Apple MacBook Air M1 Evaluation: Quick, Fanless, and Unbelievable

"The MacBook Air M1 finally delivers on the promise of a small laptop with no performance restrictions."

  • Apple's M1 blows Intel around

  • Phenomenal battery life

  • Excellent keyboard and touchpad

  • Very solid build quality

  • Just good looking

  • Supports an external display only

Apple was never afraid to break with the past, even if the transition might be painful. For example, when it found the floppy disk was out of date, it dropped it and went all-in USB. The same thing happened with Motorola CPUs, which were dropped for Intel when the PowerPC could no longer keep up. Now it's that time again, this time the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro 13 and the Mac mini will be equipped with their own ARM-based silicon and Intel will be left behind.

For some MacBook fans, this could be a scary proposition because how well could the Apple M1 work if ARM's only showcase to date has been the very overwhelming initiative of Windows 10 on ARM? If you've read our MacBook Pro 13 M1 review, you already know the answer to that question. At least on this machine there is nothing to be afraid of. I put the MacBook Air M1 through its paces to see if the fanless version of Apple's initiative works too.

For this review, I got the entry-level MacBook Air M1 for $ 1,000 with just 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive, and a 7-core GPU. There's another version that gives you 512GB of storage and an 8-core GPU for $ 1,250. My experience didn't even include the maximum 16GB of RAM that can be configured for a few hundred more dollars. Was I disappointed or did Apple pull a rabbit out of my hat?

performance

OK, I know it's not fair to imply that the Apple M1 is doing some kind of magic trick. After all, it is an eight-core CPU with four high-performance cores and four more that come into play for smaller tasks and a sip of electricity. It's just that it's an ARM-based technology that has pushed Intel's core CPUs into the background in terms of perceived performance for some time now. If the MacBook Air performs well, it's no magic. Rather, it is an impressive new technology that promises wonderful things to the MacBook range.

Macbook Air M1Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

There's no reason to keep you going: the MacBook Air M1 surprised me in a good way with its performance. And that's not just a comparison with the current Intel MacBook Air, which uses a 9-watt version of the Intel Core i3 and i5 CPUs that lag behind their 15-watt Windows 10 equivalents. No, the MacBook Air with the 10-watt Apple M1 is using the latest 12 to 28-watt Tiger Lake processors from Intel (this time, Intel gives a range rather than a static value) and in many cases gives them a good old value-fashionable beating.

Before we get into the numbers, let's get something straight. The Apple M1-based computers run the fastest with software written for the M1 architecture. This makes sense and includes all of Apple's software plus a few other applications and utilities. If it wasn't written for the M1, it runs through Apple's Rosetta 2 emulation layer. That means, of course, that it won't be as fast as native software. And sometimes, especially with software that requires hardware drivers, an application may not run at all.

Take Geekbench 5, for example, which runs natively on the M1. The fanless MacBook Air M1 performed slightly better than the fan-filled MacBook Pro 13 M1. We're talking 1,727 versus 1,707 in single-core mode and 7,585 versus 7,337 in multi-core mode, but it's still noteworthy that the less expensive and theoretically slower MacBook Air M1 was faster than the Pro. And with their four cores and eight threads, both machines achieved a significantly higher score than the currently fastest Tiger Lake laptops. The MSI Prestige 14 Evo, for example, has the fastest Tiger Lake CPU you can buy, the Core i7-1185G7, scoring just 1,593 and 5,904 points, respectively. Even the 45 watt Core i7-10850H with six cores in the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3 couldn't keep up with the M1 and only managed 1,299 and 6,372.

Worried Apple would force you to give up performance on its transition? Do not be so.

Next, let's look at Cinebench R23, another benchmark app written for the M1. Here the MacBook Air M1 couldn't beat the MacBook Pro 13 M1, but it was in close proximity. And it came almost close to the Lenovo Yoga 9i with its 6-core Core i7-10750H in high-performance mode that cranks up the fans. Notably, the MacBook Air M1 was completely silent (no fans, duh) and barely got warm – I was able to comfortably hold it on my lap while it ran the test. I said before that it wasn't magic, but maybe I'm wrong.

I also did our handbrake test which encodes a 420MB file in two iterations in H.265. The first used Handbrake 1.3.1 which runs in emulation mode and the second used Handbrake 1.4.0 Beta which was written for the M1. In the first case, the MacBook Air M1 took about 4.5 minutes to complete the test. This is roughly the time it would take for laptops with the 10th generation Intel Core i5. In the latter case, the MacBook Air M1 completed the test in 2.8 minutes. This is comparable to 45-watt Intel laptops with six cores and Handbrake 1.3.1 and just eight seconds behind the MacBook Pro 13 M1 with the native version. Again, the laptop barely warmed up. These results provide an insight into the effects of a native on the M1 on an application.

Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I ran some other tests in Adobe Premiere Pro (which is not yet optimized for the M1) using the PugetBench benchmark. MacBooks have been the go-to choice for many creatives in the past, but this has never been the game of the MacBook Air. Due to severe performance limitations on the Intel version, running one of Adobe's Creative Suites was a challenge. But the M1 changes all of that, even with the $ 999 MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air M1 competed heavily with the more powerful CPUs from Intel and made mince of the Tiger Lake laptops from Intel. I also ran a Premiere Pro encoding test that produced a 2GB 4K video and the MacBook Air M1 running in emulation was about 40 seconds faster than a Tiger Lake laptop.

Most impressive was that this level of performance ran through the emulation. Imagine how quickly Premiere Pro (and Photoshop, Lightroom, etc) will work if it's native in the M1. Achieving this kind of performance on a laptop this thin, light, and fanless is a transforming moment for creative professionals who might want to carry a smaller machine around but don't want to compromise on performance. For the first time ever, you can get some serious creative work on a MacBook Air – and that's a big deal.

In practice, I've noticed some minor slowdowns in legacy applications like Microsoft Office (Microsoft released native versions right after the test report finished). This is especially true for the start: Office apps are only faster on Intel computers than on the MacBook Air M1. But the difference isn't so big that it bothered me, and if I didn't check the laptop, I probably wouldn't even notice. Of course, Mac OS itself and every application optimized for the M1 was incredibly fast.

What about games? I didn't run all of the gaming tests on the MacBook Air M1. This is supposed to be a productivity laptop, not a slot machine, after all. Fortnite ran at around 33 frames per second (fps), however, with a resolution of 1,680 x 1,050 and high graphics that are playable and faster than the Intel Iris Xe graphics from Tiger Lake. In Civilization VI, the MacBook Air achieved 51 fps with the same resolution and medium graphics and sank to 32 fps with ultra graphics. Again, this outperforms Intel Iris Xe laptops and competes with integrated low-end graphics such as the Nvidia GeForce MX350.

This completely silent, fanless laptop is a better slot machine than the equivalent Intel laptops, which you would never have expected from a MacBook Air. Note that I tested the seven-core GPU model. For $ 250 more, you can get an eight-core GPU model that will be … well … one core faster. This version also includes 512 GB of storage space.

Macbook Air M1Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

Finally, I mentioned that not all applications will run on the MacBook Air M1, although I don't have many examples to give. The decisive factor was the software for my older colorimeter, which did not require the necessary drivers for the MacBook.

But most of the other apps I tried also ran in emulation and were as fast as I would get with at least a mid-range Intel laptop. There were outliers like the Epic Games Launcher, which was just as sluggish on the MacBook Air M1 as it was on the MacBook Pro 13 M1, but there were few.

Battery life

Performance is just one area in which the Apple M1 promises serious progress. The battery life is different – after all, it is essentially an ARM chip that is designed to be efficient. How efficient can a laptop be when it offers the same performance as CPUs that are purely designed for performance? Let's find out.

Macbook Air M1Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

First, I ran our standard web benchmark, which runs through a number of popular websites. This is the yardstick we use to emulate productivity longevity, and it works pretty well. The MacBook Air passed the 15.5-hour test, one of the longest results we've seen. The Lenovo Flex 5G with its own ARM processor – the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx – lasted about 50 minutes longer, but there is a catch. The Lenovo had a Full HD display (1,920 x 1,080), while the MacBook Air M1 has a Retina display with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600. That's a huge perk for Apple – give it a Full HD display (not what you want) and we'd expect a few more hours of it.

Next, I ran our video benchmark, which runs through a Full HD Avengers trailer until the laptop shuts down. The MacBook Air M1 lasted 18.5 hours. Again, this isn't as long as some of the longest-lasting laptops we've tested, but it's by far the longest-lasting device with a high-resolution display. The Lenovo Flex 5G was stronger again with almost 28 hours, but it also benefited from its lower resolution display.

We usually use the Basemark web benchmark test to see how long a laptop with its CPU and GPU will last under heavy load. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to complete the test on the MacBook Air M1 so I won't be able to report on its longevity if you press it hard. However, given the M1's inherent efficiency, we expect that the MacBook Air M1 will allow you to spend a lot of time, even if you ask a lot of it.

design

Macbook Air M1Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

The design of the MacBook Air M1 is unchanged from the Intel version. Literally. That said, it's the same wedge of machined aluminum that feels like an alchemical amalgamation of glass and metal. It is completely stable, without twisting, bending or bending. Apple is doing a few things right, and designing and manufacturing laptops that exude rugged elegance is one of them. You can choose from three colors – space gray, gold, and silver – and they all look beautiful.

It's also a very thin and light laptop that is 0.6 inches and 2.8 pounds. Windows 10 laptops like the Dell XPS 13 and HP Specter x360 13 have caught up and are either thinner and lighter or close to it, so the MacBook Air generally no longer maintains its superiority in that regard. And the MacBook Air M1 isn't as small in width and depth as some of its 13-inch rivals, either, as it still has the same relatively large bezels it struggles with. When you add a display with a 16:10 aspect ratio, you'll find that the MacBook Air M1 doesn't fit into the same tiny silhouette as some others.

Really, these are nits because the differences between these sizes are tiny. Perhaps the MacBook Air M1 would look a little more modern with smaller bezels, but it's not like you'll struggle to find room for it in your backpack.

Macbook Air M1Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

Connectivity remains a weak point in the MacBook Air M1. You get two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 3.5mm audio jack. That's it. There isn't even an SD card reader to get your photos and videos. Get ready to buy some dongles, and a Thunderbolt 3 dock would be a good idea. Note, however, that the M1 does not support external GPU cases.

The M1 version only supports a single external display, either via the Thunderbolt 3 ports or via a dock. The reasons are deeply technical and based on the M1 architecture. However, if you need more than one external display, the M1 version is not for you. Compare this to the typical Windows 10 laptop or Intel-based MacBook, which can support numerous displays of different resolutions. Even laptops in the same $ 1,000 price bracket can typically support more than one external display if they have a Thunderbolt 3 port, multiple USB-C ports, or even an HDMI port (hey, remember these?).

Display and speaker

Macbook Air M1Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

Like the design, Apple kept the same display for the MacBook Air M1. It's a 2,560 x 1,600 IPS display that looks great. It's not in the same class as the MacBook Pro, but you still get good performance enough for everyone but the most demanding creative professionals.

The brightness was 389 nits, which is enough for a laptop with average productivity but not up to Apple's high-end standards. The color gamut is slightly wider than average at 100% sRGB and 79% AdobeRGB – most premium Windows 10 laptops are 98% sRGB and 73% AdobeRGB. These aren't that big of a difference, but if you're looking to edit photos and videos, you'll appreciate the extra percentage points. The accuracy is particularly good at 1.39, with 1.0 or less indistinguishable to the human eye and the quality standard and the contrast ratio of 1130: 1 is above average (we want to see at least 1000: 1, and so the MacBook Air M1 crosses our threshold here).

The bottom line is that you are going to love this display and you probably won't have many complaints. If you're a creative professional and need the widest color gamut, go for the Pro line. You can choose the MacBook Pro 13 M1, get the same performance, nearly the same battery life, and enjoy a higher quality display.

Macbook Air M1Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

Another area where the MacBook Air M1 can't quite keep up with its Pro siblings is audio quality. The speakers are very nice, don't get me wrong. They are clear and bright, with excellent mids and highs and a hint of bass. There is no distortion at the maximum volume – the only problem is that the maximum is not very loud. So you're good at listening for yourself, but if you want to share with a crowd, you'll need external speakers. And when you want to rock, prepare to pull out your favorite headphones.

Keyboard and touchpad

The MacBook Air M1 features the new Magic Keyboard, which Apple designed to replace the unfortunate butterfly keyboard on previous models. And it's a damn good keyboard, maybe my favorite of all the laptops I've used and the only one that surpasses the excellent version that HP has added to its Specter range.

The keycaps are a nice size and there is enough travel that you don't feel like you are typing on a block of wood (I'm talking to you here, butterfly keyboard). Best of all, the switches are top notch, with superb precision and perfect ground action that lets you know you've pressed a button. I can type faster on this keyboard than any other, and I hate to give up on it when I switch to a Windows 10 computer.

Macbook Air M1Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

The touchpad is also superior due to its haptic nature. It's bigger than most of the touchpads you'll find on 13-inch laptops, it's buttery smooth, and once you get used to the haptic aspect you probably have more control than most touchpads. Windows 10 touchpads have gotten a lot better over the years, but still haven't caught up.

Finally, use the Touch ID sensor embedded in the power button to sign in without a password. This works fine. It's comparable to Microsoft's Windows Hello technology, though you won't find facial recognition in the MacBook line-up yet. I missed this while using the MacBook Air M1, although I end up preferring to use a fingerprint reader.

Our opinion

We said the 2020 Intel MacBook Air is "a respectable choice for Mac fans on a budget". I'm going to change that here for the MacBook Air M1: it's a respectable choice for any MacBook fan looking for a smaller device that is perfectly quiet, charges forever, and is almost as fast as the MacBook Pro 13 M1. Not only will you save money anymore – you get a laptop that will blow your mind with its performance (especially since more apps have been developed for the M1) while being extremely thin and light.

However, there are some limitations. You can't get more than 16GB of RAM (neither with the Intel version) and are limited to just one external display.

Are there alternatives?

The same competition that applied to the Intel MacBook Air also applies here. Only you will find that in many cases they are slower and don't last as long on one charge. The Dell XPS 13 is the obvious choice that you can get for $ 980 with a Core i3-1115G4 CPU and the same amount of RAM and storage – but the MacBook Air M1 will blast it out of the water. Configure the XPS 13 with its fastest CPU and you will find that it is still slower than the MacBook in many applications.

The HP Specter x360 13 gives you the option of a better OLED display and the flexibility of a 2-in-1 for a few hundred more, depending on your configuration. But here, too, the MacBook Air M1 is the faster laptop.

Finally, the MacBook Pro 13 M1 is for anyone looking for the fastest M1 machine available (although the difference isn't nearly as big as you can imagine). The display gets better and the speakers will blow your mind. You'll also be spending at least $ 300 more.

How long it will take?

The MacBook Air M1 should have a lifespan of at least five years as Apple keeps its laptops up to date. Certainly the machine itself will last forever because of the build quality, and you'll love the support from Apple (if not the industry-standard 1-year warranty). And the MacBook Air M1 is getting faster and faster as more software is optimized for the M1 CPU.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The MacBook Air M1 isn't just for MacBook fans looking for something smaller. It is intended for any laptop buyer who is happy to move to Mac OS and wants to participate in the real future of ARM-based computing.

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