Apple MacBook Air (2020) full review

The 2010 MacBook Air was so good that Apple barely changed it for nine long years until it was finally retired. The 12in MacBook came and went, perhaps because people were still buying the cheaper non-Retina Air with better battery life and keyboard.

The 12in MacBook introduced the shallow butterfly keyboard to Apple's laptops before it found its way to the 2016 MacBook Pro and the 2018 redesign of the MacBook Air. Reams of editorial and reviews have bemoaned the butterfly keyboard, including on this site.

Most of the 2020 MacBook Air story is tied up in Apple's return to an excellent scissor switch keyboard, one that isn't identical but is just as good as the one made famous by the classic silver MacBook Air that remains a mainstay of college campuses and coffee shops worldwide.

Add to that clearly improved performance, great battery life and a lower starting price, and I feel confident to recommend the MacBook Air to anyone again. It shows how much Apple dropped the ball that this wasn't the case for the last few years.

With base storage doubled to 256GB and the price dropped £100/$100 to £999/$999, this is the no-brainer MacBook purchase for just about anyone outside of people rendering video for a living. For a wider look at the range, read our MacBook buying guide.

Bye-bye butterfly

The sumptuous keyboard on the 2020 Air is, Apple says, the same as the one found on the 2019 16in MacBook Pro. Apple is so chuffed with it that it calls it the Magic Keyboard, the same as its excellent wireless one that ships with iMacs, and the soon-to-be-released upgraded iPad Pro keyboard.

MacBook Air (2020) review: Keyboard

For context, the 2018 Air had a butterfly keyboard and the 2019 update only improved it slightly with better travel.

I'll hold Apple to account where it's due, but the keyboard here is as good as the company claims. It's a little quieter than the classic MacBook Air keyboard with slightly less travel at 1mm but absolutely trounces any generation of butterfly keyboard for comfort.

My personal Mac for the last four years has been the 2016 12in MacBook whose keyboard I actually never had technical issues with - but this Magic Keyboard is so much better. I feel like I could type for days in comfort and I feel no fatigue even after a full eight-hour workday at the keys.

MacBook Air (2020) review: Keys

The new Air also packs in (I can't believe this is can be considered a feature) a function row of keys, thankfully eschewing the icky Touch Bar of the MacBook Pro line, which now has it on all models. There's also a Touch ID sensor built into the power button for logging in and approving App Store and Apple Pay purchases.

The generous Force Touch trackpad underneath the keyboard is as good as previous generations too, with better responsiveness than any Windows laptop on the market.

The only ports to speak of are two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports on the left edge of the laptop that also handle charging, and a lesser-spotted 3.5mm headphone jack on the right.

MacBook Air (2020) review: Ports

If I had been buying the laptop before, I would have definitely picked the silver or Space Grey option. But now that I've reviewed the gold colour, I actually find it rather fetching, and would now probably pick it, even though my previous Apple purchases have all been Space Grey.

Display of affection

People who held lovingly on to the old non-Retina MacBook Air will see a great upgrade in the display on the 2020 Air. It's a 2560 x 1600 16:10 13.3in IPS LCD with Apple's smart True Tone colour temperature tech (turn it on, keep it on - unless you need complete colour accuracy for your work).

With up to 400-nit brightness it's a lovely screen to work on, though as with most LCD panels it's hard to see in direct sunlight. I tried in vain to work from my garden, resorting to coming inside to shop online for patio umbrellas.

MacBook Air (2020) review: Display

From watching films to smashing out spreadsheets, Apple certainly knows how to make a laptop display - through all the keyboard woes of the last few years, its screen calibration prowess has never been in doubt.

A major mark down for the Air is the terrible 720p webcam nestled in the top bezel above the screen. Why Apple continues to put a sub-par camera in its laptops is beyond me, especially when it places such importance in the cameras each year in its iPhones and iPads.

Video calling - something we are all having to do a lot more of - suffers thanks to grainy output and plain bad light management. There's nothing else to say except it's odd and it's unacceptable in 2020 and one of the worst things about this laptop. Here's a comparison my colleague Jason Cross made between the Air and the Logitech C920, a premium webcam when it was new... eight years ago.

MacBook Air webcam compared

Given that the camera is in such a large bezel, you might wonder why Apple hasn't put Face ID in a MacBook yet. I suspect it's because the lid of the laptops is too thin but also because it's a technology the company wants to keep exclusive to iOS devices. The Touch ID sensor on the Air is suggestive of that.

Audio is excellent, though, with the Dolby Atmos-capable stereo speakers that flank the keyboard some of the most powerful on a laptop unit of this size. Watching a film may not be great on a 13in display but the above average speaker output makes up for it here. Even Spotify sounds great out of it. Sorry, I mean Apple Music.

Specs and processor options

The 2020 Air upgrades the internals from last year's model and runs on Intel's tenth-generation Ice Lake processors. It's the first time a MacBook Air has been available with quad-core chip options.

At the £999/$999 starting price (available from Apple here), you get a dual-core 1.1GHz Core i3-1000NG4. You can add a quad-core 1.1GHz Core i5-1030NG7 as a £100/$100 build-to-order option; another £150/$150 gets you the quad-core 1.2GHz Core i7-1060NG7.

Then there's the £1,299/$1,299 version (available from Apple here) with quad-core 1.1GHz Core i5-1030NG7, and build-to-order options including a quad-core 1.2GHz i7-1060NG7 for an additional £150/$150.

All three Intel chips (i3, i5 and i7) can turbo boost: to 3.2GHz, 3.5GHz and 3.8GHz respectively. They are also part of Intel's low-voltage Y-series. I found that performance wavered slightly in the Core i3 Air when tasked with high-level rendering, which is to be expected in that model but is a little disappointing to see on the souped-up Core i5.

There's Intel Iris Plus Graphics across the board and 8GB of 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory as standard, configurable to 16GB at point of purchase if needed. You can also upgrade the standard 256GB right up to 2TB for the first time on a MacBook Air.

Speed tests

We got hold of two review samples: an i5 quad-core, and an i3, both with 8GB of RAM.

Artificial benchmarking can only tell a part of a laptop's story, so here it is up front: this year's Core i3 machine scores better on Geekbench 4's multicore test compared to the 2019's Air with Core i5.

In fact, the 2020 Core i3's multi-core score for CPU on Geekbench 5 is 2380, and the 2020 Core i5's is 2879. Most people won't notice the 500-point difference in day-to-day use if their main activities on the MacBook Air are going to be web browsing, word processing and emailing. There's nothing wrong with getting the Core i3 if those are your main computing concerns.

But I suspect the Core i5 will be the sweet spot for a lot of people who want to push the Air a bit beyond the lowest expectations of performance. The fans on my Core i3 review unit kicked into gear pretty sharpish when I ran the laptop through the Cinebench R20 CPU test and the Unigine Valley framerate tests.

In our review of the Core i5 model, we said that it couldn't handle full-on video editing, so that of course remains true of the i3 also. There's a £300/$300 jump from the base £999/$999 Core i3 to the £1,299 Core i5 that I don't think most casual buyers will need to make, but it does also double the storage to 512GB.

If you're worried about processing power or do want to edit video with a MacBook, you should probably be considering a MacBook Pro, seeing as that range starts at the same price (but with only 128GB storage) as the Core i5 Air but has a 1.4GHz i5 compared to the 1.1GHz on the Air.

Apple has expertly entangled the prices and specs of the Air and Pro this year, and I am under no illusions this is to gently upsell many folks to a more expensive Pro. You should really consider if you need the extra power, because the low-end Air is a fine computer if you don't.

It makes it all a little odd that the Air can be configured up to a Core i7 - if you need that much power, I recommend not even considering the i7 Air over the equivalent Pro. The Pro is better designed to handle the load and its chassis is geared towards better fanning and heat distribution.

This boils down to the feeling that the Core i3 MacBook Air is the best one for most people, but I do concede Apple has shaved off some power to hit the magic sub-1000 price point in pounds and dollars. 2019's Air cost more at the base model but had a Core i5.

MacBook Air (2020) review: Lid closed

Staying power: Battery testing

Apple says all models of the 2020 Air will run for 11 hours of web activity and 12 hours of video playback. In our standard video test with a 720p video looped at 120cdm², the Core i3 Air only lasted for nine hours and 19 minutes.

This is still impressive, but nearly three hours under what Apple claims. I also found in testing that the battery life of the machine during a workday is far, far better when using Apple's own apps, such is their optimisation with the hardware.

An eight-hour workday using mainly Safari and Pages saw me through on a single charge. But with my preferred Google Chrome whirring away on most other days, I was reaching for the charger after just four or five hours depending on my usage.

Chrome is a RAM-hog for all computers, but it particularly dents the battery of the unplugged MacBook Air, which is worth noting if you live in Google's cloud.

MacBook Air (2020) review: Front view

Value added

If Apple has skimped slightly on the internals to please the wallet of the everyman, then that is fine in my book. Keener spec-watchers might balk, but I see the addition of a more efficient 10th-gen processor paired with a stellar keyboard and a lower price a win-win.

The Air becomes an even better deal, particularly compared to Windows laptops in the same price bracket, when you consider the software it comes installed with. It's often overlooked how you get Pages, Numbers and Keynote completely free with any Mac, along with GarageBand and iMovie.

Elitists will tell you these last two are a poor man's Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro X, but I'm not complaining when they're included in the asking price. And when Microsoft makes you pay for Office 365 to use Word, PowerPoint and Excel, it makes the entry-level MacBook Air even better value for money. You buy the thing and you're set with basic productivity software.

MacBook Air (2020) review: Laptop in hand

Verdict

Make no mistake, the 2020 MacBook Air is the best MacBook for most people, but it took Apple a worrying three years to get to this point. If you're looking to buy one, note that the new three-digit entry level price point has been achieved by knocking down the processor to a Core i3, but I found that model absolutely fine for my day-to-day personal use.

The keyboard is absolutely the best thing about this laptop and one of the main reasons I can recommend it so heartily. It being released during the coronavirus pandemic means if you buy one your home setup will improve if you've been struggling through with a butterfly keyboard in recent years.

That said, your video calls will suffer due to the unforgivably bad webcam, and battery life doesn't achieve the heights Apple promises. Add to that price points for the i5 and i7 models that overlap with the MacBook Pro line and it gets a little harder to recommend.

But if you're shopping at the low end then the 2020 MacBook Air is the true successor to the famous old Air, and the one that you should buy today to replace your ageing old model if you're looking to upgrade. It also makes it a no-brainer choice for first time or student MacBook buyers.

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