MacBook Air 2018 review: Playing catch-up, trading ports for pixels

Editor’s note, November 16: Originally published on November 6, this review has been updated with the final benchmark and battery life scores, as well as a review rating.


Apple’s MacBook Air got a much-needed reboot, keeping the name, but changing pretty much everything else, both outside and inside. That means a new 8th Gen Intel Core i5 CPU, more RAM and SSD options, a high-resolution retina display, and the move to USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. “MacBook Pro Lite”, because that’s essentially what it is.

For most of its more than 10 years of life, the classic MacBook Air it was the default laptop for pretty much everyone from college students to creative types to startup entrepreneurs. For many years, I’ve called it the most universally useful laptop you could buy.

But over the years, the competition has shifted to higher resolution displays, thin screen bezels, larger touchpads, regular component upgrades, and thinner and lighter bodies.

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The deep keys and multiple ports of the old MacBook are gone.

Sarah Tew / CNET

While this reinvented MacBook Air solves almost all the problems of the previous design, it adds a couple of them. It fits much better with the rest of the current Mac design sensibility: bigger than the 12-inch MacBook, smaller than the 13-inch Pro, and very different from the classic Air, which Apple is still selling, at least for now.

This means that the long-standing design, with its thick screen bezels, small touchpad, deep keys, and multiple ports is gone. If anything, the new Air feels like a half step between the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Its price has gone up to join the rest of the MacBooks as well. For most of its life, the Air was $ 999. Not cheap, but reasonably attainable luxury, especially for a rock-solid laptop that could last for years.

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Less powerful than the MacBook Pro, but more portable.

Sarah Tew / CNET

The new starting price is $ 1,199 (£ 1,199, AU $ 1,849), which is a blow to the generations that grew up with the idea of ​​getting that first MacBook for under a thousand dollars. Right now, they’re only $ 100 cheaper than the 12-inch MacBook or the base 13-inch MacBook Pro, so there are some math between price and features to do.

My cheat sheet for this is as follows. Compared to the new MacBook Air:

  • The MacBook Pro is more expensive, more powerful, and less portable.
  • The 12-inch MacBook is more expensive, less powerful, and more portable.

With each laptop excelling in a different area and only $ 100 separating their base models, there won’t be one correct answer for everyone. That said, this new Air is the safe middle ground between the two extremes.

Double body

Taking one, it immediately feels lighter and smaller than the current Air, which I know intimately. At 2.7 pounds (1.25 kilograms) and around 15mm thick, it’s actually pretty average when it comes to 13-inch laptops. Some similar systems drop below 10mm, but at the expense of battery, features, and processing power. As it stands, the new MacBook Air is firmly in the mainstream of thin laptops, but it isn’t leading the pack.

Some recovery is in the screen design, which cuts the thick bezel edge surrounding it by about half and adds an edge-to-edge glass overlay. It’s a sharper, more modern look and a long overdue update.

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The old frame of the MacBook Air compared to the new version.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Like the current 12-inch Pro and MacBook, the new Air still feels like a tank, with its one-piece aluminum construction (now 100% recycled aluminum, according to Apple). This is one of the reasons why MacBooks, both Air and Pro, have been able to get premium prices for so long, because you are making an investment in a product that will hopefully last for many years.

It’s all about the keyboard

As the only MacBook with a traditional island-style keyboard, the MacBook Air was a haven for those who didn’t like super flat butterfly keyboards in newer MacBooks. Now the Air is firmly in the same field as the other models. Some may complain about the loss of the old-style keyboard, but I think the butterfly keyboard has never been as problematic as people imagine, and I’ve certainly been dealing with harder keyboards in more expensive products.

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You may never love the new butterfly keyboard, but you will learn to live with it.

Sarah Tew / CNET

In this new Air, you get the latest version of the butterfly keyboard, with a new membrane underneath to prevent dust from affecting the keys. To our knowledge, the Air and Touch Bar versions of the Pro have this version, while other MacBooks have an older version.

It takes an adjustment period to get used to the subtle haptic feedback, but once you get used to it, it’s fine for long-term typing too. But yeah, you may never grow up to love him.

The upside is that the new Air also includes a much larger touchpad, in the same Force Touch style as other MacBooks. This means it doesn’t have a trampoline hinge on the back and instead uses four angle sensors to record clicks, allowing the body to be slimmer.

Will diehards take this change hard? They might, but that old keyboard has never looked as good as you remember.

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