My MacBook Air 2018 (honest) review…

So, just to be upfront and people don’t accuse me of being a total Apple “Fan Boy” – I’m not; over my years working in IT I have learned to become technology agnostic and appreciate all our industry has to offer (for the most part).

In my (considerably) younger days I had worked with Banyan Vines, Unix, Novell and relatively early Macintosh including AppleTalk at the time, some of those were truly “state of the art” (let’s not forget that the lead architect of Street Talk and Vines – ultimately went to Microsoft and created something called “Active Directory”) and then eventually specialised and became quite “blinkered” to specific technologies, which, when I hit my mid 30’s I realised that there was a lot which many vendors could offer both professionally and personally as a consumer.

During those younger years I worked with so many different technologies – DOS, Windows NT (3.51) and that then evolved into all things WinTel and Microsoft in general. I was a die hard teccy and formed many views which were influenced hugely by my early (admittedly poor) Apple experiences to the point where I truly, truly thought that the company and associated products were the kind of evil that Satan would make me support in the IT department in hell!

I remained that way for many, many years – I can even remember cheering on the remarks that Steve Balmer (remember him?) when the first iPhone was released (and look how wrong those turned out to be – let’s be honest!) but ended up having owned most generations of iPhone since the 3Gs!

Because of the poor experiences (which I talk about in a little more detail below) – for twenty years I had stuck rigidly to building my own PC’s – however I had an epiphany. The time that I had to devote to the Windows and Intel world – as well as blogging had reduced so much; and I just wanted something “off the shelf” that worked and would last at least five years before I had to worry about replacing it.

So on a whim I bought a late 2015 iMac 27″ with 5K Retina display, 32GB of RAM and an i5 processor.

It was amazing. I already had an iPhone and had been using a early 2011 MacBook pro whilst on the move (more add hoc than anything if I am honest) – this effective completed my move to a fully Apple setup from a personal, consumer point of view.

My work life is still predominately Windows and Intel based so I get my full so to speak of my roots – but when I look at how I operate now from a home setup it is pretty much all Apple and, ironically Google! Now, getting back to my original opening point – whilst it looks like I am an Apple Fan, I am more of a technology fan.

I need stuff that just works seamlessly. I don’t use the entire Apple ecosystem – in a perverse way I am more tied into Microsoft on Apple products. For example; what enhances my experience is O365 – most things that I do are tied totally into that platform.

I also make heavy use of ancillary products outside both the Microsoft and the Apple ecosystem – for example; I am a big Netflix fan (rather than Apple TV) a long time subscriber to Spotify (rather than Apple Music), I don’t use iCloud beyond what I need to – my cloud storage is OneNote.

Anyhow, back to my review of the MacBook Air – It really is a beautiful device. Honestly that is how I am going to start this review. It is truly a thing of beauty.

This review is going to be a little bit different, I am not going to go into intricate bench-marking; or detailed assessments against other comparable products (although I will make some comparisons).

Many things have been said over the years about Steve Jobs – but to my mind the one thing that he had worked out – that still to this day very few technology vendors have really understood is that people want to “bond” with their technology.

They want the whole experience, from opening the packaging to that moment where you first turn it on to be something memorable and there is a connection.

He understood that looks and feel (not just from the purest sense of UI or UX design) were very important. Every device that he had input into over the years had to look just right and forge an “emotional bond” between the consumer and the product.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think for one moment that this dedication was totally altruistic; he wanted to sell product and lots of it. Let’s not forget that Apple became the first trillion dollar company on the foundations that he laid.

He found a contemporary in (sir) Jony Ive, who could take his vision (or at times, more just rants) and turn them into product. Some of the products are, in truth – not that great when compared along side their contemporaries from a technical perspective – but – the fact that they look and feel they way they do inspires almost fanatical loyalty in the Apple faithful and at the same time vitriolic hatred in the camps that are against everything that is Apple!

For many years, I hated Apple products. My hatred was spawned, not from a position of voyeuristic ire – but from my experiences as a manager of a network of over 200 Apple Macintosh computers back in the late 90’s.

The O/S (System 6 – 7.5) was beautiful, the hardware looked great, however – it was a bastard to manage, in day to day use flimsy as shit and just didn’t do anything that was remotely useful (e.g. no TCP/IP, true multitasking, expansion bus that just didn’t hold the cards in properly!).

My specification

13-inch MacBook Air – Gold

The 2018 MacBook Air as standard is available in with a base memory configuration of 8GB of RAM and a primary SSD of 128GB, however I decided to purchase a custom specification based upon what I had read in reviews which matched my own personal needs:

  • 1.6GHz dual‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz
  • Intel UHD Graphics 617
  • 16GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory
  • 256GB SSD storage
  • Force Touch trackpad
  • Two Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • Touch ID
  • Retina display
  • Backlit Keyboard – British
Ah, wish I was back on my Island in the sea ….

How easy it is to upgrade?

The short answer to this is … you can’t!

Once you have decided upon your specification that’s it. This is both a pain and a blessing. The pain side is obvious – once you have selected the configuration you want – you cannot upgrade it (well, you might be able to, but trust me it is not straight forward, nor will it be cheap).

The CPU, Memory and the SSD are soldered directly to the main logic board.

You can of course expand storage via one of the two Thunderbolt 3 ports – however, all other components are factory set from the moment that you order.

The blessing is that (and I accept that I will more than likely be in a minority here) that this kind of provisioning and distribution encourages you as a consumer to really think about a few things, which prior you may not normally consider.

Let’s face it, this bad boy is a serious investment. The configuration that I selected set me back a rather cool £1,600(ish). I could have chosen something with a little more “grunt” in the Windows World – or, for an additional £100 (or so) I could of had the equivalent base entry Mac Book Pro with 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD and a 2.3 GHz (Turbo up to 4GHz) 7th Gen i5 processor – but there were a number of mitigating circumstances that swung it for me:

    • As my career has progressed, I have clearly become a tech image whore. It’s a very sleek device, it is light and comes in Rose Gold (pink to everyone else who I speak to – but hell I am in touch with my feminine side).
    • The display on the Air is superb. You may read in other reviews that the Retina display on the Air lacks the brightness of other competing products – but – trust me, it doesn’t make a difference in the slightest (more on this later).
    • I really liked the finish of the recycled Aluminium case, its light weight and sturdy.

Why is the upgrade bit important?

Well, if you want one quick then you can either pop along to your local Apple Store, order online or in any other approved retailer and just grab one.

However, I would say at this point just think things through a little … I would at the very least go for a 16GB of RAM model with a minimum of 256GB of SSD – and this configuration needs to be either ordered in an Apple Store or online as they are custom built in China and then shipped to you or a store of your choice.

Why would I recommend this? Well, let’s be honest 8GB of RAM just doesn’t cut the mustard (come on, honestly, think about it – it really doesn’t) and a standard 128GB SSD is not going to last long. Even if I am honest, a 256GB offering is a little on the slim side, so it is important to also have a plan in regard to how you will use the device – like I did!

Well I say a plan, it was more of a clear purpose.

You see, what I wanted was a really portable laptop which I would use mainly for basic tasks (e.g. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Email, Internet Access and some light video viewing). I wasn’t after a gaming rig or anything that could be considered an intensive workload.

I also wanted something good looking, light and totally functional for my needs (which I mention numerous times in this post – just in case people miss it!)

In terms of disk storage, my plan was to in the main make use of my OneDrive account for the majority of file storage and use the native SSD purely for O/S and applications. This of course can be used as an approach with any cloud based storage provided (such as Dropbox or Google drive) – and is really effective if you merely synchronise “stubs” and download the files that you need only when you need them.

All of the above amounted to the fact that given I couldn’t change the configuration after I had clicked on the “purchase” I needed to be 100% sure that this device was what I wanted for me and my needs, otherwise I would be making a very expensive mistake!

Shipping

Now, one thing to note about a custom configuration is that you cannot pick that up from a local store immediately. If you change the RAM and SSD it’s getting built for you in China and then shipped directly to you or a relevant pickup point.

This can add up to two weeks to your order. To be fair to Apple, when you order from their site you get a very accurate view of the progress on your device – but just remember, if you need it quick then a custom configuration is not your solution!

Whilst this can be frustrating, if you think about it from Apple’s point of view it makes total commercial sense!

Having a base “mass produced” build for cash flow purchases which are held in stock at local distributors all over the world and then building a defined set custom configurations directly on the assembly line using non-upgradable configurations (e.g. directly burnt onto the boards) and then shipping to the customer is very smart!

Given the brand that they have in terms of shipping volume means that revenue is a pretty much a “fait accompli“. By reducing the amount of production spares they need to stock for “local upgrades” to the base build, and pretty much ensuring another model is purchased in four or five years due to the lack of consumer ability to upgrade later is genius really!

Annoying for us as the said consumer, but still very smart – all Apple need to do is ensure that the product itself doesn’t suck balls from launch!

Performance

Well this is key isn’t it? Nobody wants a £1600 laptop top that runs like a two legged dog that has arthritis after opening a single tab in a browser. Thankfully the MacBook Air, for the tasks that I use it for performs well.

So, about “that processor

So, the Air comes with a Dual Core 1.6 GHz eighth generation Intel Core i5 processor; which sounds kind of cool doesn’t it?

Well … it is and it isn’t!

For those of you who are interested in the full technical run down have a look here: https://www.notebookcheck.net/Intel-Core-i5-8210Y-Processor.354466.0.html – but for the purposes of the review I will stick to how I have found it perform.

In essence Apple selected this processor for maximum power efficiency against what can only be presumed as a trade off in ultimate performance. Apple run the CPU at 7watts in the device and it can intelligently over clock itself to a maximum speed of 3.6Ghz.

It is important to note that the MacBook Air uses an integrated Intel UHD 617 graphics GPU which is integrated into the 8210Y processor which shares the system RAM dynamically. This is another reason why I would suggest opting for the increased amount of RAM to 16GB.

This does put it at a disadvantage in comparison to the cheapest end MacBook Pro and indeed more powerful competitor products in the Windows space. However, it is important to keep some perspective on this. During my own personal day to day use (which consists of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Web Browsing – and includes YouTube and Netflix) it performs well.

However, I suspect that if I was engaging in video editing or advanced image manipulation it would probably struggle.

This being said having Word, OneNote and Chrome open with several tabs and flitting back and forth it works perfectly.

It is important to note that the device should considered on the merits of the whole rather than it’s individual components – as when they are combined they do stack up to be quite an attractive package.

If you are interested in CPU performance measurements have a look over here on the MacWorld Review of the device: https://www.macworld.com/article/3318566/macbook-air-2018-review.html or over here at Trusted Reviews: https://www.trustedreviews.com/reviews/macbook-air-2018

What about the disk?

Image Credit: iFixit:  The Yellow box (above) is the SSD within the Air 2018

For performance metrics of the SSD have a look at the links that I supplied above from MacWorld and Trusted reviews.

Overall – the MacBook Air is quicker off the mark in terms of Read / Write than a number of Windows based products (for example the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 and the LG Gram) – but slower than the MacBook Pro.

Again, as mentioned many times in this review – for the purposes of my own usage profile the disk speed is spot on.

Boot time (even with the SSD encrypted) is pretty quick, and firing up applications such as Word or PowerPoint takes about 3 – 4 seconds. I have found no problems with read or write performance, even when working on comparatively large files when the device is busy.

I will admit that I have done no scientific testing beyond how disk speeds feel to me as a user (you can look at the links to other sites in the previous section for that information).

But, that being said I would surmise that if you are not doing any heavy video encoding or anything that really ramps up transactional I/O then the device performs excellently.

That screen

So from a technical point of view the 13.3-inch screen boasts the following specifications:

  • Retina display
  • 13.3-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit display with IPS technology; 2560-by-1600 native resolution at 227 pixels per inch with support for millions of colors
  • Supported scaled resolutions:
    • 1680 by 1050
    • 1440 by 900
    • 1024 by 640
  • 16:10 aspect ratio

From my own personal point of view, the screen is like a lot of things about this device – a wonderful thing and possibly the best aspect!

I have found that the viewing angles are view good, the clarify of images and text and reproduction of video is superb.

There are some reviews on the web which claim that the screen isn’t bright enough – and when compared against some other models it’s true that it isn’t as bright – however, I have personally found the no matter if I have been inside, outside or in a number of what has been highly variable lighting conditions the screen on it’s default levels is perfect and even better with the brightness turned up (just remember that will consume more battery life).

On a related note, there has been some conjecture which I read when researching the Air prior to purchase in regard to it “not having a touch screen” – my personal opinion is why does that matter?

MacOS is not designed as a touch capable O/S and being frank (again – a personal opinion) even Windows 10 used on a touch capable device still sort of sucks! (depending on what sort of touch you are using it for) My advice would be that if you need touch screen then the MacBook Air isn’t for you.

There is a huge gulf between touch based phones and laptops which still needs to be broached and whilst the industry and O/S are getting better – on Laptop device, certainly from my own point of view it still feels “clunky“.

Display viewing angles are very impressive on the Air’s 13.3 Retina display.

Day to Day Usability

It’s been emotional!

So this review is based around two main aspects of the device. Yes, of course there is the bit about the technology and is the MacBook Air a good device from that perspective and the second bit is about how does it actually instinctively feel?

You may remember at the start of this article I mentioned how Apple makes devices that you can “bond” with. Now, to many I can understand if there was a loud scoff in the room as it sounds preposterous that you, as a human can “bond” with something so inanimate as a laptop – but is it really so hard to understand how something can have an emotional impact upon you?

Really think back through your life – there have probably been many things that you have been close to. Did you have a favourite toy? Were you attached to your first car? Do you even have a favourite coffee cup?

All these things are you at some level “bonding” with something that isn’t otherwise human. You may of loved to comfort or joy the toy gave you when you were a kid, you may have had load of trouble with your first car – but – it gave that feeling of freedom to go where you wanted to or you just might of liked (for completely irrational reasons the way your coffee tastes from one particular cup).

To me the MacBook Air gives me the same feeling.

Practically, it is light, and is easy to “man handle” in a single hand when moving it from one position to another. Visually it draws attention – not just from myself but everyone in the room who, for whatever reason “just wants one” – which, if everyone is honest is a real “feel good feeling“.

The device can be held (although not for long) with one hand

There are just so many little details about this device that are just so Apple which when considered in isolation aren’t technological revolutions but form important parts of a package which make a wonderful whole!

These include:

  • The packaging – yes, I know that it’s an Apple product and the whole packaging experience is generally amazing – but honestly when you open it up for the first time there is a “wow” factor that cannot be ignored. I personally love minimalism with simple, neat presentation – that is exactly how the Air is shipped to you!

    Just as an aside, I can almost hear the moans in the back of the room “my god, this idiot is going on about packaging” – but there is a serious side to why I have singled it out. There is no polystyrene, unneeded plastic bags, the packaging reflects the size of the largest component (the device), no cardboard wrapping components where it doesn’t need to. It is really well thought out. You look at what you have and want to keep it as odd as that might sound.
     
  • The whole lid action when you open the device up. It’s smooth and also acts as a means to turn the device on or come out of standby. It has to be said here that there are some untruths on the Internet about being able to log in using TouchID – this isn’t true, after a shutdown or reboot you have to enter your password – from standby or lock you can use TouchID.

What’s your type?

There has been much discussion about the “butterfly” keyboard – especially around the initial issues it suffered with dust or debris getting into the mechanism which rendered it inoperable (read the article linked from The Register, made my laugh my ass off!)

Keyboards are funny things, some people love soft, silent, long motion (sounds almost erotic) when typing, whilst others prefer hard, louder clicks with little key depth and then there is everything in between.

I personally think that this is akin to how we all learned to type all those years ago (anybody remember “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing“?) because when you really think about it – typing is an instinct if you have done it for a very long time and instinct is often influenced by how something “feels“.

MacBook Air 2018 - Keyboard shot
Although coming down to personal preference the butterfly keyboard is a welcome addition from my point of view.

I myself am a typing philistine, I can touch type; but not in the traditional sense and I prefer that “meaty” click of a key when you press it down with low travel depth.

Given this, I just find the keyboard on the Air a joy to use! It is responsive and just feel sturdy and I have personally found that I can type faster with less inaccuracy on it – but I accept that is just me and my own personal preference.

Unsurprisingly, I type a lot. For work, messaging friends, writing and general day to day use I think that to all intents and purposes at the very end of the preference spectrum it will be “functional” and for people with similar tastes to that of my own it will be amazing!

Any port in a storm?

So the Air comes with two Thunderbolt 3 [TB3] ports (have a read of the article – as there is a good overview of the difference between it and USB 3) and a 3.5mm phone jack. So, but virtue of what I like to call my “bollocks math equations

[TB3] = Good + only 2 ports (1 for charging) + every other peripheral needs an adapter = [ Pain in the arse ].

If I leave aside for one second that the inclusion of a traditional head phone jack is inexplicable given Apple’s stance on it’s iPhone range.

The fact that there is only two TB3 ports and nothing else means that at some point you will need to buy either additional conversion cables or an adapter to make use of Thunderbolt 2, USB 2.0 or any form of memory card readers.

This is a real pain. I have to admit, whereas I have pretty much “gushed” about this device the connectivity is inconsistent and frankly crap.

I wouldn’t say that this is a reason to not choose it as a laptop, but it is something to consider as an additional costs that you may want have to invest in.

For example; the biggest problem that I have found is USB 2 to Lightening connectors (to charge my iPhone) just won’t work with the device without an adapter.

It really does seem to me that TB3 and USB3 have a long way to go in terms of becoming true standards – even if you look at the Windows alternatives to the Air – they go in the opposite direction and give you a port for everything as well as USB3 – which just strikes me as a long way from full standardisation.

What about the rodent?

Or more to the point the track pad. It is a massive improvement on previous Airs and, being frank it is possibly the best that I have experienced on any device which I have used. Labelled as “Force Touch” – this basically means that Apple added the Haptic feedback and intelligent understanding of how hard someone presses down on the touch pad to perform other functions. It pioneered in the iPhones to the track pad.

In operation this means that when you perform a “click” the pad doesn’t actually travel – what you feel is a haptic click. I have always found haptics so very clever and I personally just cannot tell the difference!

The pad is a good size. I had read some reviews prior to purchasing then device that said accidentally hitting the pad during typing which can lead to the cursor jumping around in documents. I have to say that this has not happened to me  and really don’t think that it is a problem and I am guessing that if that happens it may be more to do with an individuals typing style.

Otherwise, all the functions of the trackpad are the same as they are on other MacBook products with the same gesture controls with it being responsive and accurate during operation. In fact, I have enjoyed using it so much I have not resorted to attaching my magic mouse which I did with my previous MacBook Pro.

Getting “Touchy Feely” – TouchID

The MacBook Air comes supplied with a T2 chip and associated TouchID sensor on the top right of the keyboard.

There is is, looking more like a “we ran out of keys” bezel – the TouchID sensor.

I have to say that this is something about the device that I am the most disappointed in – yes, I know others have raved about it; I just think that it is a missed opportunity.

Reviews on the internet suggested that this can be used for both logging into the device – and – authorising system-wide privileged operations. This is only partially true – and not the useful partially either!

You see when you boot the laptop you still have to enter a password (just as with the iPhone) and it is only when the device is woken from either sleep or when the lock screen is up you can use the TouchID sensor.

If you install software, or need to change a system setting – you will need to enter the password, however if you use Apple Pay or the App store you can use TouchID – but even this is inconsistent where lower level systems changes can be authorised by via touch.

To me it feels clunky and, unusually for Apple not consistently thought out.

I think that this is a great shame in all honesty – as being able to log in through a finger print, and use it for permissions elevation would have been really good and save so much time – but alas it wasn’t to be. In my opinion it remains a little used button at the top right of the keyboard.

Speaking of T2 (and I don’t mean Terminator 2)  ….

So the T2 (lifted directly from Apple – https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT208862)

The Apple T2 Security Chip is Apple’s second-generation, custom silicon for Mac. By redesigning and integrating several controllers found in other Mac computers—such as the System Management Controller, image signal processor, audio controller, and SSD controller—the T2 chip delivers new capabilities to your Mac.

For example, the T2 chip enables a new level of security by including a secure enclave co-processor that secures Touch ID data and provides the foundation for new encrypted storage and secure boot capabilities. And the T2 chip’s image signal processor works with the FaceTime HD camera to enable enhanced tone mapping, improved exposure control, and face-detection–based auto exposure and auto white balance.

So in essence, it is a security co-processor which improves the overall performance and security posture of the device and in a very crude way can be compared in some ways to the functions of TPM on other Windows based devices.

Will I need batteries with this?

I have always found this to be such a subjective analysis or benchmark in any Laptop review. The truth is that you cannot really go by what any manufacturer says as the specifications that they provide will always of been done under a very specific set of optimal conditions, which, in the real world where we live are rarely reflective. All a vendor needs to do is prove a couple of times the maximum life that it can get and then it can be put in product literature.

From my own personal experience of the Air, I have managed to get around 10.5 hours out of the device before charging, which is inline with what other reviews have found. This of course has been highly variable depending on what I have been doing at the time – but my overall view is that it is more than sufficient for day to day or even, at times day to multiple day use.

For example; one common usage scenario that I have might be some evening work for about two hours, and then a full day, on the move between London and Brighton offices – which includes accessing secure VPN over Wi-Fi, O365 access using Chrome, Internet access via Firefox, Word, Excel, PowerPoint – all kinds of business and personal use – which I can be confident of getting through the day with room to spare on a charge of about 65%.

Sounds about right!

Sound. Not many reviews have discussed how this thing sounds when watching a film or playing your favourite tunes. It’s very good! Sound quality is a very subjective thing and differs very much between person to person depending on the sound types and range that they ears (and minds) are tuned to.

There are two large speakers located on either side of the keyboard. During my use I have found that whilst the overall volume doesn’t get as high as you might want it to depending on your surroundings, the balance between treble and bass is exceptional. My own personal hearing attunement is more predicated towards bass and I was personally very surprised at how capable the device was at rendering hearty deep bass reflex beats either in music or from an action movie.

Of course, the MacBook is no substitute for a decent set of dedicated speakers or earphones – but, I would say that for a laptop device its sound reproduction is right up there with the best on the market.

So, clearly I haven’t made my point (ahem…) – what is my overall view?

Well, given that on the basis of my research I went and bought one, and then took the time to give it a review – I think that you could say that I really quite liked it!

I know that from a technical and perhaps overall performance perspective there are better options out there. However, for me; it was the entire package that the Air represented which totally “sold” it for me. I like MacOS – in fact, I will confess that on a Desktop or Laptop I feel, personally that it is a better O/S than Windows 10 (or any version of Windows) – and that is coming from someone who was so Microsoft ingrained it is untrue.

However, just to clarify – that is my view from a desktop perspective as a CONSUMER – in the server space and for Enterprise usage – Windows still wins hands down, Macs and MacOS have a long way to come in terms of really being truly affordable options for Enterprise use.

The thing about the MacBook Air (or, indeed more MacBook <insert flavour of choice>) is that they are just sleek as hell. They play to their strengths which, quite frankly is a level of design which no one (in my view) comes close to – couple that with an exceptionally mature ecosystem which, now integrates and plays well with those of others (Microsoft as one example) and you have a prospect that stands up to any other offer out there.

My real advice is that you need to consider what you are going to use your device for – and if it is something along the lines of gaming or high intensity video / graphics – the Air is not for you. However, if you want a device that works well for the vast majority of day to day tasks and business use; then you won’t go to far wrong with this device.

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