Apple MacBook Air (2018) review: Apple's veteran ultraportable gets a facelift

macbook-air-2018header.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    8.5 Excellent
  • $1,199.00

Pros

  • Slimmer, lighter design
  • High-resolution Retina display
  • 10hr battery
  • 2x Thunderbolt/USB-C ports

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Only mid-range performance
  • No build-to-order processor upgrade
  • No user-upgrades or repairs

Apple's renewed focus on the Mac side of its business continues this month with a long-awaited make-over for what the company claims is "the most beloved notebook ever".

There's some truth to that claim, as the slimline MacBook Air has continued to sell well in recent years despite the fact that -- aside from the occasional modest speed-bump -- its basic design has remained unchanged since its debut in 2008. But a decade of neglect has seen this former flagship laptop relegated to Apple's 'entry-level' offering for students and home users.

That leaves the 2018 edition of the MacBook Air with a lot of lost ground to make up. But, as with the similarly revitalized Mac Mini, it does seem as though Apple is listening to this product's many admirers once again.

macbook-air-2018colours.jpg

The 2018 MacBook Air comes in gold, silver and 'space grey'. Prices start at £999.17 (ex. VAT; £1,199 inc. VAT, or $1,199).

Image: Apple

Design: Retina Display

The design of the original MacBook Air was both innovative and highly influential, prompting gasps from the audience when the late Steve Jobs slipped the 17mm thick laptop out of a manila envelope for the very first time. In fact, it could be argued that the MacBook Air defined the 'ultrabook' category of ultra-portable laptops even before Intel's marketing department got around to coining that term. So Apple has made a conscious decision with this 2018 update to retain key elements of that design, including the distinctive -- and often copied -- 'teardrop' profile that gently tapers from back to front.

But while a casual first look focuses on the familiarity of the design, it doesn't take long to spot the newer 2018 design details. Inevitably, the new MacBook Air is available in three different colours; gold, silver, and the 'space grey' that in Apple's current design language says "this is for serious-minded pro users".

macbook-air-2018retina.jpg

The 2018 MacBook Air's Retina Display supports the sRGB colour space, but not the pro-level DCI-P3 standard.

Image: Apple

And, like all modern Apple products, the MacBook Air now boasts a Retina Display. The size of the display remains the same, at 13.3 inches diagonally, but the modest 1,440 by 900 resolution (127.7dpi) of its predecessor has been increased to 2,560 by 1,600 (227dpi).

Top ZDNET Reviews

The new display certainly looks bolder, brighter and sharper than my own MacBook Air from 2015, and its support for the sRGB colour space will be perfectly adequate for routine web browsing, running Microsoft Office, or basic photo- and video-editing for presentations work. Apple does point out that -- unlike the more expensive MacBook Pro range -- the display doesn't support the DCI-P3 colour standard used in the professional video and broadcast industries, but that's not really a requirement for Apple's intended audience of business users and (presumably well-heeled) students.

SEE: 10 Terminal commands to speed your work on the Mac (free PDF)

Another important change is the removal of the chunky metal border that used to run around the screen, and which did make the MacBook Air look increasingly dated in recent years. The new edge-to-edge glass panel looks a lot smarter, and has also allowed Apple to reduce the size of the laptop quite dramatically. The previous version of the MacBook Air -- which remains on sale at £790.83 (ex. VAT; £949 inc. VAT, or $999) -- measured 17mm thick by 325mm wide by 227mm deep, while the new MacBook Air with Retina Display shrinks to 15.6mm thick, 304mm wide and 212.4mm deep. According to Apple that represents a 17 percent reduction in the laptop's total volume, while the weight also drops from 1.35kg to 1.25kg.

Features: security first

macbook-air-2018touch-id.jpg

The Touch ID sensor, located in the top right corner of the keyboard, can be used to authorise payments via Apple Pay, as well as locking and unlocking the laptop.

Image: Apple

Of course, there are some significant changes on the inside of the new laptop too. The 2018 MacBook Air doesn't have the context-sensitive Touch Bar found on the MacBook Pro, but it does have a Touch ID fingerprint sensor located on the top-right corner of the keyboard, along with Apple's custom T2 security chip. This controls the Touch ID sensor for locking and unlocking the laptop, using the Apple Pay payment system, and listening out for 'Hey Siri' voice commands. It also scans all software loaded during the boot process, as well as providing Apple's 'secure enclave' with AES-256 encryption for data stored on the internal solid-state drive.

macbook-air-2018keyboard.jpg

The keyboard is the third generation of Apple's 'butterfly' design.

Image: Apple

The slimmer design means that the new MacBook Air abandons the traditional 'scissor' keyboard of previous models -- which I have always found satisfyingly firm and responsive when typing on my own MacBook Air -- and adopts Apple's newer 'butterfly' mechanism instead. However, Apple points out that this is now the third-generation version of the butterfly keyboard, and while the limited travel of the keys still feels a little lifeless and unresponsive, I'll admit that the keyboard panel does feel firmer than on other Apple laptops that I've tested in recent months.

The twin USB-A ports of the previous generation have been replaced with a pair of Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, and the only other interface available is a 3.5mm jack for headphones or speakers. Apple has also redesigned the speakers, with a 'wide stereo' option that works surprisingly well given the laptop's compact dimensions.

Pricing & options

Needless to say, the new MacBook Air also includes a significant update to its processor and storage systems. As mentioned, there is one older model from 2017 that remains on sale: it still uses a 5th-generation Core i5 processor and has a low-res display, which does little for the competitiveness of its £949 price tag.

In contrast, prices for the new 2018 MacBook Air start at £999.17 (ex. VAT; £1,199 inc. VAT, or $1,199) with a dual-core 8th-generation Core i5-8210Y running at 1.6GHz (up to 3.6GHz with TurboBoost), along with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.

There's a second configuration on Apple's website, which simply doubles the storage to 256GB for £1,165.83 (ex. VAT; £1,399 inc. VAT, or $1,399). Other build-to-order options allow you increase the memory to 16GB, and SSD storage up to 1.5TB for a total price of £2,149.16 (ex. VAT; £2,579 inc. VAT, or $2,599).

However, there are no processor upgrades available at all, so Apple is clearly limiting the performance of the MacBook Air in order to steer customers who need more power towards the MacBook Pro range. And, like the 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air relies on integrated graphics, with Apple now promoting third-party external GPU devices as the upgrade option for more demanding graphics and video applications.

Performance & battery life

It's been so long since the MacBook Air received a significant update that we don't have recent test results to provide a comparison. However, when running Geekbench 4 the new MacBook Air achieved a score of 4320 for single-processor performance, and 7906 for multi-processor performance. That's a far cry from the multi-processor score of 18580 that we saw with the 13-inch MacBook Pro -- although, to be fair, the Core i7-based MacBook Pro that we reviewed earlier this year was exactly twice the price of the MacBook Air. And, when compared to a rival Windows laptop such as the ultraportable Acer Swift 7, the MacBook Air pulls comfortably ahead of the Swift's Geekbench 4 multi-processor score of 6020.

Those Geekbench tests don't tell the whole story, either, as the integrated UHD Graphics 617 GPU manages a respectable 35.6fps when running the Cinebench R15 OpenGL test, while the T2 chip also handles video encoding when using Apple's preferred HEVC format. It's certainly not a speed-demon, but we did find that the 2018 MacBook Air felt smooth and responsive for most tasks, and it should be more than adequate for running Microsoft Office and other productivity apps on the road. It'll last all day long too, the 50.3Wh battery giving us just a couple of minutes over 10 hours when streaming full-screen video from the BBC iPlayer. My own 2015 model lasts for 11 hours, but its 1,440 by 900 display requires far less power, so 10 hours for this new model is still good going.

Conclusions

It may be long overdue, but the 2018 edition of the MacBook Air pulls off a good balancing act. Rather than a ground-up revamp, this new model concentrates on refining the elegant, lightweight design that made the MacBook Air so popular in the first place, while also bringing it up to date with features such as the Retina Display and T2 security chip. And while the MacBook Air certainly isn't cheap it's not far out of step with the pricing of rival Windows ultraportables. It's made out of 100 percent recycled aluminium too, so you can feel good about the environment when you show it off in your local coffee shop.

RECENT AND RELATED CONTENT

Hands-on with Apple's new iPad Pro and MacBook Air
Apple has wrapped up its event in Brooklyn, where it announced three new products with a focus on productivity. We spent some time using two of the new devices -- the iPad Pro and MacBook Air -- both of which are available to order right now and begin shipping next week.

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2018) review: Quad-core CPU and all-day battery life
The 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro delivers strong CPU performance and good battery life, which help to justify its premium price tag. We'd still like to see a discrete GPU option though.

Best ultraportable laptops for business 2018
Ultraportable laptops are the mobile professional's friend, but which size and model should you buy? We explore the options and list some of the best.

Apple MacBook Air (2018) review: The MacBook Air plays catch-up (CNET)
The MacBook Air's long overdue makeover adds welcome additions like a high-res screen and Touch ID, but it includes some unwelcome trade-offs -- including a much higher price.

Read more reviews

Specifications

General
Packaged Quantity 1
Processor / Chipset
CPU Intel Core i5 (8th Gen) 1.6 GHz
Max Turbo Speed 3.6 GHz
Number of Cores Dual-Core
Cache L3 - 4 MB
64-bit Computing Yes
Features Intel Turbo Boost Technology
Cache Memory
Type L3 cache
Installed Size 4 MB
Memory
RAM 8 GB (provided memory is soldered)
Max Supported Size 16 GB
Technology LPDDR3 SDRAM
Speed 2133 MHz
Storage
Interface PCIe
RAM
Memory Speed 2133 MHz
Configuration Features provided memory is soldered
Technology LPDDR3 SDRAM
Installed Size 8 GB
Display
LCD Backlight Technology LED backlight
Widescreen Display Yes
Image Aspect Ratio 16:10
Monitor Features 227 ppi, BFR/PVC-free, Mercury free, arsenic free, beryllium free
Type LED
TFT Technology IPS
Diagonal Size (metric) 33.8 cm
Display Resolution Abbreviation WQXGA
Environmental Parameters
Humidity Range Operating 0 - 90% (non-condensing)
Audio & Video
Graphics Processor Intel UHD Graphics 617
Sound Stereo speakers, three microphones
Hard Drive
Type SSD
SSD Form Factor soldered
Capacity 128 GB
Input
Type Force Touch trackpad, keyboard
Localization & Layout English
Features Multi-Touch Gesture Recognition, Touch ID sensor, ambient light sensor, force click, multi-touch touchpad, pressure sensitivity
Communications
Wireless Protocol 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Processor
CPU Type Core i5
Generation 8
Manufacturer Intel
Clock Speed 1.6 GHz
Optical Storage
Drive Type no optical drive
Type none
Battery
Capacity 50.3 Wh
Technology lithium polymer
Run Time (Up To) 12 hour(s)
AC Adapter
Input AC 120/230 V (50/60 Hz)
Output 30 Watt
Connections & Expansion
Interfaces 2 x USB-C 3.1 Gen 2/Thunderbolt 3/DisplayPort (Power Delivery)
Headphone output
Header
Brand Apple
Product Line Apple MacBook Air
Localization English
Country Kits United States
Packaged Quantity 1
Networking
Data Link Protocol Bluetooth 4.2, IEEE 802.11a, IEEE 802.11ac, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, IEEE 802.11n
System
Notebook Type thin and light
Platform Apple Mac OS
Hard Drive Capacity 128 GB
Security Devices fingerprint reader
Miscellaneous
Color space gray
Case Material aluminum
Security Fingerprint reader
Included Accessories USB-C power adapter
Monitor
Diagonal Size 13.3 in
Dimensions & Weight
Width 12 in
Depth 8.4 in
Height 0.6 in
Manufacturer Warranty
Type 1 year warranty
Environmental Standards
ENERGY STAR Certified Yes
Physical Characteristics
Weight 2.76 lbs
Power
Min Operating Temperature 50 °F
Max Operating Temperature 95 °F
Operating System / Software
Type App Store, Apple FaceTime, Apple GarageBand, Apple Keynote, Apple Numbers, Apple Pages, Apple Preview, Apple Safari, Apple Time Machine, Apple iBooks, Apple iMovie, Calendar, Contacts, Mail, Maps, Messages, News, Notes, Photo Booth, Photos, Reminders, Siri, Stocks, Voice Memos, iTunes
Video Output
Graphics Processor Series Intel UHD Graphics
Input Device
Backlight Yes
Interfaces
USB-C Ports Qty 2
USB-C Features USB Power Delivery
Comment Power Delivery
Service & Support
Type 1 year warranty
Service & Support Details
Type limited warranty, technical support
Service Included phone consulting
Full Contract Period 1 year, 90 days

Top ZDNET Reviews

Where To Buy

Apple MacBook Air (128GB, Gray, 2018)

Part Number: MRE82LL/A
Price
$1,199.00