Nearly eight months after testing a new MacBook Air, I’m reviewing another one (insert DJ Khaled meme here). A surging pandemic hasn’t stopped Apple from churning out devices—in fact, it feels like Apple’s vying for the Most Products Launched in a Single Year award.
On the surface, the new MacBook Air is identical to its older-by-eight-months twin. It has the same recycled aluminum case, an identical (and great) Magic Keyboard and … only two damn USB-C ports—though these use the USB4 standard for speedier data transmission.
Inside however, the two machines couldn’t be further apart. The new model is one of the first Macs to use an Apple-designed processor, the M1.
Apple has been building its computers using Intel chips since 2006. But this year, it began the process of rolling out laptop and desktop PCs with in-house chips. By manufacturing its own silicon, Apple gains greater control of the hardware and software—the same control it enjoys on the iPhone and iPad, which also use Apple-designed chips.
Spend a day with the new MacBook Air and the improvements are immediately noticeable. The thing’s as powerful as many of the higher-end Intel-powered Macs, blowing past the speed limits of the higher-tier MacBook Air from earlier this year. The M1 is no Mac evolution, it’s a Mac revolution.
Chip and Dip
The only laptops with the M1 available so far are the $999 MacBook Air and the $1,299 entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. The base MacBook Air has one less graphics core than the pricier Pro, but for the first time, you’re mostly getting the same performance across both. I say mostly because the MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan. That means it won’t be able to eke the most out of the chip, whereas the fans on the MacBook Pro will keep it cool and allow the processor to work harder for longer.
Does the lack of a fan matter? For most people, no. The MacBook Air easily crushes its predecessor in performance. In a Geekbench 5 CPU benchmark test, the new MacBook Air’s single-core score (1,692) outperformed 2019’s 16-inch MacBook Pro (1,207), and nearly matched it in multi-core performance (7,264 versus 7,536). In real-world terms, the first place I noticed a drastic improvement was Safari. It’s buttery smooth, handling more than 30 tabs with ease. (I like pinned tabs, OK?)
Apps like Safari, which are engineered for the new M1 processor, are fast and snappy. I’ve yet to see a single stutter or pause from them. The good news is that apps made with Intel in mind can still launch perfectly fine thanks to Rosetta 2, a translation process that helps apps made for the old x86-architecture work on Apple silicon. You’ll see a prompt to install Rosetta when you first try to download one of these apps. The installation takes a few extra seconds, and the rest of the process is just business as usual.
These Rosetta apps run better than they did on the previous MacBook Air. I had no trouble editing a simple 16-minute 4K video in Adobe Premiere Pro, and it only took eight minutes to export. (I didn’t add any effects or grading.) Adobe Lightroom’s media library stuttered for a few seconds upon launch, but I edited and exported RAW files with the elegance and speed of a concert pianist.
Developers like Adobe will eventually release new versions of their apps that make use of all the frameworks in the M1 chip, which will add more performance gains as well as new tricks that take advantage of the expanded machine-learning processors in Apple’s chip. (A beta version of the Photoshop app is available now, and Adobe says a Lightroom beta arrives next month.)
It’s clear some apps could use this optimization sooner than others. When using Google Chrome, I ran a similar amount of tabs to Safari. I found it sometimes took longer to load pages and switch tabs—Chrome performed much better with 15 or so tabs, less than half of what Safari could handle. Scrolling through my library in the Steam PC gaming platform for the desktop, it was a lot laggier on the MacBook Air than on the older 16-inch MacBook Pro. The onus to update is on the developer, and it will take some time before most Mac apps are optimized for the M1.
With the previous MacBook Air, I often felt like I hit a performance threshold that limited the work I was able to do. That’s not the case anymore, for the most part. I feel like I can do a lot more with the M1. Driving in Asphalt 9 was speedy, as it should be, whereas I could sometimes see stutters on the predecessor when playing heavier games like Gris or running more intensive apps like Premiere Pro.
I managed to play Batman: Arkham City with a stable 60 frames per second on the highest graphical settings, albeit at a lower 1,900 x 1,200 resolution. (At the max resolution, I averaged around 45 fps.) The Air never got uncomfortably hot, even after an hour of play; there is an aluminum heat spreader to help dissipate heat. Yes, the 16-inch MacBook Pro with its dedicated graphics card manages the same game just fine with 60 fps at the highest screen resolution, but during gameplay, that laptop sounded like a jet plane getting ready for takeoff. The MacBook Air was silent, and that’s key. It’s something I found myself appreciating over and over again in the course of my week of testing. I never heard a peep. Whenever my ears picked up the distracting whirr of a fan in my apartment, I’d find it was coming from my partner’s older MacBook.
After performance, my two favorite upgrades thanks to the M1 are battery life and the ability for the computer to instantly wake up. The latter works exactly as described: The MacBook Air is ready instantly when you wake it from sleep, just like when you tap the screen on your iPhone or iPad. If you’re coming from an older Mac, this is huge. I spent minutes just opening and closing the Air—the screen lights up before I can finish fully opening it, and it’s ready to go.
If you look at my MacBook Air review from March, one of the cons I listed was how battery life could be improved. That older model needed to be plugged in around 4 pm (after starting the day around 9 am), even after mostly working in Safari. Well, with a similar workload using Safari on the new Air, I … didn’t need to plug it in before the workday ended. I hit 38 percent at 5 pm.
The next day, I did the same type of work on Google’s Chrome browser and got almost exactly the same results. I kept using the machine until 7 pm, and by then it reached 22 percent. You can quite literally keep using this machine from morning til night.
One more perk of the M1 is that you can run iPhone or iPad apps on the Mac. This is possible because iOS and iPadOS both run on Apple-designed chips similar to what’s in the new Macs. When you search for an app on the Mac App Store, you’ll now see a new tab for “iPhone and iPad apps.” I installed the Facebook iPhone app, and it worked! The interface is clunky and obviously designed for a touchscreen, something Apple has so far shied away from adding to its laptops. But again, it’s up to developers to optimize the app for the screen. Devs can prevent their mobile apps from being accessible on Macs too. Apps from Netflix, Instagram, and Google, for example, are missing.
It’s hard to see why accessing these apps can be useful in the current implementation, but when developers do spend the time optimizing them, expect transitioning from your Mac to your iPhone to be much more seamless.
The Mac for Most
Not much else is new compared to the Air’s predecessor. Documentaries like Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb look really sharp on the 13.3-inch screen, and as Safari now supports 4K HDR with Netflix in the latest Big Sur update, series like Planet Earth show off some dazzlingly rich colors.
The speakers and microphones on this machine are solid, though I really wish Apple would upgrade the webcam already. It’s still a 720p camera (with no Face ID authentication), and while Apple says it performs better due to improved imaging algorithms, the quality isn’t all that great. In fact, the colors aren’t accurate. On one particular work call, my colleagues and I noted that my skin looked too reddish, and my room had an overall green hue. Not to mention it still looks terrible if you’re not in a well-lit room.
Still, the MacBook Air gives you a fairly complete package in an amazingly slim and lightweight body. It’s still costly at $999 ($899 if you’re a student or teacher), but since this is a powerful machine that will easily handle most tasks with ease, the price isn’t too hard to stomach.
As for which exact model you should buy, get the $999 MacBook Air with its seven-core GPU and 256 gigabytes of storage. Unless you need 512 gigabytes, I don’t think the extra GPU core is worth the $250 jump in price. (You might want to upgrade to 16 GB of RAM if you tend to run a lot of apps at the same time.)
If you usually use more intensive apps day-to-day (and not just Chrome), then get the $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro. I haven’t reviewed that machine yet, but since it has (mostly) the same chip, you should see a decent boost in performance with the fan and extra GPU core, plus longer battery life. However, if pro-grade work is all you do, I would wait if possible until Apple releases a higher-tier MacBook Pro with an M-series chip. That will give developers time to release better-optimized apps, and considering how much of a jump the M1 MacBook Air has made over its eight-month-old predecessor, the stage is set for another dramatic leap.