MacBook Air (2020) top features and impressions

Slowly but surely, Apple is migrating its Mac laptops off of the horrendous butterfly keyboard switches, and back to the reliable scissor switches that most people overwhelmingly prefer. Although the keyboard is without a doubt the star of the show for this year’s refresh, there are other top MacBook Air features to talk about in this hands-on video.

$999 base starting price

One of the best things about this year’s MacBook Air refresh is the overall value. With a new $999 starting price, which’s is $100 less than the previous MacBook Air, the 2020 model represents a good value for Mac users in need of a new laptop.

Keeping that in mind, in this hands-on video, I purposely opted for the base model $999 edition of the MacBook Air, with a fully stock configuration. This is the same MacBook Air that you’ll be able to walk into an Apple Store, or any other authorized Apple retailer (assuming stores open up again sooner than later) and purchase off the shelf.

Although most techies will tell you to spend a few extra coins for the quad-core CPU upgrade, I was very interested in trying the cheapest laptop computer that Apple currently sells. Would it be usable in real-world situations? Could I edit videos on it? Is it primarily an internet browsing machine, and not much else? Time and testing would tell…

MacBook Air (2020) top features

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New scissor switch keyboard

This new keyboard is simply a joy to type on.

Like the 16-inch MacBook Pro from 2019, the star of show for the 2020 MacBook Air is the new scissor switch keyboard. Since we’ve already waxed poetic over the keyboard in previous videos, I’ll keep my expressions succinct.

If you’re coming from a previous-generation MacBook Air, then the new keyboard in the 2020 model is reason enough alone to consider upgrading. I know there are folks that actually like the butterfly switch keyboard, but these people are nuts. Only kidding, but people who prefer the butterfly switches are definitely in the minority.

Typing on the old keyboard wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was downright debilitating to my hands and wrists. The lack of key travel on those old keyboards was so absurd, that even if Apple made no other enhancements to this MacBook Air, I would still teeter towards recommending the upgrade.

Not only is the keyboard better to type on, with more key travel, the keyboard is also laid out in a more logical manner. For example, there’s slightly more space between each key, and the return of the beloved inverted-T arrow keys is a welcomed sight for touch typists.

Like the previous MacBook Air models, this machine comes with a standard row of hardware function keys, a hardware escape key, and a small Touch ID sensor. There is no Touch Bar to speak of, which is a wonderful thing for Touch Bar haters like myself. All of this combined with the implementation of scissor switches and inverted T arrow keys makes the MacBook Air keyboard the best keyboard in any of its laptops.

You should also expect to have to make fewer visits to the Genius Bar to address problems with stuck keys or outright broken keyboards that require swapping out the entire machine. Now that the MacBook Air and the top tier MacBook Pro have these new keyboards, one can only hope that the rest of the lineup receives similar updates later this year.

Double the storage on the entry-level model

If you go for the entry-level MacBook Air like I did, you’ll be happy to know that it now comes standard with 256GB of flash storage. Previous editions of the MacBook Air started with a paltry and almost unusable 128GB of storage.

It might not seem like much, but in my experience 256GB of storage provides users with a realistic amount of remaining storage once all of the core apps and software updates are installed. 128GB makes it feel as if you’re always fighting the system for space, while 256GB provides an adequate amount of breathing room.

CPU configurations

Previous iterations of the MacBook Air with Retina display featured a single 1.6GHz dual-core i5 CPU configuration. With the 2020 revision, Apple gives users three new 10th-generation Intel CPU options, and they all support Hyper-Threading:

  • 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz
  • 1.1GHz quad-core 10th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.5GHz
  • 1.2GHz quad-core 10th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz

Even better is the fact that, for the very first time, MacBook Air users get to select quad-core CPUs. If you can afford it, opt for the 1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU, as it’ll provide a major multi-core performance improvement over the entry-level 1.1GHz dual-core model.

If you plan on doing any sort of serious video editing at all, don’t even bother with the $999 model unless you’re content with time-, battery-, and space-consuming proxy workflows.

Yet, even if your circumstances only allow you to go with the $999 configuration, I think that as long as you’re realistic about your expectations, this laptop is a great machine for basic functions like Internet browsing, word processing and spreadsheets, and even light photo and video editing.

If you’re looking for a machine that wears multiple hats, competently editing RAW photos and 4K video on a regular basis, then you’ll definitely want to opt for the quad-core model, as it’s much better equipped to handle applications that take advantage of multiple CPU cores.

Pro Display XDR at full 6K resolution

Even the 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2019 cannot drive Apple’s Pro Display XDR at full 6K resolution, but thanks to the new Intel Iris Plus Graphics in the 2020 MacBook Pro, Apple’s entry-level MacBook Air can.

The irony of this is that if you own a Pro Display XDR, you most likely have a better computer than the MacBook Air, but nonetheless it’s nice that Apple is ensuring that it’s newest machines are fully compatible with the only Apple-branded display that the company sells.

Granted, pushing that many pixels via such an anemic computer leaves little leftover processing power for anything else. Again, the moral of the story is that you’ll want to be realistic about what to expect from such a machine.

Config up to 2TB of flash storage

In previous editions of the MacBook Air, the highest flash storage configuration was 1TB. In the 2020 revision, the maximum flash storage configuration has been doubled to 2TB. While still a far cry from the 8TB maximum configuration in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, 2TB is nothing to sneeze at and will allow you to carry around a huge photo/video library without needing to opt for external SSDs.

Faster memory

MacBook Air comes standard with 8GB of faster 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory and can be bumped up to 16GB of memory via the build-to-order process. Previous MacBook Air models featured slower 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM. In addition to being faster, LPDDR4X memory saves significant power when compared to LPDDR3.

In my opinion, 16GB is another must-upgrade if you plan on doing anything other than just the basics. If you’re planning on working with professional apps like Final Cut Pro X, Photoshop, Affinity Designer, etc., then you will most definitely want to bump up to 16GB of RAM.

Bluetooth 5.0

The new MacBook Air now features an upgraded Bluetooth chip, going from Bluetooth 4.2 on the previous model to Bluetooth 5.0. Bluetooth 5.0 uses less power, has larger message capacity, features faster data transmission capability, and adds increased range.

With the addition of Bluetooth 5.0 to the MacBook Air, only two products in the iPad, iPhone, or Mac lineup are stuck on a prior version of Bluetooth: the 10.2-inch iPad, and 2019 iMac.

Improved audio

The 2020 MacBook Air adds support for Wide stereo sound and Dolby Atomos Playback for supported content. In addition to the wide stereo sound stage, the three-mic array now includes the directional beamforming, first featured on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, for improved microphone performance.

Sticking with the same theme of managing expectations, don’t expect the sound emanating from these speakers to blow you away, but I was mildly impressed by the sound quality while playing several of my favorite Apple Arcade games.

9to5Mac’s take

My first impressions of the 2020 MacBook Air are quite positive. The previous major update implemented, for the first time, a Retina display. This latest iteration implements something that’s arguably just as important — a much-improved scissor switch keyboard.

With even the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro now donning a Touch Bar, seeing the refined MacBook Air keyboard sans Touch Bar makes me even happier. The Touch Bar has always been fairly worthless to me, and I’m glad to see that it hasn’t yet invaded, and hopefully never will invade the MacBook Air.

Everything about the MacBook Air is nearly perfect for people who need a machine that just works. It doesn’t feature some of the bells and whistles you’ll find on higher-end laptops offered by Apple, but it gets the basics, the sheer fundamentals of what makes a laptop good, just right.

As I stated at the outset, I purposely opted for the entry-level $999 “working-man’s edition,” because I wanted to try the cheapest Mac computer that Apple currently sells to see how it performed. Although intense 4K video editing will mightily struggle on such a machine given its CPU and memory specs, I find that it’s a great everyday machine for doing the grunt work — writing, researching, composing, planning — you know, the stuff that lies beneath the surface of what makes many jobs click.

Simple things like writing and researching are a joy on the MacBook Air, as is general web browsing, and even playing games from the ever-growing Apple Arcade library.

If you can afford it, you should consider upgrading the CPU to the Intel i5 quad-core model. What’s great is that you can customize the MacBook Air exactly to meet your needs, and there aren’t any gotchas involved. Even the maxed-out configuration isn’t at all unreasonable or outlandish from a pricing perspective, although in our current climate, it’s understandable if you’d be more drawn to the base $999 model.

The MacBook Air isn’t perfect, but it’s a really good entry-level Apple laptop. I’ll have more thoughts in my upcoming hands-on review. In the meantime, please share your thoughts on the MacBook Air down below in the comments.

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