Review: The MacBook Air Was a Fine Laptop, but Apple’s M1 Chip Makes It an Extraordinary One

Review: The MacBook Air Was a Fine Laptop, but Apple’s M1 Chip Makes It an Extraordinary One
Image: Gizmodo Australia

The MacBook hasn’t changed much in recent years. Every generation gets a slight spec bump but otherwise looks and performs pretty much the same as the one before it. The new MacBook Air is not a radical departure in terms of laptop design, but underneath the hood, this thing is wildly different from every other MacBook Air — largely thanks to the new M1 chip. In fact, it even outpaces Windows laptops that can cost far more.

Apple’s New M1 Chip

The performance boost comes courtesy of Apple’s M1 chip, the first system-on-chip designed by Apple for its Mac lineup. To quickly summarise: The M1 is based on 5-nanometre chip architecture, sports an 8-core CPU, an 8-core GPU (unless you’re buying the base model MacBook Air, in which case you get a 7-core GPU instead), and a 16-core Neural Engine capable of 11 trillion operations per second. That means apps and tasks that rely on machine learning are now much faster than before.

The M1 is definitely impressive: It easily keeps up with top-of-the-line laptop chips from Intel and AMD, and the MacBook Air can be much cheaper than machines that use those CPUs — if you don’t upgrade the RAM or storage.

And while we’ll be diving into the M1 in much more detail in stories to come, I want to focus on what it does for the MacBook Air, an already good laptop that the M1 has elevated to greatness.

MacBook Air with M1 (2020)

WHAT IS IT?

Apple's entry-level laptop refreshed with Apple's in-house silicon

PRICE

Starts at $1,599; Reviewed at $2,549

LIKE

Incredible battery life, lightning-fast performance thanks to M1, useful new function keys

DON'T LIKE

Webcam needs an upgrade, 8-core GPU requires more $$$

How it goes in the MacBook Air

Let’s start with the technical stuff: I reviewed a MacBook Air with 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 16GB of unified memory, and 1TB of storage, bringing the total for this machine to $2,549. That’s definitely pricier than the $1,599 base model, which sports a 7-core GPU, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage.

Continuing in the vein of total honesty, I admit that benchmarking a MacBook Air has never really been that exciting — until now.

A fun game I played last Friday afternoon was run a series of CPU and GPU benchmarks on the Air and then send the results, one by one, to Gizmodo’s resident PC expert Joanna Nelius (a person who is genuinely thrilled by graphics card launches) and await her reaction. Every subsequent test result inspired at least one of the following exclamations, if not all three:

“Holy shit. Holy fucking shit.”

“Wow wow wow.”

“WTF Apple?!?!”

You know a Mac is impressive when it dazzles a die-hard PC user. The M1’s 8-core CPU, with four cores devoted to performance and four to efficiency, is truly something, even compared to competing 8-core chips. On Geekbench 5, a basic test of overall system performance, the MacBook Air’s 1712 single-core and 7441 multi-core scores easily blazed past the new Dell XPS 13, which sports Intel’s top-of-the-line Core i7-1165G7 processor and starts at around $1,999. The Dell notched a 1214 single-core and 3833 multi-core score. We also stacked the Air with M1 against a comparable machine built on one of AMD’s best laptop chips, the Ryzen 7 4800U, which has 8 cores/16 threads and is based on 7nm chip architecture. The Lenovo IdeaPad 7 Slim’s single-core (1129) and multi-core (5478) scores were also no match for the M1.

On Cinebench R23, which is similar to Geekbench but more time-intensive and therefore a potentially more thorough gauge of CPU and GPU performance, the Air’s single core (1490) and multi-core (6931) scores again bested the Dell XPS 13 with 11th-gen Intel chip and 16GB of RAM, which notched single core and multi-core scores of 1420 and 4207, respectively. The Lenovo with its AMD chip scored 1061 (single core) and 7225 (multi-core) on Cinebench, giving that chip the edge over the M1. That’s not terribly surprising, because AMD is usually the champion when it comes to multi-core benchmarks and intensive tasks.

In Handbrake, which tests the speed of the GPU when converting a 4K video file to 1080p, the Air completed the task in 8 minutes and 52 seconds. The Dell (17:24) was no match, and even the Lenovo (9:04) lagged behind. Rendering a 3D image in Blender, the Air took 6:24 using its CPU and 7:54 with its GPU. Again, those times easily beat the XPS 13 (9:47 for CPU and 10:50 for GPU) and the IdeaPad (9:37 for CPU and 9:09 for GPU) with their competitive chips. This is particularly impressive because Blender isn’t actually optimised for the M1, which means it was running on Rosetta 2, Apple’s emulation software that provides support for Intel-based Mac apps. That meant the MacBook Air wasn’t just exceptionally faster than its competitors in Blender, but it did it while also running an emulation layer.

However, despite the MacBook Air’s impressive showing in synthetic benchmarks and with typical tasks, it faces some of the same challenges that machines with integrated graphics usually do: Frame rates in real-world game benchmarks were lower than in machines with discrete graphics cards. There was a visible stutter when I benchmarked Shadow the Tomb Raider, though I’m not sure if that’s because the game itself isn’t optimised for M1 or because the M1 might struggle with more graphic-intensive games. Still in the benchmark for Shadow of the Tomb Raider it managed a passable 32 frames per second at a resolution of 1080p and on High settings.

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

You get two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports.

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

And a headphone jack!

MacBook Air M1 performance

I saw no lag when benchmarking Civilisation VI, and games downloaded directly from the Mac App Store played smooth as butter. In Civ the Air turned out a 13.1 ms turn time, which is a little longer than most gaming laptops but beats the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s 19.2 ms turn time. The MacBook Air is clearly not a gaming laptop, and I’m not going to review it as such, but I’ll be curious to see how the M1 fares in a high-end MacBook Pro or an iMac where thermals aren’t quite as limiting a factor as in the fan-free Air. (Stay tuned for more gaming-focused coverage of the M1 as we spend more time with the new Macs.)

So what do all of these performance metrics translate to in actual life? A lot of little things that really add up. The MacBook instantly wakes when you open it, complete with the old-school Apple chime (2020 has turned me into a person nostalgic for the tiniest, most normal things, and yes, this chime is one of them). The fan-less design manages to stay cool even when running back-to-back processor-intensive benchmarking tests. The warmest the Air got was 111 degrees Fahrenheit (as measured with a handy infrared thermometer) on the bottom chassis, and that was after churning through Shadow of the Tomb Raider. My 13-inch MacBook Pro sounds like a freakin’ tank roaring down the streets of LA if I have too many Chrome tabs open, so the Air’s ability to keep cool without making a sound is a godsend for me, an easily irritated person.

Apple’s in-house apps launch instantly, and third-party apps that are already optimised for M1 do too — opening Pixelmator Pro and loading up photos to edit takes a split second. It’ll take a while for every developer to get on board here — Adobe Photoshop won’t be compatible with M1 until early next year, for instance — but when they do, it’s should be game-changing.

When you open the Mac App Store on the new MacBook Air — or the other new Macs built on M1 — you’ll now see a tab for Mac apps and a tab for iOS apps when you search for an app. If the app you want to download doesn’t offer a version designed for macOS but does make its iOS app available as a universal app, then you can download and run it as you would on your iPhone or iPad. Not every iOS app is available on the Mac, and there are some limitations to using them; you can’t adjust the size of the window when streaming from the HBO Max iOS app on your MacBook, for instance. Netflix isn’t available either as a Mac app or an iOS one in the Mac App Store. (I sincerely hope that changes soon so I can download shows to watch offline on my MacBook.)

You can download iOS apps on the Mac now! This is a work in progress. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) You can download iOS apps on the Mac now! This is a work in progress. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

The biggest change — and I mean huge — is the MacBook Air’s battery life. Because the M1 is more power-efficient than the Intel chips Apple relied on in the past, the Air’s battery life is, quite frankly, bananas. The Air lasted more than 14 hours in our video rundown test, which is longer than any other laptop we’ve tested in recent years except for the Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 7 configuration only available in Europe. Anecdotally, an hour-long FaceTime video call with my best friends drained just 9% battery life. Even hours of work in Google Chrome, the biggest resource hog known to main, can’t kill the Air. By comparison, the 13-inch MacBook Pro I just reviewed back in May lasted just 8:10. In the post-covid era, I’ll need a machine that can last through a day on a trade show floor or when travelling and I can’t find a spot to plug in. The new MacBook Air (and I assume the new Pro, too) can easily get the job done.

Apple made a couple of other tweaks to the MacBook Air, one of which I love: the new row of function keys. I currently use a MacBook Pro with touch bar, but I…don’t use the touch bar that often. The Air adds three function keys, one for Spotlight search, one for Dictation, and one for Do Not Disturb, which are so much more useful in my daily life than the touch bar has ever been. Those keys replace shortcuts to Launchpad and keyboard brightness. This is fine by me.

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

I greatly appreciate these function keys.

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Touch ID is very fast.

Another tweak is an improved image signal processor in the front-facing camera, which Apple promises will make your video calls look better. That is kind of true — on a FaceTime call in a dimly lit room, I didn’t look as grainy as I normally would. But the 720p cam really can’t compare to the 1080p lens on the new 27-inch iMac, which is now the standard for all Macs. Apple, please: Now that I spend my life on video calls, an improved image signal processor isn’t gonna cut it. Upgrade the camera.

But overall, the new MacBook Air is the best overall laptop I’ve ever used. It’s slim, it’s portable, its performance is killer, its battery life will absolutely change my life when I’m doing more work on the go again, and the base price for the improvements delivered by the M1 chip is unbeatable. This isn’t just the best MacBook Air, it’s the best Air by a mile.

I haven’t tested the entry-level $1,599 MacBook Air with its 7-core GPU, so I can’t speak to how much of a trade-off you make by going with the cheaper model instead of the Air with 8-core GPU. You may see a slight dip in graphically intensive tasks, but if you’re eyeing the Air over the Pro due to price, you probably don’t need to do Pro-level work on your laptop anyways.

And then there’s the 13-inch Pro itself, which is just a hair heavier than the Air and just $70 more expensive than the higher-end Air. The M1 chip levels the playing field when it comes to Macs, but it also makes your buying decision a little tougher. We’re not yet sure how much better the Pro is than the Air, but given that it still uses a fan-cooling system, we’d expect to be at least a little faster than the already incredibly fast MacBook Air.

I didn’t expect 2020 to be the year of the Mac, but, well, I didn’t expect anything about this year to unfold as it did. If you’re already a fan of Apple’s laptops, buying a new version with M1 is a no-brainer.

README

  • The battery life on this thing is wild.
  • M1 gives the Air a significant performance bump.
  • On paper, the MacBook Pro might be the better buy.
  • I love the function keys!
  • How this MacBook stays so cool without a fan even during the most intensive tasks is incredible.