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2018 MacBook Air: A Recalcitrant's Review

My relationship with Apple product releases has soured over the years. I've moved from a shill to a sort of technological curmudgeon. Every keynote i find myself sad. Hopeful for the return of whatever genius brought rise to some of the greatest computers ever made. Disappointed to find that genius replaced with diminishing returns on size and cameras. Each improvement coming at the expense of product unity and user delight.

It is with this context that i write this review. A review of a laptop i ask to replace my 2012 Air, which i have used daily for 7 years and consider close to perfect.

Neutral: Performance

Let me start by saying this is the reason i upgraded computers. 8GB of ram is simply not enough for a computer these days. But buying a 16GB soldered-ram board in 2018 feels like a poor choice. On a related note, i have a real problem that the 13" MBP did not allow for a 32GB option without that cursed touch bar. Apple, is this really the hill you want to die on? Admit the touch bar is about as practical as the cylindrical Mac Pro and let's move on to better things already.

Con: Keyboard

The keyboard is the most complicated part of this review. For starters the noise is objectively worse. The newly added dust condoms under each key provide too small a change. The keyboard remains closer in volume to the 2017 models than the older chiclet board. God forbid you have longer fingernails, the noise grows to a point where i am self-conscious of my typing volume in public places.

Next are the butterfly switches themselves. Contrary to popular opinion i find my opinions neutral. I prefer the longer travel of the chiclet keyboard. But the key stability is noticeably improved over previous models. The keys feel sturdy under horizontal pressure.

Finally i must touch on these damned arrow keys. The doubling of key height on the left and right arrows is downright annoying. I didn't expect to care about this as a relatively skilled typist. I had no idea how many times i subconsciously located my keys by moving my fingers to the empty space above the arrows. Now that they aren't there, i have a pretty good idea. I mishit these keys regularly, despite having this machine for months.

Pro: Finger Print Sensor

I use 18+ character passwords on my laptops. Suffice to say that this fingerprint sensor has been wonderful. Like the arrow keys, i hadn't realized how often i 1-handed those passwords because i was holding something with my other hand. The convenience of the sensor continues to delight me every time i use it.

Con: Ports

Magsafe charging is gone. That leaves a tall hill to climb in my book. Some of that ground might have been made up by putting the USB C ports on each side of the laptop to allow charging from whatever side was most convenient. Instead both are on the same side of the machine. Thankfully Apple found some spare 3.5mm headphone jacks and justified their inclusion in this device. Lord knows those appear to be in short supply these days.

Pro: Screen

The display being updated to a 1680 x 1050 usable resolution is another welcome change. This screen size is much more natural for my eyesight. Also, i use screen zoom religiously (Accessibility -> Zoom). As you zoom in, items remain rendered at the screen's native pixel density. This means that text and details remain crisp longer as you zoom in on the higher dpi display.

Pro: Speakers

I was not prepared for the difference in both dynamic range and volume differences of this laptop over my 2012 Air. These speakers are not going to win awards, but they leave my old speakers in the dust.

If i were to have any complaint about the speakers it would be that i wish the volume scale went lower. I know that sounds like a silly request, but in truth i have the same request of the screen brightness. I wish each had 2 more steps between the current 0 and 1.

Pro: Chassis

For starters the new Air kept the same shape including its characteristic slant. I love the shape of the 2012 Air and worried i would never be happy with another machine's feel. Thankfully Apple didn't see 2018 as the time to fix what wasn't broken; in this case. The laptop is about 1" thinner, which now feels more natural than my older laptop.

Also noteworthy are the speaker placements and bezel. The speakers moving to each side of the keyboard is a welcome change that materially impacts stereo sound quality. The reduced screen bezel is also a notable improvement. This machine improves here on excellence allowing a little more breathing room in airplanes and bars without sacrificing screen or keyboard sizes.

As for other performance figures, the battery on this machine has thus far been wonderful. The CPU/GPU are both disappointing. On paper they are each similar enough to my 2012 machine that i didn't think much of them. Turns out it was right not to. As far as i can tell thermals and real world performance are too similar to be noteworthy. Like my 2012 laptop, doing too many things at once, or daring to open something like Twitch is akin to clearing the laptop for takeoff. The fan noise is another mostly unchanged performance element.

Con: Haptic Trackpad

Fuck haptic trackpads. This trackpad is bigger, and i assume there are laptop users who appreciate that. I am indifferent to the size change. I don't know that i make use of the increased size. It has also not caused unintentional taps jumping my cursor around.

As for the haptics, the feeling is completely inferior to the satisfying click of the former trackpads. This is easily my least favorite part of this laptop. The haptic click is inconsistent depending on where your finger is when you clicked, and at times i am left wondering if i clicked at all. The sound and feeling of the haptics feels at once manufactured and fake.

Conclusion

The 2012 Air is, by a margin, the best laptop i have ever owned. I have used it, daily, for 7 years. That is the laptop the 2018 Air has been up against. And given that absurdly high bar, the 2018 Air is bittersweet. I do not regret my purchase. The battery life, reproduction of the body, vastly improved screen and speakers are all excellent. The fingerprint sensor is simply gravy.

And yet i am left a bit disappointed by this laptop. My physical interactions with it are needlessly worse than their predecessor. The keyboard is louder and has annoying arrow keys. The trackpad is haptic as Apple's ongoing crusade against buttons, presumably in hopes of a machine with no keyboard at all, casts aside anyone satisfied by a physical click.

The road to Ive's minimalist utopia is a ruthless one, it seems.

tl;dr: The 2018 Air is close to excellence yet its trackpad and keyboard leave me conflicted and disappointed.

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Written by Ben