The new 2018 MacBook Air includes pretty much everything shoppers have been asking for. It has a much sharper Retina display. The bezels around that screen are no longer laughably large. And this machine has a fast 8th-generation Intel CPU.
Apple also includes a Touch ID sensor for quickly logging in (though there’s no Face ID) and a larger touchpad in a design that’s significantly thinner and lighter than its predecessor.
But there’s one very large fly in the ointment here, and that’s the price. The $1,199 cost is $200 more than the previous MacBook Air. This could put off would-be upgraders and especially those shoppers Apple is trying to woo from Windows.
“It has great specs, but the price is too high to be the entry-level product in the line,” said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD. “At $1,199 to start, the new MacBook Air is going to cannibalize a lot of MacBook Pro sales without getting many entry-level buyers to trade up.”
How the 2018 MacBook Air measures up
During Apple’s launch event, CEO Tim Cook said that 51 percent of Mac buyers worldwide are new to the Mac. But when they see the price of the new MacBook Air, they may take another look at their Windows ultraportable options, as a lot of those systems are significantly cheaper than what Apple’s offering while providing better specs.
Take the Dell XPS 13, which costs $1,099 for a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. That’s double the storage of the MacBook Air, which costs $1,399 if you want to jump from the base 128GB to 256GB.
Granted, that above Dell configuration includes a 1080p display, which is lower resolution than the Retina panel on the 2018 MacBook Air (2560 x 1600 pixels). The XPS 13 with a 4K panel costs $1,759, but that also comes with 16GB of RAM and a Core i7 processor. You also get touch functionality, which the MacBook Air lacks. The MacBook Air isn't available with a Core i7 chip.
Microsoft’s sleek Surface Laptop 2 starts at $999 for a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. So that’s $200 less than the MacBook Air. And, again, the Surface Laptop includes a touchscreen display, and it’s pretty crisp at 2256 x 1504 pixels.
The new MacBook Air "is likely to disappoint many buyers who were hoping for a new $999 laptop from Apple," said Tom Mainelli, program vice president of devices at market research firm IDC. "Apple is making it clear that even its entry-level Mac notebook isn’t going to compete on price.”
HP sells the premium Spectre 13t for $1,099, which offers double the storage of the MacBook Air at 256GB for $100 less. And if you want a 4K screen, it costs just $50 more than the new Air at $1,249.
The Apple premium argument
Apple is obviously counting on the unique appeal of its Macs, which promises ease of use, generally better security than Windows and tight integration with iCloud and iPhones, to justify the premium. And that strategy may very well be successful, especially for those who have been turned off by the MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,299 but really costs $1,799 if you want a modern processor.
"Much better screen, smaller bezels, faster performance and Type C ports. [The new MacBook Air] looks and feels a lot like the MacBook Pro, which will make a lot of people very happy,” said Mainelli.
The good news — sort of — is that Apple is keeping the old MacBook Air around at $999. But this machine's 5th-generation Core processor, 1440 x 900-pixel screen and thick bezels make it feel like a relic. The only things going for it really are the full-size USB ports and comfier old-school keyboard.
“The average price last quarter of a MacBook Air was $807,” said Baker, adding that there’s a real mismatch between current buyers and prospective ones for the new Air. “Which is why it appears [Apple is] going to keep selling the old MacBook Air.”
So, yeah, you can still get a cheap MacBook Air, but it’s not one that stacks up well against the Windows competition.
The bottom line is this. The new MacBook Air looks great, but the steep starting price could leave would-be upgraders and switchers in the cold this holiday season.