times I tried to plug in the MacBook Air I tried to plug it into the right side, which only has a headphone jack.
At this point I’m willing to file this under “could be worse, I guess?” which has been a troublingly common refrain when reviewing MacBooks.
Nothing is upgradeable, and RAM is way too expensive
Though our test unit is the $999 entry-level model, I’d definitely recommend opting for the upgraded model for $1,299. That gets you a 512GB SSD for storing files and a quad core i5 processor.
Unfortunately, further upgrades really bump the price aggressively. Going to a faster quad core i7 processor is $150. That’s not terrible, but jumping to 16GB of RAM costs an eye-watering $200 extra. The MacBook Air uses newer, faster LPDDR4X memory, but it’s a huge premium.
None of these upgrades can be done after the fact (which is the case with pretty much every Apple device these days, as well as the Air’s closest competitor, the Dell XPS 13). And because there’s no SD card slot, you can’t even add extra removable storage without lugging around a dongle or an external drive.
Should You Buy It?
Absolutely, it’s the best Apple laptop right now
Simply put, most people shopping for an Apple laptop right now should do one of two things: get the 2020 MacBook Air, or wait.
Though the late-2019 16-inch MacBook Pro is a reasonable alternative for creative professionals, it’s way too bulky and heavy for anyone that doesn’t need that kind of power. For everyone else, it’s the Air or bust.
I don’t even really like the keyboard on the 2020 Air, and it’s still so much better than the one that has plagued every other Apple laptop for the last few years. If Apple did nothing else but fix the keyboard, the 2020 Air would be a smashing success.
Luckily, Apple did quite a bit more than that. The new Air features upgraded 10th-gen processors that handle even complex workloads with ease. The $999 test unit we purchased was able to handle anything I needed it to, from photo editing to video chatting, to browsing the web, with plenty of battery life left at the end of a workday.
If you do a lot of creative work, particularly photo or video editing, then I’d caution to wait for the next 13-inch MacBook Pro. The new keyboard seems to be here to stay, and it’s only a matter of time before it rolls out to a 13-inch Pro that is both powerful and portable. For everyone else that wants a MacBook, this is the one to get—now, and likely for years to come.
If you’re willing to look at Windows alternatives—and you absolutely should be—then there is fierce competition. In this price bracket, you should also look at the Dell XPS 13, the HP Spectre x360, and the Lenovo Yoga C940. They all have awesome, premium designs with more ports and faster processors for around the same price.
That said, for people that can upgrade a bit, the 2020 MacBook Air with a quad-core i5, 8GB RAM, and 512GB SSD is a fantastic option for its $1,300 street price. It’d be even better if doubling the RAM didn’t add another $200 to the price, but it’s the one I’d buy.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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