There have been reports that the new MacBook Air overheats, with some reports claiming that the fans make a lot of noise and others suggesting that the processors are being down clocked. In this article we’ll investigate the reasons for this.
There’s a lot of good about the new MacBook Air - the new Magic Keyboard, the improved processor, faster RAM, and double the storage, but it appears that some users are finding that their laptop is prone to overheating. What is the cause of this issue and is it a wider problem or just something a few unlucky customers are experiencing?
The issue seems to centre around the fans running particularly loud under high system load - with video editing and video conferencing apps being affected. However, as shown in Max Tech’s video review (on YouTube here), the problem can occur even in everyday use. The reviewer discusses the problem from around 6 minutes 30 seconds.
It seems that the 2020 Air runs hotter and louder than the previous generation did because the cooling system isn’t sufficient to deal with the faster processors in the new model. The YouTube reviewer above found that the laptop hit 100-degrees centigrade when running 4K video at which point the fans kicked in "annoyingly loud".
The tester suggests that the cooling issue is because Apple hasn’t connected the heat sink to the fans, which limits its cooling potential. He suggests that if Apple had done this the MacBook Air would be a serious contender against the more expensive MacBook Pro, but these issues slow it down when it comes to playing games or using graphic intensive applications.
There’s another YouTube video - this time from Louis Rossmann - here, which also examines the problem.
In his video he opens up the MacBook Air and finds that the fan isn’t close enough to the heat sink - he jokes that it’s a "placebo fan". He explains the fan should be able to blow the heat away from the heat sink but in this product the fan sits to one side while the heat sink sits over the CPU "so it just burns itself to death and the CPU dies". He suggests that Apple should have included a fin to allow airflow between the fan and the heat sink. (As seen in this iFixIt image).
Other reports suggest that the MacBook Air throttles CPU and GPU performance under heavy load (as per this Notebook Check report). That site also suggests that it’s not an overheating problem, indicating that in their experience the fans come on in undemanding tasks like having a second monitor plugged in. In that case the Air didn’t overheat: "The CPU never breached its 100 °C T-junction", states the author of the article who claims: "Apple has included a weak cooling system in the MacBook Air 2020, probably for reasons that it will never make clear."
Under normal use a typical MacBook Air user probably won’t experience any of these issues though. The standard MacBook Air user is unlikely to use any apps that could cause the MacBook Air to overheat, the result being that the fans might kick in, or that the processor might vie throttled (or down clocked) to avoid overheating.
However, even in normal use there could still be stresses on the CPU. Even soon after purchasing the Mac you might hear the fans kick in as the Mac scans your photo library for faces, or while iCloud is syncing. Alternatively a YouTube video might play in a special format that puts a heavy load on the CPU. A quick look at Activity Monitor should uncover the culprit as a single website or iCloud.
How quickly the fans start up seems to depend on the MacBook Air model. Our colleagues at Macwelt note that "The basic model with i3 CPU is slower but also stays cool longer than the faster models with i5 CPU and quad-core CPU or the top Model with i7 CPU. The slowest model and cheapest model is therefore apparently the quietest model." They add that: "Incidentally, earlier top MacBook versions with the i7 CPU also had problems with loud fans."
Macwelt suggests that the single fan inside the MacBook Air is overwhelmed by the task of cooling the MacBook Air - especially in the top-of-the-range models when running at maximum speed. So why didn’t Apple install a more powerful cooling system? Probably partly to keep costs down in this cheaper Mac, but also because it considers that the users - office workers and home users - won’t be running the kind of apps that would push the machine to its limits.
A better option for the power-user would be the mid-range MacBook Pro (specifically the 13in models that have four Thunderbolt ports rather than the entry-level models) feature a better cooling system with two fans, while the Air and entry-level Pro models only have the one fan.
In conclusion, these MacBooks might look like an attractive option for those who would normally consider the mid-range MacBook Pro, coming in at a much lower price point, but they aren’t designed for intensive processing and graphics.
Other problems with the MacBook Air
There have been reports of issues with USB connectivity with both the 2020 MacBook Air and Pro models.
As discussed in this article (Users report USB issues with new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro) it appears there are compatibility problems with older USB 2.0 accessories that can cause a Mac to freeze.
It seems the problem occurs when using USB 2.0 devices when connecting to the Mac via a USB hub.
We have a separate article about graphics issues with the 2020 iMac.