June 13, 2024


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MacBook Air 2018 review: Playing catch-up, trading ports for pixels

Editor’s note, Nov. 16: Originally published Nov. 6, this review has been updated with final benchmark and battery life scores, as well as a review rating. 

Apple’s MacBook Air has gotten a much-needed reboot, keeping the name, but changing just about everything else, both outside and in. That means a new 8th-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, more RAM and SSD options, a high-res Retina display, and the move to USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. And while it’s still called the MacBook Air, this new version might as well be called the “MacBook Pro Lite,” because that’s essentially what it is.

For most of its 10-plus year life, the classic MacBook Air was the default laptop for pretty much everyone, from college students to creative types to startup entrepreneurs. For many years, I called it the single most universally useful laptop you could buy.

But over the years, the competition moved to higher-res displays, thin screen bezels, bigger touchpads, regular component upgrades, and thinner and lighter bodies.


The old MacBook’s deep keys and multiple ports are gone.

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While this reimagined MacBook Air fixes almost all of the previous design’s issues, it adds a couple of its own. It’s a much better fit with the rest of the current Mac design sensibility: Larger than the 12-inch MacBook, smaller than the 13-inch Pro, and much different from the classic Air, which Apple is still selling, at least for now.

That means the long-standing design, with its thick screen bezels, smallish touchpad, deep keys and multiple ports is gone. If anything, the new Air looks and feels like a half-step between the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Its price has jumped up to join the rest of the MacBooks as well. For most of its life, the Air was $999. Not cheap, but a reasonably achievable luxury, especially for a rock-solid laptop that could last years.


Less powerful than the MacBook Pro, but more portable.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new starting price is $1,199 (£1,199, AU$1,849), which is a tough blow for generations raised on the idea of getting that first MacBook for under a grand. Right now, it’s only $100 less than the 12-inch MacBook or 13-inch basic MacBook Pro, so there’s some price-versus-features math to do.

My cheat sheet for that is as follows. Compared to the new MacBook Air:

  • The MacBook Pro is more expensive, more powerful and less portable.
  • The 12-inch MacBook is more expensive, less powerful and more portable.

With each laptop excelling in a different area, and only $100 separating their base models, there won’t be one correct answer for everyone. That said, this new Air is the safe middle ground between the two extremes.

Body double

Picking one up, it immediately feels lighter and smaller than the current Air, which I’m intimately familiar with. At 2.7 pounds (1.25 kilograms) and about 15 millimeters thick, it’s actually fairly average when it comes to 13-inch laptops. Some similar systems get down under 10mm, but at the expense of battery, features and processing power. As it is, the new MacBook Air is firmly in the mainstream of slim laptops, but not leading the pack.

One bit of catch-up is in the screen design, which cuts the thick bezel border surrounding it by about half and adds an edge-to-edge glass overlay. It’s a sharper, more modern look, and a long overdue upgrade.


The older MacBook Air bezel versus the new version.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the current Pro and 12-inch MacBook, the new Air still feels like a tank, with its one-piece aluminum construction (now 100-percent recycled aluminum, according to Apple). That’s one of the reasons MacBooks, both Air and Pro, have been able to command premium prices for so long — because you’re making an investment in a product that will hopefully last for many years.

It’s all about the keyboard

As the only MacBook with a traditional island-style keyboard, the MacBook Air was one refuge from those who disliked the super flat butterfly mechanism keyboards in newer MacBooks. Now the Air is firmly in the same camp as the other models. Some may lament the loss of the older style of keyboard, but I think the butterfly keyboard has never been as troublesome as people imagine, and I’ve certainly dealt with more difficult keyboards in more expensive products.


You may never love the new butterfly keyboard, but you’ll learn to live with it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In this new Air, you get the latest version of the butterfly keyboard, with a new membrane underneath to help keep dust from gumming up the keys. To our knowledge, the Air and the Touch Bar versions of the Pro have this version, whereas other MacBooks have a previous version.

It takes a period of adjustment to get used to the subtle tactile feedback, but once you do get used to it, it’s fine for even long-form typing. But yes, you may never grow to love it.

The payoff is that the new Air also includes a much bigger touchpad, of the same Force Touch style as on other MacBooks. That means it doesn’t have a diving-board hinge on the back, and instead uses four corner sensors to register clicks, allowing the body to be thinner.

Will die-hards take this change hard? They might, but that old keyboard was never as great as you remember.

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