The return of the $999 MacBook Air

The MacBook Air returns to familiar ground as an under-$1,000 all-around powerhouse.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
5 min read

In a world of incremental computer updates, the latest MacBook Air, announced Wednesday, has a lot of interesting stuff going on inside it. There are new CPUs, including quad-core Intel 10th-gen options. The default storage jumps from a measly 128GB to a more reasonable 256GB. Intel Iris graphics are a step up without adding extra hardware from AMD or Nvidia. And the butterfly keyboard is getting swapped out for the much better Magic Keyboard design from last year's 16-inch MacBook Pro.

But my favorite development is the return to the classic, pre-2018 starting price, $999 (£999, AU$1,599). Well, there's a catch, but we'll come back to that. 

Once upon a time

There was once a time I called the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air "the most universally useful laptop you can buy." That was back 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 its processor speeds, but the Air had a slim, unibody aluminum shell, a near-perfect keyboard and an OS that wouldn't drive you (quite as) crazy.

But that was a long time ago. Over the years, the MacBook Air fell 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-res screen, slimmer bezels and Touch ID. But at the same time, it also added the much-maligned butterfly keyboard and kicked the price up to $1,199. That was later dropped to $1,099 and many retailers sold it for $999, showing that this product really does have a natural starting price -- $999 is an important psychological and financial barrier, especially for students, writers and anyone who needs maximum reliability and usability on a budget. 


The new MacBook Air for 2020.


Make no mistake, the "big" MacBook Air rebirth happened in 2018, when its design merged with that of the MacBook Pro line. This is a further set of enhancements that doesn't do anything to the outside of the system, but makes some important changes inside. 

Keyboard evolution 

The most practically important of these is the keyboard. Apple has stuck with its long-suffering butterfly keyboard design far past anyone thought it would. That super-flat style was introduced in the late, great 2015 12-inch MacBook (a misunderstood classic I will defend until the end of time). That said, everyone pretty much hated the keyboard even as it crept across the product line, into the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models. 

The butterfly keyboard underwent several small revisions over the years, never quite making everyone happy (and gaining a reputation for stuck keys and other malfunctions), even if the keyboard hatred was, frankly, overblown

Then along 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, it pulled the plug on the butterfly keyboard, replacing it with a similarly flat design that had a much better mechanism underneath. At the time, I said "After just a single day of typing on the new Magic-style keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, I'm ready to retcon the butterfly keyboard back to being a disaster. That's because the new keyboard is positively delightful, which is not praise I offer lightly. Put another way, my first thought early this morning while typing this review on the 16-inch Pro was, "Where the f*** has this been for the last four years?" 

Now, that same updated keyboard is in the MacBook Air. No, Apple didn't blow out the screen bezels even more and force in a 14-inch screen, although that would have been interesting to see. Maybe that's waiting for the inevitable upgrade to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is now the odd-man-out and least-updated of the MacBook line. 


The MacBook Air gets an improved keyboard style, letting go of the butterfly design of the past.


Finally, as much storage as your phone

One of the things really holding back both budget laptops and the non-budget MacBook Air has been small storage drives. The Air, even in its 2018 refresh (and at a premium $1,199 starting price), included only a 128GB solid state drive. With OS overhead, maybe some games, apps like Photoshop and Illustrator and how high-res photos and videos are these days, that's really not 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 storage all the time. The jump from 128GB to 256GB in the base $999 MacBook Air is welcome, if overdue. The $1,299 step-up version gets 512GB as its default. In both cases, 8GB is the standard RAM, which works only because of how efficiently MacOS deals with it, but really, the 16GB step-up should be the new normal, not a $200 upgrade. 

At least you can upgrade that, unlike the 720p webcam, which feels stuck in time and keeps this from being a truly pro-level business machine, although that's a problem that plagues the entire MacBook line. 

A core issue

More storage, better keyboard, new CPUs, better graphics. All welcome upgrades. The claim that the Air now has 10th-gen Intel quad-core processors is also welcome, but read the not-so-fine print. The $999 version is 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 doorbuster laptops. 

I have not tested it yet, but I'm sure performance from that Core i3 is as good or better than the previous base-model dual-core Core i5 MacBook Air, which is fine for everyday office or student tasks, some modest graphic design and photo editing, etc. But I do cringe a bit at paying a thousand bucks for a Core i3 CPU. Jumping to a quad-core Core i5 is an extra $100, which seems like a smart investment. But then I'd want the 16GB of RAM as well, for another $200. At that point, you should look at the higher-end base model, which starts at $1,299 for the quad-core Core i5 and jumps to 512GB of storage, but again with just 8GB of RAM. So, add $200 to that and you're up to $1,499. At which point you might as well wait for the inevitable 13-inch MacBook Pro update. 

No. That's what the obsessive upgrade monster in your head wants you to do. Start with the $999 base model, add $100 for the quad-core upgrade. Based on the on-paper specs for far, that's what you should do. As Kuill would say, I have spoken. 

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