Magic Keyboard makes the new $999 MacBook Air

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Dan Ackerman / CNET

Editor’s Note: This 2020 model has been replaced with the new MacBook Air with M1 power, which offers much improved battery life, better benchmark performance, and a quieter, fanless design.

Like it

  • The new keyboard design is a huge improvement
  • Double your starting memory
  • The starting price returns to $ 999

I do not like

  • The base model uses an Intel Core i3 CPU
  • No changes to ports and connections
  • The webcam needs an update
  • Upgrading the RAM is particularly expensive

Get a 2019 13-inch MacBook Air. Now get the brand new 2020 version. Place them side by side and try to tell the two apart. You can not; they are identical. That is, until you open both lids. It’s a subtle thing, but if you look closely there is a new look to the keyboard. The flat island-style keyboard is slightly raised on the new model compared to the old one.

That’s because this is Apple’s Magic Keyboard, a design first seen in 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro and based on the standalone Magic Keyboard for iMac. It’s a big improvement over the long-lived butterfly keyboard found in most Macs in recent years, which has been plagued with breakdowns and general consumer dissatisfaction.

More than anything else, the new Magic Keyboard is what makes the latest Air such a winner. Yes, it solves an issue largely created by Apple, but the end result is very satisfying, especially when paired with the new $ 999 starting price and component changes, which is why I consider it worthy of a nod to the choice of the publisher, with the caveat that there is a specific configuration that represents the best overall value.

The new keyboard isn’t the only interesting addition to the new MacBook Air. Another great news is that the laptop finally officially returns to the classic price tag of $ 999 (£ 999, AU $ 1,599), after a few years starting at $ 1,199 and then $ 1,099 (although some retailers would regularly discount it by $ 100. about).

There is, however, a bit of a catch. That starting price of $ 999 only includes an Intel Core i3 CPU, not the Core i5 you’d expect for that price. Beyond this issue, most of the other news is good. New CPU upgrade options include quad-core 10th generation Intel chips. The default storage goes from a paltry 128GB to a more reasonable 256GB. Intel Iris graphics are a step up without adding additional hardware from AMD or Nvidia.

The price is right

There was a time when I called the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air “the most universally useful laptop you can buy”. That was when the Air was a very college student-friendly $ 999 and clearly outclassed anything in the Windows world you could get for the same price. Others might have matched or beat the speed of its processor, but the Air had a slim, aluminum unibody shell, a near-perfect keyboard, and an operating system that wouldn’t drive you crazy.

But that was a long time ago. Over the years, the MacBook Air has lagged behind the competition, stubbornly clinging to its design and even most of its specs as other laptops evolved. In 2018, the system finally got a much-needed reboot, adding a high-resolution screen, thinner bezels, and Touch ID. But at the same time, it also added the much-maligned butterfly keyboard and raised the price. I always thought it was a mistake: $ 999 is a major psychological and financial barrier, especially for students, writers, and anyone who needs the utmost reliability and usability on a tight budget.

Keyboard evolution

Now that I’ve had the chance to experience the new MacBook Air firsthand, the keyboard really stands out as a major selling point. The frets are visibly higher. They feel more substantial. There’s a satisfying weight in typing, and unlike the previous version, you’ll never wonder if a keystroke was recorded. It’s hard to overstate how big this change is when using the two MacBook Air keyboards side by side.

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The butterfly keyboard on the left, versus the new magic keyboard on the right.

Dan Ackerman / CNET

And it is now. Apple had stayed true to its long-lived butterfly keyboard design far beyond anyone who thought it would. That super flat style was introduced in fine, very good 12-inch 2015 MacBook (a misunderstood classic that I will defend until the end of time). That said, everyone pretty much hated the keyboard even as it crept into the product line, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. ($ 673 on Amazon) Models.

The butterfly keyboard has undergone several minor revisions over the years, never pleasing everyone (and earning a reputation for stuck keys and other malfunctions), although the keyboard hatred was, frankly, exaggerated.

Then came the 16-inch MacBook Pro in late 2019. Not only did it make a major move by killing the long-standing 15-inch MacBook Pro screen, leaving Apple without a 15-inch laptop, but it also pulled the plug from the butterfly. . keyboard, replacing it with an equally flat design that had a much better mechanism underneath. At the time, I said, “After just one day of typing on the new Magic-style keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, I’m ready to convert the butterfly keyboard back to being a mess. That’s because the new keyboard is positively delightful, which isn’t. It’s a praise I offer lightly. In other words, my first thought this morning as I wrote this review on the 16-inch Pro was, “Where the fuck has he been in the last four years?”

Now, the same updated keyboard is in the MacBook Air. No, Apple hasn’t blown the screen bezels even further and hasn’t forced a 14-inch screen, although that would have been interesting to see. Perhaps he’s waiting for the inevitable upgrade to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is now the intruder and the least updated of the MacBook line.

Double the storage, but the same old RAM

One of the things that really hold back both budget laptops and the non-cheap MacBook Air has been the small storage units. The Air, even in its 2018 update (and with a premium starting price of $ 1,199), only included a 128GB solid-state drive. With the operating system overload, perhaps some games, apps like Photoshop and Illustrator and how high resolution photos and videos are these days, that’s not really enough.

Unless you’re a gamer or video editor, no one really needs 1TB or larger drives, but 256GB is really the new normal, especially if you don’t want to feel like you’re micromanaging all storage space. time. The jump from 128GB to 256GB in the base $ 999 MacBook Air is welcome, if late. The $ 1,299 step-up version gets 512GB by default. Either way, 8GB is standard RAM, which only works for the efficiency that MacOS handles it with, but actually the 16GB increase should be the new normal, not a $ 200 upgrade.

At least you can upgrade it, unlike the 720p webcam, which feels stuck in time and prevents this from being a truly professional-grade business machine, although that’s an issue that plagues the entire MacBook lineup. Below are images captured at separate moments with the 2019 and 2020 versions of the MacBook Air. Especially in an era (hopefully temporary) of endless Zoom meetings, it’s a miss.

Read more: Apple’s new 2020 MacBook Air has ruled out a key update for people who work from home

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The webcam of the 2019 version.

Dan Ackerman / CNET

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The webcam of the 2020 version.

Dan Ackerman / CNET

A fundamental question

More storage, better keyboard, new CPUs, better graphics. All updates welcome. The claim that the Air now has 10th Gen quad-core Intel processors is also welcome, but read the not-so-fine print. The $ 999 version comes with a dual-core Intel Core i3, which doesn’t sound, at least on paper, like a very premium experience. After all, a Core i3 is what you get in cheap Black Friday laptops.

The review unit I used is the updated version of the Core i5, and in initial work-from-home tests, I found it roughly on par with current Windows Core i5 laptops, but seriously lagging behind some recent models Core i7, like the new Dell XPS 13 we just tested. Battery life was 9:40 in our streaming video battery drain test, which is a little behind Apple’s claims, but good enough for day to day use.

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Dan Ackerman / CNET

I haven’t tested the cheapest Core i3 base model, but I’m sure it’s fine for everyday office or student tasks, even some modest graphic design and photo editing. But I cringe a little at paying a thousand dollars for a Core i3 CPU.

Upgrading to the quad-core Core i5 is an extra $ 100, which seems like a smart investment. But then I’d also like the 16GB of RAM, for another $ 200. At that point, you should be looking at the higher-end base model, which starts at $ 1,299 for the quad-core Core i5 and goes up to 512GB of storage, but again with just 8GB of RAM. Then, add $ 200 and you’re up to $ 1,499. At that point, you might as well wait for the inevitable 13-inch MacBook Pro upgrade. [Update: The 13-inch MacBook Pro has been updated with 10th-gen Intel CPUs and the new Magic Keyboard]

But no, this is what the obsessive enhancement monster in your head wants you to do. Start with the $ 999 base model, add $ 100 for the quad-core upgrade. Based on the specs on paper and what we’ve tested so far, that’s what you should do.