MacBook Air 2018 13-inch review: Air re-imagined but not re-invented
For long, and if you want to be somewhat precise then for the last three odd years, fans of MacBook Air demanded and pleaded with Apple to give their favourite laptop a retina display. The iPhone got the retina display, the iPad got it, the MacBook Pro and the iMac got it, even the Apple Watch had one. But Apple kept the MacBook Air without the retina display. It changed this year. In October Apple came out with the third-generation MacBook Air and the company put inside it a retina display. The new MacBook Air with the 13-inch retina display is now available in India. So, is it the best laptop ever?
On these pages here at the India Today Tech I had written earlier that the MacBook Air was almost the perfect laptop for most people. The only bit it was missing was a better display. It gets that better display now. So the question again: Is the MacBook Air 2018 the best laptop ever? Sadly, no. Even as Apple finally equips the MacBook Air with a retina display, it has also tried to change the mix that goes into it, and in the process has re-imagined the Air.
This re-imagined Air is good -- no, it's fantastic -- but there are also areas where I prefer the old MacBook Air. The new bits aren't always better than the old bits. The end result is that the new MacBook Air remains an "almost perfect" laptop. It is still not the PERFECT laptop.
Let me explain. But before that, the mundane stuff.
MacBook Air 2018 India price, India specs and other bits
-- In India, the MacBook Air 2018 price starts at Rs 1,14,900. This is for the variant with 128GB storage.
-- The price of the MacBook Air 2018 256GB storage in India is Rs 1,34,900.
-- In India the MacBook Air 2018 is only available with the 8GB. In other markets, 16GB variants also available.
-- In India, Apple's new Air comes only with dual-core Core i5 8210Y processor. It has base speed of 1.6GHz and turbo speed of 3.6GHz.
-- The new MacBook Air is available in 3 colours: Gold, Silver and Space Grey.
Smaller, lighter and still with the wedge
This is the third-generation MacBook Air, which means it's been given a major makeover. In fact, this is the first redesign of the MacBook Air since it was launched in 2010. The only bit that remains, in terms of design, in the MacBook Air 2018 similar to the older one is the wedge. The wedge is kind of signature feature of the MacBook Air. It even started the trend of the wedge-shaped Windows laptops. So it's nice to see Apple keeping it intact even though for the MacBook and MacBook Pro it doesn't use the wedge design. But apart from the wedge there are design changes. They are for good.
The MacBook Air 2018 is lighter and smaller than the older one. It weighs around 1.25 kilograms, which is around 100 grams lighter than the older Air. The MacBook Air 2018 dimensions are now closer to the MacBook Pro, which got the new design a few years ago. It won't be amiss to say that the new Air looks like a cross between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, albeit with that distinct wedge shape.
I really like the build quality of the new Air. It's incredibly solid and its aluminium feels dense. The Apple logo in the older Air, which lights up when the laptop is in use, is gone, replaced by a shiny logo with mirror finish. Some people may miss it because of nostalgia, it doesn't make any difference as far as the laptop is concerned. Also gone is the plastic strip that sat over the air vents below screen hinge in the older Air. The whole MacBook Air is now made of aluminium. There is a fan inside Air 2018, but while using the device I never really heard it. I can't say the same about the older Air.
I find the design of the MacBook Air 2018 even better than the old one while using it. I tend to carry my Air almost all the time. The older one is light and compact enough to be in my backpack almost 24 x 7, even at times even when I am doing some hiking outside Delhi or travelling on a holiday. It's the same with the new Air. The MacBook Air 2018 is handy enough to be used in small confined spaces that we get in front of the economy seats in modern planes and its design is comfortable enough to make it look like a magazine that you can carry around in your office whole day.
That retina display
The big deal with the new MacBook is the retina display. And for right reasons: the IPS display in the new MacBook Air shows brilliant colours. It's gorgeous, even if it is glossy. And I like the fact that Apple continues to use a display with 16:10 aspect ratio instead of 16:9 that most other laptops have. On a laptop 16:9 aspect ratio is terrible.
But I am not entirely pleased with the screen of the Air. Despite giving it the tag of retina display, Apple still holds back. The screen in the new Air has a brightness of 300 nits compared to 500 nits screens in the MacBook Pro. And that shows when you use the laptop. In fact, I find the screen in the new Air less brighter than the screen in the older Air. Even while using the new Air inside the office, I kept its brightness at 60 to 70 per cent. While using the laptop outside, particularly if the sun was out in force and daylight was good, I cranked up the brightness to 100 per cent and still wished it was brighter.
Other than the lower-than-expected brightness, I find the screen in the new Air fabulous. The thick bezels around display are gone. The new Air has an edge-to-edge screen, with thin black bezels. This is one way, Apple has reduced size of the laptop. The resolution of 2560x1600 pixels makes the Air screen extremely sharp and text and images look incredibly crisp on it.
Using MacBook Air 2018
Just like the screen, this is also an area where I have mixed feelings about the MacBook Air 2018. In some ways it improves over the earlier MacBook Air. In some ways, it doesn't. First the good parts.
The new trackpad is not only larger -- always a joy to use a larger trackpad -- but it also supports force touch. This means the whole trackpad gives the haptic feedback when required. You don't have to click on the edges to get the "clicky" feedback. The whole trackpad is a large button, and with the macOS gestures using it is a joy.
The new Air is also a fast enough machine, largely because of the fantastically optimised macOS, which is now miles ahead of Windows.
For the regular day-to-day use, I find the MacBook Air extremely speedy. It runs usual programs, including RAM-hungry Chrome, very well. There is no lag and in terms of functionality, ease-of-use and bundled programs the macOS Mojave is right now as good as it gets. Even while editing photos or swiping through several open applications, I neither find the Air slow nor hear its small fan whir inside it, something that indicates it doesn't need to amp up performance for regular work. But the fan kicks into action if I do some video editing. This is also the performance area where I feel the new Air misses a trick.
Unlike the older Air that came with Core i5 U series processor, the new one comes with Core i5 Y series Intel processor -- i5-8210Y. Theoretically, this is a good processor. But Y series means it is a low-powered processor with its max TDP limited to 7 watts. The latest U series processors with 15W TDP are much faster but Apple is putting them only in MacBook Pro computers.
Apple's decision to move away from U series Intel processors to Y series for the MacBook Air is kind of baffling and one reason why even though the MacBook Air 2018 is as fast as the older Air, it's not significantly faster, something that users expect from a laptop that is getting refreshed hardware after three years.
There are some more such decisions, and I find that they do affect user experience. The new Air, unlike the older one, doesn't have SD card port. As someone who photographs a lot during travel, I miss the SD card port. But then even MacBook Pro no longer have SD card, so it is expected. Similarly, the new Air comes with two USB-C 3.1 ports, which are also used for charging the laptop, so to use pen drives etc you will have to buy a dongle, either from Apple or from some other company. Thankfully, headphone jack is still there.
What adds to all of this is the Butterfly keyboard. These keyboards have divided Apple fans since the company started putting them in MacBooks. The earlier Air, because it has not been updated for a long time, uses Scissor keyboard. Compared to that, the Butterfly keyboard has shallower key travel. It feels stiffer, flatter under the fingertips. And it takes a while before you get used to it. On the new MacBook Air not only I am typing slower but I am also making more typos. May be it's just matter of getting used to the keys, but so far I miss the scissor style keyboard in the Air, which is one of the best aspects of the MacBook Air experience.
There are three more important bits: the quality of speakers, battery life and the Touch ID. On all counts, the MacBook scores well. Speakers, located on the left and right of the keyboard, are surprisingly loud. Even if there are three persons huddled around the laptop watching a movie, all three will find the audio good enough. The sound is meaty and can offer stereo effect.
The battery life of the MacBook Air 2018 is as good as what you will get with the older Air, even if the size of the battery is smaller. This means around 10 hours of continuous use, depending on what you are doing on the laptop. I still use desktop a lot for work, so for me the battery in the new Air lasts around a week. This I believe is because the Y series processor is more power efficient than the U series.
Finally, the Touch ID that is offered through the fingerprint sensor embedded in a small button placed above the Delete key. It is magical to use. It's charming to open the lid of the laptop, place your finger on the Touch ID button and see it unlock.
The overall results of the changes that Apple has made to the Air is that the new the MacBook Air 2018, even though it is quite fantastic, is not the kind of re-invented MacBook that many were hoping for.
Should you buy MacBook Air 2018
I am little conflicted here. And that has to do with the price. The earlier MacBook Air has been the top selling laptop on Amazon India website for like forever. The reason: It is not only a fantastic, almost perfect, laptop but it is also a very reasonably priced machine. While its MRP was over Rs 75,000 (now over Rs 85,000), often you could buy the Air for around Rs 55,000. In other words, the older MacBook Air was the perfect laptop to purchase in India.
The MacBook Air 2018 is, however, much pricier even if it has a better screen. The value preposition doesn't hold anymore and lessens its appeal.
The new MacBook Air 2018 is a superb laptop, but it is also a laptop for MacBook Air fans. It is a better laptop than the vanilla MacBook for sure. But it's very close to the MacBook Pro, which starts at Rs 1,19,900 and offers significantly more brightness and slightly more contrast in its display, a faster charger and a faster processor compared to the MacBook Air 2018. If you are going to spend over Rs 1.1 Lakh on a laptop, you should spend it on the MacBook Pro. But in case if you can get the new Air with some discounts -- and let's hope there will be discounts -- don't hesitate to pick it up. It's a delightful laptop, just like the previous Air, if only little pricier this time.