Living with a MacBook Air (M1)

For the past couple of months I have been using one of the new Apple MacBook Air based on Apple’s proprietary M1 processor and have been very impressed. It proved to be quite fast in daily use. Apple has done a surprisingly good job of running applications on the new silicon.

What’s really worth talking about with the new MacBook Air is Apple’s M1 processor. This is Apple’s proprietary design, which takes some of the elements already used in Apple’s A14 Bionic processor (used in the iPhone 12) and processors for the iPhone and iPad and expands them. Apple’s processors use the ARM instruction set, but Apple designs its own cores for both the CPU and GPU.

The M1 has 4 high-performance cores and 4 efficient CPU cores, 7 or 8 GPU cores and what Apple describes as a 16-core “neural engine”. It is clocked at 3.2 GHz and is based on TSMC’s 5nm process. I used the base $ 999 MacBook Air, which has 8GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage, and a 7-core version of the GPU; as opposed to the $ 1,249 model with an 8-core GPU and 512GB of storage.

I have already tried ARM-based processors, such as in the Lenovo Flex 5G, and have found exceptional battery life, but limited performance and compatibility. The good news of the M1 is that Apple appears to have maintained battery life, but it has also done surprisingly well in terms of performance and compatibility.

With Mac OS 11.1 (Big Sur), the M1-powered MacBook Air can run three classes of applications: native applications designed for the processor; Intel applications running through the Rosetta 2 emulator; and applications designed for iPhone or iPad. I’ve tried all of these. (Keep in mind that Big Sur doesn’t support legacy 32-bit apps, like Office 2011, but those applications should have been updated a long time ago.)

Of course, all of Apple’s native applications, such as Mail, Safari, and FaceTime, are now native and are quite responsive. I was able to run native versions of the core applications of Microsoft Office, Zoom, WebEx and Firefox. All of these worked as expected and looked pretty snappy.

For applications that have not yet been ported, you can use Rosetta 2 emulation mode, although a popup appears when you install them informing you that you are using software designed for Intel processors. In this way, Photoshop performed quite well, although it wasn’t as responsive as it is on Intel-based machines. Adobe says a native version of it and other parts of the Creative Cloud client applications will be coming soon. (Lightroom is available in a native version.) I’d be skeptical of Rosetta for things like video editing or gaming, but for day-to-day productivity work, compatibility isn’t an issue. Keep in mind that most high-end gaming titles aren’t available on macOS, but plenty of older, casual games are available.

Theoretically, you can also run iOS and iPadOS apps on the new MacBook as well, but some of them still appear to be available. (Obviously, many of these apps are optimized for touch use, which the Mac doesn’t support, so they’ll need some updating.)

So how fast are the MacBook Air and M1? In PCMag testing, the new MacBook Air performed remarkably well on GeekBench, but I’m not sure how relevant that is, as there are differences in architectures (such as amount of cache and SMT) that could affect benchmarks more than real-world applications . But it was also quite impressive on the native version of Cinebench (R23), and while not quite as impressive, still quite good on Cinebench R15, the Intel version works via emulation. It was slower than other Macs on the Intel-based Photoshop benchmark, although the results were still comparable to most Windows notebooks without discrete graphics. (PCMag goes into more detail here on how M1 works on various applications, including games.)

Of course, what matters is how it works in the real world. In my usage, all the native applications looked pretty impressive, and while emulated applications like Photoshop weren’t as snappy, they worked quite well. I was pleasantly surprised to see that a very large spreadsheet I often use for testing was completed in 39 minutes, faster than I’ve seen on any Windows-based laptop, including the considerably larger ThinkPad X1 Extreme (where it took 44 minutes).

With numbers like this, Apple’s new M1 proves to be more than competitive with the latest Intel and AMD mobile processors. It’s a huge change from the last time Apple tried to design their own laptop processors, in the PowerPC era. Some of this is now due to TSMC’s 5nm node being denser and more efficient than Intel’s 10nm node, but some must be due to the design itself – Apple has gained a lot of experience designing chips for phones and tablets.

Furthermore, the MacBook Air has a 50-watt-hour battery and in its PCMag tests it achieved an incredible 29 hours of battery life. I couldn’t, but managed to get through a full day on a charge with some spare battery.

Machine details

Other than the processor, the new MacBook Air doesn’t seem to have changed much from previous models. With a 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 display, it measures 0.63 x 11.97 x 8.36 inches and weighs 2.8 pounds, very good for this class of machines, if not more special. Compared to some of the newer designs I’ve seen lately, the bezels around the screen are a bit larger, but not big enough to make a huge difference. The 400 nit IPS display looks good, with a wide color gamut. For reasons I still don’t understand, Apple doesn’t offer a touch screen option, which I find useful in Windows laptops.

The MacBook Air has two USB-C / Thunderbolt ports on the left side of the machine, also used for charging, and a headphone jack on the right. Of course, I wish it had more ports (HDMI in particular would be useful) but it’s better than some Apple laptops that only have a single USB-C. In use as a desktop, I mostly used a dongle with an HDMI port so that I could add an external monitor and USB-A port for an external keyboard and mouse. (Since I use more Windows machines than Apple, I admit I’ve changed the mouse direction settings.) As usual for Apple laptops I’ve used, I’ve found the large trackpad works quite well. Apple has updated the keyboard from the last one I used, and while it is a little superficial, I thought it was actually quite good.

The MacBook Air was fine in videoconferencing. The 720p internal webcam was pretty good. Of the machines I’ve recently tested, the only one I would rate better would be the Surface Pro 7, and therefore not by much. Audio from the two speakers on either side of the keyboard sounded pretty good. It doesn’t have the noise-canceling capabilities of the latest high-end Windows notebooks, but for a basic consumer notebook, it’s very nice.

Some business features are missing. There is no physical coverage for the webcam, no LTE or 5G options, and no options for some of the features often used in business management. (While many companies have some Macs, they typically manage them separately from traditional business notebooks.) But none of this is surprising. It doesn’t have face unlock but it has Touch ID via a nice fingerprint reader built into the power button and you can also use an Apple Watch to unlock.

I’m not going to review the latest version of MacOS, Big Sur (I’m running version 11.1) now (here’s the PCMag review) but it adds a lot of nice but not huge improvements, like a new Control Center and Notifications (which now look like more to their equivalents in iOS), along with some more significant privacy changes in Safari. It goes without saying that MacOS integrates much more deeply with iPhones than Windows; and less well with Android phones. (I find it works quite well. Both Windows and MacOS have their backers and have done so for years, and nothing in the current version of either is likely to force users to switch.)

Overall, the M1-powered MacBook Air is a fantastic laptop for the price and a big step up from previous MacBooks. While there are a few features I’d like to have – more ports, smaller bezels, a webcam cover and a cellular option are first in mind – the MacBook Air is a very solidly built notebook with a great display and performance. surprisingly good.

Here is the full PCMag review.

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