Apple’s MacBook Air needs no introduction. It’s long been the go-to laptop for professionals and students, and in 2018, it got even better when Apple finally overhauled the design. However, the shallow keyboard that Apple introduced with that revision has been criticised quite heavily. Today, we’ll be reviewing the latest 2020 model of the MacBook Air, which promises an improved keyboard based on customer feedback.
The new MacBook Air (2020) boasts of three major changes compared to its predecessor — a new Magic Keyboard, 10th Gen Intel processors, and 256GB of storage for the base variant (up from 128GB). In a very non-Apple move, the official starting price of the laptop is also now roughly Rs. 7,000 lower, at Rs. 92,990. I’ve been using the base version of the MaBook Air (2020) as my primary laptop for a few days, and it’s time to see how much of a difference these changes have made.
MacBook Air (2020) design: Almost perfect
The MacBook Air (2020) continues with the same design of the 2018 refresh, but is just slightly thicker and heavier. If you’re used to the older non-Retina MacBook Air, like I am, then there’s a lot that’s new. The overall size of the laptop is smaller, making it a lot more portable, and it’s a bit lighter too, starting at 1.29kg. The entire body is built using 6000-series aluminium, which makes it feel very sturdy. The Apple logo on the lid isn’t backlit anymore, but instead features a mirror finish, which complements the matte finish on the rest of the body.
The “gold” MacBook Air (2020) that I have more closely resembles rose gold, and looks a lot better than the rose gold finish of some older iPhone models. If you want to make a statement every time you visit a Starbucks, then I can see the appeal of the gold option. I’d still pick the silver or space grey colours over this, but that’s just a personal choice.
The 13.3-inch IPS Retina display looks great and is a big step up from the non-Retina model, with a much higher resolution of 2560×1600 pixels. You also get Apple’s True Tone technology, which automatically adapts the colour temperature of the display to ambient light. The bezels around the display are slimmer too, which makes the laptop look more modern. One thing that I found a little odd was that the upper corners of the display aren’t rounded, but the ones at the bottom are. While the aluminium lid offers plenty of protection, the display still flexes easily when you touch it with a bit of pressure.
One of the biggest changes to the new MacBook Air (2020), is the Magic Keyboard. Apple has finally retired its problematic butterfly mechanism in favour of a new scissor mechanism. We first saw it on the 16-inch MacBook Pro last year.
The new keys feel very responsive thanks to the 1mm of travel and aren’t noisy when you type. The key layout is very familiar, except for the power button, which is smaller compared to the non-Retina model. It also houses Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The latter works well with just a tap and is useful for logging in to the system, authorising app downloads, and when you need to autofill credentials for websites in Safari.
The MacBook Air (2020) has stereo speakers, one on each side of the keyboard. Apple says it can deliver twice the bass and up to 20 percent higher volume compared to the non-Retina model. There are a total of three microphones placed around the laptop, and thanks to the dedicated T2 security chip, you can use the ‘Hey Siri’ voice command to summon Siri at will. The trackpad is 20 percent larger compared to the non-Retina model and feels just as responsive as before. Despite the increase in size, I didn’t face any accidental presses or cursor movements while typing.
The trackpad also supports Force Touch, which means you get haptic feedback when you press down on any part of it. There’s also a Force Click gesture that you perform by continuing to apply pressure after the click registers. You feel a stronger haptic pulse to know you’ve performed the action. I found it to be quite handy for previewing images and documents.
The physical connectors on the MacBook Air (2020) have been reduced to just two Thunderbolt 3 Type-C ports and a headphone jack. The 2020 refresh now supports one 6K or up to two 4K external displays through the Type-C ports. The problem with having just Type-C ports is that connecting most common accessories to the laptop is next to impossible without an adapter. Ideally, you’ll want to invest in a Type-C hub which has connectors for USB Type-A ports, Ethernet, and maybe an SD card reader. If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, transferring anything between Apple devices is at least less of a problem, thanks to AirDrop.
MacBook Air (2020) specifications and software: Up to date
Another big change with the 2020 refresh is the processor. The MacBook Air (2020) now features Intel’s 10th generation CPUs, which promise better processing capabilities than the previous Retina MacBook Air. I’m testing the base model, which has an Intel Core i3-1000NG4 ‘Ice Lake’ CPU, with two cores and four threads. It’s built on the 10nm fabrication process and features Intel’s Iris Plus integrated graphics. The base version of the laptop also has 8GB of LPDDR4X RAM and a 256GB PCIe SSD.
Apple India sells another pre-built model with a quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD for Rs. 1,22,990. In addition, since May this year, you can customise Mac configurations through Apple Authorised Resellers in India. With this flexibility, you can opt for a quad-core Core i7 CPU, up to 16GB of RAM, and up to 2TB of SSD storage. The MacBook Air (2020) also features dual-band Wi-Fi ac, Bluetooth 5, an HD webcam, and a 50Wh battery with a claimed 11-hour battery life.
My only complaint is that 720p is a fairly low resolution for a webcam in 2020, and the footage it captures is generally a bit grainy, even in well-lit environments.
The MacBook Air (2020) ships with macOS 10 Catalina, and will get a free upgrade to macOS 11 Big Sur when it releases in a coupe of months. The MacBook Air (2020) also supports the Sidecar feature of macOS, which lets you use a compatible iPad as a second display, wirelessly. You can read about all the main features of Catalina right here. The latest 10.15.5 update also added a new battery health management feature for MacBooks to help maximise the lifespan of your battery.
MacBook Air (2020) performance and battery life: Good enough
If you’re coming from a non-Retina Core i5 MacBook Air like I am, then switching to a Core i3 CPU might seem like a downgrade, but it actually isn’t. Intel’s current 10th-generation ‘Ice Lake’ Core i3 processor in the MacBook Air (2020) is just as powerful, if not better in some ways than the fifth-generation ‘Broadwell’ Core i5 in the non-Retina model.
In the Cinebench R20 benchmark, the MacBook Air (2020) posted a very similar multi-core score of 626 points as the older MacBook Air, but the single-core score improved by roughly 24 percent, at 348 points. The MackBook Air (2020) posted 16.3fps in GFXBench Metal’s Aztec Ruins test, while my older MacBook Air managed 30fps. However, if we take resolution out of the equation, the Iris Plus graphics chip marches ahead. In the resolution-independent ‘offscreen’ version of the same test, the MacBook Air (2020) managed 29.2fps, while the non-Retina MacBook Air managed just 20fps. While the integrated GPU in the MacBook Air (2020) is better, it still struggles with graphically intensive tasks due to the higher-resolution display.
SSD performance has also been improved. In the AmorphousDiskMark benchmark, the MacBook Air (2020) averaged 1.63GBps and 1.15GBps in the read and write tests respectively. My non-Retina MacBook Air on the other hand managed to average 1.2GBps and 430MBps in the same tests.
I used the new MacBook Air (2020) as my primary work laptop for this review, and the performance was pretty solid throughout. MacOS booted up quickly, multitasking was relatively effortless, and the larger trackpad made gestures even easier to use. Editing images in Adobe Photoshop CC 2020 was also handled very well. There’s virtually no audible fan noise on the Core i3 model. The only time I heard it spinning was during a system update. I noticed that the bottom of the laptop was generally on the warmer side, whether I was watching a video or simply browsing the Web.
The Magic Keyboard is excellent and feels much like the one on the non-Retina MacBook Air, only quieter. Text and icons in general look sharp on the Retina display, with no apparent jagged edges when viewing it from a normal distance. Videos also greatly benefited from the new display. Streamed movies and TV shows looked clear, colours were better saturated, and black levels were greatly improved compared to the non-Retina model. The stereo speakers got loud and the sound remained clear, but still lacked punch in the bass.
The MacBook Air (2020) is not meant for gaming but it can handle some titles from the App Store. The Core i3 variant that I tested had trouble churning out consistent framerates even in games such as Asphalt 9: Legends. I noticed mild intermittent stutter even in seemingly simple games such as Limbo, which is available through Steam. Heavier titles such as Shadow of the Tomb Raider refused to run altogether. The bottom of the laptop and the area above the keyboard got hot after about 10 minutes of gaming, but the keys and palm rest area weren’t affected as much.
I did come across some peculiar behaviour with my MacBook Air (2020). When using it for a better part of the week, it randomly rebooted twice when it was left idle. I’m not sure what caused this, and I wasn’t able to replicate it but I did find a few complaints on Apple’s community page referring to a similar issue. Another little quirk I stumbled upon was that when cycling through the previews of large image files (around 8MB each), the OS would randomly freeze and the laptop would shut down. My older 2017 MacBook Air running the same version of macOS didn’t have this issue. I’m not sure if this is a bug in macOS or if it’s just my unit behaving erratically.
Apple claims the MacBook Air (2020) can run for up to 11 hours of Web browsing or up to 12 hours of video playback on a single charge. While I wasn’t able to achieve these numbers during my review, I did get a satisfactory amount of runtime with regular workloads. A typical workday of mine usually involved writing in Pages, lots of Safari usage, some Photoshop work, and Spotify streaming in the background. With this, I was averaging about eight to nine hours on one charge. If I threw in a bit of gaming or watched a lot of videos, this dipped a little. The laptop ships with a 30W USB Type-C charger which takes about an hour and half to fully charge it.
Verdict: Should you buy the MacBook Air (2020)?
If you’re an existing user of a non-Retina MacBook Air from 2017 or earlier and were holding out for an upgrade, I feel the 2020 refresh is worth going for. The more compact body, better display, more efficient processor, and higher SSD capacity are all big upgrades. Plus, the new keyboard finally fixes the many complaints users have had with Apple’s previous keyboard. The pricing might not be as aggressive as what the non-Retina models were selling for a couple of years ago in India, but it’s still a lower price compared to the 2018 MacBook Air, which is a step in the right direction.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that at Rs. 92,990 for the base model of the MacBook Air (2020), you will find more powerful Windows thin-and-light laptops with Intel 10th Gen CPUs. Acer’s Swift 5 is one such model that comes to mind. However, the combination of macOS and the tight integration of iCloud on Apple devices is what makes the Mac experience unique, even though the hardware might not always be at par with its Windows rivals.
As far as productivity goes, I think the MacBook Air (2020) will be a solid choice for many people.