Apple’s new MacBook Air proves boring can still be great

Look, we’re just as smitten with the iPad Pro’s new Magic Keyboard as the rest of the world. The floating cantilever design; the delightfully sneaky USB C port placement; the fact the accessory should come close to (finally) matching proper laptop keyboards. Well you know what else has a full-size, backlit, scissor-switch keyboard? The new, slightly boring, but still brilliant MacBook Air.

You’d think if Apple had had its way its “most popular Mac” would have disappeared into the niche between the increasingly capable iPad Pros and the increasingly slim and light MacBook Pros. But with a slight price drop, processor upgrades, double the storage and, yes, a keyboard that’s been fixed, the 2020 Air more than justifies its existence.

Before we get into why the MacBook Air isn’t going anywhere, in Apple’s line-up or laptop sales, we’ve got to address the fact that a MacBook Air may not be precisely what you’d be inclined to spend £1,000 on right now. The next few paragraphs will hopefully age poorly and quickly, but with many of the MacBook’s target demographic confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, the experience of living with the MacBook Air has been an odd one.

Case in point: one of the most important things you need from your main machine at this exact point in time is a decent webcam. The front-facing camera here is a 720p FaceTime HD webcam, which you’d think would do just fine. That’s the same spec as the current-gen MacBook Pros, but here the results are below par and fuzzy, especially is slightly low indoor light. That’s something that probably wouldn’t bother most people, but now multiple Zoom meetings a day are a reality, it’s worth considering more than ever.

Sticking on Zoom for a minute, the Core i3 model Air that Apple sent us to test was not capable of running virtual backgrounds in the video chat app. Again, a minor quibble in regular circumstances but when your work persona is defined by your video call background, well, that’s when it hurts.

Still, the whole proposition of the MacBook Air – thin, light, with most of the power that most people need – holds up whether you’re working between the desk and the sofa or actually, physically on-the-go in a way that perhaps the iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard doesn’t for the time being. We’ve been testing the Air alongside the new Surface Pro X and it’s no contest which one we’d reach for – the MacBook every time.

The extent of our complaints with the Air so far demonstrate how much Apple has either got right or fixed. The Air has been a fantastic option for years. With TrueTone on, the 13.3-inch 2560 x 1600 Retina display is sharp, bright and accurate enough. The stereo speakers, with the grilles running the whole length of the keyboard, sound much fuller and more satisfying than you’d expect from a laptop this skinny – not as powerful as say, the 16-inch MacBook Pro but that’s expected.

The recycled aluminium wedge in space grey, silver and gold finishes is still one of the prettiest laptops around too – no surprises that the result is that there’s just two USB C ports and a 3.5mm jack here. That’s what you get from a 1.61cm thick, 1.29kg machine. (You may still find yourself missing the full suite.)

How about that Magic Keyboard? The 1mm of travel here feels much more natural to type on than the 0.7mm butterfly keyboard that caused Apple so many problems in its MacBooks. In other words, it’s no longer a mark against them. The Touch ID sensor – which can unlock the Air and be used for authentication with Apple Pay, App and iTunes Store purchases – is quick and responsive; the excellent Force Touch TrackPad, now 20 per cent bigger, feels huge.

We said that this MacBook is slightly boring, but that’s no bad thing. There’s no Touch Bar here, another lesser Apple laptop controversy in recent years, but we don’t particularly miss it from the MacBook Pro. We’re also glad to see Apple has put the cost of the basic Core i3 Air back down to £999. Compared to last year’s offering, you get double the storage with the 2020 model, too, with 256GB SSD here.

Apple is indeed closing the performance gap with the MacBook Pro with the tenth-gen Core i3 in the £999 model and, particularly, the 1.1 GHz quad-core i5 at £1,299. That’s a wider price gap in the UK than in the US making it more of a conundrum between the Air and the £1,199 Core i5 MacBook Pro.

It’s tricky, but Apple isn’t particularly concerned with pretending they’re comparable. Our 1.1 GHz Core i3 model, with Intel’s Iris Plus graphics, was generally very zippy and quiet, even with a gazillion Chrome tabs open, but it did tend to warm up and make itself known when we tried to push it with higher intensity image and video editing work for longer than a quick burst.

And that’s what this Air is capable of: web browsing, streaming, Arcade gaming and jumping in and out of Google web apps and Zoom calls with the occasional stint of the ‘pro’ work you’d usually go with well, a MacBook Pro. If heavier tasks will take up a majority of your time with it, we’d recommend paying for the more expensive Air model, which also gets you 512GB of storage, or the Pro.

If we could see a real improvement for 2021 for the Air, it would be battery life. Don’t get us wrong, it’s pretty good – we got between six and ten hours out of it, over the course of two weeks of testing. Apple’s own battery tests show 11 hours of web browsing and 12 hours of Apple TV streaming.

We ran out of stuff to watch on Apple’s own fledgling TV+ streamer before the 12 hours was up (zing) but watching Toy Story 4 on Disney+ at medium brightness guzzled 30 per cent battery, suggesting that stamina is optimised to Apple’s own apps and services. It’s here that Apple can be outclassed by similarly priced Windows machines such as the Dell XPS 13. You’ll be charging the Air every day or two, depending on how you’re using it.

We’ve possibly been a little hard on the MacBook Air, but there are really no dealbreakers here, even the battery life. This is a return to form for a stylish, capable everyday laptop – but you knew that already.

If you need a Pro more than once in a blue moon, it’s still the case that you should get a Pro. But unless we’re completely dazzled by the iPad Pro’s £299 Magic Keyboard when it arrives in May, we’re sticking with the (cheaper!) Air for the portable Apple computer that makes the most sense. So what if that makes us boring?

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