Apple MacBook Air M1 review
Quick verdict: Apple's most affordable "Apple Silicon" laptop is an impressively powerful device in a very familiar body and an easy upgrade recommendation.
- M1 Silicon lives up to the hype (mostly)
- Battery life is good
- Function keys are better than the Touch Bar
- x86 app translation eats extra battery power
- Not every app works seamlessly
- No external design changes at all
Apple's announcement mid-year that it would (as widely rumoured) shift to its own ARM-based "Apple Silicon" processors for its Mac line of computers over the next two years was a seismic shift for the Cupertino company.
Sure, it had gone down that path before back when it shifted from PowerPC to Intel's x86 processors, but Apple was a different company in a very different market back then. In order for Apple Silicon to make sense, Apple needed to live up to its bold promises of massively improved performance and battery life out of the gate.
Apple's mostly done that, and in the MacBook Air, it has delivered its best notebook in years, and easily the model that most people should buy right now. That's true even if on paper the slightly upscale MacBook Pro 13 with the M1 processor might look like it's better.
- Apple's designers took the day off
- Why are both USB-C ports on the same side?
If you've used a recent model MacBook Air, like the Intel-based model that Apple released earlier this year, then the M1 MacBook Air's design will feel entirely familiar.
That's because it is the same design at an external level in every way. You're looking at a 13.3-inch 2560x1600 pixel display with significant bezels, a full scissor switched – or in Apple-speak, "Magic" – keyboard and large trackpad for your mousing activities. There's no sign of the Touch Bar as found on the Pro models, and for my money, that's an upgrade, but what's also absent is any form of touch interface.
If you want touch or stylus-based Apple usage, you've got to opt instead for the iPad Air or iPad Pro and a pricey Apple Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil. All of which will cost you more than the MacBook Air M1 does, but that's not a justification for Apple to ignore the potential workflows of touch interfaces for Mac users.
The MacBook Air has, since its inception back in 2008, been all about that thin and light experience, and here Apple does an acceptable job, with a carrying weight of 1.29kg. Since that original MacBook Air – which was truly revolutionary for its time – we've seen a lot of Ultrabooks hover at or around the 1kg mark, and it's just a tad disappointing that Apple didn't choose to do something revolutionary with the Air design to match its new innards.
It's a smaller complaint, but one that I had with the design back when they had Intel inside, but I'm also not a fan of the way that Apple places the ports on the Apple MacBook Air M1. You get a headphone jack on the right, and both USB 4/Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left, quite close to each other.
This creates problems because the close proximity of those ports means that some USB-C device plugs won't play all that happily together at all. Balancing one on each side would solve this immediately. That kind of dual-sided USB approach is something that other notebook makers have managed, even within the constraints of an Ultrabook form factor.
Speaking of new innards and design notes, one thing you won't hear out of the Apple MacBook Air M1 is any fan noise. That's because it doesn't have any fans at all, with Apple claiming that the new M1 silicon chip can run so efficiently in this configuration that they're not really needed. Having tested – and pushed the Apple MacBook Air M1 pretty hard – I'm inclined to agree.
- Apple M1 Silicon is fast
- Intel translation mostly works – but not always
- Only supports a single external display
- Requires Internet for any rebuild, no exceptions
- Can we have a better webcam please?
The real reason to get excited about the MacBook Air M1 is the presence of Apple's first commercial ARM-based processor for Macs. Apple sells the M1 in only two variants right now, and both of them are specific to the MacBook Air M1.
If you opt for the entry-level MacBook Air M1, you get an M1 variant with 8 CPU cores and 7 GPU cores, while the upper spec model ships with an 8 Core CPU and 8 Core GPU version of the M1. In either case, the point here is that it's all contained within a single system on a chip (SoC) design, which Apple makes some very bold claims around. These include up to 3.5x CPU power compared to previous generations, 5x faster GPU speeds and 9x faster neural learning.
All of which sounds rather impressive, although if you dig further into Apple's specifications, you realise that much of Apple's testing involved pre-production MacBook Air models with 16GB of RAM. There's actually not that many configuration choices you can make with the new MacBook Air M1, and everything is fused to the main board, as you'd very much expect from an SoC design.
For what it's worth, Apple provided me with the higher spec dual 8-core variant of the MacBook Air, but with only 8GB of memory on board. You could and should get better results and performance (if you need it) from the 16GB model, although that will cost you an additional $300 on top of the asking price.
As usual, Apple charges a fairly hefty premium for storage or RAM upgrades, but this time round, they're rather vital as the Apple MacBook Air M1 is totally a fixed unit once it's built.
The shift to Apple Silicon means that Apple has to accommodate two different types of macOS apps for a while. Newer apps are what Apple calls "Universal" apps, shipping with code that will detect whether they're running on Apple Silicon Macs or older Intel Macs and run the relevant best code for those machines. Universal apps on Apple Silicon should be able to take advantage of the SoC design of Apple Silicon with improved performance on those machines.
What if you've got existing Intel apps you want to run? Apple's M1 Silicon will use its Rosetta 2 software to do on-the-spot code translation to ARM-compatible code, allowing them in theory to run with a small performance overhead.
Now, this is still slightly untested territory, and the reality is that not every app that ran on your Intel Mac will make the leap to Big Sur and Apple Silicon unscathed. Many Apple app makers have scrambled to provide universal apps, but for more esoteric code, some older product drivers and some games, Apple Silicon is still a little sketchy when it comes to performance or whether an app will run at all.
To get a picture of how well the M1 chip in the Apple MacBook Air M1 runs, I ran comparative benchmarks that I've run past prior MacBook models to give a relative performance indication. Here's how the Apple MacBook Air M1 compares:
There's a lot of data in those tables, and they do highlight some interesting differences both between Apple Silicon and the Intel processors they're replacing as well as how Apple's Rosetta 2 actually handles code translation.
The current version of Geekbench 5 allows for code execution on either Apple Silicon or in Intel translation mode, where the processor (more or less) pretends to be an x86 Intel processor. You can certainly run Intel apps that way, but if there's a Universal app equivalent, it will most definitely run faster.
Running faster is also clearly what Apple Silicon does relative to the Intel processors Apple used to use for these lines. The difference not only between the Intel MacBook Air of early 2020 and its M1 equivalent is quite marked, as is the very small gap between the Apple MacBook Air M1 and the Core i9 Apple MacBook Pro 16. That's a laptop that Apple still sells for $2,450 more than the MacBook Air as tested, and Apple's own silicon brings the performance difference to a near negligible level!
There are some things you simply cannot do on Apple Silicon that you used to be able to. Boot Camp for those who liked Apple hardware running Windows 10 is no more, and you also can't restore an Apple Silicon Mac in any way without it "phoning home" to Apple's servers for cryptographic authentication. If you need to keep systems locked down for security reasons – or simply don't have Internet access where you are but could have otherwise accommodated a local restore – it's no longer an option.
The other trick that Apple can bring into play for the new Apple MacBook Air M1 models is the ability to run iPad and iPhone apps because the real reason to shift to Apple Silicon is that it brings everything that Apple does under the one ARM-code umbrella. That doesn't quite equate to every app being easily able to run on an Apple MacBook Air M1 or even to run well.
You can search for iPad or iPhone apps on the Mac App store on an Apple MacBook Air M1, but some simply won't appear if they haven't been developed and ticked for compatibility. Even for those that have, the shift from mostly-touch to a keyboard and mouse environment doesn't always work all that well in practical terms. Over time, however, it's far more likely that we'll see entirely universal apps that take more advantage of this kind of app integration.
In 2020, the rise of virtual meeting software such as Zoom has seen a substantial demand for premium web cameras to accommodate the huge number of remote workers suddenly needing access to crisper visuals. Sadly, Apple hasn't been there for that market outside the newer premium iMac models, with a 720p "Facetime" camera embedded at the top of the MacBook Air's substantial bezels. Apple's claim is that the M1 processor can adjust better for exposure and white balance, and there's some of that present, but it's still ultimately lacking in definition, a factor that no amount of post-processing can smooth over.
Apple simply doesn't play in the more affordable spaces for laptops any more at all, considering that this is now its cheapest model. For $1,599 and upwards, some 1080p action should be the default, but Apple keeps on skimping here to everyone's detriment.
- Battery is good, but doesn't quite meet Apple's lofty claims
- Intel apps will drain the battery faster
- USB-C charging
Apple pretty much never mentions battery capacities for any of its products, preferring instead to state claimed "up to" usage scenarios. Again, that gives Apple a lot of wobble room for individual use-case scenarios. For the Apple MacBook Air M1, it claims up to 15 hours of wireless web usage or up to 18 hours of Apple TV movie playback before the battery is fully exhausted.
Laptop makers love big "up to" numbers, and while Apple's new M1 processor is undeniably better than the Intel-equivalent laptop it released this year – which claimed up to 11 hours of battery life – I've struggled to get more than about 12 hours of video playback with a locally sourced 1080p file looping. That's not a bad figure, but it's not 18 hours either, and there are other laptops in market right now that can outlast the Apple MacBook Air M1.
What I did find interesting during testing was how Apple's shift to ARM apps affects battery life. Running the same video test but explicitly using VLC in Rosetta 2 mode saw an average battery life of around 10 hours, substantially less than the same scenario on Apple's universal QuickTime player. This matters because if you are shifting up to an Apple Silicon Mac but you're reliant on mostly Intel apps in the medium term, you're likely to see less battery life on your MacBook Air M1.
As with its prior Intel equivalent, charging can happen from either USB-C port with the supplied charger. Unlike the new iPhone 12 lines, you do still get a charger in the box.
Should you buy the Apple MacBook Air M1?
- Buy it if you want the best MacBook Apple makes right now.
- Don't buy it if you need more power or ports.
Apple made a lot of noise about its shift to Apple Silicon, and many have already accorded the MacBook Air M1 as a "triumph" of a laptop.
They're mostly right, too. This is a seriously powerful laptop at quite a good price, and that's not always been the case for Apple's MacBook lines, which have often traded more on that Apple name than on delivering excellent value. There are quirks to the Apple Silicon experience that will hopefully be smoothed over in time. Equally, hopefully, Apple will iterate a little on the rather stale MacBook Air design in the next upgrade to the line, along with better web camera inclusions.
The Apple MacBook Air M1 isn't for everyone; if you need the pure power of a MacBook Pro, then there's a slight edge even in the 13-inch MacBook Pro M1, and it's probably not going to be long before we see an even more juiced up MacBook Pro 16 with Apple Silicon under the hood. Still, right now the MacBook Air has undergone its most significant revision since its inception, even if you can't see it from the outside.
Pricing and availability
PriceRRP: from $1,599
Where to buy
Images: Alex Kidman