The new Apple MacBook Air with M1 chipset is here, and it is far more than a simple model upgrade: After more than a decade of Intel, Apple is heralding a new era with its own chip. We took a closer look at the MacBook Air M1 in the test and revealed why Apple is taking the right path.
At the in-house developer conference WWDC in June 2020, Apple announced that it would switch from Intel processors to its own chips for the Mac on the Mac. The transition should be completed by 2021. After the announcement, a few months passed before Apple presented the first devices with the new chip at an event in November, the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro and the Mac mini.
They all have the same chip, the M1. It is a chipset based on the ARM architecture, i.e. the same chip that has been used in iPhones and iPads for years. The great advantage of these processors, which have so far mostly been built into mobile devices: their high performance combined with high energy efficiency. And that benefits Apple’s entry-level laptop, the MacBook Air. More on that later.
MacBook Air M1 Design and display: good as usual
In terms of looks, Apple has remained true to itself for the third year in a row since the redesign of the MacBook Air 2018. As usual, the elegant aluminum case makes a very valuable impression, the workmanship is typical for Apple at the highest level and gives no cause for criticism. Everything fits, nothing gets stuck, the gaps are perfect.
The 13.3-inch retina display has a crisp resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 pixels. The maximum brightness is 400 nits. What is new is that the MacBook Air displays the P3 color space which was previously reserved for the much more expensive MacBook Pros. The P3 color space is especially important for video editing. Anyway, the screen is brilliant and beyond reproach, especially the color fastness is impressive. This is another reason why the MacBook is very popular with photographers.
The real star sits under the hood: the Apple M1
Much more exciting with the new generation is what’s under the hood. The M1 chipset is a processor with 8 cores for the CPU and 7 or 8 cores for the graphics unit. Apple no longer specifies a clock frequency. The comparison with the previous Intel chips is difficult anyway due to the different architecture.
The previous benchmark results on the internet paint a clear picture: The M1 is an absolute powerhouse. He particularly benefits from the fact that hardware and software come from a single source and just like with the iPhone. The main memory is either 8 or 16 GB RAM, more is not possible.
When using it, it quickly becomes apparent what distinguishes the new MacBook from older generations and what Apple manager Craig “Hair Force One” Federighi demonstrated with relish during the keynote: If a previous model is folded up and put to sleep, it takes time to open it usually a few seconds until the laptop is ready to use again, not so with the new MacBook Air. As with the iPhone, the screen is immediately active and can be unlocked directly. “How cool is that,” commented Federighi, visibly impressed by the new feature.
The MacBook Air is also lightning fast, everything runs smoothly, many apps and services open without waiting. At the start, not all apps and programs are optimized for the new M1 chipset. But at least the Apple applications benefit from the concentrated computing power and working on the Mac has never been more fun. This is especially astonishing when you consider that the MacBook Air is Apple’s entry-level model, hardly anything can be noticed.
MacBook Air M1 Technical details
- 13.3-inch retina with 2,560 x 1,600 pixels
- True Tone Technology
- P3 color space
- Brightness 400 nits t
- Apple M1 chip
- 8 ‑ core CPU with 4 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores
- 7-core GPU or 8-core GPU
- 16 ‑ core neural engine
- 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM
- 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB or 2 TB SSD
- Up to 15 hours of wireless surfing
- Up to 18 hours of movie playback via Apple TV app
- 2 x Thunderbolt / USB 4 ( Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40 Gbit / s), 1 x USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10 Gbit / s)
On the contrary: for a laptop in this price range, the performance is extremely impressive. That could also be a problem for Apple. There is hardly any reason to choose the MacBook Pro because of its performance, since both devices work almost equally quickly. However, the Pro model has a fan and can therefore work longer under maximum load.
But it is also clear that this is, so to speak, the first generation of a new product. In other words, it will take many months before everything goes as Apple intended. Important apps such as Photoshop will not be optimized for the M1 until 2021. This means that such applications are emulated using Rosetta 2. And emulations are always only the second choice, as they are associated with reduced performance.
In the case of the new MacBook Air, however, the performance losses are kept within reasonable limits; performance is expected to be around 20 percent worse. Nevertheless, even the real-time translated version of an app on the MacBook Air is many times faster than with Intel-based x86 processors.
In the single-core test, the MacBook Air beats every other Mac previously released. The multi-core performance is also impressive, which is more important for most programs anyway: The new MacBook is above the level of a Mac Pro from 2013, which cost several thousand euros at the time and is considered an absolute professional machine. The M1 chip leaves even the most powerful MacBook Pro with Intel Core i9 behind more than impressive. There has never been more performance for this price.
iPhone apps on Mac: Nice gimmick with a lot of potential
With the transition from Intel to ARM chips, Apple is pushing a further milestone, the amalgamation of iPhone and Mac apps. Thanks to the same chip architecture, many iPhone and iPad apps can be installed on a MacBook for the first time, simply via the App Store. This is a clever move, after all, there is a much larger variety of apps for the iPhone than for the MacBook.
The ease of use can still be improved, since the apps on the Mac cannot be operated via touchscreen, but only via trackpad and keyboard. Nevertheless: the beginning has been made. And the Mac should get a big push as a result. At the moment, the functionality is at best a nice gimmick that is hardly suitable for productive use. That will certainly change over time as app developers optimize their applications for operation on the Mac.
The MacBook Air also scores in terms of graphics performance, although the performance – of course – does not come close to dedicated graphics cards, such as those built into the 16-inch MacBook Pro. Still: Apple Arcade games run absolutely smoothly, load quickly and don’t make the MacBook sweat. This was recently shown by a benchmark, according to which the M1 chip with its integrated graphics unit even beats the Nvidia Geforce GTX 1050 Ti, a desktop graphics card (a bit older, but nonetheless). Don’t forget that we’re still talking about a system-on-a-chip (SoC).
MacBook Air M1 Energy-efficient chip ensures long battery life
The MacBook Air not only promises more performance, but also a significantly better battery life, which is always decent with MacBooks. According to Apple, the new model lasts up to 18 hours of content playback via Apple’s in-house TV app, an impressive figure that is otherwise only known from iPad. And indeed: the battery life was convincing in the test.
If my 2018 MacBook Air had to be plugged into the socket after four to five hours at the latest in everyday work, I save myself charging the new device that I can easily get through the work day. The energy efficiency of the M1 chipset is beyond any doubt. The mix of strong performance and ultra-long battery life shows that Apple is absolutely on the right track.
It still looks bad with Windows on the Mac
Apart from the new chip, hardly anything has changed compared to its predecessor: Not only is the design the same, but also the connections. There are still two Thunderbolt 3 ports with up to 40 Gbit/s available, which can also be used to supply the Mac with energy again. The classic headphone connection is still there, nothing more. If you need additional Thunderbolt connections, you can use a dongle or the MacBook Pro.
Do you depend on Windows or do you want to install it on your Mac via Bootcamp? Then the new MacBook Air is unfortunately not for you – the M1 chipset currently makes Windows installation impossible. The reason: Microsoft does not issue licenses for its ARM version to end customers, but only to PC manufacturers. In theory, Apple could purchase a Windows license. It is highly unlikely that the manufacturer will do that.
After all, Parallels Desktop, a well-known provider of Mac software for Windows emulation, has already announced a revised version of its program. They are currently working actively on an M1 compatible version of the software. Nevertheless: Those who depend on Windows prefer to wait some time before buying the MacBook Air.
Conclusion: The best and most powerful MacBook Air so far and the start of a new era
The basic version of the new MacBook Air costs around 1,000 euros – an unbeatable price for the power and performance that Apple offers with this model. Everyday work is fun, a lot works without noticeable waiting times, the new macOS Big Sur operating system runs smoothly, primarily Apple’s own apps and services.
The support from third-party providers is naturally poor at the time of the release, but it will certainly improve over time. In short: if you need maximum performance in a mobile device, the MacBook Air is the right choice. Apple has achieved a masterpiece here that will shape the industry for years to come. The start of a new era, Apple has heralded it with the M1. Not with a rocket, but with fireworks that will be remembered for a long time.
MacBook Air M1 Pros:
- + strong performance
- + long battery life
- + perfect interaction of hardware and software
MacBook Air M1 Cons:
- – iOS apps on Mac can still be expanded