New Apple MacBook Air: Retina display finally but suspect battery life

  • A beautiful Retina display checks off customers’ biggest want, with Touch ID, better sound and lighter weight among other improvements
  • But battery life is a disappointment
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2018, 9:18am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2018, 7:53pm

Think a major update to the MacBook Air was long overdue? The last time Apple bestowed this much attention on the notebook the company claims as its “most loved Mac”, Barack Obama was in his first term in the White House.

Sure, we’ve seen some specs bumps along the way, and my own lightweight MacBook Air – circa mid-2013 – has been a reliable workhorse. But the No. 1 feature fans of the Air have had on our wish lists for years is the kind of beautiful high-resolution “Retina” display that Apple previously reserved for the most expensive computers in its mobile line-up – notably the priciest MacBook Pros and also the most recent MacBook.

A touch screen for doing spreadsheet entries? New iPad Pro has its limits

So you best believe the arrival – at last! – of Retina on the new MacBook Air I’ve been testing gives the faithful an excellent reason to cheer, along with other features that modernise the machine.

As with most of Apple’s computers, you will not get an Air without spending serious bucks. It starts at US$1,199 for a model with 8GB of RAM and a modest 128GB of storage, but the sum can climb to US$2,599 if you jack up the specs to 16GB and 1.5 terabytes, respectively. (Apple still sells an older non-Retina MacBook Air for US$999.)

Price aside, I found at least two other reasons to tone down the enthusiasm. I was disappointed in the battery life, and at one point while streaming a movie, the computer’s fan kicked into overdrive.

Apple has maintained the wedge-shaped design that has defined the Air since Apple co-founder Steve Jobs slipped it out of that envelope at the 2008 MacWorld. But at 2.75 pounds (1.2kg), the Air is about a quarter of a pound lighter than its most immediate predecessor and noticeably smaller.

The far narrower bezels bordering its lovely 13.3 inch (33.7cm) display, compared to what came before, help account for a computer that has 17 per cent less volume. My sturdy rose-coloured test machine is as pleasing to look at as the screen, though you can also get it in silver or space grey. The colour Apple is really touting though is green since the laptop is crafted from 100 per cent recycled aluminium.

The display is not the only way Apple has modernised the Air. Embedded in the power button is Touch ID, meaning you can now unlock the Mac, or authenticate online purchases made via Apple Pay, with your fingerprint. It was fast and flawless in my tests.

It’s funny that Touch ID is new to this Mac even as Apple ditched the feature on the latest iPhones. Of course, I would have liked to have seen Apple add Face ID facial recognition to this new Mac as well, but that was not to be. A feature called Windows Hello permits you to unlock many Windows 10 computers with your face.

Touch ID is tied to the T2 security chip that assumes a major role on the new Air. The T2 also permits you to bark out “Hey Siri” to summon Apple’s vocal virtual assistant. It helps encrypt data stored on the computer on the fly. And the chip is also supposed to prevent an intruder from being able to mess with your Mac when you boot up.

A pair of state-of-the-art Thunderbolt (USB-C) connectors are on the new machine, which you can employ for a variety of purposes: to rapidly transfer data, connect to external storage devices, connect to external displays (even 5K), and, of course, power up the computer through the adaptor that comes in the box.

It also means you might share that charger with a USB-C capable smartphone, standard on many Android devices, but not Apple’s own iPhones. You can also use a cellphone charger to give some juice in turn to the Mac, but such a lower-wattage charger would take an awfully long time to make a significant jump.

Also worth pointing out: Apple improved the sound on the MacBook Air with speakers that deliver wider stereo separation, evident to my ears on jazz classics such as So What by Miles Davis and Take Five by Dave Brubeck. And bravo, the computer has a standard-sized headphone jack, which Apple has sadly removed on recent iPhones.

What’s no longer here, though, is a slot for an SD memory card, a fixture on my older Air, though I frankly do not use it often.

Apple MacBook Pro 2018 review: powerful, premium feel, but pricey

I’ve been writing this column on the backlit MacBook Air keyboard, which is now the third generation of what’s known as a butterfly mechanism. Apple claims it provides four times the stability of the “scissor” mechanism used in other keyboards.

I will not geek out on keyboard technologies but what I can say is I liked typing on this one. The keys have what feels to me like the proper amount of “travel”. Of course, depending on what you’re currently typing on, it may take a bit of getting used to. Some users in the relatively recent past have complained about the butterfly keyboards on some MacBooks and MacBook Pro models, even leading to class action suits against the company.

Apple eventually acknowledged that a “small percentage” of keyboards on these models could have letters or characters that repeat unexpectedly, do not appear at all or feel sticky. The company says it has fixed such issues by now, and I certainly did not experience any of these defects in the short time I’ve had with the new Air.

One feature I certainly appreciate is the more spacious “Force Touch” trackpad on the computer. Force Touch technology detects how much pressure you’re applying against the trackpad, leading to different outcomes on the Mac depending on how hard you press.

For the battery, Apple claims up to 13 hours of iTunes movie playback, based on a test where the company set the brightness to around 75 per cent.

Eve 5: first ever crowd-developed computer is what the people want

I only got around four hours of battery life, running an admittedly far harsher test: I cranked up the brightness to the max, and streamed a high-definition, full-screen movie on Netflix via Wi-fi. But I was also somewhat disappointed when I used the Air in a more typical fashion. With the brightness roughly at 50 per cent, I started using a fully charged Air on and off around at 10am. The laptop went out a little past 7pm. In between, I had used the computer to begin writing this column, play some music and surf the web. Apple insists stronger battery life is the norm, so I’m willing to conduct further tests to see how it all plays out.

While this issue is – how should I put it? – still up in the air, however, I’ll pause and wait to see if this is the computer to replace my ageing MacBook Air.