CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
Editor's note: This 2020 model has been replaced with the new M1-powered MacBook Air, which offers much-improved battery life, better benchmark performance and a quieter, fanless design.
Take a 2019 13-inch MacBook Air. Now take the brand-new 2020 version. Put them next to each other and try to tell the two apart. You can't; they're identical. Until, that is, you open both lids. It's a subtle thing, but if you look closely there's a new look and feel to the keyboard. The flat, island-style keyboard is slightly raised on the new model versus the older one.
That's because this is Apple's Magic Keyboard, a design first seen in the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro and based on the standalone Magic Keyboard for the iMac. It's a big improvement on the long-suffering butterfly keyboard found in most Macs in recent years, which has been plagued by 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 a problem largely of Apple's own making, but the end result is highly satisfying, especially when coupled with new $999 starting price and component changes, which is why I consider it worthy of an Editors' Choice nod, with the caveat that there's a specific configuration that represents the best overall value.
The new keyboard isn't the only interesting new thing about the new MacBook Air. Also big news is that the laptop finally officially returns to the classic $999 (£999, AU$1,599) price, after a few years of starting at $1,199 and then $1,099 (although some retailers would regularly discount it by $100 or so).
There is, however, a bit of a catch. That $999 starting price only includes an Intel Core i3 CPU, not the Core i5 one would expect for that price. Beyond that one issue, most of the other news is good. New CPUs upgrade options include quad-core Intel 10th-gen chips. 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.
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. I always felt that was a mistake -- $999 is an important psychological and financial barrier, especially for students, writers and anyone who needs maximum reliability and usability on a budget.
Now that I've had a chance to go hands-on with the new MacBook Air, the keyboard really stands out as a major selling point. The keys sit visibly higher. They feel more substantial. There's a satisfying heft to typing, and unlike the previous version you'll never wonder if a keystroke registered. It's hard to overstate how big a change this is when using the two MacBook Air keyboards side by side.
And it's about time. Apple had 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.
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. Below are images captured moments apart with the 2019 and 2020 versions of the MacBook Air. Especially in a (hopefully temporary) era of endless Zoom meetings, it's a shortcoming.
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 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 doorbuster laptops.
The review unit I've been using is the upgraded Core i5 version, and in initial work-from-home testing, I found it to be roughly on-par with current Windows Core i5 laptops, but seriously lagging some recent Core i7 models, like the new Dell XPS 13 we just tested. Battery life was 9:40 on our streaming video battery drain test, which is a little behind Apple's claims, but good enough for all-day, every day use.
I have not tested the cheaper 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 do cringe a bit at paying a thousand bucks for a Core i3 CPU.
Jumping to the 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. [Update: The 13-inch MacBook Pro has been updated with 10th-gen Intel CPUs and the new Magic Keyboard]
But 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 and what we've tested so far, that's what you should do.