Review: 2020 MacBook Air is once again the computer for the rest of us

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in Current Mac Hardware edited January 21
After incremental updates in 2018 and 2019, the MacBook Air returned to prominence in 2020 with upgraded internals, a new keyboard, and a price drop to boot.

Having a coffee while working on the 2020 MacBook Air
Having a coffee while working on the 2020 MacBook Air


Apple last updated the MacBook Air in 2019, which brought a slightly updated keyboard, a True Tone display, and a price drop. These were well-intentioned upgrades, but nothing all that substantial. It remained our most recommended Mac, but folks were underwhelmed and looking for more.

For 2020, Apple hasn't redesigned the machine as it did in 2018, but it has delivered where it matters.

Graphics have been upgraded to the new Intel Iris Plus from the Intel UHD 617. This provides better graphics performance and it enables support for 6K external displays. Support includes 6K displays like Apple's Thunderbolt 3 Pro Display XDR, even if choosing a $5,000 display to use with a $1,000 machine is a bit unlikely today.






That support is less for today, and more for tomorrow. Support for 6K displays is a degree of future-proofing that should ensure this machine and its descendants remain relevant and useful for years to come.

Across the board, the processors have been upgraded to the new 10th-generation Intel chips which have delivered a boost in performance, but we will dive into that a bit further down in this text.

Base storage at the entry-level has doubled from 128GB to 256GB and the max configurable storage at the high-end has also been doubled to 2TB. This is important considering that the MacBook Air still doesn't have user-upgradable storage.

Headphone jack sticks around for another iteration
Headphone jack sticks around for another iteration


Apple has also swapped the keyboard, moving away from the scandal-ridden butterfly key switch to the tried-and-true scissor-switch mechanism.

To top it off, the price has also been dropped by $100.

That means before we even get into the increased performance, those picking up a new MacBook Air are getting a more reliable, higher capacity, more graphically-capable machine for less money.

2020 MacBook Air benchmarks and performance

For this review, we purchased the entry-level 1.1Ghz dual-core i3 model with 256GB of internal storage and 8GB of RAM.

Apple's 2019 MacBook Air shipped with the sole option of a 1.6Ghz dual-core Intel Core i5-8210Y. The 2020 iteration has a lower-clocked 10th generation 1.1Ghz dual-core i3-1000NG4. Both are two-core, four-thread processors.

Geekbench 5.1 benchmarks for the 2020 MacBook Air
Geekbench 5.1 benchmarks for the 2020 MacBook Air


If going for the base model MacBook Air, Geekbench 5.1 scores were averaging 1074 and 2412 in the single and multi-core tests respectively. That is notedly up from the 740 and 1663 results we achieved on the previous generation. Depending on workflow, the 1.1GHz quad-core i5 and 1.2Ghz quad-core i7 can push the performance even further.

During the graphics Compute test in Geekbench 5.1, the new model earned a 5853, handily above the 711 our 2019 Air earned. This isn't surprising, given the gap in performance between the Intel UHD Graphics 617 in the previous generation, versus the much more capable Iris Plus graphics in the newer chip. The new machine supports 6K displays -- it had better be more powerful than before.

To see how that impacts real-world tasks, we exported a six-minute 4K video from iMovie in the default settings. The previous generation machine took just over ten minutes and nine seconds while the new, more powerful machine managed it in only six minutes and two seconds.

We increased the quality to best, and on this test the 2020 MacBook Pro took 13:39 to finish while the 2019 consistently failed the test at the nine-minute mark.

Blackmagic Disk Speed Test results for 2020 MacBook Air
Blackmagic Disk Speed Test results for 2020 MacBook Air


While the processors and graphics got a boost, the same can't be said for the SSD. The MacBook Air (2019) received a slightly slower SSD than the 2018 model and this new 2020 machine sticks to the same. The 2020 achieved write speed of around 1029MB/s and read speeds roughly 1270MB/s.

Apple's new scissor keyboard is on the 2020 MacBook Air

Keyboards are highly subjective, so, a little context is important. We're not giant fans of typing on glass, like the iPad. We didn't have a major problem typing on Apple's butterfly keyboard that was introduced with the 2016 MacBook Pro -- but it wasn't a favorite of ours.

Strictly speaking about that typing experience, the 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard design, and iterations, are polarizing. Where the 2012 through 2015 design had the entire expression of keyboard like and hate, the 2016 through 2019 weighed more heavily on the outside very positive and very negative parts of any given opinion graph, with very, very few folks in the "this is great" zone.

The updated Magic Keyboard on the 2020 MacBook Air
The updated Magic Keyboard on the 2020 MacBook Air


The 2019 MacBook Air had Apple's last generation of butterfly keyboard. It effectively had the same typing feel as the 2015 MacBook and 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard did, albeit a bit quieter with a new membrane.

In regards to reliability, Apple's reliability changes worked. Our collated service data has shown that the first-year failure rates on the third generation butterfly keyboard are roughly identical to the 2012 through 2015 model. How well this holds up over time remains to be seen, though.

The key actuation on the new MacBook Air is the same as the 16-inch MacBook Pro. It is punctuated by a soft click, most similar to the mid-2019 noise versus any other, if a bit quieter. Where the 2015 design noise was more from the key bottoming out the switch, if you press slowly, you can feel where the click is on the new computer, before hitting the bottom of the chamber. Still gone is the clackety-clack of the original 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard, and you'll never mistake this keyboard for a desktop mechanical model.

Typing on the MacBook Air's new keyboard
Typing on the MacBook Air's new keyboard


In our testing, we had a baseline of 36 dBa of ambient noise measured with a Kanomax model 4431 audiometer, with the test gear at head height and distance. Typing on the 2016 MacBook Pro with no other CPU load brought that up to about 43 dBa. The highest we could manage on the MacBook Air 16-inch MacBook pro with a particularly angry bout of random key-mashing was 40 dBa.

So, all told, the new keyboard, the same Magic Keyboard found in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, feels solid to type on. There is slightly more key travel, about 1mm, and it is quieter -- all improved versus the 2019.

Should you buy the new 2020 MacBook Air?

The 2019 MacBook Air was excellent, but many held off due to the lack of a real processor upgrade and because of the keyboard drama, warranted or not.

The updated 2020 MacBook Air
The updated 2020 MacBook Air


We don't see those issues with the 2020. The price has dropped by $100 at the entry-level making it a better value proposition, has a a significant boost in processing speeds, has improved the graphics, replaced the keyboard, doubled the base storage, and delivers a new max storage option.

Because of a ll this, this updated MacBook Air has emerged as the go-to for nearly everyone. It has just enough power, in just the right size, with just enough storage, at just the right price to fit the bill.

Unless you are one who specifically needs the graphics and processing power of a MacBook Pro, or you want to go more minimalist and choose an iPad Pro, the MacBook Air (2020) is absolutely the machine to pick up.

The most obvious upgrade is more on-board storage. A close second is doling out the cash for the i5 model, to eke out more performance for minimal cost.

Pros
  • Same sleek design

  • Improved Magic Keyboard

  • Significantly faster processors across the board

  • New lower starting price

  • Increased storage on low-end model
Cons
  • No Wi-Fi 6

  • Still no upgradeable storage or RAM -- but these probably aren't coming back

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Where to save on the 2020 MacBook Air

Apple's new MacBook Air is on sale, with the latest MacBook Air deals at your fingertips in the current AppleInsider 2020 MacBook Air Price Guide. Along with savings on every 2020 model, closeout markdowns are available on last-gen models, with discounts of up to $300 off 2019 MacBook Airs.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 20
    seanismorrisseanismorris Posts: 1,624member
    Nice video!  
    It cleared up a lot of questions.  The only downside of the new 2020 Air is it uses a slower SSD vs the Pro model.
    That’s not great, but not bad when considering the lower price, and upgrades elsewhere.
    razorpit
  • Reply 2 of 20
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 2,541member
    2020 Macbook Air becoming GOTO laptop, will repeat iPhone 11 kind of success. In next upgrade, add one additional port(on right side) and whatever else part of evolutionary upgrade.
  • Reply 3 of 20
    "Still no upgradeable storage or RAM - but these probably aren't coming back"

    While this design might arguably justify onboard storage and ram for uber consumer portability, it didn't stop the prior models from being user upgradable, even as late as 2017.

    If people buy (into) this then will Apple have any incentive to offer user adjustable RAM/storage for such in the future ?

    Will buyers not miss it, until they do ? Does onboard storage have any security & data (tracking) considerations, perhaps considering increasing VPN use...?

    Are the 27" iMacs the only option left for those wanting component flexibility on a modest 'seat' budget ?

    edited March 2020
  • Reply 4 of 20
    Hopefully there will be testing of the top multi-thread (8 core) option for both speed and heat / noise soon...
    razorpitMisterKit
  • Reply 5 of 20
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,257administrator
    Hopefully there will be testing of the top multi-thread (8 core) option for both speed and heat / noise soon...
    As soon as ours ships.
    seanismorris
  • Reply 6 of 20
    seanismorrisseanismorris Posts: 1,624member
    "Still no upgradeable storage or RAM - but these probably aren't coming back"

    While this design might arguably justify onboard storage and ram for uber consumer portability, it didn't stop the prior models from being user upgradable, even as late as 2017.

    If people buy (into) this then will Apple have any incentive to offer user adjustable RAM/storage for such in the future ?

    Will buyers not miss it, until they do ? Does onboard storage have any security & data (tracking) considerations, perhaps considering increasing VPN use...?

    Are the 27" iMacs the only option left for those wanting component flexibility on a modest 'seat' budget ?

    Upgradable RAM on 13-inch laptops is dead.  If you’re not leasing the MacBook Air buying it with 16GB is smart.  It should increase the resale value (quite a bit) also.
  • Reply 7 of 20
    Apple please release the revised 13" MBP soon! Cash is ready in hand!

    Hopefully 6-Core with 32GB RAM on the top end. That would be a perfect fit!

    Hurry, hurry, I'm waiting!
  • Reply 8 of 20
    k2kwk2kw Posts: 2,048member
    wood1208 said:
    2020 Macbook Air becoming GOTO laptop, will repeat iPhone 11 kind of success. In next upgrade, add one additional port(on right side) and whatever else part of evolutionary upgrade.
    The MBA will be a big hit (eventually) once the stay at home orders are over and the stores are open.   Someone alert Taika Waititi.

  • Reply 9 of 20
    k2kw said:
    wood1208 said:
    2020 Macbook Air becoming GOTO laptop, will repeat iPhone 11 kind of success. In next upgrade, add one additional port(on right side) and whatever else part of evolutionary upgrade.
    The MBA will be a big hit (eventually) once the stay at home orders are over and the stores are open.   Someone alert Taika Waititi.

    Can't order it online?
  • Reply 10 of 20
    fastasleepfastasleep Posts: 5,689member

    Will buyers not miss it, until they do ? Does onboard storage have any security & data (tracking) considerations, perhaps considering increasing VPN use...?

    ... what?
    StrangeDays
  • Reply 11 of 20
    mr. hmr. h Posts: 4,819member
    This is a really impressive upgrade - especially those graphics performance numbers. Combined with the revised keyboard, upped storage, and lower price, even the base machine will be perfectly acceptable for many people and should age well. Now all Apple have to do is halve their totally insane RAM and storage upgrade prices and the entire range would be unbeatable.

    @Mike Wuerthele, in terms of performance, the "base" clock sounds very low, but what does the machine actually run at under medium/high load? (for example, on repeated geekbench runs, and does it thermally throttle?)
  • Reply 12 of 20
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,257administrator
    mr. h said:
    This is a really impressive upgrade - especially those graphics performance numbers. Combined with the revised keyboard, upped storage, and lower price, even the base machine will be perfectly acceptable for many people and should age well. Now all Apple have to do is halve their totally insane RAM and storage upgrade prices and the entire range would be unbeatable.

    @Mike Wuerthele, in terms of performance, the "base" clock sounds very low, but what does the machine actually run at under medium/high load? (for example, on repeated geekbench runs, and does it thermally throttle?)
    Multiple repeated Geekbench runs don't have any real impact on performance. The first is not really any different than the last. At no point does the machine dip below the rated speed, either.

    Every single Intel computer thermally throttles. Every single one. Any given computer will maintain a clock speed that it can maintain up to and including the "Turbo" speed, based on the thermal condition. We'll have more to say about this after we receive our other units and can compare them.
  • Reply 13 of 20
    mr. hmr. h Posts: 4,819member
    mr. h said:
    This is a really impressive upgrade - especially those graphics performance numbers. Combined with the revised keyboard, upped storage, and lower price, even the base machine will be perfectly acceptable for many people and should age well. Now all Apple have to do is halve their totally insane RAM and storage upgrade prices and the entire range would be unbeatable.

    @Mike Wuerthele, in terms of performance, the "base" clock sounds very low, but what does the machine actually run at under medium/high load? (for example, on repeated geekbench runs, and does it thermally throttle?)
    Multiple repeated Geekbench runs don't have any real impact on performance. The first is not really any different than the last. At no point does the machine dip below the rated speed, either.

    Every single Intel computer thermally throttles. Every single one. Any given computer will maintain a clock speed that it can maintain up to and including the "Turbo" speed, based on the thermal condition. We'll have more to say about this after we receive our other units and can compare them.
    Thanks for the update. Yes, it's true that all Intel processors will thermally throttle, if they reach a given temperature. But whether they reach that temperature is a function of workload and system thermal design. I found an excellent YouTube video from a former AI employee regarding the new 2020 Air - something I hadn't realised is that whilst the Air does have a fan, there's no heatpipe+radiator assembly from the CPU/GPU to the fan! As such, although the fan goes up to 8,000 rpm, there's actually no difference in cooling performance for fan @ 4,000 rpm, and fan @ 8,000 rpm.

    So, the thermal design of the Air is really poor and, with moderate - heavy loads, will result in the CPU running at a constant 100 °C. Not sure what the implications are for long-term reliability (cracking of solder ball connections from chip-PCB). It just reinforces that this machine is not for heavy CPU tasks, but I think we knew that already. Having said that, the cynic in me does note that if the CPU is heavily cooled (the aforementioned individual also has a video where he popped off the bottom case and placed the CPU heatsink on to a water cooler arrangement from a desktop PC), its performance then rivals the 13" MacBook Pro, so Apple is disinclined to improve the thermals of the MacBook Air.
    edited April 2020
  • Reply 14 of 20
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,257administrator
    mr. h said:
    mr. h said:
    This is a really impressive upgrade - especially those graphics performance numbers. Combined with the revised keyboard, upped storage, and lower price, even the base machine will be perfectly acceptable for many people and should age well. Now all Apple have to do is halve their totally insane RAM and storage upgrade prices and the entire range would be unbeatable.

    @Mike Wuerthele, in terms of performance, the "base" clock sounds very low, but what does the machine actually run at under medium/high load? (for example, on repeated geekbench runs, and does it thermally throttle?)
    Multiple repeated Geekbench runs don't have any real impact on performance. The first is not really any different than the last. At no point does the machine dip below the rated speed, either.

    Every single Intel computer thermally throttles. Every single one. Any given computer will maintain a clock speed that it can maintain up to and including the "Turbo" speed, based on the thermal condition. We'll have more to say about this after we receive our other units and can compare them.
    Thanks for the update. Yes, it's true that all Intel processors will thermally throttle, if they reach a given temperature. But whether they reach that temperature is a function of workload and system thermal design. I found an excellent YouTube video from a former AI employee regarding the new 2020 Air - something I hadn't realised is that whilst the Air does have a fan, there's no heatpipe+radiator assembly from the CPU/GPU to the fan! As such, although the fan goes up to 8,000 rpm, there's actually no difference in cooling performance for fan @ 4,000 rpm, and fan @ 8,000 rpm.

    So, the thermal design of the Air is really poor and, with moderate - heavy loads, will result in the CPU running at a constant 100 °C. Not sure what the implications are for long-term reliability (cracking of solder ball connections from chip-PCB). It just reinforces that this machine is not for heavy CPU tasks, but I think we knew that already. Having said that, the cynic in me does note that if the CPU is heavily cooled (the aforementioned individual also has a video where he popped off the bottom case and placed the CPU heatsink on to a water cooler arrangement from a desktop PC), its performance then rivals the 13" MacBook Pro, so Apple is disinclined to improved the thermals of the MacBook Air.
    Re: previous AI employee, given that I'm the one that told him that tidbit about the heat pipes and fan two years ago, it's good to see that he listened to at least part of the discussion. But, his testing methodology and as such, his conclusions, are incomplete.

    We'll be talking about it more, later. We like to test things completely, before we declare conclusions.
    edited April 2020 amcarter3
  • Reply 15 of 20
    Any clue when we will finally see the updated 13" (14") MBP?
  • Reply 16 of 20
    tommy65tommy65 Posts: 56member
    Nice little Air for everyday use. No more no less. Would I buy it now? No. Why? I am currently using a MacBook Air 2015 model with i7, 8GB RAM & Samsung 970 EVO 1 TB installed SSD. This 2015 machine is still running fast & cool. Yes my SSD is faster than the 2020 model way faster. CPU still close to the 2020 model i3. GPU is where I drop the curtain. I await the ARM line of real innovation. Steve told us that 10 years is a long time Tim. Tim, Tim Time to step up and take the stage and dare to be as strange as the original Apple logo from the 90’s. 
    edited April 2020
  • Reply 17 of 20
    Where is the 1.2 Ghz i7 model? No retail dealer has it yet.
  • Reply 18 of 20
    I'm still rocking a mid-2009 Macbook Pro, but it has been showing it's age for a long time and am in the market for a new laptop.  I am strongly considering the new MBA and want recommendations on the best configuration to future proof this thing as much as possible.  Another 10 years of use would be great!  I'm thinking at least the i5 processor and bumping the RAM to 16GB.  It will be basically our home computer, so used for web browsing, watching videos, Video chatting, writing papers, etc.  Not a lot of heavy use.  Maybe occasional photo editing.  Should I opt for the i7 to get the longest life out of this thing, or is that overkill?  Any thoughts are appreciated!
  • Reply 19 of 20
    mr. hmr. h Posts: 4,819member
    I think the i7 option is poor value for money relative to the i5. The i5 has the same graphics core as the i7, and supports hyper threading. Bumping RAM to 16 GB is a good move.

    The i5 processor + 16 GB combo does move you closer to 13" MacBook Pro pricing territory. If I was you, I would try to hold out until the next 13" MBP refresh, which is rumoured to happen "soon" to "soonish". You will then be able to make a more informed decision of MBP vs i5 Air.
    DoctorJ_314
  • Reply 20 of 20
    fastasleepfastasleep Posts: 5,689member
    I'm still rocking a mid-2009 Macbook Pro, but it has been showing it's age for a long time and am in the market for a new laptop.  I am strongly considering the new MBA and want recommendations on the best configuration to future proof this thing as much as possible.  Another 10 years of use would be great!  I'm thinking at least the i5 processor and bumping the RAM to 16GB.  It will be basically our home computer, so used for web browsing, watching videos, Video chatting, writing papers, etc.  Not a lot of heavy use.  Maybe occasional photo editing.  Should I opt for the i7 to get the longest life out of this thing, or is that overkill?  Any thoughts are appreciated!
    The i5 likely runs a bit cooler than the i7, so if you're not doing much heavy lifting it may make sense to go for the i5 to keep it quieter. Definitely get 16GB of RAM if you can afford it for longevity, and more storage than you think you need so that doesn't become a bottleneck at some point. I agree with Mr. H though, I'd wait to see what the 13" MBP update looks like.
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