MacBook Air: Why didn’t it die?

Apple’s classic light laptop has outlasted all its potential replacements.

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Sixteen months ago I wrote a eulogy, of a sort for the MacBook Air. My all-time favorite Apple laptop was a living fossil, a non-Retina USB-A laptop in a sea of shiny new Apple tech. Apple had done a minor processor update to keep it on life support and there were rumors that another one was in the offing. The long goodbye was becoming endless.

But something funny happened on the way to the abattoir: The MacBook Air not only got a reprieve and a Retina upgrade, but with Tuesday’s update to the Apple laptop line, it’s killed off both of its putative replacements.

You come at the king, you best not miss.

Pretenders to the throne

Part of the unlikely story of the MacBook Air’s revival is Apple’s failure to create its replacement. When the 12-inch MacBook was released in 2015, it seemed like an obvious replacement. And in late 2016 the 13-inch MacBook Pro shared many features with the Air. Yet both of those Mac models are gone, as of Tuesday. Why?

13 macbook pro no touchbar 2019 Apple

Apple discontinued the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar.

Let’s take the easy one first. The 13-inch MacBook Pro—not the one with the Touch Bar, the other one, the one defined more by what it lacked (a Touch Bar and two more Thunderbolt 3 ports) than what it had (an Escape key?), never made sense. It shared its name with a completely different and more functional 13-inch MacBook Pro. Yes, it used the same class of Intel processor as the Air (just a later generation) and even more or less matched the Air in size and weight. But at $1,499, it cost $500 more than the MacBook Air.

It’s gone now. Instead, the MacBook Pro line is much clearer, as all 13-inch models have the Touch Bar and quad-core Intel processors. The only real legacy of the old 13-inch MacBook Pro model is that some of the cheaper 13-inch varieties still only have two Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Then there’s the 12-inch MacBook. What a can of worms that product turned out to be. It was delightfully small and light—my daughter absolutely loves hers—but it was still priced $300 more than the MacBook Air, and even with a later-in-life price cut, it could never get it down under $1,000.

rose gold macbook 12 inch Apple

The 12-inch MacBook made its debut in 2015.

Then there were some of the design decisions, which might have been forgivable if Apple had ever attempted to rectify them. The one-port design—and keep in mind, the one port had to be used to charge the MacBook—was extremely limiting, and it was USB-C, not the faster Thunderbolt 3 that every other Mac laptop adopted.

When the MacBook arrived in 2015 I assumed that within a year or two, Apple would add a port and upgrade the whole thing to Thunderbolt 3. It never happened, perhaps because the MacBook was designed as an iPad-inspired fanless device. I wonder if, on a smaller scale, the MacBook story is similar to the “trash-can” Mac Pro story—a product so limited by its thermal capabilities that it could never really grow into the product it deserved to be.

At some point in the life of the MacBook, Apple seems to have gotten the message that it wasn’t the solution. (My guess is that Mac buyers sent the message by continuing to buy MacBook Airs—complete with MagSafe and familiar USB-A ports—despite Apple’s attempts to sell them fancy USB-C Retina Macs that cost hundreds more.)

Long live the king

Here’s what we’re left with: The MacBook Air reigns supreme again—and for good reason. It’s got two ports instead of the MacBook’s one, and they’re Thunderbolt 3 ports to boot. It’s got the shape and styling that past MacBook Air users are used to. In terms of size, it’s a winner, with a 13-inch screen—but because of the pulled-in bezels, it’s as wide as the old 11-inch Air and only slightly deeper.

macbook air 2018 Apple

Apple reduced the price of the new MacBook Air by $100.

Finally, with the Retina MacBook Air Apple seems to have found a way to push the price down to a more palatable level. The new Air starts at $1,099, and is $999 in Apple’s education store. (Apple’s old Retina Air education price was $1,149, so it’s an especially aggressive move to reach the education market.) Truth be told, the old $1,199 price point was pretty flexible—they were frequently discounted online for $999. (I bought two, in separate sales a few months apart, for that price.)

It took four years, but Apple has finally restored some sense to the MacBook product line. There’s the MacBook Pro (in two sizes) at the high end, and down at the bottom there’s the familiar thin silhouette of the MacBook Air. All is right with the world again, and the MacBook Air has outlasted its rivals and survived its near-death experience. Long live the MacBook Air.

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