When Apple confirmed it was ditching processors made by Intel in favour of its own chips in future Macs in June last year, the announcement was met with a flurry of excitement. The company’s promises of improved battery life, advanced graphics performance and greater speeds generated both excited praise and speculation over how likely such lofty claims were to be met.
Five months later the first models were announced: a £999 MacBook Air, £1,299 12-inch MacBook Pro and £699 Mac mini each containing the new M1 chip, complete with assurances it could increase a device’s battery life up to twice as long as the previous version. But how do the Air’s bold claims measure up in practice?
Seriously speedy: effortless switching between apps
You could be forgiven for being confused over Apple’s decision to add another MacBook Air to its roster, given that the company released a new model with an overhauled scissor-mechanism magic keyboard just a few short months ago.
The new laptop looks virtually identical to its predecessor but sports two major internal differences: the first of which a lack of cooling fan, meaning the machine relies on a plate to distribute heat instead. In practice, the whirring sound older MacBook Airs were prone to make after becoming overloaded is now a thing of the past. While Apple has largely eliminated the issue of its laptops becoming noticeably hot to touch in recent years, the new Air remains cool even when hopping between intensive apps and programs, which is handy.
The second change, and key selling point, is the new M1 chip. Apple taking over the reins of designing its own processor means it’s the first designed specifically for Macs.
MACBOOK AIR WITH M1 SPECS
- 13.3-inch Retina LED-backlit display with IPS tech
- 2560 x 1600 resolution at 227 ppi
- 256GB / 512GB storage (configurable to 512GB / 1TB / 2TB or 1TB / 2TB respectively)
- 8GB RAM (configurable to 16GB)
- Apple M1 chip (with 8‑core CPU, 7‑core GPU and 16‑core Neural Engine or 8‑core CPU, 8‑core GPU and 16‑core Neural Engine respectively)
- Backlit magic keyboard, Touch ID
- 720p front-facing camera
- Space grey, silver and gold finishes
- Two thunderbolt charging ports
- Weighs 1.29kg
- From £999
Starts from £999 for the 256GB storage and 7-core GPU model, rising to £1,249 for the 512GB and 8-core GPU version
This is important because the processor, aka chip, aka CPU (central processing unit) is essentially the brains of the machine, telling the computing what to do, handling trillions of calculations each second and juggling processing programs and apps. A GPU, or graphics processing unit, is a secondary processor designed to render the graphics displayed on a screen.
Consequently, Apple claims the M1 has been finely tuned to operate as efficiently as possible in terms of data sharing and power distribution, allowing a computer to run more quickly, even when tackling intensive programs, and extending the time it’s able to run for.
There are two versions of the new M1-powered MacBook Air: the first has a 7‑core GPU and 256GB of storage, while the second has an 8‑core GPU and 512GB of storage. Both models have 8GB of RAM (Random Access Memory, a form of computer memory which temporarily stores data) and the same 8-core M1 CPU. The more cores a CPU has, the more efficiently it is able to run: ditto the amount of RAM, the more it has, the quicker the machine can theoretically operate.
In practice, this means the 8-core GPU/512 GB model I tested was able to easily handle incredibly intensive programs with ease: whether that’s snapping between 50 open Chrome browser tabs, messing around in Photoshop or switching between playing games, making Zoom calls and watching videos while listening to the radio online.
The only time I noticed lag was when running Microsoft Teams while downloading large photo files. This is because Microsoft has yet to update the video calling service with support for the M1 chip, meaning it has to run in Rosetta emulation mode instead. Rosetta emulation mode is a code translator housed within the new machines’ Big Sur software that translates instructions originally intended for Macs powered by Intel chips into commands the new M1 chips can understand.
You’ll know when you’re running a non-Apple app that requires Rosetta 2 because it’ll pop up a notification asking you to install it in order for the Intel-based features to run on the Apple Silicon Macs: for example, installing Slack will prompt one to appear.
Teams started to run significantly more smoothly after updating to Big Sur 11.1 from 11.0, but is relatively small fry in terms of making the leap from Intel to M1 architecture. Chrome was also a bit unstable on 11.0, crashing on several ocassions, but has since run without a hitch after running the updated OS.
Battery life: a huge improvement
While battery life is far from a glamorous topic, it’s an essential aspect of any electronic device and an important consideration when you’re buying a new laptop. Apple has improved Mac battery life in recent years, but the new M1 MacBook Air is a marked improvement. While I was able to eke out 10-11 hours of battery life with light to moderate use on a single charge on the latest MacBook Air shortly after its release in March 2020, the new machine is capable of that with a screen turned up to maximum brightness while deliberately running battery-sapping programs.
In short, I’d be confident leaving the house without a charger to complete a full day’s work on an M1 MacBook Air, safe in the knowledge I’d be very unlikely to need to recharge at any point during the working day. I found on average that battery decreased by 54 per cent over 10 and a half hours (including Zoom calls). Comparatively, the March 2020 MacBook fell from 100 per cent to 5 per cent within around four hours across multiple days of testing, thanks to heavy Zoom and Teams usage.
- The front-facing camera is the same resolution as the previous MacBook Air, at 720p. Given how much time we’ve all spent on video calls, this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for an easy upgrade
- The scissor-mechanism keyboard makes for great typing, complete with the extra-large trackpad
- If you’re familiar with MacBook Airs/Pros, you’ll notice this laptop is much quicker to wake than previous machines – another benefit of the new chip
- There’s still only two thunderbolt charging ports, meaning any other peripherals will require an adaptor, and even then you haven’t got much room for manoeuvre
- The screen is bright and clear, though I wouldn’t be surprised if future machines ditch the thick black border bezel in favour of an edge-to-edge display
- It’s made from 100 per cent recycled aluminium, contains 100 per cent recycled tin in the logic board’s solder and it can be recycled at the end of its life for free via Apple’s Trade In programme
So, should you buy the MacBook Air with M1?
When you consider the sheer amount of confidence Apple had in its M1 chip in its various virtual presentations, it’s easy to see how the company could have been setting itself up for a colossal, and very public, fall. As it happens, it managed to pull it off entirely – a remarkably smooth transition to an entirely new chip that delivers its promises for both faster performance and longer battery life.
Considering that Apple has already dropped the March 2020 MacBook Air from its lineup, it’s not even a question of being able to recommend the M1 model over it – the M1-powered Air is the only Air currently on sale, but at the same price (£999) as the machine it replaced. It’s a smart move towards making the chips more widespread without pricing out would-be customers.
Consequently, beyond the underpowered webcam and thick bezels, it’s hard to find too much to criticise. The new M1-powered MacBook Air is incredibly fast, more energy-efficient and reliable than ever before, and for Apple to deliver all that without a dramatically inflated price tag is a real achievement. Luckily, it more than lives up to all our expectations, and in many areas, even exceeds them. Believe the hype.
- Incredibly fast, smooth-running laptop
- Fantastic, reliable battery life courtesy of the M1 chip
- Sleek and lightweight design
- As ever, expensive
- The webcam’s poor quality doesn’t reflect the price of the machine
- Just two thunderbolt ports is a pain