MacBook Air 2020: Review

First a history lesson.

The MacBook Air launched in 2008. You might remember the ad campaign that launched along side it that showed a thin, ultra light notebook that could fit inside a manilla envelope. The marketing was striking and the concept intriguing. The problem with the MacBook Air was that it was too expensive at launch, costing more than the more powerful 13 inch MacBook Pro. Performance wise, it was a little underwhelming.

2008.

Apple worked with Intel to help them miniaturise their flagship Core 2 Duo CPU. What they achieved together was impressive. Whilst it was a less powerful version of the Core 2 Duo, what mattered is what it represented. It started to really focus the minds of chip manufacturers on getting the size of the silicon down. Rather than focusing purely on performance, instead chip makers began to focus on efficiency, battery life whilst offering a more modest experience when it came to raw power. This is important for two reasons –

  • First, innovation in the mobile space wouldn’t have been possible without the work by chip makers to reduce the size, efficiency and thermal output of desktop and laptop CPU’s and GPU’s. There wouldn’t be an iPad or an Apple Watch. Streaming set top boxes wouldn’t exist in the form they do today. Tons of different categories of devices simply wouldn’t exist without the foundation that started with the work on chips for ultra books like the MacBook Air.
  • Second, the software experiences that exist today and the services that we take for granted wouldn’t exist without the hardware that enables them. Kiss good bye to streaming music in your pocket or on your wrist, Netflix and Disney+ and all the other usual suspects? tethered down to a laptop at best or a bulky TV at best.

Some people didn’t like the MacBook Air. Not because of the puny CPU, but because of what it represented. It abandoned physical media entirely. Gone was the disc drive, in came flash storage trading out the tried and true mechanical hard drive. Software distribution was digital only. Lots of people didn’t like that. The first MacBook Air broke too many traditional computing conventions. It wasn’t the first time Apple abandoned legacy technologies. It took an axe to the floppy disc drive several years before and people didn’t like that either. In time people began to accept the changes.

The willingness to change.

Innovation is a double edged sword. It requires a willingness to change things in service of building and designing something truly new, useful and most importantly better. Progress for the sake of progress is not innovation. I don’t think many people would still argue that software and app distribution was better on disc drives. We’re all used to App stores and digital downloads. We traded out CD’s and DVD’s for streaming services. The world didn’t stop turning and a thriving eco-system of services has helped combat online piracy and ensure smaller artists have a platform.

By the time the second generation of MacBook Air shipped in 2011, lots of the doubters had begun to change their mind, albeit through gritted teeth. The second generation Air fixed many of the fundamental problems with the original. The price was much more reasonable, sitting below the MacBook Pro. The design had been refined adding additional ports to address some of the grumbles of the first model. The performance was better and features like a backlit keyboard made a welcome return in subsequent updates.

2011.

Whilst the old school geeks and keyboard warriors would never agree to anything Apple did that abandoned the older technologies, the mass market most certainly did. The MacBook Air went on to become the most popular model in Apple’s lineup. Consumers loved it. This wasn’t supposed to be a video editing rig or a designers machine. This MacBook Air was designed for every day tasks. Email, web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, content consumption. It did all of those things in a slick design, that was less expensive and had the features that most people actually cared about. This product wouldn’t have existed if Apple hadn’t been willing to take the heat and criticism. But they did that because it was the right thing for the product and the audience for which it was intended.

These days? you won’t find many computers with a disc drive, if any at all. You’d need to opt for external solutions. Most computers are flash storage based, certainly most laptops and tablets and even many desktop computers. Wired networking? desktop only for the most part. Things that we now enjoy like instant on, quick boot up times, great wireless networking wouldn’t exist without the courage to change. That all started with the MacBook Air.

But what happened next?

Between 2016 and 2018, Apple’s notebook strategy took a bit of a nose dive. The company seemed confused. Whilst they continued to add meaningful features such as Touch ID, Retina Displays and even more modern, looking designs, they also changed things that didn’t need to be changed. Apple had what many regard as the best notebook keyboard on the second generation MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. They insisted on changing it in service of creating a slimmer form factor in subsequent models. They called the new keyboard the butterfly keyboard. It traded key travel for key stability. The problem is, the new design whilst great in theory, came at the expense of reliability.

This was a real problem for Apple. The reputation of their notebook range was in real trouble for a couple of years. Remember what I said about progress for the sake of progress? Well this was a great example of that. The intent was good, but the outcome was poor. Their 2016 re-introduction of the MacBook was ruined by the keyboard and over reliance on form factor to wow. The MacBook Pro was being rejected by pro customers in favour of windows competitors because it didn’t have the features and the reliability that they needed. As for the MacBook Air? well Apple left the product largely abandoned for a few years and it looked seriously dated.

In October 2018, Apple finally updated the MacBook Air. There was a lot to like. The new redesign finally added a feature people had been desperate for, a high resolution Retina display. They also added meaningful features such as Touch ID for easy and secure authentication and the enclosure was the first Mac to be made of entirely recycled Aluminium without trading on quality. Unfortunately the third generation was held back from greatness for two key reasons. The first reason was that it came with the much maligned butterfly keyboard and that bought with it the reliability problems from the MacBook and MacBook Pro. The second reason was that the CPU was a little outdated and not so powerful when compared to the MacBook Pro. It just didn’t offer the great value that we have come to expect from the MacBook Air.

2018.

2020 to the rescue.

I realise the unfortunate irony of that heading but for the MacBook Air, the latest model Apple released a couple of weeks ago, is the best thing to happen to the Mac notebook range since the second generation MacBook Air in 2011. Let’s take a look at a few really important features –

  • Apple replaced the despised butterfly keyboard with an all new scissor switch keyboard. It offers the key travel that people enjoy but offers some of the stability benefits of the butterfly keyboard. Apple calls this a magic keyboard. They first bough this to the 16 inch MacBook Pro and it’s just as great on the new MacBook Air.
  • For the first time ever Apple has added the option of a quad core CPU on the MacBook Air. This is huge because with an i7 option, not only do we get a quad core option but also support for hyper threading and higher clock speeds with turbo boost.
  • The GPU is twice as fast as the previous model with Intels respectable Iris Plus graphics. To be clear this machine isn’t going to be a gaming rig but for some more demanding tasks like every day photo editing and light video editing, the machine is a truly excellent option for the every day consumer!
2020 with magic keyboard.

I love the new MacBook Air. It offers the meaningful upgrades from the 2018 redesign but gives us back the reliability we want. A great typing experience, rock solid speed and performance all in beautiful, thin and light package with a stunning display. Once again the MacBook Air excels because Apple focused on the things that the mass consumer market actually cares about.

For many years the MacBook Air was the only machine in the Mac notebook range that the majority of people should buy. I’m happy to say that the same is true once more in 2020. I’m glad Apple bought the MacBook Air back to life. It represents meaningful change, innovation and that technology is at its best when it focuses on the masses, rather than the obsessive needs of the few.

Where the MacBook Air will go in the future is anybody guess but I think it is safe to say, Apple is back in form with their notebook range. They’ve fixed the things that need to be fixed and doubled down on the features people care about. I hope Apple will innovate in the laptop space again like they did for the MacBook Air, but for now? incremental improvements year on year will do. And I’m ok with that.

Do I recommend the MacBook Air 2020? I absolutely do 👍

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