Like many Macs before it, the MacBook Air had a pricing problem until very recently. It was a well-designed ultraportable, but its computing performance and features were slightly behind the curve in the face of touch screens, more powerful processors, and other futuristic ideas from Windows equivalents around or below the MacBook Air’s former $1,299 starting price. This month, Apple dropped that price to $1,099, changing the calculus significantly, though the MacBook Air is otherwise nearly identical to its predecessor. (Note: Our tester unit comes in at $1,299 with what we consider an essential storage upgrade.) The result? The same solid laptop as ever, but for less money. The 2019 Air doesn’t stand out in a crowded field of excellent ultraportables that includes the even-better 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro, but it’s worth a look if you’re partial to macOS and maximum mobility.
An Iconic Wedge
Sloping from back to front in a wedge shape that pays homage to the original MacBook Air, which was introduced more than a decade ago, the 2019 MacBook Air is now Apple’s least expensive and lightest laptop. It snags this distinction because the 12-inch MacBook, previously the lightest Mac laptop, and the 2017 MacBook Air, previously the cheapest Mac laptop, are no longer for sale.
The cheapest and most portable entry point into the macOS ecosystem obviously has enormous appeal, just by default. And, at least in terms of size and weight, the MacBook Air holds its own in the wider world of Windows ultraportable laptops. At 0.61 inch thick at its thickest point, the Air essentially hits the 0.6-inch mark that most other ultraportable makers strive for, and its slimmest point at the front edge is a vanishingly thin 0.16 inch.
The 2.75-pound weight, 12-inch width, and 8.4-inch depth also acquit themselves nicely. The Microsoft Surface Laptop 2, for instance, is 0.57 by 12.1 by 8.8 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.8 pounds, while the Razer Blade Stealth is 0.58 by 12 by 8.3 inches and weighs the same as the Microsoft machine. The current king of the ultraportable laptop category is the Dell XPS 13, and it’s significantly smaller despite having the same 13.3-inch screen size as the MacBook Air and the Blade Stealth. The XPS 13 is an impressive 0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches and weighs 2.7 pounds.
Meanwhile, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, Apple’s step-up model from the Air, is on the heavy side (3.02 pounds), though its dimensions are mostly the same as the Air’s (0.59 by 12 by 8.4 inches). Overall, the similarities in sizes and weights are the best indicator of just how stiff the competition is among 13-inch ultraportables. The MacBook Air is far from alone among thin-and-light laptops.
As ever, the thinness and lightness do not come at the expense of sturdiness. The MacBook Air feels very solid, with no noticeable flex anywhere on the chassis. That’s thanks mostly to a metal alloy made entirely of recycled aluminum shavings. You can have Apple apply one of three different color finishes to the alloy: the Space Gray or Silver that are also available on the Apple iMac and MacBook Pro lineups, or the Gold color that is unique to the Air. Our review unit is clad in Gold, drawing praiseworthy comments over the several days I used it around the office. It’s bold and beautiful, but given its unmistakable reddish hue, I think Apple should have called it Rose Gold. It tends to look more pinkish or coppery, depending on the lighting.
Retina Display, Now Automatic White Balance
There’s a very small indentation on the front edge to help your fingers open the display lid. Doing so exposes the 13.3-inch LED-backlit Retina Display, which has a not-quite-4K resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels arranged in a 16:10 aspect ratio. It’s a brilliant display, and it now has support for Apple’s True Tone feature, which emerged first on the company’s iPads.
True Tone automatically makes colors warmer or lighter to complement the balance of the room’s ambient light. It’s a feature that trickled down from the MacBook Pro lineup, and while I wouldn’t call it a necessary improvement, I do notice that it lends a distinctly pleasing, warmer tint to the screen under the fluorescent lights of PC Labs. If you don’t like it, you can turn True Tone off in the System Preferences app.
Though it gains True Tone, the MacBook Air’s screen is still slightly inferior to the MacBook Pro’s screen, and missing the touch option that many Windows laptops offer. The MacBook Pro has a slightly higher maximum brightness (500 nits versus 400 nits), and I found my eyes were most comfortable when turning up the MacBook Air’s brightness level to one click below its maximum. The MacBook Pro’s screen can also display a wider range of colors, though unless you’re the type of computer user who needs or prefers to perform color calibration on your screens, you’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference.
You will definitely notice the lack of a touch screen, however. The MacBook Air lacks the option for full-screen touch support that is available on most of its Windows competitors, and it’s also missing the long, thin, secondary touch display known as the Touch Bar that, as of the 2019 models, now comes standard-issue on the MacBook Pro.
The MacBook Air does offer a Touch ID sensor, however, which lets you log in to your macOS account using your fingerprint. You can also use your print to authenticate Apple Pay and App Store purchases. The Touch ID sensor is located in the upper right corner of the keyboard. It doubles as a power button, which you mostly won’t need, since the MacBook Air turns on automatically as soon as you open the lid.
This automatic booting is usually a time saver, but I regret that when the laptop is already powered down and I then open the lid to clean the keyboard, I must first wait for it to boot up, then shut it down and commence with cleaning. You can disable it with a Terminal command, but I wish there were an easier way to stop the automatic booting in System Preferences.
Controversial Keyboard, Excellent Touchpad
One of the reasons I’m prone to regularly cleaning the MacBook Air’s keyboard: I’m very conscious of the issues that some owners have reported with previous versions.
With earlier iterations of this so-called “butterfly” keyboard, which is now standard equipment on all new MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros, debris getting under the keys was a concern. Material getting into the very shallow butterfly-style key switches beneath the keys has prompted a lawsuit and an out-of-warranty repair program for previous MacBook Pro models that use them. The new MacBook Air features the third generation of this butterfly-keyboard design, which Apple claims to have improved in unspecified ways, other than that it offers a “quieter” typing experience. It’s the same generation of the board that’s used on the new MacBook Pro, too.
The typing experience is indeed unique on these laptops because of these shallow key switches. It’s more akin to tapping on a keyboard than typing. I’ve gotten used to it, and sometimes I even enjoy the tapping sensation, although I still prefer keys with more travel distance, especially the ones found on Lenovo’s ThinkPad lineup. For people who type only occasionally, there’s nothing radically wrong with the MacBook Air’s keyboard; if you’re a novelist or a software engineer, though, you may want to consider a laptop with greater key-travel distance instead. At the very least, you want to audition this keyboard before you buy; it is like no other, for better or worse.
The MacBook Air’s glass touchpad, however, is excellent. It’s large and pinpoint-accurate, and it makes use of haptic feedback for a uniform clicking sensation no matter where your finger rests. I far prefer it to any Windows touchpad I’ve ever used. Again, though, try before you buy, especially if you’re wedded to separate click buttons.
The Air’s ancillary features, like its speakers, are the same on this year’s model as last year’s. In short, that means functional, albeit unremarkable, sound and webcam quality, and support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The ports again comprise a headphone jack, plus two USB Type-C ports that support Thunderbolt 3 speeds. For more details on these features, check out our review of last year’s model. The fact that there are only three ports can be constraining, but the situation is the same on the entry-level MacBook Pro, and some superthin Windows laptops are also ditching all ports except audio and USB-C. So the MacBook Air isn’t unique in its bantamweight I/O selection.
Apple offers a one-year warranty and 90 days of telephone technical support with the MacBook Air, though Apple Store employees are often willing to fix common issues—especially software and keyboard problems—even if your MacBook Air is outside of its warranty period.
A Power-Sipping CPU
Like the ports and speakers, the CPU, memory, storage, and graphics options on the 2019 MacBook Air are all identical to the ones available on the 2018 edition.
The base model comes with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 128GB PCI Express SSD for system storage. Our test unit modifies this configuration by stepping up to a 256GB SSD, which adds $200 to the price but is highly recommended unless you store all of your photos, movies, and other digital media in the cloud. Other configuration options include 512GB or 1TB SSDs, and 16GB of memory.
The one sorely missed component-upgrade option is the ability to pay more for a more powerful CPU. The 1.6GHz Intel dual-core chip is the MacBook Air’s sole option. Apple doesn’t divulge the specific CPU models in its computers, but the information we do know about the chip from our benchmark software suggests it is likely Intel’s Core i5-8210Y. The benefits of the ultra-low-power Y-series chips include little fan noise and the potential for marathon battery life, both of which apply to the MacBook Air, at the expense of often sluggish performance on resource-intensive workloads such as video rendering and image editing.
This tradeoff is one reason that the Dell XPS 13, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 2, the Razer Blade Stealth, and the MacBook Pro all use more powerful U-series Core i5 or Core i7 processors, which consume roughly double the power as the Y-series but are far more capable all-around performers. In the chart below are the tested configurations of the MacBook Air and its chief competitors in the configurations that we’ve reviewed. All of them are priced similarly to the MacBook Air, with the exception of the slightly more expensive, niche-filling HP Spectre Folio.
The differences between the Y-series and U-series chips are best illustrated on theoretical benchmarks like Cinebench, a 3D rendering exercise that taxes all of a CPU’s available cores and threads. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Core i5 or a Core i7; as you can see, both laptops based on Y-series processors performed significantly worse than their U-series counterparts on this test.
For a real-world look at how this deficiency might affect performance, consider our Adobe Photoshop test. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. The MacBook Air took more than 4 minutes to complete all of the filters and effects, versus just 2 minutes and 24 seconds for the Razer Blade Stealth.
In addition to the Photoshop test, which affords some time for the laptop to rest and cool down between applying each filter or effect, we also test a system’s ability to deliver sustained maximum performance by encoding a 12-minute 4K video to 1080p using the Handbrake app. The MacBook Air was more than twice as slow as the MacBook Pro and Blade Stealth at performing this test. This puts the MacBook Air in a tough spot against competitors with similar prices and chassis sizes.
But many people in the market for an ultraportable laptop will never run Photoshop or convert a 4K video to 1080p. And the story that the benchmark numbers don’t tell is that for common computing tasks, the MacBook Air performs just fine. In fact, I streamed full-screen 1080p video from a website on an external monitor while clicking through multiple browser tabs in Firefox and Safari on the MacBook Air’s main display without experiencing a hint of sluggishness. This is a better experience than some Windows laptops with Y-series processors I’ve used, some of which occasionally hung when I opened lots of browser tabs.
There’s also one thing at which the MacBook Air is unquestionably excellent: working for more than 20 hours without being plugged in. On our battery rundown test, which involves playing a local 720p video file at 50 percent screen brightness with Wi-Fi turned off until the battery dies, the MacBook Air lasted only two hours longer than the MacBook Pro, but significantly longer than either the Razer Blade Stealth or the Surface Laptop 2.
Finally, I tested the speed of the MacBook Air’s storage using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. It achieved an average 920MBps write speed and 1,288MBps read speed, which is on the low end for a PCI Express SSD. The fastest ones we’ve tested can top 3,000MBps, and there is some evidence that the MacBook Air uses a slightly slower SSD than last year’s model, perhaps with fewer PCI Express lanes. (Apple declined to comment on the specifics of the SSD.)
In contrast, on the same speed test, the 2019 version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro performs slightly better, with a 1,222MBps write speed and a 1,666MBps read speed, and the 15-inch MacBook Pro achieved average read and write speeds of around 2,600MBps. (That suggests that the 15-inch MacBook Pro is using a full-fat PCI Express x4 SSD, for more background, see our comprehensive guide to the best M.2 SSDs.) Still, the MacBook Air’s SSD is plenty fast enough that storage throughput won’t be a performance bottleneck, or indeed detectably slower, for the kinds of tasks this laptop is built for. And it’s still significantly faster than any Serial ATA-based SSD and (by far) any platter-based hard drive.
The Pro Difference
That slight storage-speed difference between the MacBook Air and the entry-level MacBook Pro is just one more example of the tough decision that faces people shopping for a mainstream Apple laptop. The differences are small but significant, so let’s tally them up.
The 2019 MacBook Pro is a quarter-pound heavier than the MacBook Air, has slightly shorter battery life, lacks the option for the Gold chassis color, and is $200 more expensive in its starting model versus the Air’s. In exchange for those traits, it offers significantly better theoretical computing performance, and the added side benefits of the Touch Bar and a slightly more capable Retina Display.
We think most people—especially students who are planning to keep their laptops through four years of college—should make the small compromises required to ensure that they have the extra computing performance when or if they need it, and opt for the MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air may be the same laptop it was last year at a lower price, but the entry-level MacBook Pro has improved, year over year, to a much greater degree. And, if you’re open to the Windows 10 world, the Dell XPS 13, Razer Blade Stealth, and Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 are all equally viable contenders.