The first Apple Silicon-powered laptops and desktops are finally here. Officially announced last week, we’ve spent the last six days with the MacBook Air. On the surface, it’s indistinguishable from the laptop we reviewed in the spring. Under the hood, though, is the biggest upgrade to a laptop we’ve ever seen.
The switch from Intel to Silicon might seem like a small one on paper, but the efficiency and speed that it provides is, in a word, wild.
The MacBook Air we’ve been using is the $999 base model with the M1 chip inside (an 8-core CPU and a 7-core GPU) with just 8GB of RAM. It’s been zippy, even as we threw our full workload at this entry-level Mac. If you can’t tell yet, Apple is onto something here.
What exactly is Apple Silicon?
The brains of any computer (laptop or desktop) is the processor. It controls every operation in tandem with the software. That means pulling data from and writing it onto a solid-state drive or hard drive, knowing how much RAM or memory to allocate to a specific task and making sure graphics run smoothly.
Historically, Mac laptops and desktops had Intel chips inside. These were off-the-shelf chips from Intel with some Apple customizations. But Apple can only do so much customization with Intel chips. To solve that, Apple is using its own in-house processors to power future Macs.
Apple now owns and builds the whole process — from conception to design to picking the hardware that goes inside. The first processor from Apple is the M1. At its highest-end configuration, it’s an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU with 16GB of RAM. It’s unified memory that’s built in and cannot be replaced. Thhose are the basics, but the M1 goes further with a 16-core neural engine, so it’s a full system in a chip package.
That’s a whole lot of tech packed into the M1 chip, and, like the A14 Bionic that powers the iPhone 12 family, this is a 5-nanometer chip with over 16 billion transistors inside.
Summed up: It’s a lot of power in a small package.
This Mac moves
In terms of speed and performance on the new MacBook Air, Apple has some big claims: up to 3.5x faster CPU, 5x faster GPU and 9x faster in machine learning. And, after testing, we can assure you that’s no marketing hyperbole.
The MacBook Air comes preloaded with a suite of applications from Apple, all of which are optimized for the Silicon. Messages and Photos, for instance, open much faster, which lets you get whatever you need to get done faster.
We also installed applications we need for work and personal use — Slack, Adobe Creative Cloud for Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, Microsoft Office 365 including Outlook, Trello, Ulysses, iStats Menu, Mini Motorways and a few others. Frequently, we could keep close to 12 applications open at one time, all running processes. When we knocked that up to around 16 applications, we did receive an alert that the system had run out of memory, but it didn’t fully lock up. To be more precise, we had both Final Cut Pro (which had just finished an export of a 4K movie) and Photoshop open along with 14 other apps. That’s a lot to run on any consumer Mac, let alone a MacBook Air.
Final Cut Pro is optimized for Silicon, and the experience with it was pretty snazzy. We didn’t experience any dropped frames or long rendering periods. A full project complete with 4K footage, titles, effects, motion graphics and backing audio was able to export in just 11.6 seconds on the MacBook Air. In comparison, a 16-inch MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i7 and 16GB of RAM took 11.7 seconds to export. Very close, but for the Air to rival the productivity maestro known as the Macbook Pro says all you need to know.
There’s also no fan on the MacBook Air (more on this below), which pushes the MacBook Air beyond the everyday use case for which it’s made its name. We were able to edit 4K content on the MacBook Air without pinwheeling or any freezing occurring. At the same time it was exporting, we had Chrome, Safari, Ulysses, Slack and Outlook open. Exporting a movie didn’t stop us from using other aspects of the laptop.
It’s really hard to make the MacBook Air buckle or slow down. It can really handle more use cases than before, and with better speed throughout nearly all of them. Take Adobe Photoshop. Creative Cloud warns you that it’s an Intel app running on Silicon. Essentially, once installed, macOS will start converting it and analyzing it to make sure it runs in an emulator mode. None of this presents itself, though; it doesn’t change your day-to-day use. But do anticipate a longer time with some Intel apps that are being converted over. Adobe Photoshop 2021, for example, opened in about 30 seconds, with us seeing the splash screen at about 24 seconds. So not the swiftest of apps.
Microsoft Outlook, a much less intense application, took about 8.5 seconds to fully open. Mileage varies a bit after the first few opens with applications, but as the Mac learned our use cases, we saw app load times improve. Essentially, it will have the conversion processor queued up and be ready to handle new processes in real time.
Did we mention there’s no fan?
Alongside the M1 chip set and everything it enables, the MacBook Air is a silent machine on par with the iPhone and iPad. There’s no fan inside the MacBook Air or cooling system of any kind. No longer will it sound like you have a leaf blower if Chrome is open with just a few tabs.
The MacBook Air is just silent. Twenty tabs in Chrome? Silent. Exporting a 4K file? Silent. Batch exporting images? Silent. Twenty applications open? Silent. And the Air doesn’t get overly hot either. Like other Macs before it, the bottom can get a little warm during high-power tasks, but it’s not any more of an occurrence than before. Essentially, there wasn’t a trade-off here.
And in terms of cooling, the M1 runs cooler with just a 10-watt thermal envelope. Apple has said it delivers twice the power of a PC laptop while using a quarter of the power consumption. In other words: It can deliver more power while using less power and creating less heat.
Battery life is truly exceptional
Similar to the performance of the M1 chip, Apple made some big claims with battery life. Specifically, up to 15 hours of wireless web and 18 hours of video playback from a 49.9-watt battery.
We were unable to complete a battery runtime test in time for this review, though. It wasn’t because the MacBook Air kept running out of juice.
From a full charge on Thursday morning to Monday morning, we didn’t need to charge the MacBook Air. That included a full workday on Thursday and Friday, with middle-of-the-road usage on the weekend. That’s deliriously good when you think about it.
The other major area of performance that stood out was efficiency. Typically on a Mac, you’ll see your battery percentage lower quite quickly. On the MacBook Air, it hit 95% about an hour and half into use. That means it got through setup, installation of a dozen apps and general usage, and it only dipped 5% — even when exporting a 4K file in Final Cut Pro. We didn’t notice a major drop in battery level, with it being a 2% to 3% drop at most.
We have no concerns with battery life on the MacBook Air, though — and we’re working to run the full battery test this week.
The Magic Keyboard, a 13.3-inch Retina Display and an improved camera round out the hardware
Again, the new MacBook Air is nearly indistinguishable from the previous MacBook Air.
It’s the same tapered-edge MacBook Air design that gets thinner as you reach the front. Opening up the Macbook Air is easy, thanks to a small lip that allows you to raise the screen with just one finger. It’s still a 13.3-inch Retina display with True Tone — Apple’s proprietary tech that uses sensors to adjust the color temperature to best fit your surroundings. It’s sharp, with a 2560 x 1600 resolution (that’s higher than the Surface Laptop Go) and delivers 227 pixels per inch. It now supports the P3 Wide Color spectrum, which is new.
There are bezels all around the 13.3-inch display. Up top is still a 720p FaceTime HD camera. Unfortunately, Apple didn’t add a 1080p camera in here like it did on the 27-inch iMac, but it’s not all bad news. Thanks to the M1 chip, the built-in image signal processor works to reduce noise and deliver sharper images. In our tests, it did just that by delivering a sharper view of ourselves in video calls. That goes for FaceTime, Webex, Slack, Zoom and even GoToMeeting. Ultimately, the video quality looks far better than on the previous MacBook Air and MacBook Pro family.
Lastly, the Magic Keyboard we raved about in the spring remains. It’s not only better than the previous Butterfly technology that Apple was using, but it provides an invigorating typing experience. Each keypress delivers a generous amount of recoil, which bounces the key back up. It lets you type in a fashion that’s just plain merry. Each key cap has slightly raised edges but a flat matte finish that’s comfortable on the finger. The arrow keys are a bit easier to find, as left and right take up about half the size of a normal key cap in an inverted T format.
There’s also no Touch Bar on the MacBook Air like on the MacBook Pro. Rather, you get a row of function keys, a physical ESC key and a Touch ID combination power button. We especially like Touch ID for easy unlocking and authenticating purchases. The function keys have new shortcuts as well: brightness, expose, spotlight, dictation and do not disturb are new. Those join media playback and volume controls.
And the trackpad is still as expansive as ever and utilizes Apple’s Force Touch technology. It’s a large size, considering this is a 13-inch notebook, and we really appreciate it when using multiple monitors. You have plenty of bandwidth to drag a window from the MacBook Air all the way to an external display.
Big Sur runs swimmingly
Last but not least is something we’ve hinted at along the way: the operating system. Apple’s macOS Big Sur was designed from the ground up for Silicon, and it’s the first time (on these machines) that Apple has control over the whole process.
It has a new visual look that’s refined, with app icons on the dock shaped somewhere on the spectrum between a circle and a square. Even so, it’s a familiar experience for those who have used a Mac in the past. The dock is still at the bottom and is fully customizable. A Finder window is your gateway to exploring the file system. Launchpad lets you easily access other applications.
The top bar is more functional than ever before with the Control Center, with the quick settings function from iOS and iPadOS now on the Mac. This lets you raise or lower the brightness, control playback, adjust the backlighting on the keys and much more. You can even add any of those functions directly to the top bar with a simple drag and drop.
Apple macOS on a Silicon-powered machine will look the same and might even feel the same. But it will feel smoother, faster and more instant on a Silicon machine.
We had high hopes for the first Silicon-powered machines, and the MacBook Air really delivers.
You’d not only be hard-pressed to slow it down but to find a problem with it at all. For many, this will be their go-to machine, and for laptops as a whole, Apple is setting a new standard here.
It keeps the same $999 starting price as well, so you can’t go wrong with the MacBook Air.