2020 MacBook Air review: Sleek and solid, but slow

by Apr 3, 2020

I haven’t reviewed a laptop before. But, as both a writer and a photographer, I use a laptop every day. For the past 6 years, that laptop has been an early-2014 Apple MacBook Air, the base 13-inch model. It’s covered with stickers, as all Mac laptops that have aged well are, and it looks like this:

I recently upgraded to a 2020 MacBook Air, the midrange Core i5 model with 512GB of storage. In many ways, it feels like taking a deep breath of fresh air after being trapped underwater. Except, it’s oddly familiar in its limitations. It has no stickers (yet), and it looks like this:

Upgrading from such an old machine, my perspective is a bit different than those of other reviewers. I hope I have some interesting opinions that don’t come up in regular reviews, which generally compare current models only to those they directly replace.

Speaking of old machines, I also own a maxed-out 2012 iMac that serves as my primary photo and video computer. I have some thoughts about how an 8-year old desktop computer compares to a brand-new ultralight laptop. Nobody asked for such a zany comparison, but I think it holds some important truths about what makes a computer perform well. (Spoiler alert: The nearly decade-old desktop is faster.)

But while a high-performance MacBook Air would be nice, I’ve come to realize that speed is not what matters most to me in a laptop. I’m a proponent of the belief that, with any product you buy, you should buy it for the 90% reason, not the 10% reason. That is, think of how you’ll use it 90% of the time and buy the best option to meet that need. Don’t buy a pickup truck because you might want to tow a boat one day, and don’t buy a boat if it’s going to spend 90% of its time being an eyesore to your neighbors as it rusts away in your front yard.

I digress. On with the review.

You could have had my money sooner, Apple

My 6-year experience with a 2014 MacBook Air was an exercise in exasperation. The root of my frustration was the paltry 128GB of storage — not impressive in 2014, pathetic by today’s standards. With the iMac as my image-editing workhorse, I rely on a laptop for little more than ingesting media when I’m “in the field” (read: it’s 3:00 P.M. and I’m at the bar). While my image library is stored in Adobe’s Creative Cloud, it takes a while to synchronize new images to said cloud, during which time those files must remain on the MacBook’s SSD.
On my 2014 Air, there simply wasn’t enough space for that. Unless I brought an external drive with me (which was cumbersome and added a layer of complication to Lightroom library management), I had to manually select batches of around 25 images and import one batch at a time, waiting for it to transfer to the cloud before moving on to the next batch. This was an annoying, time-consuming, laborious process. It was during one of these sessions late last year that I finally decided to throw in the towel. I tabbed over to Safari and entered apple.com. Get ready, excitable internal child, it’s new computer time! But to my dismay, even after nearly 6 years, the base model MacBook Air — and, more incredulously, MacBook Pro — still came with just 128GB of storage. Was this a joke? I looked at speccing a machine with a larger SSD, and came very close to pulling the trigger, but the price just didn’t make sense. So I decided to wait — and am I ever glad I did. The 2020 MacBook Air, released in March, represented the first refresh where every component was a clear upgrade over my 2014 Air. It is so incredibly dumb that it took that long, but better late than never. The new base model doubles the storage and RAM, while the mid-tier model I opted for quadruples the storage and also doubles the number of processor cores. It sounded like a killer upgrade. Surely, this computer was going to blow me away. But when a package arrived on my doorstep a week later (via no-contact drop-off — thanks, coronavirus), reality, as is so often the case, fell short of expectations. As much as I delight in many aspects of this new Air, there are also familiar pain points, floating up like ghosts that haunt an otherwise exquisite experience.

Those speakers!

I had heard the speakers in the 2020 MacBook Air were good, but I wasn’t prepared for how they would be good. The first thing I played was the new Childish Gambino album, not specifically to test the speakers, but just because I hadn’t listened to it yet (it’s great, by the way). A couple measures in, and I already couldn’t believe my ears. What I was hearing simply wasn’t possible.

It wasn’t just that fidelity remained good at high volume, or that the frequency response was improved — the sound was enveloping.

Audiophiles like my friend Alex Rowe would know how to explain it more accurately, but I believe what impressed me were the soundstage and imaging. Sound seemed to come from an area wider than the footprint of the computer, while individual instruments or effects held positions in space.

Maybe I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but aside from headphones and nice stereo setups, I’ve never heard anything like it. Is this normal? Was my old MacBook Air just that bad?

A fast MacBook Air is still a slow computer

Even as someone who considers himself fairly tech-savvy, computer specs often make no sense, especially when it comes to processors. Each new generation changes the definition of clock speed. What’s in a gigahertz? The base clock of my 2020 MacBook Air is 1.1GHz; the base clock of my 2014 was 1.4. The TurboBoost speed is considerably higher in the new model, but I think that mostly applies to single-core use, right? And how long can TurboBoost boost? Apple also uses special low-power versions of Intel’s chips in the Air, something I didn’t realize until reading my Digital Trends colleague Luke Larson’s review. This helps with battery life, but hampers performance.

Apple’s newest ultralight pales in comparison to a decently-specced desktop from last decade.

Regardless of the specifics, though, the processor is just one of many variables in the equation for speed. In real-world use, performance is limited by any number of factors, from the graphics processor to the physical design of the case, and these may be the 2020 Air’s real pitfalls.

To be fair, it handles all of Apple’s basic apps with ease (I didn’t test pro apps, like Final Cut). Safari, in particular, loads pages noticeably faster than my 2014 Air, and scrolling through boards with hundreds of tasks in Asana — a project management web app — is frictionless.

It wasn’t until I launched Adobe Lightroom CC that things started to bog down. The Air stutters just scrolling through my list of albums. Compared to my 2012 iMac — which was quite the monster in its day, outfitted with a 3.4GHz quad-core Core i7, 16GB of a RAM, 1TB Fusion drive, and discrete graphics card with 2GB of VRAM — the 2020 Air is pretty meh.

While I’m positive the new Air is faster in Lightroom than the old Air, it doesn’t always feel like 6 years’ worth of difference. I’m seeing the same kinds of delays in the UI, things like the menu bar taking a second to pop in when you bring the pointer to the top of the screen in full-screen mode. Things like image thumbnails not loading fast enough to keep up as you scroll through an album. OK, it’s not as bad as the 2014 Air, but I simply don’t have these problems on my iMac.

The iMac’s Fusion drive is, expectedly, no match for the Air’s SSD. With a fast memory card (I use ProGrade Digital 128GB V90 SD cards) images offload in the blink of an eye. This is the one test where the Air came out ahead. It’s a different story when it comes to exporting images. Saving 19 24-megapixel RAW files as JPEGs took just 37 seconds on the iMac, but 56 on the Air. And in repeated tests, the Air grew slower, likely due to overheating (the fans were screaming at this point). It dropped to 1 minute 10 seconds on the second run, improving slightly to 1 minute 5 seconds on the third run. (Just for kicks, I ran the same test on my iPhone 11 Pro and it also took roughly 1 minute 10 seconds.) While I controlled what variables I could, like making sure all photos were stored locally before exporting, this was not a scientific test. Still, the results are pretty undeniable: If it’s power you’re after, don’t buy a new MacBook Air — buy a fully-decked-out 2012 iMac (I might just know a guy who can get you one). Joking aside, as ridiculous as this comparison is, it illustrates what goes into making a computer fast. Despite 8 years of innovation and development in processors, RAM speed, and SSD performance, Apple’s newest ultralight pales in comparison to a decently-specced desktop from last decade.

On the plus side, seeing those results kind of made me proud of my iMac. I have to applaud Apple for supporting it this long with regular OS updates. It turned out to be a rather wise investment, and I think it will continue to serve me well for at least another year or two. I don’t know that I’ll be able to say the same thing about this MacBook Air.

But here’s the thing: It’s a writer’s dream machine

My 90% reason for owning a laptop is writing. I spend much more time editing words than I do photos, and the 2020 MacBook Air is about as perfect a writer’s laptop as one can get. You can take it anywhere, the new keyboard is incredible, and the Retina display with True Tone (a feature I turn off for photo editing) makes on-screen text look like a printed page. I got to skip the butterfly-switch debacle that plagued Apple laptop keyboards over the last few generations, but even compared to the 2014 Air’s not-disliked keyboard, the 2020 Air is a huge improvement. The fast key return rate is especially noticeable, and there is virtually no wiggle in the keycaps. Perhaps even more important than the keyboard is the stiffer chassis. I realize this isn’t new for 2020, but it’s something I immediately noticed jumping from the 2014 Air. Milled from a solid aluminum block (recycled aluminum, no less), there is zero flex in this thing. The monitor hinge is also more stable, keeping the screen rock-steady even when you hammer away on the keys (as I’m doing right now). On my 2014 air, the screen responded like a shock absorber to every keystroke, wobbling back and forth almost violently. This isn’t just about fit and finish; a stable monitor is easier on your eyes. It’s a huge benefit.

My only potential complaint, and this is admittedly minor, is that battery life could be better. I watched the indicator drop to 10% after 6 hours of mixed use, which included writing most of this review in Pages; importing, editing, and exporting the accompanying product photos using Lightroom; listening to Apple Music; editing articles in WordPress; and watching a couple videos on YouTube.

That feels about the same as my 2014 Air after its battery had aged for more than half a decade. It’s not bad — I don’t want to work for more than 6 hours, anyway — but it does reveal how battery chemistry has improved at a snail’s pace compared to the rest of computing tech. A smaller chassis necessitates a smaller battery, while a higher-resolution monitor and faster processors demand more juice. It’s a double whammy. (But, um, there are faster, lighter Windows laptops out there with longer battery life, so…)

I’m keeping it

As I considered my options for the new MacBook Air — swap it for the Core i7 version, return it and wait for the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, or bite the bullet and exchange it for the much more expensive 16-inch Pro — I realized my expectations for blow-me-away performance weren’t just unfounded, but that achieving them was totally unnecessary. It has plenty of power for all the primary tasks I throw at it. For photography, the the 2020 Air leaves several things to be desired despite Apple’s claims of vastly increased performance, but the generous 512GB of storage soothes my biggest pain point, giving me a nice buffer for importing images. With photo-editing as this machine’s 10% task, that’ll do. As for the other 90%, well, it’s perfect.


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