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  • The 2020 Retina MacBook Air.
  • This is the new Magic Keyboard, sans Touch Bar but with Touch ID. Samuel Axon
  • Unfortunately, this computer only has two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and they're only on one side. Samuel Axon
  • It still has a headphone jack, though. Samuel Axon
  • The lid looks the same. Samuel Axon
  • That glossy screen isn't the best fit for outdoors, but you probably won't be using it outdoors most of the time anyway. Samuel Axon
  • Another angle on the laptop. Samuel Axon

Apple wants people to fall back in love with its latest MacBook Air.

For many users, the pre-Retina, 13-inch MacBook Air one of the best laptops ever made. For too long, though, it fell behind the curve as Apple introduced better performance and higher-resolution screens to the rest of its lineup. Finally, Apple brought the high-res Retina display and some other improvements to the Air in 2018. Maybe the world's best laptop was back?

2018's Air was a pretty good machine, but it wasn't a candidate for world's best laptop anymore, thanks to the prone-to-fail butterfly keyboard design and a painful lack of ports. A refresh in 2019 brought some refinements, but it didn't address either of those issues. Now, finally, Apple has pulled out the butterfly keyboard and put in something we hope will be much more dependable.

So is the 2020 MacBook Air again worthy of consideration as the world's best laptop?

Table of Contents

Specifications

Specs at a glance: 2020 MacBook Air
Screen2560×1600 at 13.3 inches
OSmacOS Catalina 10.15.3
CPU1.1GHz 4-core Intel Core i5 (3.5GHz Turbo) with 6MB L3 cache
RAM8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X
GPUIntel Iris Plus Graphics
HDD512GB SSD
Networking802.11ac Wi-Fi; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n; Bluetooth 5.0
Ports2x Thunderbolt 3, 3.5mm headphone
Size0.16–0.63 inch×11.97-inch×8.36-inch (0.41–1.61cm×30.41cm×21.24cm)
Weight2.8lbs (1.29kg)
Warranty1 year, or 3 years with AppleCare+
Price as reviewed$1,299
Other perks720p FaceTime HD camera, stereo speakers

Apple MacBook Air (2020)

Starting at $949.99 from Amazon (Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.) The new Air offers three CPU options. The $999 entry-level configuration has a 1.1GHz, dual-core Intel Core i3 with Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz and a 4MB L3 cache. That's pretty anemic even for the price, but it should be powerful enough for a decent portion of the machine's target audience.

Buyers can spend an extra $100 for a 1.1GHz Core i5 with 3.5GHz Turbo Boost and a 6MB cache; if you can afford it, the cost here is worth it. There's also a 1.2GHz Core i7 with 3.8GHz Turbo Boost and 8MB cache option for $250 over the base config, but if performance is that important to you, at this price you might consider a MacBook Pro instead.

For graphics, you're looking at Intel Iris Pro graphics matching whatever CPU you pick.

In standard configurations, the Air comes with 8GB of 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory, but you can opt to upgrade to 16GB for an additional $200—which I'd recommend for a lot of people, especially if they use a bunch of non-Apple apps like, say, Google Chrome.

Storage starts at 256GB in the base config, up from 128GB in past Airs. Apple has been doubling storage across its MacBook line, and that's very welcome. 128GB was pretty tight even for light users, but 256GB is just right for those using this as a basic productivity computer. You can go up to 512GB for another $200, 1TB for another $400, or a beefy 2TB for an extra $800.

The Air has the same Retina display as before. It's a 13.3-inch IPS panel with a native resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels. Apple really made HiDPI displays take off when it first introduced Retina displays, but while the company is strong on things like color accuracy, competing products now offer much higher resolutions.

The Air's screen is above the threshold beyond which more pixels make for diminishing returns, though, so its resolution isn't much of a downside. But buyers should know that the Air's display can't match the photographer-friendly color accuracy of the MacBook Pro.

This is a good time to mention that the laptop defaults to a screen area that is equivalent to 1,440 x 900, which is pretty cramped by today's standards. You can bump it higher, but it looks a bit less sharp, and UI animations (like swiping between Spaces) get just a teensy bit choppier. It's not a big deal, but it's also not ideal.

The part of the spec sheet that disappoints me most, though, is the lack of Wi-Fi 6. Instead we get the same old 802.11ac. Sure, Wi-Fi 6 is new on the scene, but you might expect to keep this computer for three or more years, and Wi-Fi 6 will probably be ubiquitous by then. Bluetooth 5.0 is present, though.

This machine also has stereo speakers, Dolby Atmos support, and a 3.5mm headphone jack, along with what seems to be the same 720p FaceTime webcam Apple has been putting in its laptops for ages. The camera is fine, but in an age of telecommuting, you wouldn't be wrong to ask for a 1080p camera at this price.

Sadly, one of the biggest problems with the 2018 and 2019 MacBook Air models persists here: only two ports, both Thunderbolt 3/USB-C. More on that in a moment.

Design

It's refreshing to see Apple not try to "change the world" here—but just designing a solid workstation.

The Air is thin, it has the classic tapered shape, it looks and feels sturdy, and it wastes no space or material. From an industrial design point of view, it's one of the best things Apple has ever made.

It's also slightly more repairable than it used to be, according to a recent teardown by the good people at iFixit. They found that new wiring for the trackpad allows for easier access to both the trackpad and the battery without messing with the logic board, among other things. Repairability is still not a strong suit of the MacBook Air, but it seems to be improving.

The new model is almost imperceptibly thicker than the 2019 Air, but its form is otherwise unchanged, and that's a great thing. It's still a sleek, tightly designed little laptop, which is one of the main things so many people appreciated about the Air over the years. There aren't a lot of laptops out there that feel this good to carry and to use.

The Achilles' heel of the design is the port situation, though. I'm not even talking about the fact that it uses Thunderbolt 3/USB-C; most other laptops in this class also use USB-C instead of larger USB-A ports, and it feels like that ship has sailed. I'm instead referring to the fact that it only has two ports, which may not be enough for much of the target audience, as one of those ports will usually be used for power. To make matters worse, the ports are both on the left side of the machine. Is your power outlet on the right side of your desk? Hope you're cool with running a cord across the desk or in some awkward arrangement behind it.

The ports remain the worst thing about the MacBook Air—but they're also the only thing I can criticize about the design. Now, on to the question everyone has: how is that new keyboard?

Yes, it has a new keyboard

Late last year, Apple ended its reliance on the butterfly keyboard mechanism it introduced with the now-defunct MacBook back in 2015 and brought to the Pro and Air in the following years. The new approach started with the 16-inch (formerly 15-inch) MacBook Pro; Apple introduced to that laptop a variant of its standalone Magic Keyboard peripheral.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro's Magic Keyboard felt very similar to the pre-butterfly MacBook Pro keyboards. Apple had finally cut its losses on the butterfly design and essentially returned to the tried and true.

Why make this change? The short version is that the butterfly keyboard proved very unreliable because it could stop working if stray dust or other particles made their way into the mechanism. To make matters worse, the laptops with the butterfly design were built in such a way that it was costly to replace failed keyboards.

Apple introduced a repair program by which it offered to replace users' broken keyboards for free—which Apple did for me twice and for many of my colleagues at least once. This was a widespread problem.

This teardown shot from iFixit shows the mechanism under the keys.
Enlarge / This teardown shot from iFixit shows the mechanism under the keys.iFixit

Apple revised the butterfly keyboard a couple of times to try to address the situation by adding a silicone barrier to fend off stray particulate matter, among other things. Those efforts did seem to help, but it was never clear by quite how much. Finally, Apple abandoned the design.

Now, the Magic Keyboard has arrived in the MacBook Air as well, and it's a really good keyboard that is likely to please almost everybody. Those who actually liked the butterfly keyboards, despite the reliability problems, will appreciate that the new design still has fairly shallow, clicky keys—albeit a bit softer-feeling than the butterfly ones. And those who want a little more feedback and depth will like this keyboard much more than its predecessor.

The multi-year drama of the butterfly keyboard is nearly over. Only Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro remainsRead More – Source

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