Razer’s late-year update to its 13-inch Blade Stealth ultraportable laptop makes it a little smaller, a little lighter and a little more powerful.
Smaller monitor bezels and a bigger touchpad bring the Stealth up to date in both look and feel, and allow Razer to shrink the laptop’s footprint. The keyboard now uses rubber dome switches, and no longer offers per-key RGB lighting, only a single zone. Razer steps up the stealthiness by toning down the glowing green three-headed snake logo, instead sticking with an unobtrusive basic black that won’t stand out in meetings.
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Razer Blade Stealth sneaks in an end-of-year update
The new Blade Stealth comes in three configurations, starting at $1,399 (£1,300), all of which use a quad-core Intel i7-8565U processor. The base model has 8GB RAM, a 256GB SSD, a 1,920×1,080-pixel full HD display and integrated graphics.
The middle model adds a discrete Nvidia MX150 GPU and ups to 16GB RAM, while the top configuration incorporates a 4K touchscreen and increases storage to 512GB.
Both displays are factory calibrated to 100 percent sRGB, and the Blade Stealth uses the higher power version of the MX150 with 4GB VRAM. An updated version of Razer’s Synapse software works with Nvidia’s Optimus technology to provide control over performance, and in turn, fan noise.
Razer claims 13 hours of battery life, a little better than before thanks to lower-power display panels.
It does preserve its portitude relative to other ultraportables, with two USB-A ports and two USB-C connections, one of which supports Thunderbolt. You’ll still need to dongle it for HDMI and Ethernet, which dulls the luster a tiny bit for business use.
The problem with laptops in general is that even the high-end premium ones all tend to look and feel the same after a while. It’s clear when a laptop is trying to be a MacBook Pro or an XPS 13. In a world of copycat laptops, almost all of which seem to want to be just like something else, the new leather-covered HP Spectre Folio at the very least offers a different approach to design.
No, it’s not Corinthian leather, but it’s still pretty nice. And I’d be the first to admit I’m having fun using it, despite a few design and usability frustrations.
The leather cover is not just bolted on top of a standard laptop body. Instead, a magnesium frame is paired with a leather outer shell that covers just about everything except for the keyboard and screen. HP says that cuts down on weight and thickness, although this still feels hefty for a 13-inch laptop, at 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg).
We rarely see them now, but this isn’t the first leather-shelled laptop I’ve tested. About 10 years ago, it was briefly in vogue, like this Asus U6S I reviewed back in 2008. But this example makes the leather more a part of the overall design, rather than just gluing it onto the back of a standard laptop body.
It’s called the Folio because, when closed, it looks like a leather folio. So much so, that when I took it for a test drive to the new coffee shop on the corner, I just tucked it under my arm and went, no bag.
Flipping the script
That part of the design is certainly clever, but other parts feel a bit too clever. The hybrid hinge, which folds the 13-inch screen into different modes, is complicated, with the entire screen flipping out from the middle of the rear panel.
The screen can swoop down in front of the keyboard, creating a kind of kiosk. That’s great for video playback, but it only hits one angle, and it may not a particularly useful one unless you’re slightly above the laptop, looking down.
Editor’s note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who already know the glee of 2016’s Hitman reboot, and those who have yet to experience IO Interactive‘s wildly entertaining world of absurdist assassination. Fortunately, Hitman 2 is easy to recommend to both groups, owing to a big list of necessary improvements to the formula, a smart integration with the previous game, and another big pack of great new maps. There’s really never been a better time to get into this unique, quirky franchise.
The core of Hitman 2 is exactly the same as in the first game: you roam around massive clockwork levels swarming with hundreds of characters, all interacting with each other and carrying out their own routines, as you plan dozens of ridiculous ways to bump off your targets (quietly or not). But Hitman 2 is chock-full of incremental changes and additions that make it a much better playing game on the whole. Some intelligent interface tweaks help clarify abstract information like compromised disguises, off-limits areas, and scripted murder opportunities and make them much easier to parse. New gameplay features, like tall foliage that lets you hide in plain sight and a briefcase you can use to smuggle conspicuously illegal items around, give you more options to devise creative strategies. And in what must be one of the most generous decisions made by a developer in recent history, owners of the first game can import all of its content into the new package for free and replay it with all the new features–and newcomers can add all that content to the sequel for a measly 20 bucks. Seeing two whole games’ worth of Hitman encapsulated in one tidy package is a special kind of satisfying.
Hitman 2’s locations cover almost as much exotic ground as those in the first game, from a high-tech Miami speedway to a drug cartel’s jungle compound, suburban Anytown USA and a secret island meeting of billionaires who not-so-secretly run the world. At five full-sized maps and one smaller one, there’s more than enough content here to get your money’s worth. And while this sequel maintains the goofy, totally-serious-but-not-really tone of the series, I have to give Hitman 2 credit for making me genuinely care about the story in a Hitman game. The first game raised a ton of questions about illuminati-type groups and shadowy rogue agents without providing many answers, but the sequel makes good on that residual suspense with a taut international cat-and-mouse thriller that not only develops the characters of Agent 47 and his handler Diana Burnwood, but also provides some closure to the first game’s mysteries. In the course of making good on those lingering plot threads, it also raises the stakes to such a degree that seeing the conclusion of the whole thing might be the number one reason I want a Hitman 3. That’s not a sentence I ever expected to write.
This is a great package in total, though Hitman 2 feels just slightly rougher around the edges than its predecessor. The production is a little less polished and elaborate, with cutscenes composed of rudimentary still images compared to the full-fat CG treatment the story got in the first game. That’s made more noticeable since both games’ cinematics are housed side-by-side in the same menu. There’s a little less map content to work with overall compared to the previous game’s six full-sized locations and two sizable training maps, but the five new maps are gigantic, and Hitman 2 does come up with a handful of new variations on the standard objective of just killing all your targets that help to freshen things up a bit. And while the game offers a couple of supplementary modes with Sniper Assassin, where you attempt to take out targets at a wedding from a lofty perch with a scoped rifle, and Ghost–a head-to-head “beta” multiplayer mode that has players racing to get kills, which doesn’t feel like it plays to Hitman’s loose, anything-goes strengths–this ancillary content isn’t really the reason you come to a Hitman game. Luckily, the first limited-time “elusive target” starring none other than Sean Bean is a great sign for more of the free post-release support that defined the first game, and there are DLC releases planned down the line to provide more of those great locations.
Those complaints don’t amount to much when you step back and look at how well the Hitman formula has matured in this sequel and just how much content IO has crammed into this single package. The developer’s uncertain future under Square Enix made a fair number of headlines a while back, before IO went independent and became the sole master of Agent 47’s destiny. The fact that Hitman 2 turned out as well as it did in spite of that business turmoil is a great sign for the future of the franchise, and we should all be fortunate enough to get to play another one of these games a couple of years from now.
Editor’s note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.
How do you innovate on Tetris? The core game itself is just as playable as it was over 30 years ago. Sure, you can change the rules of how the game plays,create new modes, or mash it up with other games. It feels like many modern versions of Tetris have asked “how do we make Tetris more fun,” but nobody has asked “how do we make Tetris more of an experience?”
Enter Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Enhance Inc. with Tetris Effect, which blends the core mechanics of Tetris with the unique visual and audio stylings of past Mizuguchi games like Rez and Lumines. In the game’s main Journey mode, players are taken on a trip through 27 levels, each with their own unique and interactive skin and music. Clearing a set number of lines will bring players from one stage to the next, transitioning between visual soundscapes that are themed around flying windmills, volcanic hulas, and space whales. Beating Journey from start to finish will only take about two hours or so, and it takes you through levels that are range from relaxing to very technically challenging. There’s decent replayability to be found with different difficulties and modes that you unlock after completing it.
Tetris Effect does an incredible job of keeping the player immersed, and one of the best ways it does it is by giving the player control of the music. Moving tetriminos, rotating and dropping them, and clearing lines affects the music in dynamic ways. This is only complimented by playing the game in VR. This, surprisingly, was my favorite way to play the game. The first time I booted up the game in VR and was able to look around me and see myself being showered in falling stars as trance/world music washed over me was my favorite VR experience to date. The interactivity of the music, the intense and sometime overwhelming visuals, and solid core gameplay all blend together to create a cohesive and sometimes emotional experience. The few songs in the game with lyrics all share a common motif–togetherness–and as cheesy as it sounds, you feel like you’re part of something bigger when playing in VR.
In addition to the Journey mode, the game features Effect mode. These are a series of Tetris variants, and feature some models you might be familiar with. There are established modes like Marathon (clear 300 lines as fast as you can) or Sprint (clear 40 lines in a set amount of time), but also new modes such as Purify, where players must kill off infected tetriminos as fast as possible. These offer a good break from the core game, and even act as tutorials to a degree. Take, for example, the mode called All Clear. This mode gives you a partially filled in well with a set number of pieces to drop. I found playing this mode allowed me to spot unique solutions to problems in my regular Tetris play. Tetris Effect will also have weekend challenges, where players must come together and clear a certain number of lines to unlock new avatars for players to use on their profiles, adding a reason to come back to the game frequently.
Tetris Effect, from top to bottom, is my favorite iteration of Tetris yet. The music and visuals work together to create a truly unique Tetris experience, that is only enhanced by VR.
In 2018, a thousand bucks will get you an excellent laptop. Cut that budget in half and you’ll need to make some compromises. And yet there are plenty of very solid options in the $500 range (roughly £380 or AU$700) — including several from Acer — that deliver a better overall value than the unexceptional Spin 3.
Like every model in Acer’s series of Spin laptops, our $500 test unit has a 360-degree hinge that lets you tuck the keyboard behind the display, making the transformation from laptop to tablet. The Spin family comes in a wide (and confusing) array of size options and configurations that includes Chromebooks, Windows machines and even entry-level gaming models. Earlier this year, we reviewed the higher-end, all-metal 13.3-inch Acer Spin 5, which starts at $700 and found it to be a good value.
The less expensive Acer Spin 3 also looks good — but feels cheap. From a distance, it appears to be made of the same textured, brushed aluminum as the Spin 5, but a closer inspection reveals a plastic design. It’s just under 1 inch thick and weighs about 3.8 pounds — about average for a 14-inch laptop in this price range. The keyboard isn’t great — I found myself making more typos than usual — and the touchpad felt particularly flimsy, responding consistently only when I clicked the lower-right corner.
The Acer Spin 3’s 14-inch HD display is a highlight. It’s not the brightest screen, but the 1,900×1,080 resolution is crisp and the 16:9 aspect ratio is well-suited to watching videos and reading in portrait mode. And after working primarily on Macs for so many years, I am always impressed by the versatility of convertibles; it’s a joy to poke at the touchscreen in laptop and tablet mode.
Apple’s MacBook Air has gotten a much-needed reboot, keeping the name, but changing just about everything else, both outside and in. And while it’s still called the MacBook Air, this new version might as well be called the “MacBook Pro Lite,” because that’s essentially what it is.
For most of its 10-plus year life, the classic MacBook Air was the default laptop for pretty much everyone, from college students to creative types to startup entrepreneurs. For many years, I called it the single most universally useful laptop you could buy.
But over the years, the competition moved to higher-res displays, thin screen bezels, bigger touchpads, regular component upgrades, and thinner and lighter bodies.
While this reimagined MacBook Air fixes almost all of the previous design’s issues, it adds a couple of its own. It’s a much better fit with the rest of the current Mac design sensibility: larger than the 12-inch MacBook, smaller than the 13-inch Pro, and much different from the classic Air, which Apple is still selling, at least for now.
That means the long-standing design, with its thick screen bezels, smallish touchpad, deep keys and multiple ports is gone. If anything, the new Air looks and feels like a half-step between the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Its price has jumped up to join the rest of the MacBooks as well. For most of its life, the Air was $999. Not cheap, but a reasonably achievable luxury, especially for a rock-solid laptop that could last years.
The new starting price is $1,199 (£1,199, AU$1,849), which is a tough blow for generations raised on the idea of getting that first MacBook for under a grand. Right now, it’s only $100 less than the 12-inch MacBook or 13-inch basic MacBook Pro, so there’s some price-versus-features math to do.
My cheat sheet for that is as follows. Compared to the new MacBook Air:
The MacBook Pro is more expensive, more powerful and less portable.
The 12-inch MacBook is more expensive, less powerful and more portable.
With each laptop excelling in a different area, and only $100 separating their base models, there won’t be one correct answer for everyone. That said, this new Air is the safe middle ground between the two extremes.
Editors’ note: We are currently benchmark testing the MacBook Air, including battery life tests. Some initial performance results are below, and we’ll update this review with more benchmarks and a final rating when testing is complete.
Picking one up, it immediately feels lighter and smaller than the current Air, which I’m intimately familiar with. At 2.7 pounds (1.25 kilograms) and about 15 millimeters thick, it’s actually fairly average when it comes to 13-inch laptops. Some similar systems get down under 10mm, but at the expense of battery, features and processing power. As it is, the new MacBook Air is firmly in the mainstream of slim laptops, but not leading the pack.
One bit of catch-up is in the screen design, which cuts the thick bezel border surrounding it by about half and adds an edge-to-edge glass overlay. It’s a sharper, more modern look, and a long overdue upgrade.
Like the current Pro and 12-inch MacBook, the new Air still feels like a tank, with its one-piece aluminum construction (now 100-percent recycled aluminum, according to Apple). That’s one of the reasons MacBooks, both Air and Pro, have been able to command premium prices for so long — because you’re making an investment in a product that will hopefully last for many years.
It’s all about the keyboard
As the only MacBook with a traditional island-style keyboard, the MacBook Air was one refuge from those who disliked the super flat butterfly mechanism keyboards in newer MacBooks. Now the Air is firmly in the same camp as the other models. Some may lament the loss of the older style of keyboard, but I think the butterfly keyboard has never been as troublesome as people imagine, and I’ve certainly dealt with more difficult keyboards in more expensive products.
In this new Air, you get the latest version of the butterfly keyboard, with a new membrane underneath to help keep dust from gumming up the keys. To our knowledge, the Air and the Touch Bar versions of the Pro have this version, whereas other MacBooks have a previous version.
It takes a period of adjustment to get used to the subtle tactile feedback, but once you do get used to it, it’s fine for even long-form typing. But yes, you may never grow to love it.
The payoff is that the new Air also includes a much bigger touchpad, of the same Force Touch style as on other MacBooks. That means it doesn’t have a diving-board hinge on the back, and instead uses four corner sensors to register clicks, allowing the body to be thinner.
Will die-hards take this change hard? They might, but that old keyboard was never as great as you remember.
Traveling with an iPad Pro isn’t new to me. I’ve used the previous iPad Pro as my main commuter computer and, before that, other iPads. They’re great for quick reading, communicating, writing on a keyboard, and… for me, that’s about it.
Keep in mind, I’m on a New Jersey Transit train for at least 45 minutes each way. (With recent construction hold-ups, it’s closer to an hour and a half.) On my ride, I’m trying to get work done. To date, there have been limits to the iPad’s productivity and multitasking workflow that made it a difficult device, for me, to replace my laptop. But I muddled through on my commute, choosing its portability over a laptop.
Now I’m commuting with the 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I’m writing this review on it. It’s got a great keyboard case, though it could use a trackpad. It’s got a big, laptop-like screen. It’s more portable than the last version. But it doesn’t solve the final few things I need to make it a true laptop. Does that matter? Is it close enough? And if I’m not sketching or editing photos, is this product even meant for me?
Welcome to the 2018 iPad Pro.
Editors’ note: This is a review in progress, focusing on our impressions of the new iPad Pro after just a few days of use. Ratings will be added after additional battery testing, benchmarking and USB-C accessory testing has been completed.
An artist’s tool that needs more software upgrades
The new iPad Pro definitely bags some huge wins over its predecessor: It’s shockingly fast, has USB-C, a far better Pencil design, easy login with Face ID and there’s more screen real estate crammed into a more compact design. From a pure hardware perspective, it’s a knockout — and drop-dead gorgeous, to boot.
But the iPad Pro just isn’t flexible enough, yet. The browser is not the same as a desktop-level experience, which can make it hard to work with web tools. No trackpad on the optional keyboard and no support for mice makes text editing cumbersome. Furthermore, iOS hasn’t changed enough. It’s way too much like an evolution of the iPhone, instead of a fully evolved computer desktop. And the current crop of available apps don’t yet exploit this awesome new hardware. A true version of Photoshop is on deck from Adobe, for instance, but it won’t be available until 2019. (I got an early peek and it looks great, but it’s not here yet.)
Those drawbacks notwithstanding, this new hardware is going to cost you — a lot. The iPad’s price has gone up, to $799 for the 11-inch version with 64GB compared with $649 last year for the 10.5 inch. The 12.9-inch version costs $999 for 64GB of storage. My top-of-the-line review unit, with a crazy 1TB SSD and cellular, is $1,899. Add in the new and improved Apple Pencil (increased in price from $99 to $129), that new fancy Smart Folio keyboard case ($179 or $199, up from $159), and new USB-C dongles and headphone adapters you’ll need, and that’s one expensive iPad.
As genuinely exciting and notable as this continued evolution of the iPad Pro is, it also feels frustrating on day one — especially considering what you’re paying. It echoes the familiar pattern of Apple’s 2018 iPhones: Faster, larger screens, higher prices. Six or 12 months from now, if Apple and third-party developers continue to invest in evolving iOS and expanding the universe of available accessories, it could very well unleash the full potential of this amazing device. In the meantime, this is more of a niche product for artists and creatives willing to live within its bounds. If you’d like a hint of the creative possibilities at a much lower cost, I’d recommend the far less expensive entry-level 9.7-inch iPad (which works with your old Pencil or the Logitech Crayon, too).
iPad Pro 2018 and accessories
iPad Pro 11-inch (64GB)
iPad Pro 12.9-inch (64GB)
Smart Keyboard Folio 11
Smart Keyboard Folio 12.9
Welcome to the iPad X
The new iPad Pro looks like a large iPhone X. And, in a lot of ways, it really is like a large, super-powerful iPhone X or XS.
Face ID hits the iPad, without the notch: It has Face ID, and the same TrueDepth front-facing camera. Whatever you could do with the iPhone XS, XS Max or XR and its front camera, you can do here. Depth-based portrait mode photos look as good as the iPhone, and it can do Animoji and Memoji and other depth-sensing AR. Face ID is nearly invisible. The camera now fits seamlessly into the narrower bezel around the edge. It’s hard to even remember where it is sometimes.
The camera works in landscape and portrait and recognized me quickly. Face ID feels like a better fit for tablets, and even better for laptops, but Apple hasn’t introduced it to Macs yet. I had to bend over or lift the iPad up occasionally for logging into an app, or paying for something on iTunes. That’s where Face ID can get annoying over Touch ID.
Also, Face ID is only designed for one user. It highlights the still-outstanding lack of multi-user support on iPads. For families, or anyone sharing an iPad, there’s no way to store multiple logins, short of convincing Face ID to accept someone else’s face as an “alternate appearance.“
Gorgeous makeover: No doubt about it, this iPad’s pretty. Both new sizes fit more screen in less space, in different ways. The 11-inch Pro fits a larger display into a similar-sized body to last year’s 10.5-inch version. The 12.9-inch shrinks down the body of last year’s larger Pro and keeps the same screen size, and the difference is dramatic. The bezels are nice and small, and Face ID blends in. It’s a perfect look… except for the lack of a headphone jack.
An amazing screen: The iPad Pro display is lovely. It’s LCD, not OLED, and its curved corners are engineered similarly to the iPhone XR’s LCD screen. The display can reach 120Hz ProMotion like last year, which pays off in smooth scrolling, and sometimes in games and animation. It’s bright and colors look great. Technically, the iPhone XS OLED bests it in detail, but this is just as good or better than the iPad Pro’s display last year. And having a thin tablet that’s nearly all screen makes for an eye-catching upgrade.
Booming audio: The speakers sound fantastic. Crisp and loud. Last year’s iPad sounded great, too. Now the speakers boom so loud the entire iPad vibrates at full force. It’s like holding a speaker cabinet. If nothing else, the iPad Pro is a killer TV.
USB-C in, Lightning and headphone jack out: Yes, it happened. As rumored, Apple dropped its Lightning connector on the new iPad Pro, and subbed in USB-C. This means an accessory transition that’s both frustrating and potentially game changing. More on that later.
The iPhone X swipe gestures are now on the iPad, mostly intact. Swiping up goes to the home screen, swiping down from the corner brings up Control Center. The previous iPad OS had some similarities. Now a few new wrinkles pop up. You bring up the app dock by swiping up a bit and holding, which can get confusing. Swiping up further brings up all open apps, including some that stay in split-screen pairing, just like before. Because the iPad version of iOS was already hinting at where the iPhone X gesture language would go, the continued leap here isn’t jarring at all.
But would I have liked some more new moves to make the iPad Pro feel even more PC-like? Yes, I would have. Multitasking keeps getting better year after year, but it’s still not as fluid as I’d like for my workflow.
Speaking of workflow: Let’s talk about Shortcuts. What used to be called Workflow is now Apple’s own Shortcuts app, offering ways to build macros and link actions together and tie into Siri commands. I think Apple is aiming for Shortcuts to be the way to make productivity smoother, do things better, and not feel as limited by iOS. I didn’t spend much time in Shortcuts — I’m not a big macro-user, or IFTTT (if this, then that) programmer. But maybe it could help. I’d prefer it if iOS could just allow me to lay more things out simultaneously, show more on the home screen and multitask that way. The iPad Pro promises so much power, but it doesn’t give me an easy way to access that power.
For comparison, I quickly hopped on an old Chromebook to save some file attachments, fill out a form, write back to someone and attach the files. Just some quick everyday work. Simple on a Chromebook, but it feels harder to do the same thing on an iPad Pro.
Pencil: A big improvement — but you’ll need to buy a new one
The first Apple Pencil was great to use, but had a host of annoyances, especially its awkward “jam it into the iPad’s Lightning port” charging methodology. The new Pencil has finessed the solution with elegant magnetic inductive charging. It snaps right onto a panel on the edge of the iPad Pro. By giving it a place to charge, much like the AirPods, it means your Pencil is likely to be ready when needed instead of rolling around somewhere and probably depleted. New, too, is a double-tap capacitive sensor on the iPad’s lower third, which makes a single action happen. Apps need to activate it individually: iOS 12 doesn’t make use of it, except in the Notes app.
But anyone can take notes — how is the new Pencil for drawing and sketching? I met up with New Yorker and CBS News cartoonist and journalist Liza Donnelly to see what she thought. She’s worked with the iPad and 53’s Paper app to do live sketches during news moments, creating on-the-fly sketch-based journalism. Watching her work on it, it impressed on me how good Pencil is.
Lenovo’s 2018 Legion Y530 and Y730 gaming laptops are like mash-ups between its last-gen Legion systems, which had more typical “gamer” styling, and one of the PC maker’s ThinkPad workstation notebooks.
There are no big stylized fan vents or angular edges with color highlights. They’re just black and gray and even the Legion logo on the lid is reasonably discreet. The most striking thing about the design is that the display hinge on both is shifted forward, which allows for better cooling with rear and side air vents. It also gave Lenovo space to move power and a majority of its ports to the back, so you don’t have a tangle of cords coming from the sides.
However, while the Y530 and Y730 look alike at first glance, there are some meaningful differences. The Y530 is mostly plastic and has white lights for the keyboard backlight. The higher-end Y730 has an all-aluminum chassis and is fitted with RGB lighting for the keyboard, fan vents, side ports and lid emblem. The lighting is all programmable, too, right down to individual key colors with included software from gaming hardware and peripheral company Corsair. The Y730 also adds an extra row of keys on the left side of the keyboard for custom macros.
While the Y730 also has slightly better memory and storage options as well as a better display than the Y530 we reviewed, the system processor and graphics options are the same: An eighth-gen Intel Core i7-8750H or i5-8300H and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 or GTX 1050 Ti.
If having good gaming performance now and well into the future is crucial, you’ll want to get a laptop with at least a GTX 1060 graphics card. That’s not offered on the Y730, but is on the Y530. If you don’t mind dialing back your video settings to save some money however, the Legion Y730 is an excellent choice for the money.
Lenovo Legion Y730-15ICH
Lenovo Legion Y730-15ICH
Price as reviewed
15.6-inch 1,920 x 1,080 display
2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H
16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz
4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti
2TB HDD + 256GB SSD
802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.1
Window 10 Home (64-bit)
The keyboard is key
The aluminum body is nice, but the higher-end keyboard and lights are the better upgrades from the Y530. Having 16 million customizable color combinations at your fingertips is a lot of fun and pretty useful.
The included Corsair iCue software lets you easily set the color for individual keys or select keys en masse by using your cursor to draw a box around them. There are preset patterns you can choose from or you can set up your own patterns and save them to call up when you want, say for a specific game or if you simply want to switch to a more businesslike all-white backlight.
There is also another app for setting up custom macros for a row of six keys on the left side of the keyboard. It, too, is easy to use. However, the macro key placement shifts the entire keyboard slightly to the right, which, for touch typists like myself, might cause some initial frustration. There’s also a softness to the key travel that feels fine for long gaming sessions, but might disappoint for typing.
It’s called the MacBook Air, but it’s an Air in name only. This new version of the popular laptop might as well be called the MacBook Pro Lite, because that’s essentially what it is.
The long-standing tapered Air design, with its thick screen bezels, smallish touchpad, deep keys and multiple types of ports is gone, replaced by the familiar design cues of the post-2016 MacBook ($1,279 at Amazon Marketplace) and MacBook Pro. If anything, the new Air looks and feels like a half-step between the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, rather than an evolution of the classic Air.
In person, as seen during a hands-on demo session following Apple’s Oct. 30 event, it was hard to distinguish this new Air from Apple’s other laptops at first glance. (One Apple rep misidentified a nearby new Air as a Pro to us.) Picking up the new Air, it immediately felt lighter and smaller than the current Air, which — having had the same basic design since 2010 — many of us are intimately familiar with.
You get more screen and less body, thanks to a display that cuts the thick bezel border by half and adds edge-to-edge glass over it. Now the Air display looks much like the one on the MacBook Pro, with the same True Tone color shifting and wider color range.
At 2.7 pounds (1.25 kg) and about 15mm thick, its size and weight is actually very middle-of-the-road when it comes to 13-inch laptops. The slimmest systems get down under 10mm, but at the expense of battery, features and processing power. If you want super thin and light, step up to that aforementioned 12-inch MacBook for just $100 more — but know you’ll be losing considerable features and power.
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MacBook Air 2018 now has a Retina display
While size and weight aren’t particularly unusual versus other laptops in this price class, the new MacBook Air does feel substantially more solidly constructed than most of the competition. Like the current Pro and 12-inch MacBook, the new Air still feels as tough as a tank, with its one-piece aluminum construction (now 100-percent recycled aluminum, according to Apple). That’s one of the reasons MacBooks, both Air and Pro, have been able to command premium prices for so long — because you’re making an investment in a product that will hopefully last for several years, which has often been the case for the traditional MacBook Air.
It’s all about the keyboard
As the only MacBook with a traditional island-style keyboard, the MacBook Air was the one refuge for those who disliked the super-flat butterfly mechanism keyboards in newer MacBooks. Now the new Air is firmly in the same camp as the other models.
Some may lament the loss of the older style of keyboard. Personally, I’ve never found the butterfly keyboard as troublesome as others, and I’ve certainly dealt with more difficult keyboards in more expensive products. (I admit this may be a minority opinion.)
It takes a period of adjustment to get used to the subtle tactile feedback, but once you get used to it, it’s fine for even long-form typing. But yes, you may never grow to love it.
But the positive tradeoff is that the new Air also includes a much bigger touchpad. It’s the same Force Touch style as on all the other MacBooks, which means it doesn’t have a diving-board hinge on the back, and instead uses four corner sensors to register clicks. The larger surface area is frankly more important than the mechanics behind it.
Will diehards take this change hard? They might, but that old keyboard was never as great as you remember, and the bigger touchpad is a great addition.
Ports of call
If the keyboard change bothers you, the port situation isn’t going to be much better. Following not only other Apple laptops but also many of the premium Windows laptops from the past two years, the MacBook Air is now USB-C only. That means any of your USB-A peripherals are going to need a dreaded dongle.
That said, it’s got two USB-C ports, instead of the single one on the 12-inch MacBook, so you can do more than one thing at a time, like connect a peripheral and the power cable. And these are Thunderbolt 3-enabled USB-C ports, so they cover the full range of high-end duties: high-speed data transfer, for example, or output to 4K and 5K displays. External GPU boxes (eGPUs) are also supported, but I have yet to try one with the new Air. (Those tests will follow soon.)
But back to that power cable issue: The late, great MagSafe connector is gone, so one of those two USB-C ports will often be used for power. While it’s great to see Apple using industry-standard USB-C ports for that — you can invest in third-party USB-C power delivery (PD) battery packs, for instance — it still means that you may be back down to a single open port.
The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro has a similar pair of Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, but lacks the Touch ID fingerprint reader found here. The fingerprint reader is really the best part of the Touch Bar experience, and it’s a great addition to the MacBook Air. I didn’t have a chance to register my own fingerprint and try it in action, but based on my use of the fingerprint reader in MacBook Pro systems (powered by the same T2 security chip), it’s a system that works quickly and reliably.
Still the ultimate student laptop?
One area where the new MacBook Air may lose some ground is as the default student laptop on many college campuses (and the default work laptop at many companies). Even though this is a much better laptop in nearly every regard, it loses one big advantage the previous MacBook Air had — its price.
At $999 in the US, the MacBook Air was an affordable luxury for many students, artists, writers and anyone who wanted a premium experience at a less-than-premium price. The new Air starts at $1,199 (£1,199, AU$1,849), which is a 20 percent jump, even though both the old and new entry-level models have 8GB of RAM and 128GB of solid state storage. That puts it just below premium laptops such as the $1,299 MacBook, which lacks a second USB-C port and fingerprint reader, and the $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro, which lacks the fingerprint reader.
The overall design and usability, and the jump from fifth-gen Intel processors to eighth-gen ones, certainly makes this well more than $200 better than the old MacBook Air. But it also moves to being that much more of a stretch for many would-be owners.
Fortunately, that old-school Air is still available, at least for now, just as the old 13-inch MacBook Pro was for more than a year after the newest design debuted in 2016. If you’re firm in your need for USB-A or HDMI ports, or an island-style keyboard, pick one up now, because no one knows how long it’s going to last. But note that based on the past several years of concerns we’ve had about the low-res screen, thick bezel and outdated CPU, it’s hard to recommend that classic model right now.
We hope to test and fully review the new MacBook Air soon, so stay tuned for our benchmark results and full review.
I couldn’t tell if I was looking at the 12.9-inch iPad Pro or the 11-inch one. That’s a testament to how Apple has shrunken down the Pro lineup, and seems to have delivered on a more portable high-octane iPad this year. But can it get any closer to replacing my laptop?
The new iPad Pros announced at Apple’s October event in New York are pretty big changes, if you’re looking to maximize display in a metal frame. Both new versions fit larger displays in smaller, thinner bodies. Face ID has been added nearly invisibly, built into the thinner bezel via a depth-sensing TrueDepth camera, just like the iPhone X has. But there’s no notch, which makes it seem a lot more subtle.
That also means no home button. It’s more like a big, magic window now. But with a display and a beefed-up A12X processor inside that are promising this much, it seems like it’s time for the iPad to unleash even more inputs and accessories. Apple has delivered on some, and not on others.
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Apple’s iPad Pro gets a giant makeover
Lighter, more screen and Face ID hides away
I held both new iPad Pro sizes for a little while in Apple’s demo room, and they’re sometimes hard to tell apart. The 12.9-inch version is lighter, and finally feels one-handable, provided you’re OK with keeping a sheet of metal and glass in one hand. I had an urge to coddle these tablets more than ever. The bit of bezel around the edge of both helps give a hand-grip zone, but I really wanted these iPads in protective cases.
It seems like the 12.9-inch version is the most impressive change this time around. The new 12.9-inch version has a smaller footprint than last year’s model, while the 11-inch Pro fits a larger display into a size very similar to last year’s 10.5-inch Pro.
The iPad Pro’s displays now have slightly curved corners like the iPhone X and Apple Watch, but it has an LCD screen Apple has called “Liquid Retina” that should be similar or better to the iPhone XR display. Display resolutions this time around are 2,388×1,668 for the 11-inch, and 2,732×2,048 for the 12.9-inch, both 264 ppi (the entry-level iPad has a 9.7-inch 2,048×1,536 display, by comparison, with the same pixel density).
For me, smaller is better. The difference between iPads feels a lot subtler, though, similar to the bump-up between the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. The 12.9-inch version costs an extra $200 per storage configuration. For a full comparison of specs and what’s new, read our breakdown.
USB-C, with a few caveats
USB-C replaces Lightning on the new iPad Pro, which sounds exciting, but doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does. The new Pros will support USB accessories and export video to monitors, but last year’s Pros could do that too, with dongles. More interestingly, the iPad Pro can use its USB-C port to reverse-charge other USB-C gadgets, or an iPhone via a USB-C-to-Lightning cable. It also could mean buying USB-C charging cables and adapters for the Pro will be a lot easier (and more affordable).
Apple has already said that the USB-C port won’t support external storage. However, app developers could design specific USB-C accessories that do specific things. Not needing to connect via Lightning could open up new possibilities. (Apple does support SD card readers over USB-C, but only for transferring photos and videos to the iPad.)
It also brings in a few complications. There’s no headphone jack on the new Pros, and there’s no Lightning port, either — so Apple’s own Lightning EarPods packed with current iPhones won’t work. And it also means the existing Apple Pencil won’t work. Instead, there’s a new Pencil.
Pencil: Now magnetic, wireless-charging, with double-tap sides
Apple’s improved Pencil stylus now charges inductively via a magnetic strip on the side of the iPad: snap it on and it charges. The Pencil’s still round, but that flat side also keeps it from rolling away on a table. The Pencil’s latency and pressure sensitivity are the same as last year (the new Pros also have similar ProMotion faster-refresh displays as last year, up to 120Hz).
There’s also a new double-tap control that can do specific things in particular apps. Sketch apps and Apple’s Notes app use it to swap between the last brush and the eraser. Other apps could use it in other ways. But the double-tap action seems limited to a single action at a time, almost like how Apple’s wireless AirPods’ double-tap functions work.
These changes are welcome. But, I’m not wild that Apple’s asking us to buy a whole new Pencil.
A new keyboard folio case
Apple has its own unfoldable keyboard case that seems like shades of what Logitech has made for previous iPads. The case is powered via Apple’s new smart connector on the Pro models, and unfolds to a more lap-friendly base where the iPad docks into the keyboard like a little laptop. It looks like a nice enough case, but I haven’t lap-tested or spent enough time typing on it. But it’s missing the thing I wanted most: a trackpad like the Google Pixel Slate and Microsoft Surface keyboards have. And it’s also expensive, at $179 for the 11-inch version or $199 for the 12.9-inch version.
Fancy, and $$$
The iPad Pro seems like a perfected vision of where Apple’s touchscreen computers are heading, but these tablets are expensive this year. Starting at $799 or $999 for 64GB of storage means you’ll want the next tier up at least, plus the $129 Pencil and some sort of keyboard case (Apple’s or otherwise). Expect to pay well over $1,000. At those prices, I wonder, would you have been better off with an older iPad model and a laptop instead? Last year’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro started at $649 for the same amount of storage.
But, if you were dreaming of an even better art tool at a still-super-high price, maybe this was the iPad you were waiting for. Even more than the beefed-up hardware, these iPads will only be as good as the new apps that make the most of them.
Of course, we’ll have a full review on CNET at some point. These are just early thoughts in a demo room.
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