Apple MacBook Air M1 reviewSince I got my first computer in the early 1990s, I've always been a PC guy. Over the past decades, I've spent countless hours in MS-DOS, Windows 3.x, Windows 10, and everything in between. The number of hours of Mac usage can probably be counted on two hands. I never felt the need to switch to the Mac platform because the cost/benefit ratio was always in favor of Windows-based machines. Not only because that's the operating system I was used to -- but also because I saw no reason to pay a premium for a Mac. All this changed in November 2020, when Apple introduced the first Mac computers with its in-house M1 SoC. I was in the market for a new laptop and Apple finally had a machine that could get me, a 100% Windows guy, excited about Macs.
For many years, rumors circulated about Apple's plan to switch its computer lineup to the ARM-based architecture. The Cupertino-based company had proven it could design the world's best smartphone SoCs -- but there was still a lot of skepticism whether this would translate to decent laptop processors, let alone chips for high-end workstations. Experiments with Windows 10 on ARM were a failure and many doubted whether Apple would succeed in creating a chip that could match the capabilities of Intel's x86 processors.
Well, suffice to say Apple blew everyone away. The claims Apple made during its presentation were not a lie -- the M1 SoC is the first ARM-based consumer chip that shows the architecture can match and even beat x86 processors. Made on a 5nm process by TSMC, the M1 packs 16 billion transistors and features a total of eight cores. Four 3.2GHz "Firestorm" cores take care of high-performance tasks and four energy-efficient "Icestorm" cores are used to optimize power consumption. The SoC features a unified memory configuration with LPDDR4X-4266, has seven or eight (depending on the configuration) GPU cores, a 16-core Neural Engine, an image processor, and some other specialized cores.
It's not the ARM architecture that makes the M1 so great but the Apple engineering behind it. One of the key advantages Apple now has over the rest of the computer industry is that it controls both the software and the hardware side. The company doesn't have to worry about software compatibility and it isn't hit with certain limitations that limit the freedom of other hardware makers. When AMD or Intel design a processor, they need to ensure it plays along with components that are made by a ton of other manufacturers. This results in certain trade-offs being made -- Apple doesn't have this problem because it now designs the entire machine. This results in an SoC with a heterogeneous architecture, where fast memory is shared between the CPU and the GPU, and certain tasks are offloaded to specialized cores. Everything works tightly together with minimum overhead and a matching software layer.
Long story short; Apple's first attempt at making a computer processor has put Intel to shame. Laptops with the M1 SoC are beating much more expensive Intel Core-based Mac computers -- and all this while being extremely energy efficient too. Not bad considering what's on the market right now is an entry-level offering from Apple. Upcoming MacBook Pro and Mac Pro computers will receive much faster versions of Apple's Silicon.
So why did I switch to the Mac for my mobile computing needs? There are three key reasons why I bought my very first MacBook Air:
- First up, one of the things I always appreciated about the MacBook Air is its form factor. It's compact, thin, and has a nice design. For me, a laptop is not a desktop replacement -- I have a desktop PC for day-to-day office work and video games. Nothing beats a large screen and a keyboard + mouse for these use cases. When I want to work on-the-go, write an article on the couch, work outside when it's all warm and sunny, or watch a movie in bed, I don't want a large and bulky laptop. Something like the MacBook Air ticks all the boxes here -- but its compact design was never enough to convince me to switch to the Mac platform.
- Platform independent computing. The way we use computers has changed significantly over the past couple of decades. Most of our time these days is spent online and the bulk of the things that run in your browser don't care about which platform you use. Microsoft's Office suite, Adobe's Creative Cloud, most popular IDEs for programmers, and a lot of other software that professionals use on a day-to-day basis have a Mac version. Quite a lot of widely used software is platform-independent these days, the exception being Windows apps that require specific libraries like Microsoft's .NET framework. Software that works on the x86-based Macs should also run on the M1-based versions thanks to Apple's Rosetta 2 emulation. The Mac platform isn't really suited for video games -- but that's not a concern for me as I have a desktop PC for this job.
- The M1 SoC. This is the single biggest reason why the MacBook Air M1 rose to the top of my laptop shopping list. The key selling point of the MacBook Air M1 is the unique combination of fast performance and energy efficiency. Let's be honest, most laptops make certain compromises. Until the MacBook Air M1, I had never heard about a passively cooled laptop that is extremely fast and has long battery life. Perhaps this is the first laptop that can be used on the couch without cooking your balls?
The laptop ships in a relatively small box -- which is no surprise given its compact 13.3-inch form factor. Inside the box, we find the laptop itself, the USB Type-C power adapter, a quick start guide, some legal info, and two gold-colored Apple logo stickers. The MacBook Air M1 is offered in three colors; silver, space gray, and gold. I went for gold and I'm very happy with this choice -- it looks fabulous.
Specifications of the MacBook Air M1 base model:
- 13.3-inch LED-backlit IPS-based display with P3 color gamut and True Tone
- 2560 x 1600 pixels resolution and 400 nits brightness
- Eight-core Apple M1 SoC with 7-core GPU and 16-core neural engine
- 8GB unified memory
- 256GB SSD
- 49.9Wh lithium-polymer battery
- Two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports
- LED-backlit Magic Keyboard
- Force Touch trackpad
- Touch ID fingerprint sensor
- 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6
- Bluetooth 5.0
- 720p FaceTime HD camera
- Stereo speakers
- Three-mic array with directional beamforming
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- Size: 304.1mm x 212.4mm x 4.1 to 16.1mm (W x H x D)
- Weight: 1.29kg
The biggest compromise in the design concerns I/O. Just like its predecessor, the MacBook Air M1 is limited to two USB Type-C ports. These ports are also used for charging -- so when your laptop is plugged into the wall you only have one available port. The two ports support DisplayPort, Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40Gbps), and USB 3.1 Gen2 (up to 10Gbps). For a lot of people, the lack of USB Type-A ports and an HDMI port will be a big miss but you can always get a multimedia hub like the EZQuest X40228 to greatly expand the I/O capabilities. One external display is supported (max resolution 6K at 60Hz) for mirror or extend mode.
The included charger is a USB Type-C model that provides up to 30W of juice. It's white and has a 2 meters long cable. Thanks to the long battery life of the M1, the charger is not needed as often as with other laptops.
These days wireless headphones are ubiquitous but it's still good to see the inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone jack. We all know batteries sometimes run out of juice at the worst possible timing.
The rear has four rubber feet and as you might expect from Apple, nothing is serviceable by the end-user. Nothing can be upgraded. The LPDDR4X memory is an integral piece of the M1 SoC package and the SSD, which consists of two flash storage chips, is soldered to the PCB. One of the most impressive things about the MacBook Air M1 is that it's passively cooled. Instead of a fan, the interior has a rather simple aluminum heatspreader. Thanks to the very high efficiency of the M1 SoC, passive cooling is more than enough for most workloads. The actively cooled M1-based products like the MacBook Pro and the Mac mini do have higher sustained peak performance, but no major performance sacrifices are made here, at least not for the average MacBook Air user.
The MacBook Air has a nice and slim wedge profile -- the thickest point is just 16.1mm. If you're hesitating about getting the gold-colored model, I can definitely recommend it. It looks really stylish, both when the laptop is closed and when it's opened. It gives some extra cachet to the premium feel of the MacBook Air M1. One of the things I have come to realize over the past decade is that sometimes go just need to get a little crazy. These are often the little things that can fill you with joy and that can make a big difference for items you use on a day-to-day basis.
The MacBook Air display has been upgraded several times over the past couple of years. The biggest difference versus the previous generation is the addition of P3 color gamut support. It's a very decent IPS screen with 227 pixels per inch. You get a very sharp 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution and 400 nits of brightness. There's no annoying backlight bleeding, the screen has very good visibility from all angles and it has excellent color reproduction.
Webcam usage has shot through the roof as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic but unfortunately, the MacBook Air M1 didn't get a webcam upgrade. Apple says the new imaging processor of the M1 SoC enhances the webcam image, but it's still the same 720p FaceTime HD webcam with low resolution and ditto quality, so don't expect too much. The stereo speakers of the MacBook Air M1, which are located on either side of the keyboard, sound pretty good. No cheap hollow laptop sound.
No major changes to the keyboard or Force Touch trackpad -- everything is almost identical to the previous generation. The Magic Keyboard uses scissor switches and has per-key white LED illumination. The brightness of the LEDs can be controlled in the macOS operating system -- you can even turn it off completely. The trackpad is very large and offers pressure-sensing support. Apple supports force clicks, accelerators, pressure-sensitive drawing, and multi-touch gestures. Also worth noting is that the power button doubles as a fingerprint reader. Using Apple Touch ID for log-in works very well.
What it's like to use the MacBook Air M1
Rather than rehashing the same old benchmarks you've seen everywhere around the web, I'm going to do things a little differently here. What's the MacBook Air M1 like to use? And how does the new macOS Big Sur feel to me, someone who has never used a Mac operating system before?
Switching to Mac
Well, overall the switch from a Windows-based laptop to a Mac felt very natural. Big Sur is very easy to work with and feels more concise than Windows 10. The user interface is more streamlined and uniform -- and configuration settings are often easier to find. After a couple of days at most, you get the hang of it if you come from Windows. The fact that menu bars are docked to the top of the screen feels somewhat oldskool and Apple places the minimize/maximize/close buttons left instead of right. There are a couple of tools I miss, paint.net being the main one, and I was surprised to learn that macOS doesn't support file creation via a right-click on the desktop or in a folder. Other than this, it's smooth sailing.
Working on the MacBook Air M1 is a pleasure, it's without a doubt the best laptop I've ever owned. Waking up the laptop from sleep mode feels a lot like using a smartphone. You open the lid of the MacBook Air M1 and you can immediately resume work (or play). Absolutely zero waiting time, the device wakes up faster than you can open the lid.
Battery life = insane
Have you ever wanted a laptop with a battery that lasts ages? The MacBook Air M1 feels a lot like this. With a couple of hours of use every day or so I only need to recharge it once a week. Apple claims you can watch up to 18 hours of Apple TV with this device and that doesn't seem like a lie. You get a free one-year Apple TV subscription with the purchase of this laptop and I used it to watch the first season of For All Mankind, a science fiction series about an alternative reality space race. Every time after watching an hour-long episode I was stunned when I checked the battery level - it typically dropped under 4 percent.
Because of the extremely long battery life, you sometimes wonder if the battery level indicator is working properly. It's plain weird to watch almost 15 minutes of TV and see no change in the battery level. It also keeps its charge when it's in sleep mode, after a couple of days of no use it still has plenty of charge. With Windows laptops, you often get a drained battery in this situation.
After eight hours of mixed-use, the MacBook Air M1 still has enough juice left for several more hours of operation the next day. It feels a lot like a desktop computer in the sense that you don't need to constantly check the battery life. Low battery anxiety doesn't exist. Even when it's at 25% battery level you know you can still work for hours before it runs out. Of course, for battery health, it's probably best to avoid deep discharges under 20 percent. Recharging from 20 percent to full takes just over two hours with the 30W charger.
Yes.. it's fast
Heat output is remarkable too -- unless you really start stressing the hardware there's no heat. You can watch hours of Apple TV on this device and it won't even feel warm. It's cool when you touch it -- not even lukewarm. All this is combined with a raw performance level that makes the new MacBook Air M1 run circles around previous-generation, Intel-based Macs. It's sort of insane but in Final Cut Pro the M1-based MacBook Air can almost keep up with much more expensive Mac Pro workstations that pack over three times the cores and a beefy discrete video card. The M1 SoC really excels at working with H.265 video (even 4K resolution) and in terms of code compiling it's often able to beat high-end AMD and Intel chips. Disk performance is speedy too, you get an SSD that reads at up to 2.7GB/s and performs writes at up to 2.3GB/s. The only thing it's definitely not suited for is high-end gaming -- but it's not a total slouch either as it matches the performance of low-end AMD and NVIDIA GPUs. At this price level, it's hard to find a better laptop.
Software compatibility and Windows 10
One sliver of bad news, switching to a new architecture has implications for software compatibility. Apple came up with Rosetta 2 emulation to ensure compatibility with x86 Mac applications. The emulation is surprisingly fast, it's kind of bonkers but a lot of emulated software runs faster on the M1 than it runs natively on Intel-based Macs. It's not perfect though -- there are still a lot of applications with compatibility issues. There is a website called Is Apple silicon ready that tracks compatibility. When this review was written the site's database contained data about 756 applications. Fortunately, a lot of developers have released M1 optimized software over the past couple of months.
Other than this, another negative versus the x86-based Macs is that Apple Silicon machines are not compatible with Windows 10. There's no Boot Camp for setting up a dual-boot with Windows 10. The best bet right now seems to be Parallels Desktop 16, the Technical Preview 2 version of this software was released recently. It allows virtualization of the ARM-based version of Microsoft's Windows 10. There is a caveat though, there is no publicly available version of Windows on ARM, you can only get Windows Insider test version builds.
It's still early days for Apple Silicon and I really like what I'm seeing here. Later this year, we're going to see more powerful versions and it will be very interesting to see what Apple can achieve with higher-core variants for the MacBook Pro and Mac Pro.
With the MacBook Air M1, Apple has managed to turn its laptops into a very smartphone-like experience. Before the MacBook Air M1, this never crossed my mind, but it's quite remarkable how much more responsive the average smartphone is versus the average PC. Despite all the CPU, GPU, RAM, and SSD power contained in x86-based laptops, I've never seen one as quick and snappy as the MacBook Air M1. When you pick up your smartphone, you expect the device to respond immediately when you push the power button or use your fingerprint to unlock the screen. The MacBook Air M1 is exactly like this. You open the lid and the screen is immediately on -- just as if the device had never entered sleep mode. It's kinda like a fridge light. You open the device and it's on. Zero wait time.
The magic doesn't stop here. The new MacBook Air has everything that made its predecessors so great -- with a big performance and energy efficiency upgrade to boot. What makes the MacBook Air M1 almost otherworldly is that it delivers a high level of performance without generating a lot of heat. You can watch an hour-long TV show on this device and the enclosure will not even feel warm. It's passively cooled too -- so there's no noise to distract you.
The MacBook Air is not cheap but it's a premium laptop that caters to a wide audience. It's great for on-to-go use or typical productivity work and it's perfect for students. And despite not being a Pro model, it handles more intense workloads without breaking a sweat. While I like the base model, I do think the price/performance ratio of the better-specced versions is not as good due to the significant premium for hardware upgrades. Other than this, the biggest trade-off of the MacBook Air's design is that you will likely need adapters or a hub because the device is limited to two USB Type-C ports.
Pricing starts at $999 (1129EUR) and Apple has discounts for students. To wrap things up, the MacBook Air M1 is one of the best laptops in its price range and I highly recommend it. I never expected I would be recommending an Apple laptop -- but sometimes hell does freeze over.
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DVHARDWARE gives the Apple MacBook Air M1 laptop a 9/10 and our Editor's Choice award.
Added: February 18th 2021
Product reviewed: Apple MacBook Air M1
Reviewer: Thomas De Maesschalck