I'm typing this article on a four-year-old 13-inch MacBook Pro, which has served me well the past few years but, to put it charitably, is starting to show its age.
The Core i5 processor powering this relic is struggling to keep up with more modern software, as you might expect from a CPU that's several generations behind Intel's latest chips. The "A" key actually broke some time ago — I make do with an external keyboard at my desk and the on-screen keyboard when I'm on the go — and the cost of fixing it proved so prohibitive, that I decided to wait until Apple came out with a new laptop to mull possible replacements.
Is the MacBook Air that Apple announced today (Oct. 30) worth that wait?
That's the question a lot of Mac users are likely asking themselves right now, even if their hardware situation isn't quite as dire as mine. Apple's lower-cost laptops hadn't seen an update in some time: outside of the occasional processor bump, the MacBook Air is nearly as old as this bucket of bolts I'm typing on. Apple's kept its MacBook Pro lineup reasonably up to date, but if you want a notebook with the latest generation of Intel processors, you're looking at spending at least $1,799 — and that's for a machine that's noticeably bulkier than Apple's lower-cost options.
Here's a closer look at just what's changed with the MacBook Air and whether Apple did enough to get would-be upgraders like me off the fence.
The Specs: More bang for your buck
The bright side to dragging your heels on rolling out an updated laptop: When you finally do get around to unveiling your new product, the specs can't help but be an improvement.
That's certainly the case here, where Apple has upgraded to an 8th-gen Intel Core i5 processor. The dual-core CPU runs at 1.6GHz, with Turbo Boost upping the speed to 3.6GHz. That's sure to be an improvement over the 5th-Gen Core i5 in Apple's previous MacBook Air.
The base model MacBook Air ships with the same 8GB of RAM and 128GB SSD as before, but now you can boost memory up to 16GB and opt for 256GB, 512GB or 1.5TB of storage. Be prepared to pay up for those boosted specs, though. Doubling memory adds another $200 to the MacBook Air's price tag, as does increasing the storage to 256GB.
While you'd expect better internals in the first new MacBook Air in a good long while, Apple also updated the laptop's screen with a new 13.3-inch Retina Display. The screen goes closer to the edge on this new notebook, Apple says, with the borders 50 percent narrower than before.
"This is a big upgrade for the MacBook Air," said Tom Mainelli, the program vice president of devices and AR/VR at market research firm IDC, after going hands on with the new laptop at Apple's Oct. 30 product event. "Much better screen, smaller bezels, faster performance and Type C ports. It looks and feels a lot like the MacBook Pro, which will make a lot of people very happy."
The Design: Less machine to love
Apple made these changes while also shrinking down the size of the MacBook Air. The new machine is 15.6mm thin, down from 17.3mm on the model it replaces. It weighs less, too — at 2.75 pounds, it's a quarter-pound lighter than before, or roughly the weight of one of McDonald's fancier cheeseburgers.
Add all these changes together, and you've got a MacBook Air with 17 percent less volume than its predecessor. That's a change that's likely to be noticed even if you've been carrying around one of Apple's lighter notebooks recently, let alone if you lug around a four-year-old laptop like me.
One of the best design choices for the new MacBook Air may be something that Apple didn't include. There's no Touch Bar here like there is on some MacBook Pro models, and I can't pretend to be too broken up about that decision. The few times I've played around with that feature on a MacBook Pro, it struck me as a superfluous addition at best and, at worst, a distraction that would require me to adopt a new way of working with my laptop. No Touch Bar is a trade-off I'm happy to make, especially if means a sleeker notebook that still offers Touch ID.
The Price: More bucks for the bang
One change that Apple made that's less likely to be well-received by would-be upgraders is to the MacBook Air's price tag. The new machine starts at $1,199, or $200 more than what Apple used to charge for its entry-level laptop.
That price "is likely to disappoint many buyers who were hoping for a new $999 laptop from Apple," Mainelli said. It puts the machine on the wrong side of that psychologically significant $1,000 threshold that determines how quickly shoppers reach for their wallet. (Not coincidentally, the older MacBook Air with its 5th-gen Intel processor and less pixel-dense display remains available at Apple's online store for its old $999 asking price — almost as if Apple realized it was important to offer something, anything to people who balk at paying more than $1,000 for a laptop.)
"Apple is making it clear that even its entry-level Mac notebook isn’t going to compete on price," Mainelli said. "Conversely, some buyers considering a MacBook Pro may decided this is a better computer for them, at a slightly lower starting price."
Upgrade or no?
If you've been holding off on a laptop purchase, waiting to see just what Apple had planned, the company's given you plenty to think about with this MacBook Air update. The improved processor, streamlined design and better screen would be tempting enough, and that's before we even consider other bonuses like the improved audio and larger trackpad that Apple added to this model.
That's a lot of improvements, but is it $200 worth of improvements? That's the question a lot of people will be asking, especially with that $999 MacBook Air still available if a low price remains your primary concern.
For my particular situation, the MacBook Air seems like a worthwhile replacement for this MacBook Pro I've carried around the last four years — you had me at "functioning keyboard" — though I wish Apple would have offered more than 128GB of storage on its base configuration. I'm holding off a final decision until my Laptop Mag colleagues have a chance to test and review this new Apple laptop, but at first glance, the improvements to the MacBook Air seem to outweigh the higher starting price.
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