Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: Really, Who Needs The Pro?

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Apple’s latest laptops, the MacBook Air and 13in MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon, are here. So, should you buy into the first-generation of a new Apple device, or wait for V2? And, should you be looking at the Air or the 13in MacBook Pro?

I’ve been testing the new MacBook Air since hours after Apple revealed it, so around a week so far.

Apple doesn’t do things by halves. As well as the new processor, this MacBook Air comes with macOS Big Sur installed, so the whole experience is quite different if you’re coming from a previous Mac.

Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: New design, oh no, hold on

The first thing to notice is that there’s no change to the design, on the outside at least. This update is mostly about the new Apple chip that powers it, which, to be fair, is a very big story.

So, why no new design? Surely, that would have been an even bigger statement than deleting Intel and installing Apple Silicon? Definitely, but it’s not long since the Air had a complete overhaul in October 2018, replacing a design which had lasted for 10 years.

That’s a design which was very widely welcomed, so it may have thought a change wasn’t needed yet. The same can’t be said for the MacBook Pro 13in, the other laptop to gain the M1 chip this month and which has had the current design for a bit longer.

So, maybe Apple felt it wanted to concentrate the changes on the inside this time around.

As it happens, the MacBook Air design is pretty cool, so there’s no harm in sticking with it. It still feels impossibly thin, though, it’s true, at its thickest it is slightly bigger than the MacBook Pro. But that tapering edge is so appealing and makes the laptop look impossibly thin. It also remains impossibly light: it weighs 2.8 pounds, 1.29kg, so a bit less than the 3.0 pounds, 1.4kg, of the 13in MacBook Pro.

The only design trick I think Apple has missed is the color. Wouldn’t it have been great if there’d been a different color so absolutely everyone would unequivocally know you had the brand-new MacBook Air? Or am I being superficial?

The colors are the regular space gray (still cool), silver (the classic) and gold which is still packs a peachy punch.

Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: Video-conferencing

One thing that hasn’t changed is the resolution of the FaceTime HD camera, it’s still 720P. Since the latest iMac 27in has upgraded this to 1080P and since, by the bye, Apple made a big deal at launch of how the new laptop has better battery life even for video-conferencing, a higher-res sensor would have been good.

The neural engine in M1 is pretty potent, as is the Image Signal Processor and between them they account for a notable uptick in image quality. Perhaps this change will come next time.

The new MacBook Air with M1 chip in gold-colored finish.

Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: M1 only

The move to M1 is one Apple has made decisively: the MacBook Air is only available with the new M1 processor in it – you can no longer buy any version of the MacBook Air with an Intel processor, it’s Apple Silicon all the way.

The processor is the headline development in this laptop, of course, and it certainly lives up to expectations. It is astonishingly fast. Whatever you do, it can handle easily. Of course, for day-to-day actions like typing emails, browsing the web, watching a movie, it’s always been fast. But when you get to more demanding stuff, like editing video in iMovie or working in GarageBand, there’s still nothing that will make it dawdle.

If you’ve ever found yourself shouting, “This laptop is so slow,” (and if you say you haven’t, who are you kidding?) the MacBook Air will be a pleasant surprise.

This is the same experience every time you switch to a new iPhone with the latest processor – everything seems preposterously fast and responsive.

But the increase here is so extreme it catches you every time. One small thing is the way the computer is instant-on, something we’re used to from phones and tablets but not so much from computers. This works brilliantly. In fact, I’m mostly just waiting for the Apple Watch or Touch ID to unlock it if I’ve been away from the laptop for long enough for it to lock.

There’s so much more power here that the threshold of when you absolutely need to switch from a MacBook Air up to a MacBook Pro is significantly raised. Many professional users will find enough power and sustained speeds that they can save money and choose the Air instead. Apple points out that the Pro, with its thermal management (yes, a fan!) means that the pricier model can perform at speed and for longer. Many of us will never need to put that to the test.

Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: There’s only one M1

On Intel laptops, you could buy more processing power by upgrading to the next level of Intel silicon. With Apple Silicon, there’s only one chip, the M1. This isn’t so important on the Air, but it matters on the MacBook Pro, which is why you can still choose models with Intel processors.

There are differences between the two MacBook Air models, such as storage space and one difference to the M1 chip’s GPU: 7-core on the entry-level model, 8-core on the pricier option.

Apple macOS Big Sur offers a strikingly different look for the Mac.

Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: macOS 11 Big Sur

The new Big Sur operating software is also fast, and the switch to M1 has brought another challenge – apps that are not optimized for the new chip.

Apple’s solution is Rosetta 2, transition software to ensure apps work fluidly and perfectly from the moment you open them.

This seems to be amazingly successful. I haven’t found anything that hasn’t worked and nothing has been slow. I can only imagine how impressive this will be as developers fix their apps to work natively in macOS Big Sur.

The new design of Big Sur is certainly a change and takes getting used to – there are changes to Mail which are not the layout I knew so I’ve been adjusting to where the toolbar button I want has moved to, even after customizing it to as close as I could get it.

The look is gaudier and brighter, closer in some ways to iOS 14 than macOS Catalina. But, of course, the app icons are different, with many big improvements  and subtle changes throughout. Simplified? At first you’d think so but look at the textured speech bubble in the Messages app or the loupe for viewing photos in Preview. The changes are consistently thoughtful and attractive.

Though macOS 11 and iOS 14 are distinctively different, the introduction of tablet or iPhone features such as Control Center are great examples of harmonious synergy that are easy to understand as you move from one platform to another.

Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: There’s no fan

Though it looks the same on the outside, the internals on the MacBook Air have had an overhaul. Obviously, the processor is all-new, and as well as promising blisteringly fast speeds, the Apple M1 brings the neural engine to the Mac for the first time.

And one big change is what’s been taken out: the fan. Thermal management is a big thing for all computers, so the removal of a fan may seem rather foolhardy. Won’t it overheat in nothing flat?

Apple’s silicon is designed to work without breaking a sweat. After all, there’s no room for a fan in an iPhone, iPad or, perish the thought, Apple Watch.

Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: Battery life

Apple has made extravagant claims for the battery life on the MacBook Air with M1. After all, the Air has consistently had strong, all-day battery life. So, what should we make of declarations like “longest battery life ever in a MacBook Air” or “18 hours of video playback”? After all, that’s a 50% increase on the MacBook Air that came before which promised up to 12 hours battery life.

At first, I presumed when Apple took the fan out, it had crammed the space with extra battery. But no, that was filled with a block of aluminum to add as a heat spreader. The battery size is identical to the one in the previous generation of MacBook Air.

The remarkable thing about all this is the laptop lives up to Apple’s claims.  

Apple MacBook Air 2020 Review: Verdict

The new Apple MacBook Air with its lustrous M1 processor costs the same as the previous model, $999 for the entry-level and $1,249 for the more expensive version. U.K. prices are £999 and £1,249.

If you could choose between the previous model and this one – and you can’t – it’s a no-brainer, there’s so much more to enjoy here.

The standout features are the dazzlingly increased speed and even better battery life on the new laptop. It’s a sign of just how capable and efficient this new processor is that it can deliver great speed and hours more of it.

So, who needs the Pro? It’s a good question. If you need a machine that is faster for longer, if you like the Touch Bar keys instead of physical Function keys, improved speakers and even longer battery life, then yes, the Pro is waiting for you.

For the rest of us, Apple has brought speeds and capabilities previously associated with Pro machines to a lighter, more affordable laptop in the MacBook Air. Not only does this beat the last Air handsomely, but it feels faster and more capable than most rival laptops I’ve tested.

The Air has always been an appealing laptop thanks to its light weight and enchanting design. It has never been better than this.

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I’ve been writing about technology for two decades and am routinely struck by how the sector swings from startling innovation to persistent repetitiveness. My areas of

I’ve been writing about technology for two decades and am routinely struck by how the sector swings from startling innovation to persistent repetitiveness. My areas of specialty are wearable tech, cameras, home entertainment and mobile technology. I also work as an actor, enjoying equally the first Mission Impossible movie, a season at Shakespeare’s Globe and a part in the latest series of The Crown. 

I’ve written for the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, the Sun, Metro, Stuff, T3, Pocket-lint, and Wired. Right now most of my work away from Forbes appears in the Independent, the Evening Standard and Monocle Magazine. Follow me on Instagram: davidphelantech, or Twitter: @davidphelan2009.