Apple unveiled a new Macbook Air today at an event in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Think a major update to the MacBook Air was long overdue?
The last time Apple bestowed this much attention on the notebook the company claims as its “most loved Mac,” Barack Obama was in his first term in the White House.
Sure, we’ve seen some specs bumps along the way, and my own lightweight MacBook Air–circa mid-2013–has been a reliable workhorse. But the number one feature fans of the Air have had on our wish lists for years is the kind of beautiful high resolution Retina display that Apple had previously reserved for the most expensive computers in its mobile lineup, notably the priciest MacBook Pro’s, but also the most recent MacBook.
So you best believe the arrival–at last!-of Retina on the brand new MacBook Air I’ve been testing for a few days, gives the faithful an excellent reason to cheer, along with other features that modernize the machine.
As with most of Apple’s computers, you won’t get an Air without spending serious bucks. It starts at $1,199 for a model with 8GB of RAM and a modest 128GB of storage, but the sum can climb to $2,599, if you jack up the specs to 16GB and 1.5-terabytes, respectively. (Apple still sells an older non-Retina MacBook Air for $999.)
Price aside, I found at least one two other reasons to tone down the enthusiasm–I was disappointed in the battery life. And at one point the while streaming a movie, the computer’s fan kicked into overdrive.
Let me digress for a brief detour back in time: The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously knocked the socks off Macworld conference attendees a decade ago when he pulled the very first MacBook Air out an interoffice envelope, a display of showmanship that demonstrated just how skinny and light the computer was. It wasn’t the fastest computer back then and had limited connectivity but the remarkable (for its time) machine nevertheless boasted a full-sized keyboard, and it forever altered our vision for what a road warrior laptop could be and would become, forcing competitors on the Windows side to play catch up (which many of them eventually did.).
Of late though MacBook Air’s were getting tired, leaving some to wonder if Apple was ready to send the computer out to pasture–it wouldn’t be the first time Apple retired a product that was still popular (see iPod nano, for one).
Fortunately, retirement was the last thing Apple apparently had in had in mind, and on balance the new MacBook Air represents a tantalizing alternative for those of you who might have otherwise considered a MacBook Pro with a 13-inch Retina display, which starts at $1,299. Indeed, the Air versus Pro conundrum yields a fuzzy choice. Pick the more robust Pro if extra performance is crucial–that is, you’re the kind of person who cuts 4K videos, say, or engages in other creative-oriented industrial strength computing tasks.
For the rest of you, pick the Air and don’t look back.
Here’s a closer look at the new MacBook Air:
Modernizing the Air
Apple has maintained the wedge-shaped design that has defined the Air since Jobs slipped it out of that envelope at Macworld. But at 2.75-pounds, the Air is about a ¼ of a pound lighter than its most immediate predecessor, and noticeably smaller. The far narrower bezels bordering its lovely 13.3-inch display compared to what came before, help account for a computer that has 17 percent less volume.
My sturdy rose-colored test machine is as pleasing to look at as the screen, though you can also get it in silver or space gray. The color Apple is really touting though is green since the laptop is crafted from 100 percent recycled aluminum.
The display is not the only way Apple has modernized the Air. Embedded in the power button is Touch ID, meaning you can now unlock the Mac, or authenticate online purchases made via Apple Pay, with your fingerprint. It was fast and flawless in my tests.
It’s funny that Touch ID is new to this Mac even as Apple ditched the feature on the latest iPhones. Of course, I would have like to have seen Apple add Face ID facial recognition to this new Mac as well, but that was not to be. A feature called Windows Hello permits you to unlock many Windows 10 computers with your mug.
Touch ID is tied to the T2 security chip that assume a major role on the new Air. The T2 also permits you to bark out “Hey Siri” to summon Apple’s vocal virtual assistant.
It helps encrypted data stored on the computer on the fly. And the chip is also supposed to prevent an intruder from being able to mess with your Mac when you boot up.
Ports and connectors
A pair of state-of-the-art Thunderbolt (USB-C) connectors are on the new Mac, which you can employ for a variety of purposes: to rapidly transfer data, connect to external storage devices, connect to external displays (even 5K), and of course power up the computer through the adapter that comes in the box.
It also means you might share that charger with a USB-C capable smartphone, standard on many Android devices, but not Apple’s own iPhones. You can also use a cellphone charger to give some juice in turn to the Mac, but such a lower wattage charger would take an awfully long time to do that.
Also worth pointing out: Apple improved the sound on the MacBook Air with speakers that deliver wider stereo separation, evident to my ears on such jazz classics as “So What” by Miles Davis and “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck. And bravo, the computer has a standard-sized headphone jack, which Apple has sadly removed on recent iPhones.
What’s no longer here, though, is a slot for an SD memory card, a fixture on my older Air, though I frankly don’t use it often.
Assessing the keyboard
I’ve been writing this column on the backlit MacBook Air keyboard, which is now the third generation of what’s known as a butterfly mechanism. Apple claims it provides four times the stability of the “scissor” mechanism used in other keyboards. I won’t geek out on keyboard technologies but what I can say is I liked typing on this one. The keys have what feels to me like the proper amount of “travel.” Of course, depending on what you’re currently typing on, it may take a bit of getting used to.
Some users in the relatively recent past have complained about the butterfly keyboards on some MacBooks and MacBook Pro models, even leading to class action suits against the company.
Apple eventually acknowledged that a “small percentage” of keyboards on these models could have letters or characters that repeat unexpectedly, do not appear at all, or feel sticky. The company says it has fixed such issues by now, I certainly didn’t experience any of these defects in the short time I’ve had with the new Air.
One feature I certainly appreciate is the more spacious “Force Touch” trackpad on the computer. Force Touch technology detects how much pressure you’re applying against the trackpad, leading to different outcomes on the Mac depending on how hard you do press.
Running down the battery
Apple claims up to 13 hours of iTunes movie playback, based on a test where the company set the brightness around 75 percent. I only got around 4 hours of battery life, running an admittedly far harsher test: I cranked up the brightness to the max, and streamed a high-definition, full-screen movie on Netflix via Wi-Fi.
But I was also somewhat disappointed in the when I used the Air in a more typical fashion. With the brightness roughly at 50 percent, I started using a fully charged Air on and off around at 10AM. The laptop pooped out a little past 7PM. In between, I had used the computer to begin writing this column, play some music, and surf the web.
Apple insists stronger battery life is the norm, so I’m willing to conduct further tests to see how it all plays out. While this issue is–how should I put it?–still up in the air, however, I’ll pause and wait to see if this is the computer to replace my aging MacBook Air.
Email: email@example.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter. Baig is the author of “Macs For Dummies,” an independent work published by Wiley.
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