MacBook Air Update Features Magic Keyboard, iPad Pro Gets a Trackpad
In a widely expected update, Apple has introduced a new MacBook Air that replaces the much-maligned butterfly keyboard with the new Magic Keyboard. The MacBook Air also gains faster processors, enhanced graphics, and more storage options, all for $200 less than before.
Apple also threw back the curtains on an updated iPad Pro that will be compatible with a new iPad Pro-specific Magic Keyboard that includes a trackpad. The iPad Pro is available now, but the Magic Keyboard won’t ship until May.
MacBook Air Gains Magic Keyboard, Faster Performance, and Other Enhancements
In an effort to eliminate the hated butterfly keyboard from the Mac line, Apple has released an updated MacBook Air that features the scissor-key Magic Keyboard introduced last year in the 16-inch MacBook Pro. That keyboard has received highly positive reviews, and we’re happy to see it appear in the MacBook Air. (Look for a new model to replace the current 13-inch MacBook Pro soon as well.) The Magic Keyboard includes 12 function keys as well as a Touch ID sensor, but no Touch Bar.
Apple significantly improved the MacBook Air’s performance by providing a choice of 10th-generation Intel Core processors, including the model’s first quad-core processor option. The base level 1.1 GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 is probably pretty slow, but upgrading to a 1.1 GHz quad-core i5 is only $100 and a 1.2 GHz quad-core i7 is just $250.
Graphics should be noticeably speedier as well, thanks to the switch to Intel Iris Plus Graphics. The MacBook Air can now drive a 6K display too if you have a Pro Display XDR.
Apple also doubled the base level of storage to 256 GB, and you can increase that to 512 GB ($200), 1 TB ($400), or 2 TB ($800).
Minor enhancements include True Tone technology for more natural images on the 13-inch Retina display, “wide stereo sound” for the speakers and support for Bluetooth 5.0.
As welcome as all these changes are, the best news is that Apple simultaneously dropped the MacBook Air’s price. The entry-level model now starts at $999, and it’s available to the education market for just $899.
We were waiting for the Magic Keyboard to come to the MacBook Air, but we had no inkling that Apple was going to add a trackpad option to the iPad Pro. It will come in the form of the new Magic Keyboard, due in May, and will require iPadOS 13.4, slated for late March. Apple says it will be easy to use, with the pointer transforming to highlight user elements appropriately as the user moves their finger across the trackpad. What it won’t be is cheap, at $299 for the 11-inch model and $349 for the 12.9-inch model. (The second-generation Apple Pencil and an updated Smart Keyboard Folio remain available.)
The other unexpected change in the new iPad Pro is the addition of the new LiDAR Scanner. LiDAR (light detection and ranging) is a way of measuring distance with reflected laser light. It’s commonly used in self-driving cars, but Apple is instead using it to beef up the iPad Pro’s augmented reality (AR) capabilities. It offers existing ARKit apps instant AR placement, improved motion capture, and people occlusion. Apple also uses it to improve the Measure app. We can’t help but think Apple is testing the technology for future AR goggles.
Less surprising improvements include a new processor—Apple’s custom A12Z Bionic chip—and a dual-camera system that combines a 12-megapixel wide camera and a 10-megapixel ultra-wide camera that zooms out two times to capture a much wider field of view. The iPad Pro also now boasts five microphones for capturing audio and four speakers that automatically adjust to any orientation.
Pricing for the iPad Pro itself hasn’t changed. The 11-inch model starts at $799, with the 12.9-inch model at $999. Both come with 128 GB of flash storage, up from 64 GB in the previous models, and you can buy more storage: 256 GB (add $100), 512 GB ($300), or 1 TB ($500). Cellular connectivity costs an extra $150.
Last and but not least, Apple announced that the standard configurations of the Mac mini now have twice as much storage as before. That means the $799 configuration comes with 256 GB and the $1099 configuration comes with 512 GB. 1 TB and 2TB configurations remain available, and there are no other changes.
When Apple introduced the 12-inch MacBook in April 2015, the machine was the thinnest Mac ever, with a tapered design that starts at a mere 3.5 mm and grows only to 13.1 mm. A change from previous laptop models that made such an incredibly thin design possible was a new keyboard that swapped a scissor-style switch under each key for a new “butterfly mechanism” that’s 40 percent thinner.
In October 2016, Apple started using a second generation of the so-called “butterfly” keyboard in the MacBook Pro line. Then, in July 2018, Apple updated the keyboard to a third-generation design that added a thin silicone membrane under each key to protect from dust and other foreign objects. That third-generation keyboard made its way into the MacBook Air released in October 2018. Then, in May 2019, Apple once again updated the keyboard in the latest models of the MacBook Pro, telling journalists that the fourth-generation design has a “materials change” in the mechanism.
Why has Apple kept tinkering with the butterfly keyboard? Put frankly, because it has had problems. Although there are no independent estimates of what percentage of Macs equipped with butterfly keyboards are afflicted, many users have complained about keys sticking or feeling crunchy, keys failing to fire at all (so no letter is typed when the key is pressed), and keys repeating (so multiple letters are typed per keypress).
In fact, in June 2018, just before the third-generation design appeared in the MacBook Pro, Apple acknowledged that “a small percentage” of first- and second-generation butterfly keyboards were affected and launched a repair program to fix them for free, even if they were out of warranty. (The fact that a class-action suit surrounding the butterfly keyboards was filed against Apple in May 2018 might have been related.)
Alas, the silicone membrane didn’t resolve all the issues, and after the E and R keys on her MacBook Pro failed, influential tech journalist Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal wrote a hilarious column entitled “Appl Still Hasn’t Fixd Its MacBook Kyboad Problm,” complete with interactive switches so you could read it with or without the various missing and duplicated letters. Plus, a repair technician tore down a MacBook Pro keyboard to show why he didn’t think dust was an issue. Apple apologized to the Wall Street Journal, saying:
We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry. The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.
So when Apple released the fourth-generation butterfly keyboard with the current MacBook Pro models, the company also extended the Keyboard Service Program for MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro to cover the third-generation keyboards. The repair program lists the exact models that are covered, but it basically comes down to any 12-inch MacBook, MacBook Air models released in late 2018, and MacBook Pro models starting in 2016 and up to 2019.
What’s the practical upshot of all this for you?
If you have a MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro with one of these butterfly keyboards, and it’s working properly, that’s great! Do nothing—hopefully it will keep tip, tap, typing away.
If you have one of those Macs and are having problems, contact Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider for a repair. Before you hand over any Mac for repair, make sure you have at least one and preferably two backups of your data, since Apple sometimes replaces storage devices while doing seemingly unrelated repairs.
At a special event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Apple threw back the curtains on significant updates to the long-ignored MacBook Air and even longer-ignored Mac mini. Then Tim Cook and company followed up with revamped 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros, complete with an enhanced Smart Keyboard Folio and redesigned Apple Pencil. You can order all of Apple’s new gear right away, though demand may delay shipping for a week or two on some items.
MacBook Air Gains Retina Display and Touch ID
When Steve Jobs introduced the MacBook Air in 2008 by pulling it out of an envelope, it set the standard for the ultralight notebook category. But Apple has focused on the high-end MacBook Pro line of late, making this major revision extremely welcome.
Retina Display and Touch ID
Most notably, the new MacBook Air features a 13.3-inch Retina display that’s far crisper than the previous model’s screen. Although the screen is the same size as before, Apple eliminated the aluminum bezel around it, taking the screen much closer to the edge. That let the company reduce the MacBook Air’s size, making it almost an inch (2.1 cm) less wide and more than half an inch (1.5 cm) less deep. Even more important, Apple dropped the weight by almost a quarter pound (100 g). It’s noticeably smaller and lighter now.
The other major improvement in the MacBook Air is the addition of a Touch ID sensor in the upper-right corner of the keyboard. Rather than typing your password to log in, you can just place your finger on the Touch ID sensor. It also works to unlock some apps like 1Password. To support the Touch ID sensor, the MacBook Air includes Apple’s T2 security chip, which prevents the boot process from being tampered with, encrypts all data on the SSD, and enables “Hey Siri.”
Many of the remaining changes just bring the MacBook into the modern age. It sports two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left side for charging and connecting peripherals, and a headphone jack on the right side—all the previous ports are gone. The keyboard is the same one used in the most recent update to the MacBook Pro, which isn’t universally loved—if you’re particular about keyboards, give this one a try before buying. Apple also replaced the old Multi-Touch trackpad with a larger Force Touch trackpad that’s more responsive and provides additional capabilities.
By default, the MacBook Air comes with 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. You can jump to 16 GB for $200, and we generally recommend that. Similarly, you can upgrade the storage to 256 GB for $200, 512 GB for $400, or 1.5 TB for $1200.
We haven’t mentioned performance yet. Apple says only that the MacBook Air’s 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor delivers “the performance you need for everyday activities like organizing your photos, browsing the Web, creating presentations or viewing and editing videos.” Since Apple never misses the chance to say how much faster a new Mac is than the model it replaces, we have to assume that the new MacBook is no faster than the old one. Hopefully, benchmarks will appear soon.
The new MacBook Air comes in silver, gold, and space gray, and pricing starts at $1199 for 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. If performance is important to you, however, you should consider the non-Touch Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro, which costs only $100 more and is just a bit heavier. And if you’re willing to settle for older technology and a larger form factor, note that the old MacBook Air remains for sale starting at $999. Finally, the 12-inch MacBook also remains in the lineup, but at $1299, it’s overpriced and underpowered, and thus interesting only if you want the smallest possible Mac.
Mac mini Goes Pro with Massive Performance Boost
Apple updated the MacBook Air for consumers and students, but the company is aiming the revamped Mac mini at professional users. This update, the first in over 4 years, takes a cue from the similarly pro-focused iMac Pro in changing the color from silver to space gray, but otherwise, it retains the same form factor—7.7 inches (19.7 cm) square and 1.4 inches (3.6 cm) high.
Speeds and Feeds
What has changed are the guts of the Mac mini, which offer huge performance gains over the previous version from 2014. Those improvements come from eighth-generation Intel Core processors: a base 3.6 GHz 4-core i3, a mid-level 3.0 GHz 6-core i5, and a top-of-the-line 3.2 GHz 6-core i7. Apple claims up to five times the performance of the previous Mac mini and up to 60% speedier graphics performance thanks to the integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630.
You won’t lack for RAM or storage either. The Mac mini comes with 8 GB of RAM, but you can upgrade to 16 GB ($200), 32 GB ($600), or 64 GB ($1400). Less expensive memory is available from other vendors. While the Mac mini’s base 128 GB of SSD storage might be adequate if all your data is stored on a NAS device, you can upgrade to 256 GB ($200), 512 GB ($400), 1 TB ($800), or 2 TB ($1600). That storage is automatically encrypted thanks to the Mac mini’s T2 security chip, which also speeds HEVC video transcoding.
While Apple’s notebooks have been shedding ports, the Mac mini has bucked the trend. It features four Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI 2.0 port, two USB-A ports, an audio jack, and a Gigabit Ethernet jack, with 10 Gigabit Ethernet as an option. Thanks to the Thunderbolt 3 and HDMI ports, you can connect either a 5K display and a 4K display, or three 4K displays.
All this power comes at a price. The new Mac mini starts at $799 for the 3.6 GHz 4-core Intel Core i3, 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of storage. However, build-to-order options for a faster processor, more RAM, and more storage could raise the price to a whopping $4199.
Nonetheless, the Mac mini is once again an attractive option for anyone who already has a good display, keyboard, and mouse, none of which are included. It’s also ideal for those who want to stuff a Mac into a tight space, bring it on stage for a live performance, or stack a bunch of them for rendering video.
11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro Boast New Screens and Redesigned Apple Pencil
As welcome as the MacBook Air and Mac mini updates were, Apple really knocked it out of the park with its new iPad Pro models, which are the most significant changes to the iPad line yet.
Face ID Enables Physical Redesigns
Like the iPhone X series, these new iPad Pros drop Touch ID in favor of Face ID authentication. The 7-megapixel TrueDepth camera on the front of the iPad Pro that makes Face ID possible also enables support for Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, and Animoji and Memoji.
Losing the Home button enabled Apple to bring the display closer to the edge of the iPad. With the 11-inch iPad Pro (the measurement is the diagonal screen size), that means a larger display in roughly the same form factor as the older 10.5-inch model (which remains for sale). And with the 12.9-inch iPad, Apple kept the display size the same as before but shrank the height of the case by almost an inch so it’s now the size of an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper and a little lighter.
Apple also changed the industrial design slightly, reverting to the flat edges last seen in the iPhone 5s. One of those edges sports a magnetic attachment area and wireless charging spot for the redesigned Apple Pencil.
Speaking of charging, Apple broke with tradition and dropped the Lightning connector in favor of the industry-standard USB-C for charging and connecting to peripherals. That will make it easier to connect to an external display. You may also need a $9 USB-C-to-3.5mm headphone jack adapter.
Those are the most obvious new features, but some of the more evolutionary changes will be equally as welcome. Most notable is the new A12X Bionic chip with an embedded M12 coprocessor and Neural Engine. This Apple-designed chip is reportedly faster than 95% of laptops available today, and it gives the iPad Pro unparalleled performance among iOS devices.
That performance also powers the improved 12-megapixel rear camera, giving it enhanced computational photography capabilities, like Smart HDR, which takes multiple images and combines them intelligently for the best possible exposure. On-screen performance is improved, and everything will look better than ever before thanks to a new Liquid Retina display that features Apple’s True Tone and ProMotion technologies. In a classic Apple touch, the screen now features rounded corners.
Along with the revamped iPad Pro models, Apple introduced a new Smart Keyboard Folio that improves on the previous Smart Keyboard by wrapping around to protect the back of the iPad Pro as well. It uses a redesigned Smart Connector and provides two viewing angles.
More impressive is the new Apple Pencil, which now features a flat, touch-sensitive surface that you can double-tap to change drawing modes in many apps. That flat surface also makes it easy to attach to the edge of the iPad Pro magnetically so you won’t lose it and where it charges wirelessly. The easy-to-lose cap is gone, as is the Lightning connector, so the Apple Pencil is now shorter and more pencil-like—it won’t roll off the desk anymore.
How much will all this goodness cost? By the time all is said and done, you’ll be in MacBook Air range. The 11-inch iPad Pro starts at $799 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 64 GB of storage. 256 GB runs $949, 512 GB is $1149, and 1 TB will set you back $1549. Add $150 if you want cellular connectivity in any of these configurations.
For the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, add $200, so $999 for 64 GB, $1149 for $256 GB, $1349 for 512 GB, and $1749 for 1 TB. Cellular puts another $150 on the tab. Both sizes of iPad are available in either silver or space gray.
The new Apple Pencil costs $129, and the Smart Keyboard Folio is either $179 for the 11-inch model or $199 for the 12.9-inch model.
Remember, you can still get a regular iPad for as little as $329 and the original Apple Pencil is only $99, so if all you want is an iPad, you don’t need to spring for an iPad Pro. But if you’re using an iPad Pro as your primary work device and are willing to pay for the power, these new models are compelling upgrades.
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