Apple MacBook Air i7 2020 from the perspective of a Music Producer
The recent introduction of quad-core processors in Apple’s MacBook Air promises greater performance in the familiar form, but is it capable for any professional work?
I have been using my trusty mid-2013 MacBook Air 13 with an i7, 8GB Ram and 256GB SSD since its introduction. Having produced several albums and videos of my music, as well as of colleagues and friends of different complexities in my home studio and on location, this machine has never let me down.
After almost seven years of intense use, it has slowly started to show its age. A progressively unreliable battery, the older screen and the greater CPU demands of modern plugins were making the experience less fun.
I was holding on it regardless, mainly because I was not satisfied with some of Apple’s decisions in the latest years. Namely, the removal of the MagSafe and the SD card reader, as well as the limited number of USB ports.
Unfortunately, the 2020 MacBook doesn’t deal with any of these issues, but Intel’s 10th generation i5 and i7 Quad-Core processors, the possibility to expand the RAM to 16GB, and the impressive Retina display allowed me to let my old computer finally retire.
First of all, let me state that I’m not an Apple fanboy, I’m perfectly happy with my Pixel 3a and several other Android phones before that. But the truth is that no-one else is doing the trackpad as well as Apple. The integration of the touchpad and magic mouse gestures into Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro are an essential part of my workflow, anything else will be a compromise. I also love how stable and efficient MacOS is besides being a low-maintenance operating system. Having dealt with Windows in the past, I can see their advantages, but Apple provides a seamless experience.
The MacBook Pro
I have been flirting with the idea of getting the Pro instead, but the form factor of the Air is superior to me. The teardrop shape is more comfortable to type on and for the work that I typically do, and the slightly less weight can be an important factor for travelling and location work. Furthermore, my work primarily involves recording and producing classical guitar or chamber music, writing articles, making scores and editing simple videos. Except for video editing, none of my other activities requires a lot of CPU power. A light, reliable and snappy computer with good battery life and silent operation is all I’m looking for.
The new Air comes standard with 256GB of fast SSD storage which is enough for me, since I prefer to keep the system drive relatively clean and work off an external SSD, especially with the large video files. Cloud storage for other types of documents allows me to continue working on different machines, and gives me a peace of mind if anything goes wrong. I opted the i7 version for the extra processing power and future-proofing, Intel’s 10th generation quad-core processor should be about four times faster than my old computer.
Another welcome addition is the 16GB Ram option which boosts the multitasking capabilities of the MacBook. A typical daily scenario for me is to have a bunch of tabs open at any given time at three different browsers (Safari, Chrome and Brave) as well as having both Logic and Final Cut loaded with my latest project. Sibelius and Affinity Photo may also run in the background, ready for me to use at any moment. I usually leave everything open with loaded projects, and in that case, the more Ram the better.
My old Air has the classic silver finish, a timeless design choice that doesn’t easily show any marks. For a change, I decided to get the Space Gray this time. I hope that it will also take some slight abuse gently. Space Gray is gorgeous while being more subdued, with a more homogenous look in the keys, chassis and display. The less obvious aesthetics let the computer disappear, bringing the work in the foreground. The black and much smaller bezels also help.
The “new” retina display is a delight to watch, with great colour reproduction and breathtaking resolution. Some people find the slightly wider bezels old-fashioned when compare to competitive ultrabooks, but I think that they might have advantages. They allow for enough space to rest your wrists when writing, a big-enough trackpad, front-facing speakers (for the odd time that I might need to use them) and a full-sized keyboard. Speaking of which, I know that there have been countless complaints about the performance and reliability of butterfly keyboards, I’m happy to report that the new magic keyboard is a joy to type on, and considering the reports from the 16″ MacBook Pro, it should be without problems.
I was afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy as much the clickless nature of the “new” touchpad, counting on my minimal experience with modern MacBooks, but the smooth glass surface and responsiveness of the touchpad is brilliant and took me only a few minutes to forget the old one. Lastly, TouchID is a godsend, with fast and reliable verification, it saves a lot of time from typing long passwords.
Construction and Connectivity
Apple’s engineering and manufacturing are second to none, everything feels very robust, with smooth surfaces and polished edges. A beauty to look and touch. Plugging in the charging cable produces a very satisfying sound. The removal of the MagSafe with all the safety and convenience it provides is really hard to understand though, and I wish there was at least one more USB-C port… and an SD Card reader. Well, at least there is still a headphone jack.
I understand that Apple wants to push wireless connectivity, and I appreciate this philosophy. Sending files with AirDrop between my devices is a breeze, as is the integration of Sidecar. But until my mirrorless camera can send large video files with Bluetooth, and my drives, audio interfaces and DACs can work effortlessly via Bluetooth, I’m stuck with a vastly inelegant solution. Just to do be able to use my RME ADI-2 Pro FS for audio I/O, while charging the MacBook, accessing video files on my SD card and working on my external SSD drive – which is what is connected on my MacBook 95% of the time when I’m at my office – I have to rely on a USB hub, which adds to the cost only to create a mess of cables on my desk. On a positive note, if I want to bring my MacBook with me, I need to remove only one cable.
I have to confess that even though I was confident with my purchase at first, some of the early reviewers that were reporting thermal throttling and other heat issues due to the removal of the heat pipe had me worrying. Recording subtle classical guitar pieces with ultra-sensitive condenser microphones and spinning fans don’t go well together. After all, with almost the same money I could buy a 2019 MacBook Pro with 4 USB-C Ports.
I stayed positive the two weeks that took for Apple to send me my MacBook, due to the pandemic and the great demand for the new MacBooks I presume.
When my machine arrived, I set up everything and installed all the necessary software. After a couple of days of making all the preparations, as well as using the MacBook for regular use, I have yet to hear the fan spin hard, if at all. The chassis would sometimes be warm but stay comfortable. A first relief, but I had to wait and see if it would overheat with my regular use.
After everything was set, the first thing I did was to record my classical guitar and see if the fan starts spinning, ruining my precious recording. Of course, as expected, it remained silent throughout. I knew that the real test was to see how well it can handle editing and mixing though.
Without quitting any apps, with all three browsers running in the background, with four-five tabs each while five of them being preloaded YouTube videos on Chrome, I started loading plugins on my project. Since, I usually work on my music all day and also use my laptop for other tasks in between, for convenience, I leave everything running.
As I already stated my needs are very specific and not awfully demanding. For music production, I’m usually dealing with only a couple of audio tracks, equipped with FabFilter’s Pro-Q3 plugin equalizer and one or more algorithmic reverbs, namely 2CAudio’s Aether or Breeze plugins. On the master bus, the usual suspects are the Pro-L2 limiter, along with the 2CAudio Vector spatial image analysis and Youlean loudness meter plugins. If required, I might use a couple of iZotope’s noise reduction plugins to remove any unwanted noise.
My seven-year-old MacBook could handle a similar load but the plugins would drain the CPU, sometimes leading to System Overload warnings. Some plugins have also oversampling capabilities, that boost performance with the expense of bigger CPU loads, which would make my MacBook surrender. I would often only run plugins at top quality only for the mixdown.
After loading all the plugins, I started the playback, after a minute or so there was still no sign of fan spun. I started boosting performance on some of the plugins with oversampling, still, the fan was inaudible. Then I decided to push the CPU harder. I went to Safari and loaded a 1080p video on youtube, after a minute of listening to both my guitar track and the random video, the fan was still inaudible. My last test was to reproduce the same experiment with Chrome, and surely after half a minute or so, the fan kicked in, at a low speed. I let the video play for another minute to check if this would make the fan to spin faster, but no luck, the fan was audible but at a very comfortable level. I stopped everything and took an ibuprofen, a headache form all the chaos was started to kick in instead.
I loaded a similar project at my old MacBook and tried to replicate the test. I started the playback on Logic, I tried to push the CPU with moderate oversampling and then I tried to stream a video on Safari, after a couple of seconds, I got a System Overload warning from Logic and the audio stopped so thankfully I didn’t have to go through this emetic experience again.
Large projects are not my regular tasks, but I have used the 2013 Air to successfully produce projects with more than thirty audio tracks, with a bunch of plugins on each one, CPU hungry emulations, and virtual instruments. Granted, the fan would sometimes resemble an aeroplane jet, but it was doable and my old MacBook still works like a charm after several years of such abuse. So, I’m positive that the new MacBook Air would not be different in that regard.
Intel’s Iris Plus graphics should make the 2020 Air a charm to work for light video editing. To get an idea on the performance improvements I loaded 1080p footage from my Fuji mirrorless camera. Editing was snappy and with some basic colour grading and a LUT applied, the playback was perfect. The Retina screen is a big improvement over the old display, with much greater colour depth and spectacular resolution. There is much more detail, with better blacks and richer colour reproduction.
On my next video project, I plan to shoot in 4K. This is a demanding job that was absolutely impossible on my old Air, so I’m excited to see how the 2020 Air performs here. Click here to read my experiences with 4K video editing on the 2020 MacBook Air.
A MacBook for the Music Producer on the go
Considering the limitations of the form, the MacBook Air is not the most powerful computer, and it was never meant to be. If you like playing games, or your thing is hardcore video editing and music production with 100s of tracks, you have to look elsewhere. The new 2020 Air will appeal to those looking for snappy, reliable performance that will perform moderately heavy tasks with ease and can be everywhere they go.
Apple’s Air line of ultrabooks has totally eliminated for me any need for a conventional desktop computer with a perfect balance of performance and portability