After a 15-year-long relationship that saw Intel chips powering Macs, Apple recently broke things off to branch out independently. And what’s come of that split is the first MacBook Air to feature the company’s very own in-house chip: the M1.
Now, I know what you may be thinking — didn’t Apple just come out with a MacBook Air? Yes, yes it did. Consider that one Intel’s swan song for Mac.
Even though Apple hardware like the iMac and iMac Pro have always been praised for their processing power, Intel’s chips have come with their own set of challenges, including production delays, limited software customizability, and higher power consumption. Now, not only can Apple operate on its own schedule, but it also has the freedom to push the envelope on its own computers — be it for features, availability, or performance.
The new MacBook Air is proof that the M1 chip has been able to really take the MacBook where it should’ve been all along. It offers longer battery life, silky smooth performance (without the need for a fan to power through tough tasks), and operates more like an iPhone and iPad — with the ability to download iOS apps right onto your computer. Thankfully, Apple has still managed to keep the starting price down to $999 for 256GB of storage.
Compared to my time with the latest Intel-based MacBook Air, the new M1-powered Macbook Air is not a revolutionary experience when it comes to my day-to-day workflow. But, for someone like me who has been locked into Apple’s ecosystem for almost 12 years now, I’m happy to see the company is working towards making the experience feel a lot more cohesive.
In my review of the last MacBook Air, I said “It took Apple a few tries, but in 2020, it finally got the MacBook Air right.” But I take that back.
This time, Apple finally got it right.
A new machine wrapped in a familiar body
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: The new M1-powered MacBook Air is identical to the last Intel-based one on the outside.
It has the same signature shell made of 100 percent aluminum (with the choice between space gray, gold, and silver), a 13-inch Retina display with True Tone, Touch ID (to unlock the laptop, download apps, and make purchases with Apple Pay), a 720p webcam, and Apple’s new and improved Magic Keyboard. Additionally, it comes with two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports on the left and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right.
Under the hood is where things are much, much different. In addition to housing an M1 chip, the MacBook Air is now fanless — thank gawd. It no longer needs the help of a very loud fan to cool down its parts and ensure airflow when you’re doing some intense multitasking.
The MacBook Air is also available in two different configurations: an 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU with 256GB of storage for $999 or an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU with 512GB of storage for $1,249.
While both versions come with 8GB of memory by default, you can upgrade to 16GB for an additional cost of $200. You can also increase storage all the way up to 2TB (with pricing that varies depending on how much you choose) and select whether you want to add on pre-installed software like Final Cut Pro (for $300) and Logic Pro (for $200).
The decision of whether to opt for a 7-core or 8-core GPU is entirely based on how you’ll actually be using the MacBook Air. Essentially, that extra core means better graphical performance and extra power. It’s more crucial for those of you who are constantly editing photos or videos.
As I typically only use my laptop for word processing (which is done through Google Docs or our proprietary CMS), I’m more than content with a 7-core GPU to power me through my days.
The webcam quality is … just okay
When Apple first introduced the MacBook Air with an M1 chip, it made sure to point out that its video chat quality had been improved to deliver better noise reduction, improved auto white balance, and greater dynamic range, making you look sharper and more natural.
But the company left out that it was still a 720p webcam, so that means you’re relying on software for that high-definition quality. I won’t be too harsh on Apple since the MacBook Air already includes some major internal upgrades, but it would’ve been nice to include the same 1080p webcam featured on the 27-inch iMac that released back in August.
I can also confirm, having used both the MacBook Air with the Intel chip and the M1 chip, that the latter Air actually blows out the exposure and makes me look super pale. To test it out, I FaceTimed with a friend on the new laptop and noticed my purple T-shirt looked a lot lighter than it was in person and that my skin was much whiter and smoother. When I switched over to the previous generation model (while remaining in the same spot with the same lighting), everything looked a lot more realistic and true to color. My purple T-shirt was the exact dark shade it was in person and my skin had some of the same blotchiness it always does.
After hearing Apple rave about the new image quality, I didn’t even think I’d have to bring out the previous Air for a comparison. Since I’ve been working off that Intel-based MacBook Air for quite a while now, I really thought I’d be able to notice a difference right away. However, that wasn’t the case. The minute I hopped on my FaceTime call, I had to ask my friend if he noticed an improvement in quality because I couldn’t. Reader, he couldn’t either.
It’s not a huge deal-breaker, but having used the 27-inch iMac and experiencing that stunning 1080p video chat quality, there’s a noticeable difference.
Smooth performance with no cooling fan required
Look, I can sit here and regurgitate marketing spiel about how the M1 chip improves performance by 3.5x and graphics are 5x faster compared to its predecessors. But I’m not the type who chooses her laptop based solely on the processor, so those things don’t really matter to me as much.
But I can say that it does run very smoothly, even when pushed to its limits. Each day, I’d have the same apps open — Google Chrome, Messages, Apple Music, Notes, Telegram, Podcasts, and Slack, along with at least 14 or 15 open browser tabs —and not once did it lag or stutter. I’d also like to point out that I only saw the dreaded rainbow wheel once during my time with it, and it disappeared after only a second.
With the Air’s Intel-based predecessor, I’d typically feel the laptop start to heat up and the fan kick in with that many apps and tabs open. But this MacBook Air would only get slightly warm to the touch, which is even more impressive seeing as how there’s no fan packed into it. And, speaking of the fan, it’s nice to no longer fear that the laptop is going to explode the minute that thing kicks into high gear.
Another game-changing addition is instant wake, which immediately wakes the laptop from sleep as soon as you open it. With its Intel-based predecessor, and even the MacBook Pro, it would take a few seconds to boot up after I’d opened it, or sometimes I’d have to tap the space bar for it to wake up. It’s something I didn’t realize was so annoying until instant wake came into my life and now, I’m not quite sure I can do without it.
It also runs macOS Big Sur, Apple’s latest operating system, out of the box. Since it’s compatible with a variety of other Macs, there’s only one feature that’s specific to the M1 chip: the ability to download iPhone and iPad apps.
On the MacBook Airs that came before it, it was more likely than not that you’d look up an app via the App Store only to find there wasn’t a version available for Mac. Now, when you search for an app, you’ll see an additional tab that reads “iPhone & iPad Apps,” and the option to download it to your laptop.
As I mentioned before, the M1 chip (coupled with Big Sur) allows the MacBook Air to function more like either of those devices. As of now, a lot of the apps I use on my iPhone aren’t available (like Netflix or Hulu), but I was able to download other ones I use a lot like HBOMax and Credit Karma. Of course, it’s up to the developer whether they want to optimize their apps, so I guess we’ll all have to be patient. Mac apps that have yet to be updated for Apple’s M1 system will still run via the company’s Rosetta 2 technology until developers are able to optimize it for the new silicon.
Improved battery life, depending on how you drain it
It’s no secret that MacBooks are notorious for poor battery life, especially over time. So, when Apple announced the longest battery life ever for its new M1-powered MacBook Air, I knew I needed to test it for myself. The company claims its new laptop gets up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing and 18 hours of video playback, but that’s if you stick to native apps — specifically Safari.
I have nothing against Safari, but I haven’t used the browser in years. Since Chrome can be downloaded on both Mac and PC, it makes it easier to transfer all my tabs each time I review a new laptop. For the purpose of this review, I tried using Safari for as long as possible, but ultimately switched back to Chrome because I missed the familiarity — which certainly drained the battery a lot quicker. But we already knew this was going to happen.
On a less hectic work day while using Chrome and having all those aforementioned apps open simultaneously, I was still at 66 percent after eight hours, which is extremely impressive. But after using it for FaceTime for about two and a half hours, it was down to 35 percent.
Then, on a busier day where I quite literally did not put the MacBook down, it lasted me eight hours before reaching 10 percent. I did use Safari for the first two hours before switching back over to Chrome, at which point the battery definitely didn’t drain as quickly. Regardless, with the Intel-based MacBook Air, I managed to squeeze out five hours of battery life using Chrome, so the new M1 chip is certainly an improvement. But Apple’s claimed battery life is still a stretch, unless you strictly rely on its native apps.
It’s the MacBook for Apple loyalists
When Apple announced its new MacBook Air with the M1 chip only seven months after the previous model, I thought it was a rather cruel move. I mean, what about all those people who had already dropped thousands of dollars thinking it’d be a while before Apple released another update? If you’re one of those folks, I’m here to tell you that you’re not missing out on much.
While I don’t miss the obnoxious fan and do appreciate the slightly longer battery life, there really isn’t all that much of a difference in my experience. As with any laptop, it remains to be seen how it operates a few months from now after far more constant use. And, seeing as how there aren’t that many iOS and iPad apps available for it yet either, it doesn’t feel fully iPhone-like quite yet. I promise that if you simply upgrade to Big Sur, you’ll be just fine.
But it’s definitely the way to go if you’re looking to upgrade from an older MacBook model, especially if you’re already locked into Apple’s ecosystem of devices. With time, you’ll be able to take advantage of all the new iOS and iPad apps that’ll be added, and the experience will surely improve. And, seeing as how the M1 chip isn’t going anywhere, it’s essentially future-proofed for years to come.
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