There’s Something New in the (MacBook) Air
Tech News

There’s Something New in the (MacBook) Air

You might assume we spent the whole weekend playing Animal Crossing (and you wouldn’t be totally wrong), but we had a few other things on our plate, too: we’re amassing medical ventilator repair information to keep as many of those in service as possible, and we took a peek inside the new MacBook Air and iPad Pro. More on the iPad Pro to come, but for now let’s discuss this new MacBook Air, its many small changes, and its exciting new keyboard.

To set the stage, let’s rewind to 2015. A peaceful time, when one could leave the house or visit a neighbor, should they feel so inclined. Walking onto a literal stage back then: Tim Cook, followed by Phil Schiller, presenting the resurrected MacBook to (brace yourself) an in-person gathering of humans. They showed off an all-new keyboard, a no-compromises improvement over the scissor switches that had been in older laptops forever—the butterfly keyboard. It just so happened to also slim the MacBook down to measure a vanishingly thin 13.1 mm (at its thickest). The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to today. You haven’t left your house in a week, we’re still working out how to perform a teardown without leaving our homes, and Apple has released a new MacBook Air with an updated Magic Keyboard, like the one we saw on the 16” MacBook Pro last year. Notably, that new keyboard has only added half a millimeter to the thick end of the new Air—the new wedge slopes from 4.1 mm to 16.1 mm. Is that increase all keyboard though? And, if it is, does that really matter? Let’s dive in.

First order of business: yep, that’s them! These “Magic” a.k.a. scissor keys have proven, so far, to be considerably more reliable than the Butterfly variety. No silicone barrier needed here! Let’s see what other improvements have been made.

Pentalobe screws and two clips hold the back cover down. Inside, things look familiar, with a few notable differences: a larger heatsink over the new processor, and a new cable configuration between the logic board and the trackpad. Oh, and the speakers appear to have grown screws—a superior method of securing things, in our opinion.

Top (Gold): MacBook Air 2018
Bottom (Gray): MacBook Air 2020

That new trackpad cable configuration pays dividends! Where last year the trackpad cables were trapped under the logic board, they are now free to be disconnected anytime—meaning trackpad removal can happen as soon as the back cover comes off. And since the battery rests under these same cables, this new configuration also greatly speeds up battery removal by leaving the logic board in place. That’s two very tasty birds, one stone, for those of you counting. This is one of those happy (but all too rare) occasions where we can identify a hardware change from Apple that’s squarely aimed at improving serviceability in the existing design. Sometimes they do listen!

The speakers are still held down with relatively-friendly stretch release adhesive—with the added bonus of screws this time. Maybe Apple is coming over to our side, risking a bit of screw rattle for a mechanical alternative to a sticky situation? And once again, the battery (same model number and specs as last year) sits on stretchy pull-tabs, too.

Speaking of sticky situations: While the rest of the world waits for this Magic Keyboard to come to the smaller (14-inch?) MacBook Pro, we’re still waiting for this stretch-release adhesive to make its way into any other MacBook. The difference between a battery repair in one of these MacBook Airs and a battery repair in any MacBook Pro made after 2012 is a smelly outpouring of solvents and up to two hours of additional disassembly and cleanup, thanks to their ultra-aggressive battery adhesive. Even though we’ve got some good things to say about this adhesive, it’s important to note here that we much prefer the use of screws—especially in larger devices like laptops.

That leaves us with the two boards: one logic, and one key. The latter won’t be going anywhere, thanks to the rivets that hold it in place, but the difference between the butterfly keyboard and this Magic one is—you guessed it—about .5 mm.

More than anything, that 0.5 mm illustrates the sheer unnecessary-ness of the five painful years that Mac fans spent smashing on unresponsive butterfly keyboards. Knowing that Apple’s thinnest-and-lightest notebook accommodates a scissor-switch keyboard so gracefully makes us wonder what it was all for. We understand as well as anyone the urge to fix things, but Apple’s insistence on reworking and re-reworking the troubled butterfly design came at such a high cost—financially, environmentally, and to the Mac’s reputation—and for what? We’ll probably never know all the factors that led to the creation and persistence of the butterfly keyboard, but this Magic keyboard is a reminder that sometimes the difference between usable and unusable, or repairable and unrepairable, can be as small as half a millimeter.

Speaking of repairable, how does this MacBook Air fare on our repairability scale? Well, it’s gained a point over the previous generation, tying it back up with the older models. Keep scrolling for our full breakdown.

The MacBook Air 2020 earns a 4 out of 10 on our repairability scale (10 is highest).

+ Re-routed trackpad cables mean that trackpad and battery replacements are available from the get-go and easier than ever.

+ Many other components (fan, speakers, ports, etc) are modular and easy to access.

+/– Apart from the pesky pentalobe screws, the MacBook Air opens about as easily as any

The keyboard, though more reliable, is still integrated into the top case, requiring a full teardown for service.

Soldered SSD and RAM are a real bummer in a laptop at this price point.

We’ve still  got an iPad Pro in the queue, but we may come back to take a closer look at this Air’s Logic board. What are you looking to see more of? The larger heatsink? Any other hidden updates we missed? Let us know!

Teardown Update: Our friends at Creative Electron got their hands on a MacBook Air as well and put it through their signature X-ray treatment!

A few cool things to zoom in on:

  • Metal stabilizers underneath the wider keys (like the space bar) on the keyboard
  • Tiny ribbon cable running up behind the display to connect the FaceTime HD camera
  • Magnets in the speakers, trackpad, and fan
  • More magnets in in the lower case and above the display to keep the laptop shut
  • Hinges! Neither hinge appears to be equipped with the new lid angle sensor we found in the 16″ MacBook Pro last year (see this X-ray for comparison), but it’s hard to be certain without a more thorough investigation. Stay tuned!