Tech Guide

The new MacBook Air is what fans have been clamoring for and could rescue Apple from flat Mac sales

Apple's new MacBook Air is exactly what fans have been begging for
Apple's new MacBook Air is exactly what fans have been begging for
Key Points
  • The Apple MacBook Air has been a fan favorite since it was introduced in 2008.
  • Apple hasn't given it a big facelift since 2010, however, and the new model finally adds features fans have been waiting for, like a sharper screen.
  • Here's CNBC's review of Apple's new MacBook Air.

For years, people have been practically begging Apple to update the beloved MacBook Air with a better screen. Instead, Apple left it to collect dust on the shelf, adding only new processors over the years.

Now it's been completely designed, and millions of MacBook Air fans are going to love it.

The screen is finally nice and sharp on the new MacBook Air
Todd Haselton | CNBC

This is important in light of Apple's Mac business, which has been pretty flat. Apple sold 5.3 million Macs during the fourth quarter of 2018, a hair below the 5.39 million it sold in the year-ago quarter. Colleagues and friends of mine have hung on to their older MacBook Airs, waiting for Apple to launch a new model. It hits stores on Wednesday, and I think it's going to help boost those flattened Mac sales.

I've been testing the new MacBook Air for several days. Here's what you need to know.

What's good

Take a look at this screen!
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The new Air finally has a much sharper Retina display, which has been available on MacBook Pro since 2012 and the MacBook since 2015. This is the display Air fans have been clamoring for.

Text is sharp when I'm reading the news, movies look great, and it gets nice and bright. It's also plenty large, at 13.3-inches, which means you have more space for doing stuff without squinting and more room for moving windows around, as opposed to the smaller, but more expensive and less powerful, regular MacBook.

The second I opened the MacBook Air box in the office, my colleagues gathered around and attempted to slide it into purses and backpacks. They were giddy that it's lighter than our work-issued laptops and older MacBooks. I love the brushed aluminum metal body, which makes it feel more premium and more rock-solid than other laptops on the market. There's barely any flexing or bending.

The speakers get nice and loud — my wife asked me to turn down a movie while she was working at a nearby table — and have great surround-sound audio.

The larger track pad gives you more room for zooming into photos with two fingers, or gesturing to view all of your open windows with three fingers. It's been updated to Apple's newer technology, which allows you to tap down anywhere, instead of only at the front of the touchpad like on older MacBook Airs.

The large trackpad on the new MacBook Air
Todd Haselton | CNBC

And it's speedy. I tested a unit with Intel's Core i5 processor, which is sold in the entry-level model. I once bought and returned the smaller MacBook, because it comes with a less powerful processor that became sluggish when I had too many browser tabs and apps open. The MacBook Air doesn't have that issue. However, if you want to do professional video editing, you may want to consider Apple's MacBook Pros, which have more muscle under the hood.

Two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the MacBook Air.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There are two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the side, which is plenty, and they work overtime to support all sorts of things, from a 5K display to fast external storage and even the MacBook's charger. If you're using it for work, you might want to consider a dock that has a few more ports for older USB keys or a keyboard and mouse, without the need for adapters. Here's the thing though: Aside from perhaps wanting to connect a display, I really never found a need to connect anything else. I don't really use USB keys anymore, and everything else I need, like pictures I take on my phone, are all in the cloud.

Touch ID on the MacBook Air
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's a tiny square Touch ID sensor that let me unlock the MacBook with a tap of my finger. I appreciate the speed, but I wish Apple included its Face ID technology above the screen instead. I'm used to it on my iPhone XS Max, and there seems to be plenty of room above the display to fit the cameras required. Touch ID feels outdated, since Apple has already moved away from it on its iPads and iPhones.

Even with the power boost, the battery life still rocks. I spent most some of my weekend trying to vet Apple's promise of 13 hours of video playback. I did this by streaming movies from iTunes over and over with the brightness set at medium. The MacBook Air finally died after 11 hours and 3 minutes. That's short of the 13 hours of video playback Apple promises, but I wasn't just watching the movies, I was streaming them, which also drains battery life. It's still incredibly impressive.

What's bad

The keys on the keyboard take some getting adjusted to.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I really wish Apple kept the original keyboard from the MacBook Air.

A lot of people seriously loved the chiclet design and deep key travel — the nice punch you get when you tap a key on the keyboard. That keyboard was so good it was mimicked by pretty much every computer maker.

The new design is OK, and I adjusted to typing quickly and accurately on it, but it's definitely hard to get used to the small amount of key travel. It kind of feels like you're barely tapping a key before it registers, as if it's just a bit too sensitive. This isn't reason enough to skip buying the MacBook Air altogether, but it's just not as good as the keyboard on the older MacBooks. I prefer the keyboard on Microsoft's Surface Laptop 2, which is more like the original MacBook Air design.

The new MacBook Air
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Also, it's more expensive than the original MacBook Air (which Apple still sells for $899.) This might turn some people off, particularly those with a $1,000 budget for a new laptop. I think Apple would have trouble keeping these in stock if it charged less than $1,000, but it certainly feels worth the price.

The new MacBook Air
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, and maybe this is nitpicking, I did have a few instances where I tried to touch the screen. I normally use a Windows laptop with a touchscreen, so I've become adjusted to quickly tapping to exit out of a window, or skipping a song on Spotify, without using the mouse. You can't do that on the MacBook Air, and Apple explained that macOS isn't an interface that's designed for touch. That's fair, but I think people are so used to touching tablets and phones that there's a natural desire to tap a computer screen, too.. Microsoft Windows 10 proves it's possible to do without being confusing, all in a similar environment.

Should you buy it?

The new MacBook Air
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Yes. This is the MacBook to buy, and I think it has serious potential to help Apple boost Mac sales again.

People like me have been turned off by the lower-powered, small and more expensive MacBook. And I don't need the power or want to pay the higher price of the MacBook Pro. This sits right in the middle and gives consumers almost everything they loved about earlier MacBook Airs, but with a beautiful new display and improved performance.

If you prefer Windows PCs, however, I highly recommend Microsoft's Surface Laptop 2. It offers a similar thin-and-light experience, a great design, good battery life and a touchscreen display. You can't go wrong with either one, but Apple fans finally have the MacBook Air they've been waiting for.