Apple’s updated its ultraportable laptop, the MacBook Air, and aside from the requisite performance upgrades that accompany any product update, the feature most buyers will care about is the inclusion of the Magic Keyboard that’s trickled down from the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The “magic” is that Apple’s gone back to keyboards with proper switches beneath them that won’t be incapacitated by a single, stray crumb of sourdough. The 13-inch MacBook Pro is the last device that needs to ditch the Butterfly keyboard, and it inevitably will when it's refreshed later this year.
There’s a 13-inch Retina display and three color options to choose from: silver, gold or space gray — no wild, mold-breaking hues. This is an Apple product, after all. If you want a red laptop, get a Lenovo or an Asus. Pleasingly, storage on the Air now starts as 256GB, not 128GB, which really should have been phased out along with 16GB iPhones.
More power for heavy lifting — Apple’s including quad-core processors in the Air for the first time, along with the option to choose up to a Core i7 processor, and in another first, it can now output to a 6K external display. There’s also more attention to graphics-handling thanks to the inclusion of Intel’s Iris Plus Graphics GPU.
New speakers — Traditionally, the MacBook Air’s audio has been uninspiring. That’s to be expected. Speaker performance is hemmed in by physical limitations — how loud you can make things depend on how much room you have to move a cone. In the Air, there’s precious little space. But Apple’s shown what’s possible with the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and now its updated the speakers in the MacBook Air accordingly. We’ll reserve judgment on how they sound until we’ve tried them, but we’re optimistic.
We’re less optimistic about the FaceTime/iSight camera which, knowing Apple, will be the same, HD disappointment it continues to cling to for reasons we can’t pretend to understand. Though, in these work-from-home times, perhaps lower-resolution video calls are a blessing in disguise.
Priced to move — Pricing for the new Air starts at $999, but max out the specs by going for the i7, 16GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD and you’ll be able to get that price well up into MacBook Pro territory at $2,249. Most people aren’t going to buy a MacBook Air for Pro performance, though. They’re buying it for its portability. Paying more for a tricked-out Air will appeal to some, albeit probably a fairly niche group compared to the Pro market, but at least there’s the option.
Orders for the new MacBook Air open today and Apple says the laptop will show up in stores next week… assuming it reopens stores on March 27 as planned. Deliveries for online orders will start on March 25, which is the same time the new iPad Pro unveiled alongside the new Air begins shipping. That device, more than any other, could threaten the new MacBook Air's changes of following in its predecessor's footsteps to become the de facto laptop for coffeeshop novelists and students alike.
But the sub-$1,000 starting price for the Air, and no need for the $300 iPad Pro keyboard that's required to turn the tablet into a genuine laptop alternative means we expect we'll be seeing plenty of Airs around town. With the Butterfly keyboard gone, at least we won’t need noise-canceling headphones to block out the noise.