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Hands on: MacBook Air (2020) review

The new MacBook Air is tweaked in a number of nice ways

What is a hands on review?
MacBook Air review
(Image: © TechRadar)

Early Verdict

As affordable MacBooks go, Apple seems to have focused well on what users will want - namely, a lower price tag. The performance and build quality seem pretty strong in our early tests, and only a slightly muted color reproduction from the screen muddies the waters. However, that's a small gripe, and overall it seems that Apple has iterated nicely for the MacBook Air 2020.

For

  • Lower price of entry
  • New 10th generation processors
  • Improved keyboard

Against

  • Screen colors a little muted

The Apple MacBook Air 2020 is the latest affordable laptop from the company that isn't best known for making affordable devices.

While Apple does have a reputation for more premium products, its keen to show that it can also create compelling devices at a price point that's more palatable for the vast majority of us who cannot afford the likes of the MacBook Pro.

This concerted effort arguably started with last year's model, the MacBook Air (2019), which launched at a lower price than any MacBook Air previously did.

Impressively, Apple has continued that trend by releasing the MacBook Air 2020 at an even lower starting price, while offering a larger bump in specs than last year's model provided.

MacBook Air review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

So for anyone who felt the MacBook Air 2019 was a bit too much of a compromise, the 2020 model could answer all your concerns.

Price and availability

As we mentioned earlier, the MacBook Air (2020) has launched at a new lower price for its entry level model.

The new entry-level MacBook Air comes with a dual-core 10th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, 256GB storage (up from 128GB in the previous model) and 8GB of RAM for $999 / £999 / AU$1,599.

That's a decent saving considering that the MacBook Air (2019)'s entry level model launched at $1,099 / £1,099 / AU$1,699. In an age of rising costs, it's really pleasing to see Apple release newer hardware at cheaper prices. Long may it continue.

Apple also launched a higher-end MacBook Air priced at $1,299 / £1,299 / AU$1,999, and this comes with a 10th-generation quad-core Intel Core i5 processor – the first time a quad-core CPU has been included in a MacBook Air – 512GB SSD storage and 8GB of RAM.

MacBook Air review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

As with previous models, you can further upgrade the MacBook Air, adding double the RAM, more storage up to 2TB and a faster 10th generation Intel Core i7 processor.

The fully maxed-out version, then, with a 1.2GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM and 2TB SSD costs $2,249 / £2,249 / AU$3,349.

The MacBook Air 2020 is available to order right now from the Apple Store. Apple says it will also be available in stores from March 23, although we're not sure if that'll be the case, as Apple Stores around the world are currently closed.

Design

MacBook Air review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

There's no radical redesign of the MacBook Air with the 2020 model (on the outside, at least), but then many people will argue that there's no need for Apple to tinker with such a successful design.

So, the MacBook Air remains impressively thin and light, as the name suggests, with dimensions of 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.63 inches (30.41 x 21.24 x 1.61cm). That's a slightly thicker build than the 2019 model, and this year's MacBook Air 2020 also weighs slightly more at 2.8 pounds (1.29kg) (compared to the 2.75 pounds (1.25kg) weight of the 2019 model).

Holding the MacBook Air is still very similar to what you'd expect from Apple's lightest laptop - it feels, unsurprisingly, lightweight. While it's not got the same iPad levels of lightness, the combination of the recycled aluminum case and the thinner frame mean it's super slick to sling into a bag, and still has the same premium brushed finish that's adorned MacBooks for years.

While not much is different on the outside of the MacBook Air 2020, the biggest (and most welcome) change is found as soon as you open it up; Apple has finally replaced the keyboard with a new design that uses a redesigned scissor mechanism that is aimed at avoiding the reliability issues that MacBooks have suffered with the older butterfly keyboard design.

The new Magic keyboard in the Apple MacBook Air 2020 debuted in last year's MacBook Pro 16-inch, and we were big fans then.

This new keyboard offers 1mm key travel for a responsive feel when typing, and the arrow keys are now in an inverted 'T' shape, which makes them more intuitive to use.

There's also a separate delete key (something many people asked for) and a Touch ID fingerprint scanner for biometric login to macOS.

While the keyboard feels robust and easy to use - the key spacing in particular still makes tapping the right button a simple experience, and one that even non-MacBook users will adapt to swiftly - the travel still feels like it could be a touch deeper. 

MacBook Air review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

That's a largely subjective opinion, but a little more bounce might have been welcomed this year. The keyboard is a little more cramped than you might find on a larger MacBook Pro, and the reconfigured arrow keys still require a moment's thought to make sure you're hitting the right one - but we'll find out if that feeling pervades as we get used to using the MacBook Air.

Screen-wise, nothing has changed since last year's model, however. It comes with a 13.3-inch display with LED backlighting, IPS technology and a native resolution of 2,560 x 1,600. That results in a pixel density of 227 pixels per inch for sharp image quality.

As with last year's model, the MacBook Air 2020's screen also features True Tone technology, which automatically adjusts the color temperature shown on the screen based on the ambient light.

TrueTone is a nice feature to have and one that's been making a real difference on iPhones and iPads for years now. It's one of those features you'll never notice until you turn it off, but largely it makes the display a little warmer to use.

Watching movies on the MacBook Air won't ever be the primary reason for owning the machine, but they do lack the color reproduction pop of some other, higher-power machines from Apple and rivals, looking a touch muted.

It would have been nice to see HDR support on here, but for the price (which is on the palatable side for a new MacBook) we can understand why it's not been added.

You do get a year's free Apple TV+ subscription with every purchase of the new MacBook Air, and that has a wealth of HDR / 4K content on there, so it would have been nice to see that supported.

Performance

We've been using the base model of the MacBook Air - probably the version many people will go for - which means the dual-core Intel i3 chipset at the heart.

We've found early performance to be pretty impressive - even when loading up the RAM-hungry Chrome, filling it with 25 tabs and then trying to edit photos on the side. 

We noticed very little in slowdown at all in terms of switching between tasks - even when adding in a video call (which did begin to hammer the battery through Chrome, as it does on many MacBooks) things continued well, albeit with some necessary fan assistance to keep things cool.

The speakers on the new MacBook Air deserve a good mention - when watching 'Ford vs Ferrari', the vocal clarity was clear even when juxtaposed with loud, crunching car sounds. While the screen tech isn't top notch for entertainment, the sound output is (and there's still a headphone jack on board).

MacBook Air review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

In standby, the energy impact is pretty minimal - overnight we saw barely any drop in battery life, although it's worth remembering this is still a new MacBook Air so will be functioning at peak performance - but early tests suggest that the battery life seems pretty robust (if you're going to be using Safari as your main web browser).

Early verdict

MacBook Air review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The new MacBook Air is much as you'd expect - it's a refreshed and tweaked version of last year's model, with a few power and performance upgrades in key places.

We're fans of the price drop, showing that Apple is really refining how it's positioning its laptops in the market - much like the newest 'base-model' iPad, the new MacBook Air feels like it's making an obvious place at the lower end of the range for those who don't want to spend huge amounts of money.

It's a more compact machine, and if you're upgrading from a machine four or five years old, you might feel like things are more cramped initially - but from the hinge mechanism to the improved response of the keyboard, most will find this a significant upgrade.

We're looking forward to properly running this device through our labs - but for now, it seems like Apple has iterated well on the new MacBook Air. If 2019's model can still be found for a significant price drop then it might be a consideration, but if you want the latest from Apple's MacBook range then this seems to be a pretty decent offering.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.