Apple’s M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro Review: The Laptop’s Biggest Leap in Years


Joanna Stern

In the great work-from-home room

Sat two Apple laptops connected to Zoom.

Within both machines dwelt speedy M1 chips

Making them sound less than ever like spaceships.

Goodnight MacBook Pro,

Goodnight MacBook Air,

Goodnight—forever—laptop noises everywhere.

OK, so my children’s book tour might be indefinitely delayed, but

Apple’s
AAPL -1.82%

new M1-chip laptops are right on time. For real, they aren’t only the quietest ever, they change everything you’ve come to hate about your laptop over the last couple of…decades.

Fans that sound like your machine is attempting to cool the Sahara? Palms sweating over a roasting laptop? Battery life that drops faster than the New Year’s Eve ball? With the new $999-and-up MacBook Air and $1,299-and-up 13-inch MacBook Pro, which go on sale on Tuesday, those will just be travails you tell your grandkids about. Plus, getting one of these doesn’t mean giving up speed—they’re even faster than their respective predecessors, released just earlier this year.

How is that possible? Apple’s new M1 chip, that’s how.

The new MacBook Air, left, and MacBook Pro, right, both have 13-inch displays and Apple’s own M1 chips.

Instead of using the

Intel

chips found in Macs for the last 14 years, Apple swapped in its own—while keeping the external designs of the laptops, including the keyboards that actually work. Based on Arm architecture, which powers most mobile devices including iPhones and iPads, the M1 is far more power efficient. It means crazy cool temperatures, 10 or more hours of battery life and insanely quiet performance.

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It also means the ability to run your favorite iPad and iPhone apps. That is, if your favorite apps are Wendy’s, Dunkin’ and other fast-food chains. Fine, there’s also Zillow and quite a few popular iOS games, including “Among Us,” but overall, the selection of top apps is limited. If developers don’t want their apps to be available for these MacBooks—perhaps because the software won’t play nice with a non-touch-screen device—they won’t show up in the Mac App Store.

Put that aside, though, and you’ve got the best Mac laptops ever—frankly, the best laptops ever, period. Now that the Air and Pro have the same chips, the question isn’t “Do I buy?” but “Which do I buy?”

After a week of intensive testing of both products alongside their Intel counterparts, the answer comes down to this: How much performance and battery life do you want to pay for?

Fan or No Fan?

It’s pretty simple: These computers are fast—blink-of-an-eye wake-up fast. Processing and graphics benchmark tests say they’re up to 2.5 times faster than their Intel counterparts, but I don’t live in benchmarks, and neither do you.

I live in 30 or so browser tabs (these days Safari or

Microsoft

Edge) plus Slack, constant group video calls via Zoom or Google Meet, Apple Music, Microsoft Word and Apple’s Notes and Messages. When doing most of that simultaneously—hooked up to a 27-inch 4K

LG

monitor—both machines had a pep in their step. Unlike my Intel MacBook Air or the even 16-inch MacBook Pro I often use, I saw very few slow downs, no spinning rainbow balls, no fan noise. Ever.

Some quick Computer Science 101: The Intel chips in your laptop, which are based on x86 architecture, are quite power hungry. More power = more heat = one noisy fan.

The more power-efficient M1 processors mean cooler keyboards and palm rests. WSJ’s Joanna Stern used her trusty thermometer to confirm.

Apple’s M1 chip, however, is far more power efficient. Less power = less heat = no fan. The new MacBook Air has a completely fanless design, while the MacBook Pro still has a fan to allow for sustained high speeds.

So of course I deemed it my mission to get these laptops to slow down, heat up or—in the case of the MacBook Pro—fire up the fan.

As you’ll see in the video, I tried it all, beginning with Google Chrome, the most resource-intensive browser of them all. Fifty browsing tabs? Not at a peep or a degree above 80 Fahrenheit on either M1-powered system. The Intel-powered Air? Thirty-five tabs got its fans revving, and it hit 93 degrees.

How about 65 tabs? The M1-powered Air was still cool and quiet, though it began showing signs of sluggish scrolling and tab switching. The Intel-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro powered up its fan at around 75 tabs. At a whopping 100 tabs—which no sane human could ever navigate—the M1-powered Pro was quiet as a mouse and scrolling pages smoothly. Even when I threw in a Zoom call, it kept silent. I finally got the new MacBook Pro’s fan to kick on, with a temperature of 98 degrees, when playing “Rise of Tomb Raider” while simultaneously exporting a 4K video in Adobe Premiere and running some Chrome tabs in the background.

An Intel spokesman said the company believes the PCs powered by its processors, including its latest-generation mobile chips, “provide global customers the best experience in areas they value most, as well as the most open platform for developers.” He also said Intel is focused on delivering “a wide range of technology choices that redefine computing.”

Overall, I found the MacBook Pro to be speedier than the Air. This is due to the fan, which allows it to maintain peak performance for longer, and also because my MacBook Pro review unit had 16 gigabytes of RAM, twice the RAM of the Air.

All-Day Battery or All-Day Battery?

I’d say these new laptops will let you confidently leave home for a day—even two days—without a charger. But who knows when we’re actually leaving home again? (Unlike, the new iPhones, the new Macs do ship with chargers. Big, chunky ones.)

For now, it means hours and hours untethered. It’s hard to tally how much actual daily use I got because of on-and-off usage patterns but on the MacBook Air, it was close to 8 hours. On the Pro, it was closer to 10.

My punishing YouTube test, where I streamed a video with display brightness set at 65%, showed crazy gains over the Intel counterparts. The M1-powered Air went for 10 hours and 45 minutes; the Intel version eight hours. The M1-powered Pro, because of the bigger battery in its thicker body, went for 16 hours—nearly twice the Intel MacBook Pro’s 8.5 hours. The Dell XPS 13 lasted 10.5 hours.

The big differences between the Air and the Pro really end there. The Pro has a slightly brighter screen, louder speakers and a better microphone. Oh, and yes, the Touch Bar, Apple’s unnecessary strip of controls.

Both have fingerprint sensors in the upper right of the keyboard for quick logins and Apple Pay payments. They’re also limited to just two USB-C ports on the left edge. Truly, does no one at Apple sleep on the right side of the bed?

My other complaint: Both are still saddled with 720p webcams. Seriously? On Planet Zoom? While the M1 improves noise reduction and white balance, the cameras pale in comparison to any we recommend in our ultimate video-chat guide.

Mac App or iPad App?

I anticipated software and app issues as a result of the transition in silicon. I was wrong. Thanks to Apple’s Rosetta 2 technology, which is built into the newly released Mac OS Big Sur, all the Intel Mac apps I typically use worked well on these machines. Everything from Microsoft Word to Chrome ran smoothly.

Universal Apps, tweaked to run on both Intel chips and Apple’s new chips, should perform even snappier. I tried Pixelmator Pro, a popular photo-editing app for Macs, and it felt smooth, even dealing with large files.

I was excited about the prospect of using iPad and iPhone apps, which now appear in the Mac App Store. However, none of my most used iPhone apps are there. Instagram? Nope. Gmail? Nope. Seamless? Nope. Nest? Nope. TikTok? Nope. I could go on and on. Most of those companies told me their services were accessible through web-browser-based apps.

No touch screen here! You need to use the trackpad and keyboard to navigate iOS and iPad apps, like this one from Dunkin’.

I did have some mild success.

Facebook’s

iPad app works well, except when it nagged me about opening an unavailable Messenger iOS app. I do like playing “Among Us” on the bigger screen, but certain finger controls don’t respond as well to mouse clicks.

You know what would solve a lot of app compatibility issues? A touch screen. On touch-enabled Windows laptops and Chromebooks, I’m constantly tapping the screen here and there to navigate touch-designed apps, even though I mainly still use the trackpad. Not to mention, MacOS Big Sur’s new iOS-inspired menus and widgets look like they’re crying out to be touched.

While I’d choose the new Pro over the new Air, they’re both great. And they both point to a future enabled by these new chips, where the differences among our phones, laptops and tablets aren’t dictated by constraints of power and performance but by the creativity of the designers.

So good night to MacBooks overheating too much,

Goodnight to you all, yelling at them to “Shush!”

Apple’s M1-powered MacBooks might be the company’s best laptops ever—but they still look like laptops. What comes next?

Appeared in the November 18, 2020, print edition as ‘Apple’s Laptops Make Biggest Leap in Years.’