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Apple MacBook Air with M1 review: new chip, no problem

The new Arm-based system has exceeded almost every expectation

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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The new MacBook Air with Apple’s M1 chip is a triumph.

In a week of testing, I have pushed this computer and its new Apple-made processor to its limits and found that those limits exceeded my expectations on nearly every level. 

I’ve also used it in the way a MacBook Air is really meant to be used: as an everyday computer for workaday tasks. When doing so, I clocked eight and sometimes 10 hours of continuous use on battery. 

Coming into this review, I had a catalog of potential pitfalls that Apple could have fallen into when switching from an Intel chip to its own processor. Chip transitions are devilishly hard and don’t usually go smoothly. This MacBook Air not only avoids almost all of those pitfalls, but it gleefully leaps over them. 

Not everything is perfect, of course. Apple’s insistence on using dumpy webcams continues to be a bummer, and running iPad apps is a mess. But as I used the MacBook Air, I often found myself so impressed that I had a hard time believing it.

Believe it. The MacBook Air with the M1 chip is the most impressive laptop I’ve used in years. 

Read more: 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 review and Mac mini with M1 review

The 2020 M1 MacBook Air sitting on a desk with a long-exposure light effect happening in the background.
The MacBook Air is the most impressive laptop I’ve used in years

MacBook Air hardware

On the outside, the new MacBook Air is nearly identical to the Intel-based one Apple released earlier this year. It has the same well-loved wedge-shaped design, 2560 x 1600 screen that maxes out at 400 nits of brightness, Touch ID fingerprint login, reasonably good speakers, Apple’s revised scissor-switch keyboard, and that massive trackpad.

It also has the same starting price: $999 for a model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. That base model also has one less core on its graphics processor compared to pricier configurations, though I can’t speak to what impact that might have. (I bet it’s not much.) The model I’m testing has 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage for $1,649. As before, you can’t upgrade anything later on if you need to.

Apple kept the design exactly the same

Apple has updated the options on the function row
Apple has updated the options on the function row.
The MacBook Air still has a terrible webcam
The MacBook Air still has a terrible webcam.

There is only one exterior difference between the new one and the last model: Apple swapped out some of the buttons on the function row for more useful ones. Now, you get a button for Spotlight search (which, on macOS Big Sur, finally can do Google searches), Do Not Disturb, and Dictation. If, like me, you haven’t used Dictation much before this, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how good it is.

The other differences are all on the inside. There’s no fan anymore, for one thing, just an aluminum heat spreader. But even when pushing this machine to its absolute limit, I never felt it get more than a little warm. Apple knows what the thermal ceiling for this system is, and it keeps the MacBook well within it.

Unfortunately, that similarity extends to the webcam, which is still 720p resolution and still terrible. Apple has tried to borrow some of its real-time image processing from the iPhone to try to spruce up the image — and I do find that it does a better job evenly lighting my face — but mostly what I notice is that it looks bad (only now it’s a more processed version of bad). 

One other internal change that will affect pro users and developers more than the average MacBook Air user is that Apple has switched to a unified memory architecture, so there’s no separate graphics memory. Apple claims this is more efficient. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to whether the 8GB model has enough RAM to comfortably handle both CPU and GPU needs, but I haven’t had any problems with the 16GB on my review unit.

In fact, I have yet to run into any sort of performance problem at all — because this MacBook Air is fast.

The new MacBook Air is fast
The new MacBook Air is fast.

MacBook Air performance

The MacBook Air performs like a pro-level laptop. It never groans under multiple apps. (I’ve run well over a dozen at a time.) It handles intensive apps like Photoshop and even video editing apps like Adobe Premiere without complaint. It has never made me think twice about loading up another browser tab or 10 — even in Chrome.

Last week, I wrote that Apple was “astonishingly confident in its new M1 Mac processors,” rattling off huge claims and declining to lower expectations in any way. Having used one, I’m simply astonished. 

Two Thunderbolt ports
It has two Thunderbolt ports.
It uses TouchID for biometrics. Overall the hardware is identical to the last model
It uses Touch ID for biometrics. Overall, the hardware is identical to the last model.

I’ve used Windows laptops with Arm processors from Qualcomm, and they are slower, buggier, and more complicated than Intel machines. Even though I figured Apple would handle this Intel-to-Arm transition better, I didn’t expect everything to work as well as it does.

I knew that macOS and Apple’s own apps would be fast, many of which have been coded specifically to work with this processor. What has shocked me is how well every app runs.

Some background: apps are usually built to work with a specific kind of processor, so when they are run on a machine with a different processor, some kind of extra work has to happen under the hood. On the Mac, that work is done by a piece of software called Rosetta 2, which you install the first time you run an Intel-based app.

Unlike on Windows, Rosetta 2 isn’t really emulation but translation. It means those apps take a beat longer to launch, but once they’re running, they just... run. I have yet to run into any app compatibility problems (though there may be some I haven’t been able to track down). 

We, of course, ran a suite of benchmarks. The chart below shows some of our results. But I just want to call out one, in particular: the frame rate on Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Thirty-eight frames per second is a respectable number for a gaming laptop with a low-end graphics card. It’s nigh unheard of for a computer with an integrated GPU. I am doing work on this MacBook Air that would have brought my old MacBook Air to its knees.

M1-based Mac benchmarks

BenchmarkMacBook AirMacBook ProMac mini
Cinebench R23 Multi680377297729
Cinebench R23 Single149415191520
Cinebench R23 Multi looped for 30 minutes536977297780
Geekbench 5.3 CPU Multi751075547711
Geekbench 5.3 CPU Single173017301754
Geekbench 5.3 OpenCL/ Compute183571921119654

We run a standard Adobe Premiere export test, and the MacBook Air beats the latest Intel laptops with integrated graphics and holds its own with some laptops with proper discrete GPUs. 

The thing to pay attention to isn’t the numbers. I admit they’re impressive, and also they reflect my real experience with the computer. Instead, the thing to pay attention to is that Tomb Raider and Adobe Premiere haven’t been optimized for this chip yet. They’re running through Apple’s Rosetta 2 translation layer. Apple has intimated that the M1 chip was designed in collaboration with the Rosetta team, so it’s likely that there are lots of optimizations in the hardware itself.

(We did find one odd bug, however: Premiere encoded video at half the usual bitrate we expect when using variable bitrate on a YouTube 4K preset export. We had to set the slider to 80 to achieve the same bitrate Intel computers export on the default settings. Weird! We’ve let Adobe know, and as of publish time, the best answer is that Premiere isn’t officially supported on the M1.)

If you currently have a MacBook Air, I am confident this new MacBook will perform better in every way. I think it beats the pants off Intel-based ultrabooks running Windows, including its most recent chips. 

Control Center on the Macbook Air
Control Center on the MacBook Air.

MacBook Air battery life

Apple is claiming that this machine can get 18 hours of video playback and “15 hours of wireless web,” both of which are very large claims. The company tells me I should expect battery life to be as much as 50 percent better than the last Air, and the battery inside this computer isn’t any bigger than the previous models. All of those improvements come down to increased efficiency.

My actual results? I’m getting between eight and 10 hours of real, sustained work depending on how hard I am pushing it. That’s not quite 50 percent better than the last MacBook Air, but it’s very close. 

The Air lasts longer than most other laptops in its class

To be very clear, I’m getting those numbers using the apps I actually use, which, of course, includes Chrome and various apps that are also based on the Chrome engine, like Slack. What’s remarkable about that is, for some applications, Rosetta 2 needs to do a bunch of real-time code translation, which further eats into battery life. 

If and when these apps are rewritten to be “universal” apps that work natively on the M1, I expect to see even better battery life.

It might seem odd to mention this in the context of battery life, but the MacBook Air now wakes instantly from sleep, and apps that were running before you shut the laptop are much quicker to catch themselves up with the world. It’s subtle, but I have found myself willing to shut the Air closed more often than I usually do with other laptops because waking it from sleep is so seamless.

If you’re trying to choose between the new 13-inch MacBook Pro and this MacBook Air, I think that battery life is going to be the deciding factor for most people. In Nilay’s testing, the Pro is consistently getting a couple more hours on a charge. The Pro also has a Touch Bar and a slightly brighter screen, but the other major difference is that it has a fan. That allows it to run heavy workloads for extended periods of time. Same deal with the new Mac mini.

iOS apps running natively on the MacBook Air. Some are good, many are not
iOS apps running natively on the MacBook Air. Some are good; many are not.

iOS apps on the MacBook Air

One benefit of the MacBook using the same processor architecture as the iPhone and iPad is that it can now run iPhone and iPad apps natively. To find them, you need to specifically filter for them in the Mac app store. Developers are not allowed to distribute iOS apps to users directly, unfortunately.

When you do head over to the Mac app store to find your favorite apps, prepare to be disappointed. Click on your name in the lower left, then click the tab for “iPhone & iPad apps,” which will show you all of the apps you’ve installed on your iOS devices. 

What I found there was a gallery of abandonware, mostly apps from developers that haven’t been updated to be aware of newer devices. Developers have the option to opt their apps out of being made available on the Mac, and many, many developers have done so. Instagram, Slack, Gmail, and many others simply aren’t available. I suspect these developers made that choice because they wanted to make sure they didn’t have a messy, weird app experience on the Mac.

Because iOS apps on the Mac are a messy, weird experience. Apple should have slapped a beta label on this feature.

Apple’s “Touch Alternatives” option for iOS apps
Apple’s “Touch Alternatives” option for iOS apps.

Apps that have been coded to work with the latest iPad coding standards are great. Overcast, a podcasting app, is quite good and feels totally usable. HBO Max, on the other hand, is a mess. It appears in a little window that you can’t resize, nor can you full-screen videos. What?

The experience is also a little buggy, though Apple tells me the following issue I experienced will be resolved soon. I installed the Telegram messaging iOS app, which works well at first. But when a new message comes in, the app opens up on top of my other windows. The larger bug is that I was unable to delete it using the usual method of clicking an X button in Launch Center. Even when I deleted it manually in the Finder, it still seemed to stick around for a few minutes until I rebooted, receiving notifications. 

Apple has built a new system for every iOS app that is available in the Mac menu called “Touch Alternatives.” It is a series of buttons, gestures, and other eldritch incantations to make apps that need a touchscreen work on a Mac. 

It’s frankly ridiculous and the clearest sign yet that Apple is bending itself into knots to avoid doing what obviously needs to be done: put a touchscreen on the Mac. 

Luckily, you can ignore all of these iOS apps until developers optimize them or Apple figures out a better way to clean up the weird stuff. 

The MacBook Air half open seen from above.
The new MacBook Air with the M1 chip.

At the same time that it launched the new MacBook Air with an M1 processor, Apple discontinued the Intel-based version of the Air. It was a bold move; the MacBook Air is Apple’s best-selling computer, and Apple also just made more money selling Macs last quarter than it ever had before. But it was the right decision. There is not a single reason I can find to want the old Intel version. 

Except for the webcam, the MacBook Air with the M1 is incredible

For pro users, there are still improvements Apple needs to make to increase performance on the top end for intense workloads. You can’t run an external graphics card, and you’re limited to just one external display at a time, for example, and it’s likely that a true pro would find the ceiling on this integrated GPU fairly quickly. But as an everyperson computer, there is nothing like this MacBook Air. It has very good battery life, incredible performance for its class, and yes, a good keyboard. Too bad about the webcam, though. It’s the main reason we couldn’t give this laptop a 10/10, which we were considering. 

Processor transitions are supposed to be messy and complicated. Early adopters of the new chips usually sign up for broken apps, slowdowns, and weird bugs. Through careful integration of its new processor and its software, Apple has avoided all of that.

You don’t have to worry about any of the technical details that have enabled the MacBook Air to successfully navigate that transition. The fact that I can say that is perhaps the most impressive thing of all. 

Because it just works.

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