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Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider
- Apple’s M1-powered MacBook Air brings benefits like speedier performance and longer battery life to the company’s flagship lightweight laptop.
- The M1 is Apple’s first processor for the Mac, and the new MacBook Air is one of the first devices to run on it.
- In addition to faster performance and longer battery life, the addition of Apple’s chip also means that iPhone and iPad apps can run on the Mac for the first time.
- But, without a touch screen, it may be hard to experience the benefits of using mobile apps on the desktop.
- The MacBook Air also lacks modern Apple features, like Face ID and a nearly borderless screen.
- Here’s what the newest MacBook Air is up against in our guide for the best laptops.
It’s no secret that laptops have started to more closely resemble tablets and smartphones in recent years. Tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, and many others have been chasing what has become the Holy Grail of computing: blending the benefits of mobile devices with the processing power that comes with desktop-class machines.
Apple’s ambitions here are coming into full focus with the debut of the M1: its first homemade processor designed to power its line of Mac computers.
The launch of its M1 chip means a few promising things for Apple loyalists. For one, the processors powering Apple’s laptops and desktops will run on the same basic architecture as those inside the iPhone and iPad, enabling mobile apps from the iOS App Store to run on the Mac for the first time.
But, most important of all, Apple is guaranteeing that its M1 chip will introduce major gains in performance and power efficiency. That’s already become evident after using the new $1,000 M1-powered MacBook Air for just a few days, which is leagues ahead of Apple’s Intel-powered MacBook Air when it comes to areas like performance and webcam quality.
Plus, the MacBook Air’s newer fanless internal design means you’ll no longer need to worry about your laptop sounding like a jet engine when it’s enduring a particularly heavy workload.
Yet, it’s going to take some time before we understand whether making iPhone apps compatible with the Mac brings anything new to the experience. And, even though Apple’s M1 chip delivers noticeable improvements in power and efficiency, Apple’s laptops still lack some of the benefits of Windows devices, like facial recognition for a more seamless login experience, borderless screens, and most importantly: touch support.
But overall, the M1-powered MacBook Air is a step up from its Intel-powered predecessor. It offers faster performance for the same price with virtually no compromises even when running apps that are not yet optimized for Apple’s new silicon.
- Display: 13.3-inch Retina display (2,560 x 1,600) with True Tone
- Processor: 8-core Apple M1 SoC (7~8-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine)
- Estimated battery life: Up to 15 hours of web browsing
- Memory: 8GB to 16GB
- Storage: 256GB or 512GB SSD configurable up to 2TB
- Ports: Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, one headphone jack
- Camera: 720p FaceTime camera
- Authentication: Touch ID fingerprint sensor
Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider
Let’s start with performance, since it’s one of the biggest ways in which Apple’s new MacBook Air stands out from its Intel-powered predecessor.
The Apple silicon MacBook Air I’ve been using has eight processor cores and 8GB of RAM, while the Intel-powered version I’ve been testing it against has a 1.1GHz quad-core Intel core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM.
The Intel edition replaced by this model topped out at four cores, and the base model came with a dual-core Intel Core i3, which as I noted in my previous review felt underpowered. A processor with more cores usually means it’s better at multitasking, since it has additional cores to drive multiple processes at once.
Apple claims the M1-equipped MacBook Air model offers 3.5 times the computing power, five times the graphics performance, and up to nine times the machine learning capabilities compared to the previous-generation Intel version. In other words: it should be faster when it comes to everything from gaming to editing high-resolution photos and more.
In my experience, the performance gains are most noticeable in photo editing apps and video games. When exporting 50 photos from Adobe Lightroom in full size at 100% quality, the M1-powered MacBook Air performed the task in 16.5 seconds, while the Intel version took 46.3 seconds. It was also faster at stitching together five images to create a panoramic shot: the M1 MacBook Air did so in 11.2 seconds, while the Intel edition took 19.3 seconds.
Exporting a complex image that was 1GB in size and 15,000 x 12,000 pixels — the biggest file in my Lightroom library by a long shot — only took about 30 seconds on the first try when using the M1 MacBook Air and 17 seconds on the second test. The Intel MacBook Air, by comparison, took over three minutes to export the same image file both times.
The MacBook Air isn’t meant to be a gaming laptop, but the M1 version is certainly more capable than its Intel-powered counterpart. Don’t expect to play games at the highest resolution on the M1 MacBook Air, but I was able to comfortably play “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” at a resolution of 1,900 x 1,200 without much compromise.
The Intel-equipped MacBook Air can also run the game at that same resolution, but performance is a bit stuttery in comparison, especially when panning the camera across busy scenes. The M1 MacBook Air also loaded my save slot about 13 seconds faster than the Intel version when starting the game.
Not to mention, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” sent the Intel-based MacBook Air’s fans whirring after less than an hour of gameplay, an issue I didn’t have to worry about with the fanless M1 MacBook Air.
Apple’s decision to put its own silicon in devices like the MacBook Air combined with its most recent desktop software makes the Mac feel a bit more like the iPhone.
Big Sur, the name of Apple’s most recent macOS update, introduces redesigned app icons that more closely resemble those found on the iPhone, for example, in addition to other iPhone-like features. And, the keyboard on the M1 MacBook Air features new shortcuts in the function row for features like Do Not Disturb and dictation.
But, the most significant way Apple is bridging the Mac and iPhone experience is through apps. Since the Mac’s processor is now based on the same basic architecture as that of the iPhone and iPad, iOS apps are capable of running on the Mac natively. Some of the iOS apps currently available on macOS ahead of launch include games like “Among Us” and “Crossy Road” as well as Facebook, Zillow, and Kitchen Stories.
These apps run just fine on the Mac. But, it’ll probably take some time for developers to make changes that elevate their apps beyond what you’d experience when using the web-based version of the app.
That’s especially true considering Mac laptops don’t support touch input like many Windows devices do. Apple has always maintained that its desktop and mobile ecosystems should remain separate. But, I’ve never wanted a touch screen on the Mac more than I have in recent years after using the iPad Pro.
Apple’s top-of-the-line tablet is the best argument yet for how good a touch-centric productivity device made by Apple could be. The MacBook Air offers some of the features I loved about working on the iPad Pro — namely its fanless design, long battery life, and fast performance — but feels a bit incomplete without a touch screen. That also makes it tougher to be excited about the prospect of iPhone apps on the Mac.
Still, there are ways for mobile apps to shine on the Mac. The Kitchen Stories app is a bit sleeker than the website and dives right into the featured recipes with compelling visuals as soon as you launch the app. The website, on the other hand, prominently features articles and blog posts in addition to recipes, which is great if you’re looking for stories to read but perhaps is less ideal while you’re in the middle of preparing a meal.
However, most people don’t buy a laptop specifically to use mobile apps. Since the M1 chip is based on a different architecture than Intel’s processors, desktop programs need to be optimized for Apple’s new computers. Apple is addressing this by enabling Intel-based apps to run in its Rosetta 2 emulator, which essentially means apps should be able to run normally on M1 Macs regardless of whether they’ve been tweaked for Apple’s new chip.
During my time using the M1 MacBook Air, I could barely tell the difference between apps that were optimized for Apple’s chip and those that weren’t. All of the third-party apps I’ve been using on the new MacBook Air — Slack, Google Chrome, Microsoft Word, Cisco WebEx, Adobe Lightroom, and Skitch — have not yet been updated to be optimized for Apple silicon.
But, they ran so flawlessly on the MacBook Air that the only way I could tell they weren’t optimized for the M1 chip was by looking at the Mac’s Activity Monitor.
Battery life and webcam
Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider
While the improvements in performance are certainly appreciated, it’s the upgrade to the MacBook Air’s battery life that I appreciated the most.
The MacBook Air had 10% of its battery left after 12 hours of usage that involved a mix of photo editing in Lightroom, browsing the web in both Safari and Chrome, streaming video on YouTube, and a little bit of gaming. Apple claims the new Air should last for 15 hours when browsing the web and 18 hours when playing video in Apple TV Plus.
Those results may not align precisely with Apple’s claims, especially since my usage circumstances differed from Apple’s tests. But, it certainly outperformed the Intel-based MacBook Air, which lasted for roughly seven hours on a single charge when I reviewed it earlier this year.
It’s important to remember that factors like screen brightness and the specific apps you’re running will always impact battery life, so your results may differ from mine.
The M1-powered MacBook Air is also getting another desperately-needed upgrade: its webcam. Apple isn’t alone; built-in webcams on most laptops are nowhere near the quality of those found on our smartphones. Until 2020, that probably didn’t matter much. But, now that many people have been relying on webcams for office meetings, socializing, and most likely holiday gatherings in the near future, the cameras in our laptops have taken on a new importance.
The M1 MacBook Air still has a 720p camera, but because it runs on Apple’s processor it also has the company’s iPhone-grade image signal processor technology. That means it should offer better noise reduction and white balance, and in my experience it lived up to these claims.
Take a look at the difference below.
M1 MacBook Air
Intel MacBook Air
It’s still not as crisp as your smartphone’s camera, but it’s a major leap ahead of Apple’s Intel-based Mac.
Design, display, and keyboard
Business Insider/Lisa Eadicicco
In other critical areas, like the design, display, and keyboard, the MacBook Air hasn’t changed much compared to the previous Intel-powered iteration. One difference, however, is that Apple has added support for wide color into the display rather than just standard color.
That means the screen should be able to display a broader spectrum of colors compared to the earlier version of the MacBook Air, although I didn’t notice this too much in daily use. It’s probably more important for photo and video editors that need precise color representation in a laptop.
Unfortunately, Apple’s new M1-powered laptops haven’t gotten the same makeover that other products like the iPad and iPhone have received in recent years. As such, they still have thicker borders framing their display, occupying space that could have been used to expand the screen without making the laptop itself more cumbersome. It makes the design feel a bit dated compared to Windows laptops, like the Dell XPS 13.
Apple also hasn’t built Face ID into the Mac yet, despite the fact that dozens of Windows laptops support Microsoft’s Windows Hello feature. The new MacBook Air does have Touch ID, as does its predecessor, but facial recognition would have provided a slightly more seamless experience. And if the MacBook Air’s internals are similar to those of the Intel MacBook Air from earlier this year, the RAM and SSD are probably soldered, meaning they’ll be tough to upgrade after the fact.
Like the other laptops Apple has released this year, the M1-powered MacBook Air has the company’s new Magic Keyboard. If you’ve used any of the earlier laptops Apple released between 2015 and 2019, you’ll definitely notice the difference.
The Magic Keyboard is less flat and offers more feedback when typing, resulting in an experience that’s generally more comfortable than its previous butterfly keyboard. Those older keyboards were also more prone to damage and malfunctions than the Magic Keyboard.
Business Insider/Lisa Eadicicco
With its longer battery life and faster performance for the same price, it’s clear that Apple’s new M1 chip delivers big improvements. Popular apps like Microsoft Word and Slack that haven’t yet been optimized for the chip still work flawlessly on the system, meaning the laptop’s viability doesn’t hinge on whether or not developers update their apps.
The addition of the M1 chip is a particularly useful upgrade for a laptop like the MacBook Air, which primarily appeals to students and professionals in need of a laptop for basic work that primarily involves web browsing and word processing. The fact that it can hold its own when it comes to gaming and photo editing make it that much better.
But, Apple’s approach of shying away from touch screens and flexible 2-in-1 designs make me wonder how much better the experience could be if the company were to embrace those choices, especially now that iPhone apps can run on the Mac.
The new MacBook Air is certainly a step forward, but it also would have been nice to see some of the enhancements that have arrived on the iPad and iPhone translate to the Mac — like a bigger screen and Face ID.
All told, the M1 MacBook Air is Apple’s first major attempt to bring the perks of mobile devices — like all-day battery life, fanless designs, and a wider selection of apps — to its desktop operating system. The full benefits of having the iPhone and Mac run on the same architecture may not be fully realized just yet, but so far the M1 is a success in the areas that matter most like performance and battery life.
Pros: Fast performance; Super-long battery life; Much improved camera
Cons: Lacks some features of similarly-priced Windows devices like facial recognition and a borderless screen; iPhone apps don’t add much to the experience yet especially without touch screens