M1 MacBook Air review: nearly as transformative as the original

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited June 28
When Steve Jobs slid the original MacBook Air out of a Manila envelope to the wide eyes of a packed theater, it was a generational leap. The new M1 MacBook Air may not have had as flashy a debut, but its 2020 upgrade is as transformative.

The M1 MacBook Air
The M1 MacBook Air

Specs and configurations

This late-2020 MacBook Air retains the same body as the prior generation with beefed-up internals. Its anodized aluminum body comes in space gray, gold, and silver.

It sports an identical 13.3-inch Retina display with True Tone. It has a maximum brightness of 400 nits, supports the P3 wide color gamut, and has a pixel density of 227 PPI.

M1 MacBook Air headphone jack
M1 MacBook Air headphone jack


The right side of the body has a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the left side has dual USB-C ports. Apple did upgrade the two ports to USB 4, but they still only support Thunderbolt 3. There aren't many USB 4 accessories on the market yet, so this will primarily be a feature to grow in to.

We tested both the base model, as well as the second-tier model. If you opt for the base, you get the eight-core M1 processor with a seven-core GPU, whereas the stepped-up model has an eight-core GPU.

Two USB ports on the left side of the MacBook Air
Two USB ports on the left side of the MacBook Air


The entry-level also is equipped with a 256GB SSD, while the high-end model has 512GB of storage, and both are configurable to 1TB or 2TB. Both models ship with 8GB of memory standard with the option to get 16GB.

The M1 in the room

In our 13-inch MacBook Pro review, we went into great lengths regarding the M1 processor and there is no need to rehash it all here again. The short version is that Apple's first Mac processor is an incredible boost in speed, and it only scratches the surface.

This processor is competent in everyday tasks, but it is more than just launching apps and editing photos. The M1 makes significant changes to memory usage, the SSD, and even the built-in camera.






It makes comparing this Mac to the previous-gen MacBook Air more difficult because it isn't the same. Take memory. The previous machine could go up to 16GB of DDR4 RAM, but the new MacBook Air can have up to 16GB of what Apple calls unified memory. The memory is integrated into the M1 itself rather than being relegated to separate slots. This lets everything from the processor to the Neural Engine to access the shared memory.

As these components share the memory, it allows them to work together more seamlessly and ultimately results in increased performance.

The M1 also has an updated SSD controller, which, as you will see from the benchmarks, is also remarkably improved by more than 100 percent.

Geekbench results
Geekbench results


In Geekbench 5.3.1, the M1 MacBook Air pulled a 1693 and a 7195 on the single and multi-core tests. The last-gen machine's base model earned a 1074 and a 2412, which means the M1 is almost 60 percent faster on single-core tasks and nearly 200 percent faster on multi-core tasks. Don't forget, though, the early-2020 MacBook Air was only a quad-core machine.

Looking at graphics, using the Compute benchmark running Metal, the M1 scored a 20284, which is about 250 percent improved over the 2019 model's 5853 score. That 2019 model relied on Intel Iris Plus graphics versus the eight-core M1 GPU. The eight-core GPU on the next-up model is even more capable than the entry seven-core GPU, but both still blow away the old scores.

If we look at disk speeds, the M1 with the T2-assisted storage controller can achieve write speeds around 2689 MB/s and read speeds around 2484 MB/s. Saving, copying, or otherwise manipulating files is blistering fast on this machine.

These aren't minor iterative increases in speed like we're used to. These are incredible jumps in performance that make real differences when using the machine.

Apps from all over

Ultimately, what may be the most confounding aspect of the new MacBook Air -- as well as the other M1 Macs -- is what apps run and how they run. Apple has made this a bit murky, likely because the vast majority of users won't know or care how apps are run.

On the new M1 MacBook Air, you can run "fat binary" apps that are compiled for both the M1 processor and Intel processors simultaneously. You can also run apps inside Rosetta 2, which is Apple's software that enables Intel-compiled apps to run on the M1. These apps will see a performance hit of varying degrees since they don't run natively. You have iOS apps that can now run natively since the M1 shares a similar architecture with iPhones and iPad.

iOS apps run natively on the M1
iOS apps run natively on the M1


Apps that run natively versus Rosetta 2 are hard to differentiate. The only real way to know is on first launch, the app takes a few seconds to initialize Rosetta 2 before running. After that first run, they will launch almost instantly.

In our tests, we've tried a few apps in Rosetta 2, and they didn't have any issues and were quick. Speed will undoubtedly improve when explicitly optimized for Apple Silicon.

Running iOS and iPadOS apps is a whole new experience. It's interesting to see these apps that were previously constrained to our palms up on our desk's monitor. We tested games and utilities that all ran mostly fine, though some are still too optimized for touch to make sense on a Mac.

Developers can always update their apps with Mac-specific controls and release them through the Mac App Store. Lacking that, you can drop an IPA file on your Mac as well -- assuming you have one. We'll be talking about how to pull these off your devices in the coming days.

Using Apple's new Mac

We've been using our M1 MacBook for several weeks now and see it easily as the future of the Mac. It is absurdly fast in everyday use. Apple has optimized this machine for the average workflow, and it pays off. We were able to launch every single default app in only about 14 seconds from double-click to fully-operational. The machine was opening the apps faster than we could click on the next icon.

Compared to the MacBook Air, our Mac Pro felt slow. Opening apps, rebooting, saving files are all much faster on the MacBook Air.

We also are absolutely thrilled with the lack of any fans. The machine is only a hair slower than the 13-inch MacBook Pro that has fans, and we believe it is worth the tradeoff for all but "pro" users who need that extra bit of clock speed. The machine is 100 percent silent in operation, and it makes any other fan sound terribly loud once you get used to living without them.

The camera is still only 720p
The camera is still only 720p


Apple finally showed the smallest bit of love to the camera this year, though it still stuck at 720p. The M1 has an all-new image signal processor that greatly aids exposure, noise reduction, and color balance. You can see this in our example shots in normal and low-light situations. It's certainly better, but it is still a 720p image.

The M1 ISP helps the image, but not a ton
The M1 ISP helps the image, but not a ton


In our current era of work-from-home lifestyles, Apple still could have done more here. A 1080p signal still looks better on the other end of a Zoom call, even if you don't have the fastest internet.

One gripe we did have is the lack of support for dual external displays. The M1 is only able to power one display, up to 6K. Looking at the average user of a MacBook Air, this will again be a non-issue for the majority, but power users who wanted to run two displays in clamshell mode will be out of luck without some bad workarounds.

Apple's piecemeal Mac

As you undoubtedly already noticed, Apple hasn't changed the design of the machine at all. We've seen very strong and mixed opinions on whether Apple should be moving on to a new design for its MacBook Air, not to mention the MacBook Pro and iMac.

We've seen this before, though. Apple kept the PowerPC versions' enclosures for its first Intel macs, only shifting after a year or two.

Some defend the MacBook Air, touting how well its design has stood up over the years, while others lament that Apple hasn't notably changed the machine's look in years.

The fact of the matter is, Apple will undoubtedly be debuting a redesigned MacBook Air in the future, and likely sooner rather than later. We think that the design looks solid for its age, but some aspects, such as the thicker bezels, could be slimmed down.

The M1 MacBook Air
The M1 MacBook Air


Many assumed that Apple would take the opportunity of launching its own processor to unveil a new design at the same time. That didn't come to pass, but it seems Apple has another strategy in mind.

With this being one of the first Apple Silicon Mac, had it come with a significant redesign, demand would likely be higher than it already is. This would have yielded a massive influx of users. While the processor is great, it is clearly missing native support by the biggest players.

That won't be forever, but users could have been more upset if a massive number of users took up the machine. Instead, it will be primarily early adopters and light users jumping quickly to the M1-based device.

Apple is slowly transitioning everyone to an all-new Mac, rather than all at once. First, we got an extensive overhaul of macOS with Big Sur. It introduced a whole new design to the OS alongside a pile of new features.





Following Big Sur, we got Apple's new platform and processor in the M1. The last piece of the puzzle is new hardware to go along with the latest silicon and software. Apple's is prepping us for its most radical Mac lineup ever, but instead of doing it right away, it's introducing us to it piecemeal.

The new MacBook Air is a fantastic machine. It runs like a dream, the M1 processor is killer, and battery life is outstanding. We have no qualms making the jump to Apple Silicon here, but we are unique in that all of our daily software already supports it.

All of Apple's software, such as Final Cut Pro, the Affinity Suite, Pixelmator Pro, and many other utilities, were quickly updated to run natively. The random software that doesn't run natively still runs fast and smooth under Rosetta 2. But, we know there are exceptions for that and that the M1 won't be ready for everyone quite yet.

The M1 MacBook Air
The M1 MacBook Air


Barring odd software compatibility issues, there is little reason not to embrace Apple's M1 chip. This machine is powerful, optimized to the teeth for Apple's own hardware, and improvements such as nixing the fans have made this into the go-to device for almost everyone.

Pros
  • M1 has incredible performance

  • Runs completely silent

  • Battery life is superb

  • Support for Wi-Fi 6

  • Runs iOS apps natively

  • SSD speeds see huge boost

Cons
  • Limited to 16GB of RAM (though not nearly as important as it used to be)

  • 720p camera still underwhelms

  • New design is likely on the horizon

  • Likely some compatibility issues for niche apps

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Deals on Apple's M1 MacBook Air

AppleInsider readers can save up to $150 on the new MacBook Air at leading Apple resellers. Each of the offers is available in the Apple M1 MacBook Air Price Guide, where shoppers can compare prices across leading Apple retailers 24/7.

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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 50
    bageljoeybageljoey Posts: 1,937member
    What is the word on compatibility with the Adobe Suite applications?  My son mostly uses those for his video and photo work. He has been limping along with a handed down Air.  Maybe it’s time to get a new machine. But I don’t want to go there if it’s going to introduce issues into his workflow...
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 50
    DuhSesameDuhSesame Posts: 1,073member
    I don’t think we’ll see a massive change in design language, mainly due to how mature it really is.  The 16-inch is just out for a year, Apple should have a long-term plan for it.
    I think if anything, it’s about the display and size, with a more optimized interior.
    watto_cobrarazorpit
  • Reply 3 of 50
    DuhSesameDuhSesame Posts: 1,073member
    I think both MacBooks Pro will get an update in design, as the 14-inch will replace the 13”, while at it, update the 16” too.  

    Given the fact Apple likes to keep their consumer products a tier below in technologies, maybe we won’t see a design change as fast, but I think it will be more optimal to slim it down with a smaller logic board.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 50
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,896member
    It bugs me that many traditional Apple Mac applications (Mail, Calendar, Contacts) under Big Sur have been redesigned for a touch interface, with extra space added to make it easier to select items unambiguously with one’s fingers, but the space is completely wasted because nobody has a touch screen Mac. On a 13” screen, the inefficiency is even more pronounced. A lot of people are working significantly less efficiently now, for no good reason. Apple needs to provide an option to revert to prior spacing.
    edited December 2020 ivanhwilliamlondonlkrupprazorpit
  • Reply 5 of 50
    ivanhivanh Posts: 590member
    any test on using hypervisors and linux distros?
  • Reply 6 of 50
    I would think the improved battery life alone of M1 laptops would make them game-changers.  I really enjoy the long battery life of portable devices.  Getting hours of extra battery in a laptop is fantastic.  Intel and AMD with their x86 chips are going to really struggle to get extra battery life without putting in higher capacity batteries or throttling their processors.  I sincerely hope Apple can take advantage of the M1 chip's efficiency.  Knowing Apple, they'll probably do something stupid like shaving down the height of the chassis to make it lighter at the expense of longer battery life.  Thin and light is all that Apple ever strives for.  I wonder if that's what most customers want.  I certainly don't want ultra-thin and light and would rather have longer battery life.
    anonconformist
  • Reply 7 of 50
    ednlednl Posts: 61member
    You said you tested both the seven- and eight-core gpu models, but there is just one M1 score here and it is unclear to me to which model it refers:

    "Looking at graphics, using the Compute benchmark running Metal, the M1 scored a 20284, which is about 350 percent improved over the 2019 model's 5853 score. That 2019 model relied on Intel Iris Plus graphics versus the eight-core M1 GPU. The eight-core GPU on the next-up model is even more capable than the entry seven-core GPU, but both still blow away the old scores."
    urashidtyler82Japheywatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 50
    I would think the improved battery life alone of M1 laptops would make them game-changers.  I really enjoy the long battery life of portable devices.  Getting hours of extra battery in a laptop is fantastic.  Intel and AMD with their x86 chips are going to really struggle to get extra battery life without putting in higher capacity batteries or throttling their processors.  I sincerely hope Apple can take advantage of the M1 chip's efficiency.  Knowing Apple, they'll probably do something stupid like shaving down the height of the chassis to make it lighter at the expense of longer battery life.  Thin and light is all that Apple ever strives for.  I wonder if that's what most customers want.  I certainly don't want ultra-thin and light and would rather have longer battery life.
    I've been using a M1 MacBook Air since launch day. Many days, I start out at just under 100% and use it for 10 to 12 hours without plugging it in. This is incredible. I've never had a laptop that could go more than 4 hours or so with what I do which is developing software.

    So, mostly I've been downloading and building open source software*. This is more developer ops than programming but what I've been doing is actually more battery intense than programming which is a lot of typing and less building (in general). Even under fairly heavy load, the MBA doesn't get particularly warm and outside of doing a very long x265 HEVC video encode (over 2 hours) nothing seems to affect battery life. I think people that pick up a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro in the future are going to be very pleasantly surprised. 

    *I have gotten Linux virtual machines running in both small hypervisor demo programs and in QEmu which is a pretty complex virtual machine with virtualized hardware. This is all Arm64 but it is still quite a good sign for future compatibility. I've also gotten HandBrake (which I downloaded and didn't have to build) and ffmpeg working (which I did have to spend time to figure out how to build.) They are incredibly fast. Faster than my 6 core/12 thread 2013 Mac Pro by at least 30%. This is with CPU based encoding, not the new built-in encoders in the M1.

    Everything is coming along great for these M1 machines to be complete replacements for Intel Mac notebooks except perhaps if you really need BootCamp though Windows VMs are still waiting on Microsofts cooperation. That doesn't look promising at all. My guess is that almost anyone will be able to upgrade to an M1(+) Mac sometime in 4-6 months without much compromise.
    williamlondonFidonet127spock1234watto_cobrarazorpit
  • Reply 9 of 50
    ednl said:
    You said you tested both the seven- and eight-core gpu models, but there is just one M1 score here and it is unclear to me to which model it refers:

    "Looking at graphics, using the Compute benchmark running Metal, the M1 scored a 20284, which is about 350 percent improved over the 2019 model's 5853 score. That 2019 model relied on Intel Iris Plus graphics versus the eight-core M1 GPU. The eight-core GPU on the next-up model is even more capable than the entry seven-core GPU, but both still blow away the old scores."
    I am also interested in learning about the performance difference between the 7-core and 8-core models.  There is only a $50 price difference (after accounting for the larger SSD) so I will most likely go for the 8C model, but it'll be good to see a side-by-side performance comparison.
    radarthekatJapheywatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 50
    bageljoey said:
    What is the word on compatibility with the Adobe Suite applications?  My son mostly uses those for his video and photo work. He has been limping along with a handed down Air.  Maybe it’s time to get a new machine. But I don’t want to go there if it’s going to introduce issues into his workflow...
    https://helpx.adobe.com/download-install/kb/apple-silicon-m1-chip.html
    screenscriberwatto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 50
    AppleInsider is somehow one of my favorite Mac sites, yet here I am again commenting about the technical quality of a review.

    No one should be using superlatives to describe the "doubled" SSD speed of the MacBook Air. It is not a result of achievement, it is only a result of catching up! MacBook Pros and other Macs have, for several years now, achieved the very same SSD scores as the M1 Air, so the SSD speed of the M1 Air is absolutely unremarkable. Why do less informed journalists crow about "blistering" "remarkable" M1 SSD speeds? Because they are only comparing it to the old Intel Air, which has been using an older controller that was only half as fast as other Macs and Intel laptops too. It's nice that the M1 Air is in the 2500MB/sec range, but...in 2020, that is exactly where it is supposed to be if it wants to compete.

    Also, the review insufficiently differentiates between the Air and the 13" M1 MB Pro. It isn't just a matter of the 13" M1 MBP being "a hair faster." As other, better reviews pointed out, the entire difference Is in heat management and throttling, which is not borne out until you do a long enough test, which the review doesn't mention ever doing. At full tilt, the M1 remarkably does not throttle until about 10 minutes. For most Mac users that is all they need. For Mac users who will run the CPU at full tilt for more than 10 minutes, that is the reason you buy the Pro, its fan prevents throttling and will sustain extended high loads better. If extended high loads are not part of the use case, the Air is a better deal because its M1 can cope with short periods of high CPU usage without throttling, far better than anything Intel has.

    The M1 Air is absolutely a killer deal for the price, just not for the reasons in the review.
    edited December 2020 williamlondonPascalxxbalutyler82anonconformistspock1234watto_cobrarazorpit
  • Reply 12 of 50
    Prediction:
     2021 massive redesign, all made possible by the fundamental change Apple Silicon brings. Current Air was designed for a fan.

    Next fall:
    M2
    13”-13.3” Air, minimal bezels, closer in size to the 12” MacBook. Fully designed around no fan.

    14.1” MBP. M2 eliminates the need for 2 fan design, so there’s only 1 model instead of 2 separate models. Hopefully 4 ports.

    Before next fall:
    16” gets M1X, only needs 1 fan.

    After next fall:
    16” MBP. Bezels are reduced. Overall footprint reduced. 1 fan. M2X. 
    drdavidh4y3swatto_cobraTRAG
  • Reply 13 of 50
    thrangthrang Posts: 893member
    need more than two Thunderbolt ports and 16 gb of RAM on this or the Mac Mini, otherwise I'de be in without question. Until then, I'll be patient...
    edited December 2020 rotateleftbyteTBeaubienseanjDetnatorwatto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 50
    radarthekatradarthekat Posts: 3,395moderator
    I would think the improved battery life alone of M1 laptops would make them game-changers.  I really enjoy the long battery life of portable devices.  Getting hours of extra battery in a laptop is fantastic.  Intel and AMD with their x86 chips are going to really struggle to get extra battery life without putting in higher capacity batteries or throttling their processors.  I sincerely hope Apple can take advantage of the M1 chip's efficiency.  Knowing Apple, they'll probably do something stupid like shaving down the height of the chassis to make it lighter at the expense of longer battery life.  Thin and light is all that Apple ever strives for.  I wonder if that's what most customers want.  I certainly don't want ultra-thin and light and would rather have longer battery life.
    On my iPhones and iPad I benefit from thin and light all day long, and have to contend with battery life only once during a typical day, when the battery gets low and therefore needs some charge.  I think it’s a great trade off.  But I also think Apple reached the optimal thin and light design a generation ago and now can apply much more of the efficiency advancements to performance and battery life, letting thin&light stand pat.  That’s what we’re seeing in the new M1 MacBooks.  I expect it’ll continue to be the case in the next generation.  We’ll know soon enough. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 50
    Clarus said:
    bageljoey said:
    What is the word on compatibility with the Adobe Suite applications?  My son mostly uses those for his video and photo work. He has been limping along with a handed down Air.  Maybe it’s time to get a new machine. But I don’t want to go there if it’s going to introduce issues into his workflow...
    https://helpx.adobe.com/download-install/kb/apple-silicon-m1-chip.html
    In other words - not great. I think this review really struggles with the app compatibility issue, veering from “big players” to “niche apps.” But I do get the message - and will hold off. Genuinely surprised that they didn’t fix the webcam. Sounds like 2021
    will be the year for something fresher, crisper and broadly compatible.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 50
    chasmchasm Posts: 2,395member
    cpsro said:
    It bugs me that many traditional Apple Mac applications (Mail, Calendar, Contacts) under Big Sur have been redesigned for a touch interface, with extra space added to make it easier to select items unambiguously with one’s fingers, but the space is completely wasted because nobody has a touch screen Mac.
    I was initially going to ask you to clarify, because I"m using a 15-inch on Big Sur and not seeing any significant wasted space or "designed for touch" motifs in those apps at all (okay, a little on the right lower part of Calendar).

    Perhaps the problem is that you are using everything full-screen? I don't do that. Or maybe I just have waaaay too many calendar types, hahaha.


    watto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 50
    To say the SSD speed is just catching up, is missing the point. To get this SSD speed before, you had to buy the Pro Mac laptops. Now this consumer level laptop has been improved with higher SSD speed and power level. For those complaining about Apple cost, the cost of performance went way down. 
    dewmejdb8167chiaDetnatortyler82watto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 50
    I would be funny to see picture Air vs performance comparable laptop plus monster powerbank needed to give similar battery life.
    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 50
    XedXed Posts: 1,029member
    cpsro said:
    It bugs me that many traditional Apple Mac applications (Mail, Calendar, Contacts) under Big Sur have been redesigned for a touch interface, with extra space added to make it easier to select items unambiguously with one’s fingers, but the space is completely wasted because nobody has a touch screen Mac. On a 13” screen, the inefficiency is even more pronounced. A lot of people are working significantly less efficiently now, for no good reason. Apple needs to provide an option to revert to prior spacing.
    Why do you think this is the case?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 50
    dewmedewme Posts: 3,827member

    cpsro
    said:
    It bugs me that many traditional Apple Mac applications (Mail, Calendar, Contacts) under Big Sur have been redesigned for a touch interface, with extra space added to make it easier to select items unambiguously with one’s fingers, but the space is completely wasted because nobody has a touch screen Mac. On a 13” screen, the inefficiency is even more pronounced. A lot of people are working significantly less efficiently now, for no good reason. Apple needs to provide an option to revert to prior spacing.

    What does this mean with respect to the MacBook Air? Also, why would Apple design a UI around a computer they don’t make? I’d bet if you talk with a UX designer you’d gain some insight into why modern UI designs are following a more open and airy appearance with more white space. 

    Yeah i know, we’d all be much more efficient if we’d just learn how to use a keyboard properly and if all UIs followed the vi editor command paradigm and Wordstar keyboard shortcuts. 

    You may not like it, but it’s really a thing. 
    https://uxengineer.com/principles-of-design/white-space/


    edited December 2020 williamlondonwatto_cobra
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