Apple’s MacBook Air has been a known quantity for years, a favorite among super-thin ultraportables, but one that received only occasional, modest updates. We liked the model updated in early 2020, but its keyboard improvements aside, it was not a transformative edition. The MacBook Air’s performance has always remained secondary to its price and size, but that paradigm has shifted with the introduction of Apple’s own M1 processor. Alongside its new “Big Sur” OS update, Apple dropped its long-running use of Intel processors for this homegrown silicon solution, and in doing so, infused the MacBook Air with new life (while maintaining its fanless design). The MacBook Air launches alongside a new 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini, also running on the M1 system-on-a-chip (SoC). All are impressive, but the improvement to the MacBook Air impresses most. At $999 (as tested), it’s the best value among Mac laptops, especially when combined with its nearly 30-hour battery life and premium super-slim build. Eclipsing its predecessors, the M1-based MacBook is our top-pick Apple laptop for 2020.
Premium Portability: The Same Sleek Air
Unsurprisingly for one of the world’s most popular computers, the design of the new MacBook Air is very familiar. Not much has changed since the previous version on the outside, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the two apart from the shell. It still comes in three color options: Space Gray, Gold, and Silver. The all-metal design is sturdy and high-quality, still delivering that envy-inspiring MacBook feeling so many years after its debut.
All of that is to say: The MacBook Air remains one of the most luxe portable builds of any kind. It measures 0.63 by 11.97 by 8.36 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.8 pounds, one of the thinnest laptops available and certainly on the lighter side. Some Windows laptops have it beat on weight (non-touch models of the Dell XPS 13 and the 2.4-pound ThinkPad X1 Carbon, to name two high-end examples), but the real-world differences once you’re under 3 pounds are pretty slight. Any student needing to take this to class, or a business professional toting it on a daily commute, will find it a great travel companion. You’ll hardly notice it in your bag, living up to the Air in its name.
We focused heavily on the keyboard for the previous MacBook Air review, and for good reason. Apple finally replaced its much-maligned butterfly keyboard, prone to issues with dust and broken keys, with its new Magic Keyboard. The latter is of course back again here, providing a much better typing experience than the butterfly keyboard and avoiding the malfunctions that plagued the butterfly mechanism.
Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (M1, Late 2020)
Dell XPS 13 (9310)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 8 (2020)
Apple Mac mini (M1, Late 2020)
Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch
Apple MacBook Air (2020)
On the Magic Keyboard, each key has a rubber dome and scissor switch (an older, but time-proven mechanism) that make for a bouncier typing experience with more key travel. Since it’s not new to this laptop, it doesn’t stand out as a major pro of this model in particular, but it’s still a positive inclusion.
In addition, the Touch ID sensor in the top right corner of the keyboard allows you to power on the laptop and sign in with your fingerprint, putting the need for passwords on the back burner. There’s no Touch Bar option on the MacBook Air as there is on the MacBook Pro, which means you get a physical escape button on the top left corner of the keyboard. Some shoppers will consider this a plus; the Touch Bar is polarizing.
Joining the top-notch keyboard is arguably the best touchpad on any laptop, which shouldn’t be news to any past MacBook user. Like the keyboard, that’s not unique to this version of the MacBook Air, but if you’re upgrading from an older machine or switching from a Windows laptop, this will feel like a big improvement. For one, the touchpad is oversized for the size of the whole laptop, which gives you plenty of room for panning and gestures.
More important, though, is that the touchpad is extremely smooth and responsive when panning and pressing, thanks in part to its virtual haptics. This means you’ll get the same feedback from clicks and presses no matter where you push on the touchpad, because it’s responding digitally. It’s a uniquely satisfying and responsive touchpad, making this a great laptop for working at a coffee shop or on a plane with no mouse. (When working in cafes and 737s becomes an everyday thing again.)
The Retina Display: It’s Sharp, Don’t Touch
Next up is the display, also as brilliant as ever. Apple’s 13.3-inch Retina Display is once again utilized here, delivering 2,560 by 1,600 pixels in a 16:10 aspect ratio. This is nontrivially higher than the full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) resolution that’s common on most mainstream laptops, but still well short of 4K. The latter is generally reserved for high-end content-creator laptops (and desktops) that can benefit from the greater pixel count, but it’s a drain on battery life and much more expensive. For the lighter kind of general use work a MacBook Air is intended for, the Retina Display’s resolution is extremely sharp without being overkill.
The display looks fantastic, though the bezels are not as slim as they are on some competing elite Windows laptops, most notably the Dell XPS 13. The black borders look a touch out of date in comparison, but that’s hardly a deal breaker. There is no HDR support on this screen, nor an OLED option (increasingly appearing in Windows laptops), but it does come with Apple’s True Tone technology, which adjusts the white balance of the display to match the ambient lighting. This can be more pleasing and easier on your eyes, though you can turn it off entirely in the System Preferences if you wish.
As ever, Apple has not added touch technology to its computer displays. That remains firmly the territory of its phones and tablets, drawing a fairly firm line in the sand between the segments versus the cross-compatibility they share in other areas. The Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro is as close as an Apple laptop gets to a touch screen. Perhaps in the future Apple will find a reason to make the jump, but for now macOS remains a no-touching environment. This is an advantage for Windows machines, even though many PC users would still pass up the option for a touch screen. On certain devices it enables more functionality, like a convertible 2-in-1 or a professional content-creation machine.
Before getting into the specifics of the performance and the processor, I’ll say on a more general level that all of this resulted in an extremely pleasant user experience. Applications and the browser run quickly even through multiple programs and tabs, and it’s quick to wake from sleep. The touchpad and keyboard are a joy to use, and it’s an easy laptop to carry around with one arm. As for the display, colors pop and textures are sharp. The Big Sur macOS upgrade makes using this computer even better, and you should check out our Big Sur deep-dive review for those details. Additionally, because the laptop does not include an active cooling fan, it’s an extremely quiet system.
Finally, we come to the supplementary features and ports. The MacBook Air includes a front-facing 720p webcam, more important than ever in this era of remote work, as well as support for Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth. As far as physical connections, there again simply aren’t too many on this laptop: The MacBook Air contains just two USB Type-C ports on the left side and a headphone jack on the right.
Both of these USB-C ports are at least versatile, each supporting Thunderbolt 3, charging, and video out (DisplayPort). The ports can also support VGA and HDMI output via adapters that are sold separately. Still, just two USB-C ports is a bummer, not just for the number, but the inconvenience of using any standard USB peripherals. At the same time, you can’t complain too much, as the most premium portable Windows laptops have also trimmed down to just two USB-C connections.
Component Check: New Kid on the Silicon Block
For this new edition of the MacBook Air, this is what it’s all about. Apple has broken away from many years of Intel-based systems, instead opting to create and implement its own processors in its hardware. The first of these is named the M1, used in this system as well as the new MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Taking a page from the processors it uses in iPhones and iPads, Apple is moving to a system on a chip (SoC) architecture for the M1, meaning one unit that handles both the processor computations and graphics output, while also incorporating other elements such as the system memory and the storage controller.
Since the SoC needs to handle such a varied workload, the highest-tier M1 includes an unusually high 16 cores, broken into smaller groups dedicated to different tasks. Four of the cores focus on complex computing calculations, another four on lighter tasks to increase efficiency and power conservation, and as many as eight more cores are dedicated to graphics processing (seven cores on our base chip). Additionally, there a series of cores Apple calls the “Neural Engine.” All of this makes it a bit difficult to separate the raw speed from the overall performance when running applications, but to a certain extent it only matters how effectively it comes together for the end user. There are many more details to this new design, but rather than outline them again in each review of these new products, we’ll point you to our Apple M1 chip explainer if you’d like to learn more.
The upshot if you’re not personally interested in the technical nitty-gritty is this: The M1 should allow for much faster and more efficient processing when working in conjunction with Apple’s own software and laptop hardware. Controlling all variables allows for maximum synergy between the physical design, operating system, processing power, graphics output, and battery life. This is all easy for Apple to say, but it’s our job to put it to the test.
The MacBook Air comes in two base models, but you can further configure each of them. The starting price is $999, an appealing price point considering the quality of the build and core feature set. In addition to the display, touchpad, keyboard, and other features outlined above, the $999 model comes with the Apple M1 chip (with eight cores for processing and seven cores for graphics), 8GB of memory, and a 256GB SSD. This is the model we have for review.
The other preset model includes an M1 chip with eight cores for both the CPU and GPU, 8GB of memory, and a 512GB SSD. You can select and add more storage or memory to either base model, though, and both come in all three color options.
The Main Event: Testing the M1
Since the M1 is really the focus of this review, we were excited to get started on the benchmark tests. There are some very encouraging results, but some must be taken with a grain of salt. For now, only Apple’s first-party programs and a handful of third-party applications run natively on the M1 until developers create optimized-for-M1 versions of their software, called Universal apps. Until then, many of these third-party applications must run through an emulation layer named Rosetta 2—still usable in this way, but presumably with losses of efficiency. This includes even some big-name software like Adobe’s Creative Suite and Microsoft Office, but rest assured these will be updated to run natively on the M1. (Apple noted that a Universal version of Adobe Photoshop is planned for early 2021, and Adobe Lightroom for this December.)
We’ve marked where this is the case in the charts below, and to a degree it means not making big conclusion leaps based on those numbers. Still, most users will have to use some emulated software for the time being as developers work on native versions of their applications, so it’s useful information. And, to be blunt, the M1 impresses us even through the emulation layer.
To get a sense of just how good the M1 is, we’ve put together a group of similar systems (from both Apple and leading PC manufacturers) and their benchmark results on a batch of tests. These machines are the nearest equivalents on the market in terms of size, competing components, and intended use case. All new Apple machines with the M1 are present, as are past editions utilizing Intel chips, in addition to the competing Intel-based Windows machines. We’ve gathered the benchmark results of these systems across a variety of CPU- and GPU-based tests and displayed them in the charts below.
On the CPU side, these tests include Geekbench 5 (a CPU test also popular for benchmarking the processing performance of mobile devices), Cinebench (a CPU-crunching test that fully pushes all present cores and threads to render an image), and Handbrake (a video encoding trial that uses the CPU to transcode a 4K video clip to 1080p). There’s also a Photoshop test, in which we apply a series of image filters and effects to a test image and time how long each system takes to complete the full sequence. We’ve also included three web browser-based tests (JetStream, Basemark, and WebXPRT) to bolster our suite of benchmarks. The only Universal apps in this bunch are Geekbench and the R23 version of Cinebench, plus one of the flavors of Handbrake.
First, let’s look at Geekbench and the browser-based tests…
If Apple could pick one set of results to focus on, it would be those Geekbench numbers. It’s difficult to definitively claim it’s fully representative of real-world applications, but it’s a trusted processor proficiency test for many different devices (and runs natively on all processors supported). The M1 really excelled there, well ahead of any Intel system on the multi-core performance test (clearly effectively utilizing the high number of cores outlined above). It’s not tied down by emulation, but it is also difficult to un-bake AI improvement and the effect of the Neural Cores from the raw performance this highly synthetic benchmark. Geekbench is something of an outlier, as no other result here has the M1-based systems at such a big lead. It does help us compare it to the iPhone and iPad Air, however, where it wins by roughly 2,000 points.
As for the MacBook Air specifically, it sees especially big gains compared to the Intel-based MacBook Air. Previously, the MacBook Air was a somewhat neglected member of Apple’s lineup. Updates weren’t as frequent or major, and traditionally its performance lagged meaningfully behind the 12-inch MacBook (R.I.P.) and MacBook Pro. The M1 has leveled the playing field based on these results, launching the MacBook Air into performance relevancy. Before we make too many conclusions on the Geekbench results, though, let’s move on to the rest of the CPU benchmarks.
The important thing to note here is that Handbrake 1.4.0 Beta and Cinebench R23 run natively on the M1 chip, while Handbrake 1.1.1, Cinebench R15, and Photoshop were all run through emulation. That doesn’t mean the emulation results should be discarded, but they’re not fully indicative of what the M1 is capable of. They still represent real-world scenarios well, seeing as users will have to deal with emulation for at least some time into the near future, and they provide good contrasts to the native results.
Results also vary by test, which not only makes it hard to definitively claim victory or defeat for the M1 chip, but also shows how emulation is holding this chip back. On emulated Handbrake 1.1.1, the Intel-based MacBooks and some Windows laptops are faster, but on emulated Cinebench R15, the M1 is superior. Cinebench R15 is a close-run race, but swap to the Universal/native Cinebench R23, and the M1-based systems really pull away from the pack. On Photoshop (through emulation), the Intel-based laptops had an edge.
It’s those (tantalizing) Handbrake 1.4.0 Beta and Cinebench R23 scores that are especially worth focusing on, though. Handbrake 1.4 is a macOS-only version, so we can’t put it up against the Windows laptops, but we can see the improvement from emulated to native performance. It’s only results from two Universal apps, but if those are indeed indicative of how much better a native application runs on the M1 chip in comparison, Apple has a real winner on its hands.
Even at the least optimistic reading of these results, Apple still landed right around the performance of Intel’s latest platform with its first effort, an encouraging sign for Apple and potentially a worrying one for Intel (whose position is already threatened by AMD’s mobile and desktop CPU resurgence). It’s inevitable that an Apple M2 chip arrives eventually and improves on the flag planted here by the first-generation effort, but even just getting all of these applications to run natively will provide a big boost.
Shifting to the laptop product rather than the M1 as a platform, it’s again the MacBook Air that comes away the big winner. Compare its Handbrake times to the 2019 MacBook Air’s results and you can see a huge leap in this laptop’s capability for media tasks. It’s not just Handbrake, either, but huge improvements on Cinebench and Photoshop. A higher-tier Intel processor like a Core i9 chip (or AMD’s impressive Ryzen solutions) will still likely beat the M1, but you won’t find one of those in a folder-thin laptop. In this class of 13-inch ultraportables, the M1 is roughly as good as or better than Core i5 and Core i7 alternatives, even (in cases) through emulation.
The MacBook Pro and Mac mini, of course, benefit from this improved performance, and will continue to do so as the platform develops, but the MacBook Air is the one truly moving up a tier in performance capability. It’s also fanless, unlike the MacBook Pro and Mac mini. This helps it stay completely quiet and extra thin, but it clearly is not holding the performance back too much.
These CPU tests confirm what the Geekbench results hinted at (or really, shouted): The MacBook Air is now the real deal in terms of speed, no longer second banana to its Pro stablemate. Being roughly on par with the MacBook Pro’s performance at a lower price is an extremely appealing proposition, and likely for a wider audience than the professional-grade MacBook Pro. You’d have to want the latter for its Touch Bar and other pro-like features (head over to that review to see exactly what those are), given performance is now close. But the MacBook Air now sticks out as the better value of the bunch.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, the M1 SoC includes the graphics cores. That means it’s worth testing the MacBook Air’s graphics chops (beyond the usual tests we run on integrated graphics) to see what the M1 can do. Intel recently pushed its own integrated offerings up a level with Iris Xe (and Iris Xe Max) in its 11th Generation “Tiger Lake” CPUs, so M1 graphics come at a relevant time. As a reminder, the particular M1 chip in the base model of the MacBook Air has seven GPU cores, while the M1 chip used in the new Mac mini and MacBook Pro has eight.
The graphics benchmarks include the synthetic GFXBench 5 Metal test (already a Universal app), the old-standard Heaven 4.0 graphics simulation, and the built-in benchmark tests of two full retail games that work on both macOS and Windows 10: Rise of the Tomb Raider and Total War: Warhammer II.
While there are some diminishing returns at the higher visual settings (see Heaven and the two retail games on the highest quality settings), the M1’s graphics performance is a leap forward. Compared directly with the previous MacBook Pro and MacBook Air on GFXBench (which runs natively on both M1 and Intel chips) and Heaven, the M1’s performance is twice as good in some places, and comfortably superior elsewhere. At higher settings, the MacBook Pro hangs close, but as before, the 2019 MacBook Air is left in the dust. Again, not a 3D creation powerhouse, but still a big improvement for GPU-based tasks.
As for the real-game tests, we weren’t able to go back and run Rise of the Tomb Raider and Total War: Warhammer II on the older machines or other Windows laptops, but as you can see on the chart, we have those results for Intel’s “Tiger Lake” whitebook, a sample laptop we tested with something of a best-case-scenario installation of an 11th Generation Core processor and Iris Xe graphics. Note that due to the 16:10 display, the MacBook Air had to run these games at 1,920 by 1,200 pixels instead of 1,920 by 1,080.
Now, few would choose a MacBook Air as their ideal gaming machine, but you can see that it’s plenty capable of low-to-mid-tier gaming. Gaming is far from a niche market, and many college students and other MacBook Air owners who use the laptop for work are also interested in some casual and lower-setting mainstream gaming on the side. Frame rates above 30 frames per second (fps) are considered playable, and it hits that on both games at the medium preset (and more on the lower settings). You’ll note it’s quite even with the Tiger Lake whitebook, which creates an interesting new baseline for integrated graphics going forward.
If you accept that this will be a compromised gaming experience from the start given the type of laptop it is, being able to reasonably run some games is another arrow in the MacBook Air’s quiver. Of course, the main issue is that many (nay, most) AAA games simply aren’t available for macOS, and those that do work are ported and run through emulation. Simpler games (and many indie titles) launch or release on Steam, but most of the major titles will likely never come to macOS. Still, for those that are (plenty of legacy games included), the MacBook Air can play them reasonably smoothly.
Battery Rundown Test
Last but certainly not least, the battery life on this laptop is nothing short of exceptional. It ran for 29 hours and 1 minute on our battery rundown test, producing one of the longest results we’ve ever recorded. The battery life on the MacBook Air has always been good, but presumably improvements and efficiencies made possible by the M1 chip (such as kicking light-lift tasks like video playback to the low-power-consumption “efficiency” cores) have boosted its life even further.
The Air ran for more than a full day on our rundown test while playing back a video on a loop, and while other tasks will drain its life faster (especially internet-heavy ones), this is tremendously useful for a super-portable laptop. This is the third-longest battery life we’ve seen firsthand during a review, just behind the Asus ExpertBook B9450 (30 hours and 36 minutes) and the Lenovo Flex 5G (30 hours and 15 minutes).
Verdict: M1 Makes the Air Sing
The new M1-based MacBook Air is simply an amazing laptop. The build quality is among the best you can find, the debut of the Apple M1 SoC is very impressive (even if the jury is still out in some areas), and the battery life is longer than all but a few alternatives. What’s more, and not always a given with Apple products, is that it’s a fantastic value.
As usual, Windows diehards (or those who simply need programs that are not available on macOS) in this price tier will still probably stick with the Dell XPS 13, or favored Microsoft Surface Laptop or Surface Pro. Some users will never be tempted from one OS to the other, and that’s fine. For everyone else, whether you’re an Apple fan in need of an upgrade, a longtime Windows user interested in jumping camps, or a platform-agnostic shopper seeking the best deal on an ultraportable laptop, the MacBook Air represents the cream of the crop.
Apple MacBook Air (M1, Late 2020)
The Bottom Line
The M1-equipped MacBook Air now packs far better performance than its predecessors, rivaling at times the M1-based MacBook Pro. At $999, it’s the best value among macOS laptops.
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