The new MacBook Air wowed me with its extended battery life and rapid performance, but it lacks key functions

  • Apple’s M1-powered MacBook Air gives the company’s flagship lightweight laptop faster performance and better battery life.
  • The M1 is Apple’s first Mac CPU, and one of the first devices to use it is the new MacBook Air.
  • The addition of Apple’s chip not only improves performance and battery life, but it also allows iPhone and iPad apps to run on the Mac for the first time.
  • However, without a touch screen, experiencing the benefits of utilizing mobile apps on the desktop may be difficult.
  • In addition, the MacBook Air lacks newer Apple capabilities such as Face ID and an almost borderless display.

The new MacBook Air wowed me with its extended battery life and rapid performance, but it lacks key functions

Apple MacBook Air (M1)

Pros: Quick performance; long battery life; significantly improved camera.
Cons: Doesn’t have some of the capabilities of similarly priced Windows devices, such as facial recognition and a borderless screen; iPhone apps don’t contribute much to the experience currently, especially without touch screens.

It’s no secret that in recent years, laptops have begun to resemble tablets and smartphones more closely. Apple, Microsoft, and a slew of other tech titans have been seeking the Holy Grail of computing: combining the benefits of mobile devices with the processing power of desktop-class workstations.

Apple’s goals in this area are becoming clearer with the introduction of the M1, the company’s first in-house processor built to power its Mac computers.

Apple fans may look forward to a few things with the arrival of its M1 chip. For starters, Apple’s laptops and desktops will use the same basic architecture as the iPhone and iPad, allowing for the first time the use of mobile apps from the iOS App Store on the Mac.

But, most importantly, Apple promises that its M1 chip would significantly improve performance and power efficiency. After only a few days with the new $1,000 M1-powered MacBook Air, it’s clear that it’s light years ahead of Apple’s Intel-powered MacBook Air in terms of performance and webcam quality.

Plus, thanks to the MacBook Air‘s redesigned fanless internal architecture, you won’t have to worry about your laptop sounding like a jet engine when it’s under a lot of stress.

However, it will take some time before we can tell if making iPhone apps available with Mac adds anything new to the experience. Even while Apple’s M1 chip improves power and efficiency, Apple’s laptops lack some of the features found on Windows devices, such as facial recognition for a more smooth login, borderless panels, and, most crucially, touch compatibility.

However, the M1-powered MacBook Air outperforms its Intel-based predecessor. Even when running programs that aren’t yet optimized for Apple’s new hardware, it offers higher performance for the same price with almost no tradeoffs.

Apple MacBook Air (Late 2020, M1) specifications

  • Display: 13.3-inch Retina display (2,560 x 1,600) with True Tone
  • Processor: 8-core Apple M1 SoC (7~8-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine)
  • Estimated battery life: Up to 15 hours of web browsing
  • Memory: 8GB to 16GB 
  • Storage: 256GB or 512GB SSD configurable up to 2TB
  • Ports: Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, one headphone jack
  • Camera: 720p FaceTime camera
  • Authentication: Touch ID fingerprint sensor

Performance

Let’s start with performance, because it’s one of the most noticeable differences between Apple’s new MacBook Air and its Intel-powered predecessor.

The Apple silicon MacBook Air I’ve been testing has eight processing cores and 8GB of RAM, while the Intel-powered version has a 1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM.

The Intel edition that this model replaced had four cores, and the standard model had a dual-core Intel Core i3, which I found to be insufficient in my earlier evaluation. A processor with more cores is usually better at multitasking since it has more cores to drive many operations at the same time.

When compared to the previous-generation Intel MacBook Air model, Apple claims the M1-equipped device offers 3.5 times the computational power, five times the graphics performance, and up to nine times the machine learning capabilities. In other words, it should be faster for anything from gaming to high-resolution photo processing and so on.

The performance benefits are particularly obvious in photo editing programs and video games, in my experience. The M1-powered MacBook Air took 16.5 seconds to export 50 full-size photos at 100 percent quality from Adobe Lightroom, while the Intel version took 46.3 seconds. It was also faster at stitching five photographs together to make a panoramic shot: the M1 MacBook Air took 11.2 seconds against 19.3 seconds for the Intel variant.

The new MacBook Air wowed me with its extended battery life and rapid performance, but it lacks key functions

When utilizing the M1 MacBook Air, exporting a complicated image that was 1GB in size and 15,000 by 12,000 pixels — by far the largest file in my Lightroom library — took roughly 30 seconds on the first try and 17 seconds on the second. In comparison, the Intel MacBook Air took almost three minutes to export the same image file both times.

The MacBook Air isn’t designed to be a gaming laptop, but the M1 model is far more capable than the Intel-powered version. Expect to be unable to play games at their greatest resolution on the M1 MacBook Air, but I was able to play “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” at 1,900 x 1,200 without difficulty.

The game can be played at the same resolution on an Intel-equipped MacBook Air, but performance suffers in comparison, especially when panning the camera across busy scenes. When launching the game, the M1 MacBook Air filled my save slot roughly 13 seconds faster than the Intel version.

Not to mention that “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” made the Intel-based MacBook Air’s fans spin after just over an hour of gameplay, something I didn’t have to worry about with the fanless M1 MacBook Air.

Apps

Apple’s decision to use its own silicon in products like the MacBook Air, along with the company’s most recent desktop software, gives the Mac an iPhone-like feel.

Big Sur is the name of Apple’s most recent macOS update, which includes revised app icons that look more like those found on the iPhone, as well as other iPhone-like features. In addition, the M1 MacBook Air’s keyboard includes additional function row shortcuts for functions like Do Not Disturb and dictation.

However, apps are the most important way Apple is connecting the Mac and iPhone experiences. Because the Mac’s processor now shares the same basic architecture as the iPhone and iPad, iOS programs can now run natively on the Mac. Games like “Among Us” and “Crossy Road,” as well as Facebook, Zillow, and Kitchen Stories, are among the iOS apps that are currently available on macOS ahead of launch.

These programs work perfectly on the Mac. However, it will most likely take some time for developers to implement adjustments that elevate their apps beyond what you’d get from the web-based version.

This is especially relevant because, unlike many Windows devices, Mac laptops do not enable touch input. Apple has always insisted on keeping its desktop and mobile environments separate. But, after using the iPad Pro in recent years, I’ve never wanted a touch screen on a Mac more.

The best argument yet for how good an Apple touch-centric productivity gadget could be is the company’s top-of-the-line tablet. The MacBook Air has some of the advantages I liked about working on the iPad Pro, such as its fanless design, long battery life, and rapid performance, but it lacks a touch screen. This also makes the notion of iPhone apps on the Mac seem less appealing.

There are still some ways for mobile apps to flourish on the Mac. The Kitchen Stories app is a little more slick than the website, and it jumps right into the featured dishes with eye-catching images. The website, on the other hand, emphasizes articles and blog posts over recipes, which is great if you’re looking for something to read but not so great if you’re in the middle of preparing a meal.

Most people, on the other hand, do not purchase a laptop particularly to use mobile apps. Desktop programs must be optimized for Apple’s new computers because the M1 chip is based on a different architecture than Intel’s processors. Apple is solving this by allowing Intel-based software to operate in its Rosetta 2 emulator, effectively allowing apps to run normally on M1 Macs regardless of whether they’ve been updated for Apple’s new CPU.

I couldn’t tell the difference between apps that were optimized for Apple’s chip and those that weren’t during my time with the M1 MacBook Air. Slack, Google Chrome, Microsoft Word, Cisco WebEx, Adobe Lightroom, and Skitch — all of the third-party apps I’ve been using on the new MacBook Air — have yet to be updated to be optimized for Apple silicon.

However, they performed so well on the MacBook Air that the only way I could tell they weren’t tuned for the M1 chip was to check the Activity Monitor.

Webcam and battery life

While the performance improvements are welcome, it’s the improved battery life on the MacBook Air that I find most appealing.

After 12 hours of use, the MacBook Air had 10% of its battery left after a mix of photo editing in Lightroom, browsing the web in Safari and Chrome, streaming video on YouTube, and a little gaming. The new Air, according to Apple, should last 15 hours when surfing the web and 18 hours when watching video on Apple TV Plus.

Those results may not match Apple’s claims exactly, especially because my usage circumstances differed from Apple’s studies. However, it surpassed the Intel-based MacBook Air, which I examined earlier this year and found to last about seven hours on a single charge.

Remember that factors like screen brightness and the apps you’re using will always affect battery life, so your findings may differ from mine.

The new MacBook Air wowed me with its extended battery life and rapid performance, but it lacks key functions

The webcam on the M1-powered MacBook Air is also getting a much-needed improvement. Apple isn’t alone; most laptop webcams aren’t even close to the quality of those available on our smartphones. That probably didn’t mean much till 2020. However, with so many people using webcams for professional meetings, networking, and, most likely, Christmas gatherings in the near future, the cameras in our laptops have taken on new significance.

The M1 MacBook Air still has a 720p camera, but it also features Apple’s iPhone-grade image signal processor technology because it runs on Apple’s processor. That means it should provide superior noise reduction and white balancing, which it did in my experience.

Display, keyboard, and design

The MacBook Air hasn’t altered much in other major aspects, like as design, display, and keyboard, since the previous Intel-powered edition. One distinction is that Apple has included support for broad color rather than simply standard color in the display.

That implies the screen should be able to display a wider range of colors than the previous MacBook Air, though I didn’t detect much of a difference in regular use. It’s most likely more significant for photo and video editors who require accurate color representation on a laptop.

Unfortunately, Apple’s new M1-powered laptops haven’t received the same treatment as other recent Apple devices like the iPad and iPhone. As a result, their displays are still framed by thicker borders, taking up space that could have been used to expand the screen without making the laptop itself bulkier. When compared to Windows laptops like the Dell XPS 13, the design feels a little antiquated.

Despite the fact that dozens of Windows laptops accept Microsoft’s Windows Hello function, Apple has yet to integrate Face ID into the Mac. Although the new MacBook Air, like its predecessor, has Touch ID, facial recognition would have delivered a slightly more smooth experience. If the internals of the MacBook Air are comparable to those of the Intel MacBook Air from earlier this year, the RAM and SSD are likely soldered, making upgrades difficult.

The M1-powered MacBook Air boasts Apple’s new Magic Keyboard, just like the other laptops announced this year. If you’ve used any of Apple’s previous laptops between 2015 and 2019, you’ll notice a significant difference.

The Magic Keyboard is less flat and provides more feedback when typing, making it a more comfortable experience than the previous butterfly keyboard. Damage and malfunctions were much more common on previous keyboards than on the Magic Keyboard.

Compare Apple Mac products

New Apple MacBook Air with Apple M1 Chip (13-inch)New Apple MacBook Pro with Apple M1 Chip (13-inch)
Ratings4.8 out of 54.8 out of 5
DescriptionMacBook Air. Extremely portable and amazingly fast with up to 18 hours of battery life.MacBook Pro. A true powerhouse with up to 20 hours of battery life for more demanding workflows.
Display13.3-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit widescreen display13.3-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit Retina display
ProcessorSystem on Chip (SoC) Apple M1 chip; 8-core CPU with 4 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores; Up to 8-core GPU; 16-core Neural EngineSystem on Chip (SoC) Apple M1 chip; 8-core CPU with 4 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores; Up to 8-core GPU; 16-core Neural Engine
BatteryUp to 18 hours Apple TV app movie playback (varies by use)Up to 20 hours Apple TV app movie playback (varies by use)
Touch Bar and Touch IDTouch IDTouch Bar and Touch ID
Storage256GB or 512GB SSD256GB or 512GB SSD
Number of Thunderbolt Ports22
Weight2.8 pounds (1.29 kg)3.0 pounds (1.4 kg)

In conclusion

Apple’s new M1 chip provides significant gains in terms of battery life and performance for the same price. Popular software like Microsoft Word and Slack, which haven’t been optimized for the chip yet, run smoothly on the system, indicating that the laptop’s viability isn’t dependent on whether or not developers upgrade their apps.

The addition of the M1 chip is especially advantageous for a laptop like the MacBook Air, which is aimed towards students and professionals who require a laptop for basic tasks such as web browsing and word editing. The fact that it can compete in terms of gaming and photo editing makes it even better.

But, given Apple’s aversion to touch displays and flexible 2-in-1 designs, I’m curious how much better the experience could be if the company embraced such options, especially now that iPhone apps can run on the Mac.

The new MacBook Air is an improvement, but it would have been good to see some of the improvements that have been made to the iPad and iPhone make their way to the Mac, such as a larger screen and Face ID.

Overall, the M1 MacBook Air is Apple’s first big attempt to bring the benefits of mobile devices to its desktop operating system, such as all-day battery life, fanless designs, and a greater range of apps. Although the full benefits of having the iPhone and Mac run on the same architecture have yet to be realized, the M1 has so far shown to be a success in the most important aspects, such as performance and battery life.

The new MacBook Air wowed me with its extended battery life and rapid performance, but it lacks key functions

Apple MacBook Air (M1)

Pros: Quick performance; long battery life; significantly improved camera.
Cons: Doesn’t have some of the capabilities of similarly priced Windows devices, such as facial recognition and a borderless screen; iPhone apps don’t contribute much to the experience currently, especially without touch screens.


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