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The new MacBook Air hands-on: More pixels, fewer ports

The beloved 13-inch Apple laptop design ran from 2008 to 2018, but its DNA lives on in a radically different iteration.

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
6 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

It's called the MacBook Air, but it's an Air in name only. This new version of the popular laptop might as well be called the MacBook Pro Lite, because that's essentially what it is.

The long-standing tapered Air design, with its thick screen bezels, smallish touchpad, deep keys and multiple types of ports is gone, replaced by the familiar design cues of the post-2016  MacBook and MacBook Pro. If anything, the new Air looks and feels like a half-step between the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, rather than an evolution of the classic Air. 

Shop for Apple MacBook Air (128GB, Gray, 2018)

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The new MacBook Air comes in space gray, silver and gold. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

In person, as seen during a hands-on demo session following Apple's Oct. 30 event, it was hard to distinguish this new Air from Apple's other laptops at first glance. (One Apple rep misidentified a nearby new Air as a Pro to us.) Picking up the new Air, it immediately felt lighter and smaller than the current Air, which -- having had the same basic design since 2010 -- many of us are intimately familiar with.

You get more screen and less body, thanks to a display that cuts the thick bezel border by half and adds edge-to-edge glass over it. Now the Air display looks much like the one on the MacBook Pro, with a wider color range, although the Pro still has a lock on Apple's color-shifting True Tone display and support for the P3 color gamut. 

At 2.7 pounds (1.25 kg) and about 15mm thick, its size and weight is actually very middle-of-the-road when it comes to 13-inch laptops. The slimmest systems get down under 10mm, but at the expense of battery, features and processing power. If you want super thin and light, step up to that aforementioned 12-inch MacBook for just $100 more -- but know you'll be losing considerable features and power.

Watch this: MacBook Air 2018 now has a Retina display

While size and weight aren't particularly unusual versus other laptops in this price class, the new MacBook Air does feel substantially more solidly constructed than most of the competition. Like the current Pro and 12-inch MacBook, the new Air still feels as tough as a tank, with its one-piece aluminum construction (now 100-percent recycled aluminum, according to Apple). That's one of the reasons MacBooks, both Air and Pro, have been able to command premium prices for so long -- because you're making an investment in a product that will hopefully last for several years, which has often been the case for the traditional MacBook Air.

It's all about the keyboard

As the only MacBook with a traditional island-style keyboard, the MacBook Air was the one refuge for those who disliked the super-flat butterfly mechanism keyboards in newer MacBooks. Now the new Air is firmly in the same camp as the other models. 

Some may lament the loss of the older style of keyboard. Personally, I've never found the butterfly keyboard as troublesome as others, and I've certainly dealt with more difficult keyboards in more expensive products. (I admit this may be a minority opinion.)

It takes a period of adjustment to get used to the subtle tactile feedback, but once you get used to it, it's fine for even long-form typing. But yes, you may never grow to love it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But the positive tradeoff is that the new Air also includes a much bigger touchpad. It's the same Force Touch style as on all the other MacBooks, which means it doesn't have a diving-board hinge on the back, and instead uses four corner sensors to register clicks. The larger surface area is frankly more important than the mechanics behind it. 

Will diehards take this change hard? They might, but that old keyboard was never as great as you remember, and the bigger touchpad is a great addition. 

Ports of call

If the keyboard change bothers you, the port situation isn't going to be much better. Following not only other Apple laptops but also many of the premium Windows laptops from the past two years, the MacBook Air is now USB-C only. That means any of your USB-A peripherals are going to need a dreaded dongle.

That said, it's got two USB-C ports, instead of the single one on the 12-inch MacBook, so you can do more than one thing at a time, like connect a peripheral and the power cable. And these are Thunderbolt 3-enabled USB-C ports, so they cover the full range of high-end duties: high-speed data transfer, for example, or output to 4K and 5K displays. External GPU boxes (eGPUs) are also supported, but I have yet to try one with the new Air. (Those tests will follow soon.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

But back to that power cable issue: The late, great MagSafe connector is gone, so one of those two USB-C ports will often be used for power. While it's great to see Apple using industry-standard USB-C ports for that -- you can invest in third-party USB-C power delivery (PD) battery packs, for instance -- it still means that you may be back down to a single open port. 

The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro has a similar pair of Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, but lacks the Touch ID fingerprint reader found here. The fingerprint reader is really the best part of the Touch Bar experience, and it's a great addition to the MacBook Air. I didn't have a chance to register my own fingerprint and try it in action, but based on my use of the fingerprint reader in MacBook Pro systems (powered by the same T2 security chip), it's a system that works quickly and reliably.

Here's what the new MacBook Air looks like

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Still the ultimate student laptop?

One area where the new MacBook Air may lose some ground is as the default student laptop on many college campuses (and the default work laptop at many companies). Even though this is a much better laptop in nearly every regard, it loses one big advantage the previous MacBook Air had -- its price.

At $999 in the US, the MacBook Air was an affordable luxury for many students, artists, writers and anyone who wanted a premium experience at a less-than-premium price. The new Air starts at $1,199 (£1,199, AU$1,849), which is a 20 percent jump, even though both the old and new entry-level models have 8GB of RAM and 128GB of solid state storage. That puts it just below premium laptops such as the $1,299 MacBook, which lacks a second USB-C port and fingerprint reader, and the $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro, which lacks the fingerprint reader. 

Keep in mind the Pro still has a few extra advantages. Its eighth-gen processors come from a faster family than the low-power ones in the new Air, and the Pro has faster eDRAM. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The overall design and usability, and the jump from fifth-gen Intel processors to eighth-gen ones, certainly makes this well more than $200 better than the old MacBook Air. But it also moves to being that much more of a stretch for many would-be owners. 

Fortunately, that old-school Air is still available, at least for now, just as the old 13-inch MacBook Pro was for more than a year after the newest design debuted in 2016. If you're firm in your need for USB-A or HDMI ports, or an island-style keyboard, pick one up now, because no one knows how long it's going to last. But note that based on the past several years of concerns we've had about the low-res screen, thick bezel and outdated CPU, it's hard to recommend that classic model right now. 

We hope to test and fully review the new MacBook Air soon, so stay tuned for our benchmark results and full review. 

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