Unreal performance

MacBook Air M1 review: Windows laptops are so screwed

The hype is real for Apple's M1 chip. It doesn't feel like Apple's entry-level MacBook Air is capable of all this power and battery life. Yet it is. Windows laptops are going to be eating MacBook dust for years after this.

Apple didn’t send me an M1 MacBook Air to review. So I bought one with my own money.

There’s been a fair amount of hype and skepticism following the MacBook virtual event earlier this month when Apple announced a new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini with its own M1 chip. The new chips and laptops begin Apple’s two-year transition away from Intel processors to in-house designed silicon that's based on ARM chips. But are these new Macs really better than Intel-powered ones?

1,000 percent yes!

All of the hype about the 8-core M1 chip in the MacBook Air — up to 3.5x faster CPU and up to 5x faster GPU performance, and almost double the battery life compared to the previous-gen Intel MacBook Air — is real. I’ve been using the entry-level $999 MacBook Air with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage nonstop as my only computer for a week and it still doesn’t feel possible that a laptop this thin and this light is capable of all this power and battery life. It makes my 2019 13-inch MacBook Pro with Intel Core i5 and 16GB of RAM look like smoldering trash now.

What Apple has achieved with the M1 is nothing short of groundbreaking. It pains me there’s still no touchscreen, there are only two USB-C ports, there’s no SD card slot, and I know I'm bound to run into some apps that don’t emulate well (or at all) with Rosetta 2 (macOS Big Sur’s x86 Intel app translator), but these are all trivial issues.

The M1 MacBook Air (and M1 MacBook Pro) are now the best laptops regardless of operating system. They’re the new gold standard by which all laptops will be judged, and this is just the start. In a few years, we’ll look back and wonder how we ever tolerated laptops with anything less than this kind of performance.

Metal wedge

The MacBook Air M1's keyboard and trackpad are best-in-class again.Raymond Wong / Input

I hear people complaining about how the M1 Macs have the same old design as the Intel Macs. I agree that Apple could have used the chip transition to usher in a new look and feel (or maybe even have brought back the glowing Apple logo). But I’m fine with the design. The 2.98-pound aluminum wedge looks as modern as it did when Apple updated the chassis in 2018. That’s just how Apple products are: the design is timeless... or at least, it endures for a very long time.

I bought the Space Gray version, but the M1 MacBook Air also comes in silver and gold. Like the unibody case, Apple’s changed very little about the keyboard and display. The keyboard’s still got a fast and secure Touch ID sensor inside of the power button and no Touch Bar (thank god!). The keyboard is terrific to type on now that all MacBooks now come with scissor-style switches instead of the flawed butterfly keyboards Apple kept pushing for years. The glass trackpad is also the best on any laptop — large, smooth, and responsive. You can’t ask for a better trackpad.

The keyboard is terrific to type on.

The function row has been tweaked; buttons for Launchpad and adjusting the backlight for the keyboard have been replaced with Spotlight search, Dictation, and Do Not Disturb. I’m still annoyed that the keyboard brightness buttons got cut, but the Search and DND buttons have come in handy. It’s also great that the Fn key now doubles as a button to insert emoji — it’s just like on the Magic Keyboard for iPad, and I’m glad to never have to press Cmd+Control+Space Bar ever again.

Apple’s also using the same display as before: a 13.3-inch Retina display with crisp 2,560 x 1,600 resolution. Other than the fact that it only maxes out at 400 nits instead of 500 nits of brightness, it’s identical to the 13-inch MacBook Pro display. Same wide color gamut and same True Tone support. It looks great. The bezels could be slimmer and a matte nano-texture option would have been nice, but this is a $999 laptop, not a $3,000 one, so there’s little to complain about. Besides, it’s plain dumb reviewing devices by bezel thickness.

No touchscreen? 😒Raymond Wong / Input

The speakers sound okay — Apple says they’re better on the 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro — but they’re nothing that’ll knock your socks off. Get a HomePod mini if you want good sound that doesn’t break the bank. The webcam is pretty average, too. It’s really a shame that the resolution is 720p, especially now that webcam quality is so important since we're all video calling more. Apple says it’s improved the image processing on the webcam, and it does look slightly better than the one on my MacBook Pro, but not by much.

The same recycled aluminum chassis as before.Raymond Wong / Input
The M1 Air is the first laptop with USB-C 4 ports.

There are also two Thunderbolt USB-C 4 ports (the laptop first with USB 4 speeds) on the left side — same as the previous Intel MacBook Air. Two USB ports are not enough for me, but a multi-port dongle solves the problem. My biggest gripe is that the M1 MacBook Air can only drive one external display. I’m a two-monitor guy and not being able to hook up the Air up to two screens is a step back. (Yes, you can use an iPad as a display with Sidecar, but it’s not the same.)

Unreal power

But enough about stuff that’s the same. You’re reading this review to hear about the M1 chip and the performance and battery life it enables. In both cases, the M1 MacBook Air exceeded what I expected.

I’ve used plenty of MacBooks and Windows laptops with 8GB of RAM and they just barely cut it the moment you install Chrome or run Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps like Photoshop or Lightroom. So I was cautiously skeptical how well the M1 MacBook Air with 8GB would perform. Turns out, its 8GB of “unified memory” is not equal to the same amount of RAM in an Intel-powered MacBook. It’s better.

In almost every use case, the M1 MacBook Air with 8GB of RAM smoked my 2019 13-inch MacBook Air with 16GB of RAM. I’m not going to get into the technical details, but essentially macOS Big Sur and apps optimized for the M1 chip are able to ramp up and down performance while using less RAM. This is just like how iPhones and iPads work. On paper, iOS devices have less RAM than Android devices so it seems like they're worse specs-wise, but as Apple has proven over and over, iOS does more with less. Apps built for Intel (x86) chips come with all kinds of baggage that require more RAM to run smoothly. By integrating the memory on the M1 silicon, Big Sur and optimized apps don’t need as much RAM. This all but puts the kibosh on the whole “There’s no 32GB RAM option for the M1 Macs.”

On my MacBook Pro with 16GB of RAM, I frequently run out of RAM with Chrome open with two dozen tabs and Slack, Notes, Tweetdeck, Photoshop, Lightroom, Final Cut Pro, and Handbrake open. If the M1 MacBook Air could talk, it would have chuckled at me when I threw the same workload at it and said “Is that all you got?” It took almost 50 Chrome tabs and a few more open apps like Spotify and VLC Player on top of that workload to finally bring the 8GB of RAM in the M1 MacBook Air to its knees. And even then, it was because of Lightroom. (Because of course.) The photo editing app isn’t optimized for the M1 so it’s running “translated” via emulation with Rosetta 2. I can’t even be mad that an Adobe app froze and crashed my MacBook Air because they’re notorious for performing poorly on even Intel Macs.

That's not to say Adobe apps don't run at all. With fewer apps and processes open, Photoshop and Lightroom actually run faster than on my Intel MacBook Pro. It boggled my mind to see Lightroom instantly import 80 RAW photos and not so much as show a loading bar. That's just nuts! I'm so conditioned to stretching my legs out and grabbing tea while waiting for RAW photos to import that I thought something was wrong. Nope, the M1's just super fast.

The sheer amount of performance from the M1 is just unreal.

For the most part, all of your apps will “just work” on the MacBook Air. Some people have griped about certain apps not working or working badly. From what I’ve seen, those are mostly enterprise and business-oriented apps. The majority of Intel apps worked flawlessly on my Air. I ran into only a few apps and drivers that didn’t work (i.e. an obscure text editor I use called Bean and a printer driver). If you use a lot of older or specific x86 apps, you may want to hold off (iMazing has a great app that checks if your apps support M1). Native M1 apps will no doubt come sooner rather than later (Photoshop’s on target for 2021). Developers will be incentivized to update their apps for Apple’s M chips as more people buy Macs with M chips are released.

The only apps that are weird are iOS apps. Most of them are terrible on macOS Big Sur and just not designed for keyboard and trackpad. Android apps work on Chromebooks because they at least have a touchscreen; Macs don't have the same input and they feel broken because of it.

Mac app compatibility is really a non-issue in my opinion. That’s even more true when the performance of the M1 chip is so damn good. Apple Silicon is really next-gen stuff for laptops. Not only do most of my apps run, but they run far better than on my MacBook Air. Google’s already updated Chrome to support the M1 and I can’t believe I’m saying this but the browser is no longer the battery hog it is on my Intel MacBook Pro. All of Apple’s apps (Safari, Messages, Notes, Preview, etc.) fly on the M1. I could open all 80-something apps I have installed and the MacBook Air won’t kernel panic; half of that would choke up my Intel MacBook Pro. Apps optimized for the M1 run the best, but even apps that are Electron-based like Slack that is known to crash all the time and eat up battery life works great.

Final Cut Pro crushes on the MacBook Air M1.Raymond Wong / Input

I am not a YouTuber or filmmaker shooting high-bitrate files so I can’t speak for that kind of workload. But I work with 4K video daily and use Final Cut Pro to cut and edit short video clips and Handbrake to convert them to different resolutions and file sizes. On my Intel MacBook Pro, both of these apps really can’t be run smoothly if other resource-hungry apps like Chrome are open. They both chew through storage, RAM, and CPU and GPU processing power. Not to mention these apps always spin up the MacBook Pro’s fan and heat up the metal chassis. In what can only be described as black magic, the M1 MacBook Air can run Final Cut Pro and Handbrake and Chrome with a dozen tabs and Slack open without bottlenecking on 8GB of RAM — completely silent and cool on my lap. It’s unsettling how quiet it is and it made me jumpy.

The sheer amount of performance from the M1 is just unreal. It’s really mind-blowing what’s possible when the CPU, GPU, RAM, and flash storage are all integrated together and optimized for the software. The 8-core CPU working with the 7-core (8-core on the 512GB model) GPU saw data being read at insane speeds (I got read speeds of 2,197MB/s and write speeds of 2,717MB/s on the M1 MacBook Air versus a measly 848MB/s read and 1,391MB/s write speeds on my Intel MacBook Pro).

Just to give you an idea of what kind of performance you can expect from the M1 MacBook Air, here are a few video export tests I did to compare it to my Intel MacBook Pro.

30-second 4K 30 fps video shot with iPhone 12 Pro and exported to 4K with Final Cut Pro:

  • M1 MacBook Air: 22 seconds
  • 2019 MacBook Pro: 30 seconds

The same video above, but exported to 1080p:

  • M1 MacBook Air: 13 seconds
  • 2019 MacBook Pro: 50 seconds

3-minute long 1080p HDR video clip captured from PlayStation 5 in WEBM format (high efficiency) converted to 1080p SDR with Handbrake using “Fast 1080p 30” setting:

  • M1 MacBook Air: 1 minute 38 seconds
  • 2019 MacBook Pro: 2 minutes 53 seconds

In almost every video conversion using Handbrake, the M1 MacBook Air converted at almost double the framerate, leading to almost half the conversion time.

In my tests, the M1 sustains better performance than an Intel chip. That means bigger and longer video exports benefit greatly. I did a 1080p export in Final Cut Pro using the 10-minute Cyberpunk 2077 OnePlus 8T unboxing video and here’s what I got:

  • M1 MacBook Air: 1 minute 48 seconds
  • 2019 MacBook Pro: 2 minutes 9 seconds

The difference is not as dramatic as some of the other tests, but also keep in mind that it still beats the Intel MacBook Pro using half as much available RAM. Had my MacBook Pro only had 8GB of RAM, its export time would have been much longer. My guess is maybe even double the M1 export time.

Insane battery

Big Sur is fine. But the Control Center sure looks like it's made for touch.Raymond Wong / Input

Normally, stressing the CPU and GPU so hard would seriously hurt battery life. But again, the M1 MacBook Air chugs along unfazed. I’ve been getting out-of-this-world battery life. It didn’t feel real that I was able to spend 1.5 hours in Chrome with about 20 tabs open with the display brightness set to 50 percent, Bluetooth turned on, keyboard backlight turned on, and only lose… one percent of battery life? How the? What in the?

Like many reviewers, I felt like I was being tricked. So I ran all my tests over and over and, well, the stellar long battery life is no fluke. On average, I’m getting seven to eight hours of continuous use with a mix of the media-heavy workload I described earlier, which is enough to get me through a full workday without charging once. My Intel MacBook is normally dead after three hours with the same use. For web browsing and watching videos, I’m absolutely getting within the “15 hours of web browsing” (closer to 12 hours). Apple’s claim of “up to 18 hours” of battery life is a stretch; the fine print says that’s for “Apple TV app movie playback” (sure, if you’re some weirdo binging Apple TV content all day).

Any way you slice it, the M1 MacBook Air’s battery life is bonkers. It felt like I was using an iPad, but better. This is the kind of battery life I’ve always wanted in a laptop — power that lasts all day without needing to pit stop at an outlet. It’s a real shame that big tech events like CES are canceled and traveling has slowed down considerably because this is the perfect laptop for both. Windows laptops won’t be able to come close to this kind of battery life without either switching to ARM chips or doubling their physical battery capacity. And even if Windows laptops switch to ARM chips, Windows 10 just isn’t very good on ARM architecture. It could be many years before Windows laptops catch up to Macs with Apple Silicon.

Years ahead

When Steve Jobs pulled the very first MacBook Air out of a manilla envelope, everyone was hypnotized by its thinness and lightness. The 2010 MacBook Air improved the original laptop’s pathetic performance and added more ports and turned it into Apple’s best-selling MacBook. The subsequent updates added longer battery life, but performance was always the Air's weakest point. And then, the 2018 MacBook Air redesign was held up for years by Intel chips.

Apple’s entry-level MacBook runs circles around its top-of-the-line $2,300 Intel MacBook Pro.

The M1 MacBook Air feels like it’s the synthesis of everything Jobs envisioned with the original Air. It’s thin, it’s light, and it’s fanless. It also doesn’t skimp on power or battery life. With the M1, the MacBook Air is now as powerful as the 16-inch MacBook Pro with Intel Core i9 CPU. Just wrap your head around that thought for a second. Apple’s entry-level MacBook runs circles around its top-of-the-line $2,300 Intel MacBook Pro. Unreal.

And this is just the beginning.

If generation one of the M1 is this spectacular, just imagine what’s possible when the M2, M3, M4 (and beyond) Macs arrive. Laptops will never be the same again. Unless PC makers have something up their sleeve with ARM, they should all be very terrified because Apple just leaped over them in enormous ways overnight.