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MacBook Air M1 Review

After using the MacBook Air M1 you won't ever want to switch back to an Intel-powered Mac.

Verdict

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Trusted Reviews Recommended

This is a ridiculously capable laptop offering fantastic battery life – it’s an instant recommendation for anyone looking for a MacBook Air.

Pros

  • It’s so fast thanks to M1
  • Exceptional battery life
  • Strong app support
  • Great keyboard

Cons

  • Poor webcam
  • Same design as before
  • Poorly positioned (and only two) USB ports

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £999
  • 13in, 2560 x 1600 display
  • M1 8-core chip with 7 or 8 core GPU
  • 8GB or 16GB unified memory
  • Up to 2TB SSD
  • Dimensions: 304 x 212 x 16.1mm
  • Weight: 1.29kg

Apple’s new £999 MacBook Air looks just like its predecessor on the outside. However, beneath the aluminium body is a chip that turns this machine into one of the best we’ve ever reviewed.

Having used the MacBook Air M1 for a couple of weeks now, I don’t want to switch back to an Intel-powered Mac. Not now; probably, not ever. That’s how transformative an experience using this laptop has been.

From the ridiculous performance of offer to the almost class-leading battery life, the MacBook Air M1 deserves an instant recommendation.

M1 chip – The MacBook Air M1 will change Apple’s laptops forever

This new MacBook Air is all about one feature: the M1 chipset inside that takes over from your typical Intel Core i3 or i5.

If in the past you haven’t really taken much interest in what powers your laptop then this might sound insignificant. In reality, however, this is one of the biggest product shifts Apple has made since it moved from PowerPC to the x86-based Intel chips in 2006.

Instead of using Intel’s chips (and having to wait for Intel to develop new ones), Apple is including units it has designed itself using the ARM architecture. This is the same chip architecture that forms the foundation of smartphone chipsets, including Apple’s own A14 and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon.

By designing its own chipsets (it doesn’t actually manufacture them, that’s done by TSMC) and using the ARM architecture, Apple has more control over the technological advances. It can tailor the M1 to work best with its own machines, and doesn’t have to wait for Intel to make the upgrades it wants.

For instance, the M1 has a focus on the neural engine (as does an iPhone) for machine-learning tasks – unified memory that can be shared across the GPU and a selection of big and little cores for added efficiency when required. Apple has also built its T2 chip into the M1, which is used for security.

Related: Best laptop

Another part of the M1 is the GPU, which is an Apple-designed seven or eight-core (model dependent) unit that I’ve found very capable. For the purposes of this review, I’ve been using the base model, which packs the same 8-core CPU as the MacBook Pro and a 7-core GPU. It has also 8GB of unified memory (LPDDR4X).

While the GPU varies slightly, the CPU in all models of the M1 is the same 8-core unit. Apple doesn’t even bother noting clock speed on its site, which I believe is a clever move and one that will be familiar to owners of iPhones and iPads.

There was much talk following Apple’s announcement of this chip about whether it could meet the lofty expectations it had set. As you’ll learn in what follows, not only has it beat them but in my opinion the company has reset my expectations of a £1000 laptop.

Performance – A new benchmark for laptop performance 

The MacBook Air M1’s performance is incredible, far exceeding anything I could have imagined for what is essentially a first-gen product. Having used it for a few weeks now, it’s hard to comprehend the sort of performance you get from Apple’s cheapest laptop.

Those who simply want to forget that slowdown is a thing when carrying out everyday tasks such as web browsing, working, and even photo and video editing should stop reading here and just buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

While benchmark tests are important for providing an overall look at the machine’s abilities, real-world performance will arguably be more important to those considering a purchase. After all, this is Apple’s most popular laptop line, and it appeals to a wide spectrum of people.

You’ll notice the benefits of the M1 instantly. This feels more like an iPad in use than a typical laptop, with the screen bursting to life the second – and I really mean that – you open the lid. Everything you do happens with added zip not experienced with the older MacBook Airs, whether you’re opening apps or even hoarding tabs in Chrome. Speed almost becomes a non-issue because you’re never thinking about it.

This laptop doesn’t just impress when it comes to basic tasks; it handles more demanding ones with aplomb too. Rendering 4K HDR video shot on an iPhone 12 Pro, for example, I was able to scrub through my timeline without any stutter at all – and while I still had multiple other apps running in the background. As a comparison, I loaded up the same 20-minute file on a MacBook Pro (2GHz quad core i5, 16GB RAM) and it struggled to avoid slowdown in parts.

Opening up multiple huge Raw files in Lightroom and zooming quickly in and out (still an x86 app without any M1 updates) usually causes my MacBook Pro to stutter slightly. This wasn’t an issue at all on the M1 MacBook Air; it was snappy in editing the shots and then exporting them out as smaller JPEGs, too.

Unlike the MacBook Pro, the Air is a fanless machine, which means you won’t hear that constant whirr when you’re in the middle of completing heftier tasks. On the MacBook Pro I mentioned above, you’ll hear the hum of the fans reach ridiculous levels when I have upwards of 20 Chrome tabs open. On the MacBook Air M1, that doesn’t happen.

It’s proved a tough task to challenge this machine – even this version with 8GB of RAM (an extra £200/$200 gets you 16GB). Having multiple tabs open in Chrome (usually a RAM hog), Safari, Slack, a video call through Zoom, FM 2021 running through Steam, and the Photos app uploading to the cloud, it didn’t break a sweat. This situation would simply be unattainable on an older MacBook Air.

In terms of actual benchmarks, the M1 demonstrates just how much power is available. In the M1-optimised Geekbench 5 app, I saw single-core scores of 1731 and multi-core scores of a whopping 7308. Even in the version of the app that wasn’t built for M1, I saw a multi-core score of 5654. This matches some of the very best Windows laptops we’ve reviewed this year.

The GPU is strong, too, capable of outputting to Apple’s Pro Display XDR Monitor if you happen to have one of those £5000 displays sitting around. In the past, I’ve had issues with MacBook Airs struggling to keep up when plugged into a 4K screen, but I can say that was an issue here.

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Apps – Does the MacBook Air M1 work with all apps?

When the new chips were first announced, I felt Apple did a poor job at explaining how M1 machines would play with apps built for Intel’s x86 platform. We always knew those devised especially for the M1 platform would excel, but native upgrades to important apps are likely more vital for most.

Having used this machine for a few weeks now, it appears that the reason Apple didn’t spend much time addressing how those apps would work is because, well, they just work; there isn’t much else to say.

Apple has built a translation layer called Rosetta 2 into Big Sur. The original Rosetta helped apps transition when Apple moved from PowerPC to Intel in 2006, and the sequel provides a similar function here.

When you first try to boot an x86 app (Lightroom or Steam, for example) you’ll be asked to install Rosetta 2; and then it will translate that app. The first boot of a translated app is a little slow, around 50 seconds, and the same happens from a restart – every other time you’ll probably struggle to determine which apps are native or translated. That’s seriously impressive, and removes one of the big barriers to this machine.

I’ve downloaded and installed all the apps I use on a daily basis. These come from the App Store and elsewhere online, and everything I’ve tried has worked a charm. Adobe’s suite of apps might not all have M1 versions – at the time of writing, there’s an M1 beta of Photoshop and nothing else – but they all work fine. The same goes for Steam and Office. I even installed the new Football Manager 2021 from Steam; not only did it work, but there were no obvious signs of the emulation affecting the game. Impressive stuff.

Apps that have been optimised are growing rapidly, too, both from indie developers and the bigger names. Google pushed out a native M1 version of Chrome, and Pixelmator Pro is an excellent image-editing tool that’s been updated.

While I personally haven’t experienced any incompatibility issues, if you use a very specific or niche app for work then I’d advise you first try to find out about any known issues before making the switch. The same is true if you require any specific Final Cut Pro plug-ins or Windows emulation through an app such as Parallels, as this doesn’t work. There’s no Boot Camp for Windows, either.

Apps can also be installed from iOS App Store, giving you, in theory, access to plenty more services.

iOS app support is one of the few disappointments with this machine; however, this seems far more down to developers than Apple. If you’re expecting apps such as Netflix, Spotify, Audible, then you’ll be disappointed. There were barely any apps I use daily available, aside from Overcast for podcasts and The Athletic. Apple said it is giving developers the choice, and while some might restrict access due to lack of touch support and sensors, many probably just don’t want their apps on a MacBook.

Even the apps that do work aren’t great. Some are resizable, while others aren’t – and many that focus on video can’t be put into full-screen mode. It’s an odd mish-mash of issues that feels very un-Apple. While it’s nice to have, I doubt I will be booting an iOS app here for a while.

Battery life – Go on, you can leave the charger at home

If the improvements to battery life were the only big upgrades that came with the jump to the M1 chip then it would still be worth it.

Just as this Apple Silicon eliminates anxiety in terms of everyday performance, it does away with battery life fears too. The MacBook Air M1 outpaces all previous models of MacBook, and comes second place only to the MacBook Pro M1.

All this extra juice is comes purely as a result of the added efficiency of the 5nm chip; the actual cell inside this laptop is no larger than that of the outgoing model.

Throughout the multiple weeks using MacBook Air M1 as my main work computer, I’ve been getting roughly 9-11 hours of use before it requires a charge. This is while using the same apps I would normally, not making any radical moves to M1 apps. When you consider this included multiple hours of calls, video streaming, multiple apps running at once and a smattering of photo editing, you can’t help but be impressed.

I ran a looped 1080p video with the brightness set to 50% and the MacBook Air lasted for 12 hours. Do the same with a downloaded iTunes movie and that figure moves closer to the 18 hours of video playback claimed by Apple. 

Standby time is excellent, too; it dropped only a few percentage points overnight.

Screen and design – With such a notable internal upgrade, a fresh redesign would have been welcome

Both the M1 versions of the MacBook Air and Pro sport exactly the same designs as their respective predecessors.

This review model is a sleek machine, with a duo of Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports on one side for data transfer and charging. More ports would have been welcome, and it would have been even better had they not been bunched together on the same side. This can cause issues if you want to plug in multiple dongles and adapters. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, too. 

Both the keyboard and large glass trackpad are excellent. The Magic Keyboard Apple has used over the past year is a notable upgrade over the previous, very shallow version, and there’s enough travel here for comfortable typing.

Apple has rejigged the keyboard layout slightly, adding search and dictation keys in the function row. Dictation is useful for improved accessibility and I appreciate being able to quickly search the files on my Mac. A Touch ID sensor sits in the power key to unlock the computer.

In terms of the display, the 13-inch 2560 x 1600 screen has received a slight boost – it now supports the P3 wide colour gamut – and is a little more colourful as a result. However, it doesn’t represent a major upgrade. It remains sharp and bright enough for most use cases.

For a more in-depth look at the design and keyboard, check out our MacBook Air 13-inch 2020 review. Everything I wrote there still stands here.

So, the MacBook Air M1 is a good-looking machine in many aspects. Still, when you consider the generational update on the inside, it would have been nice to see a similar jump on the outside. I would have preferred a smaller bezel surrounding the display; the machine itself is larger than other 13-inch models I’ve used.

It’s a shame, too, that Apple hasn’t really updated the webcam, aside from a couple of software-based tweaks that come courtesy of the chip. The 720p sensor still looks washed out and blurry, and it performs poorly in anything but great light. At least the microphones are pretty decent. 

Should you buy the MacBook Air M1?

The switch to Apple’s own M1 chips in its most popular laptop line represents a significant move by the company. And having used the MacBook Air M1 for a number of weeks now, the company’s decision makes complete sense.

This is a ridiculously capable laptop offering fantastic battery life and performance – it’s an instant recommendation for anyone looking for a MacBook Air.

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