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Apple MacBook Air (2018) review: The MacBook Air plays catch-up

USB-C for you and me

If the keyboard change bothers you, the port situation isn't going to be much better. Following the march of 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 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, since the beloved MagSafe connector is also gone). And these are Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, which can output to two 4K or a single 5K display.

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It's USB-C only, but you get two ports.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro has a similar pair of USB-C Thunderbolt 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. The Touch ID sensor is regulated by Apple's T2 chip, which also handles the encryption and Siri voice activation.

About that processor

What was that sound? I looked around the room, and realized the sound was somewhere close to me. Lifting the MacBook Air to my ear, it was coming from inside the laptop itself. The fan in the new MacBook Air doesn't often kick in, but when it does, you'll hear it in an otherwise quiet room. After using a 12-inch MacBook, and other fanless PCs like the Acer Swift 7 or Surface Laptop 2, it's a bit of a shock to hear the fan on something so slim spin up like that.

A good amount of digital ink has already been spilled on the processor in this new MacBook Air. The specific Intel CPU inside is a dual-core processor from Intel's Y series. The 12-inch MacBook uses chips from the same family, while the MacBook Pro, and most Windows laptops in this class, use quad-core Intel processors from the U series. It's an oversimplification, but Y series generally means less power, but better battery life and less heat. The U series means more power (but still not close to what's found in gaming laptops, desktop PCs and so on), but at the expense of battery life and cooling. Apple is said to customize these CPUs, so they're not the same as stock off-the-shelf chips.

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You'll rarely need the fan. But you'll hear it when it's running.

Sarah Tew/CNET

To demystify the issue as much as possible, the new MacBook Air is a tad faster than the still-available previous model. (But since those Intel chips were several generations behind, that's not much of an achievement.) It's also faster than the current 12-inch MacBook, which is still running 2017 Intel chips, but it's slower than some comparable Windows laptops in its price class and the base 13-inch MacBook Pro. 

So: Do you get better performance than before? Yes. Should you expect more CPU power from a $1,199 laptop that weighs 2.7 pounds and has some serious fans? Also yes.

You can spend an extra $100, and get something more portable and less powerful (the 12-inch MacBook), or spend the same extra $100 and get something less portable and more powerful (the MacBook Pro). Where the new MacBook Air ends up is right between those other two options, which seems to be the lane it's supposed to be driving in. If you're willing to move to the Windows platform, the spec, performance and price options widen greatly, but you lose access to MacOS, which is the driver for many Mac users.

Those in the 4K video editing, professional high-end photography or advanced 3D modeling businesses should really be looking at a MacBook Pro anyway. For everyone else, the last-gen MacBook Air was generally more than fast enough, as is the latest version of the 12-inch MacBook. This new Air is faster than either of those, so I'm not particularly concerned about the specific CPU inside.

But, to play Devil's Advocate for a second, for an extra $100, the basic 13-inch MacBook Pro really is much more powerful in CPU performance terms.

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The new Air sits on top of the previous version.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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, which is a 20 percent premium, even though both the old and new entry-level models have 8GB of RAM and 128GB of solid-state storage.

At least that old-school Air is still available 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 who knows how long it's going to last. But based on the past several years of concerns we've had about the low-res screen, thick display bezel and outdated CPU, it's hard to recommend that classic model right now.

Fortunately, the new model has such sweeping overall design, usability and component upgrades that it's certainly worth at least $200 more than the old one. It's just a shame that right as the MacBook Air is again one of the most universally useful laptops you can buy, it's that much more of a reach for potential owners.

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Dell XPS 13 (2018)
12855
Microsoft Surface Laptop 2
11983
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017)
9032
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2018)
7870
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2017)
7490
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2017)
6898
Acer Swift 7
6027

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 CPU (multicore)

Dell XPS 13 (2018)
629
Microsoft Surface Laptop 2
589
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017)
381
Acer Swift 7
263
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2018)
253
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2017)
252

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2018) Apple MacOS Mojave 10.14; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8210Y; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 1,536MB Intel UHD Graphics 617; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2017) Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.6; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-56500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 6000; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017) Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.6; 3.1GHz Intel Core i5-7267; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 1,536MB Intel Iris Plus Graphics 650; 512GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2017) Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.5; 1.2GHz Intel Core m3-7Y32; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 615; 256GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (2018) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8250U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel UHD Graphics 620; 256GB
Acer Swift 7 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Core i7-7Y75; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 615; 256GB SSD

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