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Evaluate if the MacBook Air is good for business use

The MacBook Air is popular in the consumer market, but IT admins should evaluate the MacBook Air for business as a separate issue, looking into the device specs and use cases.

For years, the MacBook Air remained one of the top-rated, bestselling laptops on the consumer market, but there's less certainty about how well it's suited for business.

The viability of MacBook Air for business, like any technology, depends on the use cases and circumstances. Under the right conditions, it can lead to a better user experience and greater productivity. For some organizations, however, the MacBook Air is still not enough of a laptop to do the job.

Apple released an updated version of the MacBook Air laptop in early 2020. The MacBook Air 2020 is just as sleek and portable as its 2019 predecessor, and for the most part, works the same. However, Apple has made a few important improvements that might make a difference in deciding whether the MacBook Air is a good fit for business use.

MacBook Air 2020 specs and hardware

The MacBook Air starts at $999, down $100 from 2019, but it can cost as much as $2,249 with add-ons. The baseline features that come with the standard price tag of $999 are a 13.3-inch Retina display, Intel Iris Plus Graphics, 720p HD camera, Touch ID, magic keyboard and many others. The maxed out feature set includes a 1.2GHz quad-core 10th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB of memory and 2TB of SSD storage.

Apple's move to 10th-generation Intel Core processors is a big step up from 2019, although the processor available at the $999 price tag is only a dual-core Intel Core i3. The i3 is not enough for many workloads, so most organizations should consider the upgraded processor a necessity. Most organizations will want to upgrade to at least the quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, if not the Core i7. The extra processing power ensures that the laptop is better suited for work-related tasks, especially with the added boost from Intel's Iris Plus Graphics processor card.

One of the most important upgrades that came with the 2020 MacBook Air is the magic keyboard, which replaces the much-maligned butterfly keyboard in earlier models. The butterfly keyboard didn't hold up well with repeated use, which led to an assortment of problems for users such as missed or duplicated keystrokes. Apple has returned to its original scissor-switch keyboard design, which most users prefer for its accuracy and responsiveness.

Along with the new keyboard comes a larger Force Touch trackpad, with its virtual haptic feedback and increased functionality. The MacBook Air also includes a Touch ID fingerprint sensor for unlocking the device and protecting predetermined files and settings.

According to Apple, the MacBook Air provides enough battery life for 11 hours of wireless Wi-Fi, 12 hours of video playback and 30 days of standby, but the actual times will vary depending on use. Although this is not exceptional battery life compared to the highest-end laptops such as the Samsung Notebook 9 Pro, it should accommodate most work scenarios. The MacBook Air 2020 also includes an improved microphone system, a high-quality Retina display and up to 2TB of flash storage, which is twice as much as the MacBook Air 2019.

MacBook Air shortcomings for business use

Despite the benefits that the latest MacBook Air hardware offers, it also comes with some challenges for enterprise admins and users. For example, the $999 starting price might sound like that a great deal, but it only includes 8 GB of memory, 256 GB of storage and the dual-core Intel i3 processor, which limits how employees can use their laptops. To get the best performance, an organization must spend at least $1,449, which still includes only 256 GB of storage. This might be plenty of storage in some cases, but it could fall woefully short in others.

Even if the MacBook Air is fitted with the best processor and most memory, it's still not a high-performing machine and would be hard-pressed to accommodate processing-intensive operations such as advanced video editing or multimedia tasks. The battery life might be problematic for some workers as well. In fact, the battery of the MacBook Air 2020 has regressed since its predecessor, which supported up to 12 hours of wireless web.

Additionally, the MacBook Air only comes with only one 3.5 mm headphone jack and two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, one of which users will need to charge the device. Not only can this make supporting peripheral devices more difficult, but it can also require organizations to purchase additional adapters to run non-USB-C auxiliary devices.

Another consideration for desktop admins is that the Retina display lacks touch support, which many users want in their devices. The webcam is only a 720p, far below the quality of many comparable devices. In addition, the MacBook Air supports only the 802.11ac wireless networking standard (Wi-Fi 5), and can't take advantage of Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of wireless networking.

Use cases and features of the MacBook Air for the enterprise

Like any laptop, the MacBook Air is not without its challenges, but it still offers features that make it useful in a business setting. For example, the laptop comes with the Apple T2 Security Chip, which contains a secure enclave coprocessor that protects Touch ID and supports device encryption and secure boot capabilities.

The MacBook Air also provides several features that can help support a workforce with accessibility challenges. Employees can accomplish certain tasks touch-free by using their voices to open and interact with apps, search the web, or write and edit. They can also quickly zoom in on what they're reading and interact with Siri directly. In addition, the VoiceOver tool can tell users what's on their screens. In fact, accessibility features such as dictation, screen zoom and Siri can help people of all abilities, streamlining workflows and boosting productivity.

Another feature that can benefit enterprise workers is Touch ID, which allows them to unlock their laptops without typing a password. In addition, the three microphones and HD webcam support video conferencing -- even if the camera is only 720p -- and the device comes with several native productivity applications such as Notes, TextEdit and Reminders.

The MacBook Air can be a good fit for any worker who requires a reliable, relatively powerful machine in a small lightweight package.

The MacBook Air can also support up to two external 4K displays with 2560x1600 resolution. The displays connect through the Thunderbolt ports. Plus, Apple offers multiple processor, memory and storage options to accommodate different worker types because the standard dual-core Intel i3 is only suited for the least demanding workloads.

Evaluating the MacBook Air for each organization

The MacBook Air can be a good fit for any worker who requires a reliable, relatively powerful machine in a small lightweight package, such as an employee who frequently travels or is on the move from one meeting to the next. The device weighs only 2.8 pounds, measures less than 12 x 8.5 inches and is only .63 inches thick. This is slightly higher than the MacBook Air 2019, but the increase is only meant to accommodate the new keyboard, which is well worth the additional .02 inches.

IT admins considering the MacBook Air for business use might also appreciate Apple's attempt to the make its manufacturing greener, using recycled materials for the computer and packaging. Apple is also avoiding materials that contain poisonous chemicals such as arsenic or mercury.

The laptop handles web browsing and video streaming without a hitch, but many employees will need to do a lot more. For general-purpose apps such as Microsoft 365, the MacBook Air should have no problem, but software such as Adobe Photoshop is another matter, especially for users prone to multitasking.

The OS of the MacBook Air itself might also present administrative challenges. For example, the current version of macOS, Catalina, implemented a new file system that can affect application support and increase maintenance. Even if the file system is not an issue, many applications designed for Windows do not have macOS counterparts.

Organizations must also consider the entire maintenance picture. If they're already supporting Mac desktops, adding MacBook Air systems should not be too big of an issue. But if they exclusively support Windows systems, the extra management for desktop administrators might not be worth it.

Before deciding on the MacBook Air for a business use case, IT decision-makers should also consider alternatives, including laptops from other vendors, different Apple laptops, pre-2020 MacBook Air computers or iPad Pro tablets. For example, organizations can purchase a 13-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.3G Hz quad-core 10th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB of memory and 2 TB of storage for $2,599, $350 more than the top-of-the-line MacBook Air. Although the $350 difference can quickly add up when organizations buy multiple machines, users get a more powerful computer that's about the same size and only .3 pounds heavier.

Even if decision-makers determine that the MacBook Air is a good fit for business use, they should also keep in mind that Apple plans to replace the Intel processors in its Mac computers with Apple Silicon processors. The expectation from Apple at this point is that the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air will be the first machines to make the transition.

In the meantime, there has been a lot of debate about whether Apple customers should wait until the Apple Silicon debut to purchase a Mac or go ahead with Intel-based devices.

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