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Review: Apple’s M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro [Video]


Has the transition from Intel to Apple silicon on the Mac surpassed all expectations? Watch our hands-on video as we discuss what makes Apple’s M1 MacBooks so special in our MacBook Air and MacBook Pro review.

Although there are some noteworthy differences between the Late 2020 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, the machines are more similar than they are different. I don’t think you could go wrong with either machine, but there are several differences that should be considered based on how you plan on using your MacBook. In this hands-on review, we consider both the base model MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the specifications for the base MacBook Air:

  • 2560-by-1600 native resolution Retina display with Wide color (P3) and True Tone
  • 8-core CPU with 4 perform­ance cores and 4 efficiency cores
  • 7-core GPU
  • 16-core Neural Engine
  • 8GB unified memory
  • 256GB SSD
  • Two Thunderbolt / USB-C ports
  • 720p FaceTime HD camera
  • 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6
  • 400 nit Retina display with P3 wide color
  • Stereo speakers with wide sound, and Dolby Atmosphere playback
  • Three-mic array with directional beamforming
  • Passively-cooled chassis
  • Backlit Magic Keyboard
  • Touch ID sensor
  • Force Touch trackpad
  • Support for one external display up to 6K at 60Hz
  • 30W USB-C power adapter
  • Up to 15 hours of wireless web and 18 hours of movie playback
  • Weight: 2.8 lbs
  • Tapered design 0.16-inches at its thinnest, and .63-inches at its thickest
  • Starting price: $999

Take everything about the base model MacBook Air, add the following details, and you get the base model MacBook Pro:

  • 8-core GPU
  • Active cooling
  • Touch Bar
  • 500 nit Retina display with P3 wide color
  • 60W USB-C power adapter
  • Up to 17 hours of wireless web and 20 hours of movie playback
  • Stereo speakers with high dynamic range, wide sound, and Dolby Atmos playback
  • Studio-quality three-mic array with directional beamforming
  • Weight: 3.0 lbs
  • 0.61-inches thick, which is thinner than the MacBook Air at its thickest point
  • Starting price $1299

Video: 2020 MacBook Air/Pro with M1 chip top features

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Unboxing and design

On the outside, the 2020 MacBook Air is virtually indistinguishable from the model that proceeded it earlier this year. Eagle-eyed people may notice the lack of any mention of Intel chips on the description of the contents, but outside of that omission, there’s little to clue you in on what a massive change has taken place inside.

Unboxing the unit yields a familiar experience that one would expect from an Apple laptop. There’s the computer, the ‘Designed by Apple in California’ packet (with Apple stickers), a 2-meter USB-C charging cable, and 30W USB-C power adapter (61W for MacBook Pro).

If you enjoyed the look and feel of the 2018-era MacBook Air, you’ll enjoy this MacBook Air, because it’s basically the exact same computer design-wise. Apple’s most price-friendly laptop features the same tapered design of its predecessor, the same scissor-switch Magic Keyboard from the early-2020 refresh, the same force-touch trackpad, the same amount of I/O — two Thunderbolt/USB4 ports, and a 3.5mm headphone input. Like I said before, it’s almost indistinguishable when compared to its predecessor.

However, there is one subtle design change that you’ll notice when opening the lid. If you look closely, you’ll notice that three of the function keys on the top row of the keyboard have been altered along with an addition to the Fn key. Instead of a dedicated Launchpad key and a pair of keyboard backlight brightness keys, there are now dedicated Search, Dictation, and Do Not Disturb keyboard function keys. In addition to those changes, the Fn key in the bottom left-hand corner of the keyboard now doubles as an emoji key, allowing you to quickly invoke the emoji-popover when pressed by itself. I don’t think any of these updates are things that people have been clamoring for, but I find them all to be useful.

The MacBook Pro looks largely like the MacBook Air, except it omits the tapered design, staying a consistently-thin 0.61-inches across the entire chassis. The only other visual difference between the two machines is the inclusion of the Touch Bar, which replaces the physical function row found on the MacBook Air. Both machines are attractive, but the general design, which has basically been around since 2016’s MacBook Pro refresh, is slowly beginning to show its age.

Quality of use improvements

Instant-on

One of the most annoying things about my Intel-based MacBook Air, and really all Intel-based Apple laptops, is how long they can take to wake from sleep. With Apple silicon Macs, this is no longer a problem, because these machines feature instant-on capability, similar to what you find with an iPad or iPhone. This feature alone makes the 2020 MacBook Air nice for its pick-up-and-work capability.

Look ma, no fans

The 12-inch MacBook was one of my favorite Apple Macs of all time, primarily because it lacked a fan and was dead silent even when pushed. Although the 13-inch MacBook Air is not as diminutive as that 12-inch MacBook, it also lacks fans, which is great for those who prefer a computer that makes absolutely no noise whatsoever.

The Intel MacBook Air has a fan, and it gets loud

Of course, the downside of this design decision is that the MacBook Air will be more susceptible to throttle when under sustained load, and benchmarks illustrate that. The Apple silicon MacBook Pro and Mac mini computers, which both have fans, are able to sustain peak performance over a longer period of time. And even with those fans, these M1-powered machines don’t get nearly as loud as previous Intel-based MacBooks when under load.

No fan present in the M1 MacBook Air

The Unigine Heaven and Valley benchmarks used to make my Intel Macs sound like they were about to blast off into low orbit, while I can barely even hear the fans on my M1 MacBook Pro or Mac mini when performing this same benchmark multiple times in a row. The point I’m trying to make is that both machines are usually dead silent to human ears, so don’t be pushed towards the MacBook Air solely because it lacks a fan.

A better display, but yet another subpar camera

Since the redesigned 2018 MacBook Air first appeared, Apple has slowly but surely stepped up the quality of its display as it seeks to gain parity with the higher-quality screens in the MacBook Pro. The 2018 model was the first MacBook Air with a Retina display. The next year, with the 2019 MacBook Air refresh, Apple introduced True Tone, which automatically adjusts the color temperature of the display for a more natural reading experience based on ambient lighting conditions.

For 2020, the MacBook Air takes another step forward with the implementation of P3 wide color gamut support in its displays. This addition will probably be one of those changes that flies under the radar with most of the hype given to the M1 chip, but it’s an awesome improvement for those who regularly work with photos and videos. With the updated MacBook Air, you now have a screen that’s capable of displaying millions of additional colors when compared to the same model released earlier in the year. For workflows involving 10-bit video capture, for instance, this is a noteworthy enhancement.

P3 wide color finally makes its way to the MacBook Air

The only difference between the new MacBook Pro and MacBook Air displays are the brightness levels. The MacBook Air features up to 400 nits of brightness, while the MacBook Pro can get slightly brighter at 500 nits. For video content creators and photo editors, having access to the extra brightness might mean more than it does for other users. If you’re someone who primarily uses their Mac for email and web browsing, the MacBook Air display is plenty bright.

720p webcam…

It’s unfortunate that I have to pair the excitement of having P3 wide color support with the disappointment of having the same old 720p FaceTime HD camera. We know that Apple can make a decent built-in webcam, which it proved with the recent 1080p FaceTime HD update for the 2020 iMac, but these MacBooks are still lacking when it comes to webcam fidelity.

To be fair, Apple sought to make improvements by means of the M1 silicon’s image signal pipeline, so areas like white balance have improved moderately. But software will only go so far when you start off with small pixels in a relatively low-resolution sensor. The FaceTime HD camera on the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro just doesn’t capture enough light to bring forth the type of improvements we need in 2020. In my opinion, this is a huge missed opportunity given the reality of the world that we live in, where working from home is the rule, rather than the exception, and where family gatherings mean firing up another instance of Zoom.

Apple M1 chip – a bonafide game-changer, no hyperbole

Without the M1 silicon powering this MacBook Air, this would be one insanely unremarkable computer. But when you add in Apple’s chip design prowess, the culmination of its experience designing silicon for its mobile products over the last decade, it completely changes the game.

Apple silicon is the biggest news in desktop computers in a very long time, and I think that people are realizing that right now in the moment. We’re not going to need hindsight to appreciate how big of a deal this change is to the computer industry, because I think Apple did a good job marketing this computer, and it’s been conditioning us all for such a change, via products like the iPhone and iPad, for years now.

Like the A-series chips in its iOS devices, the M-series chips found inside machines like the 2020 MacBook Air are the brains of the operation; they all work together in such a way to provide peak performance. The M1 chip contains all of the integral components, such as the CPU, GPU, Neural Engine, and unified memory. It also contains other key elements like the storage controller, Image Signal Processor, Secure Enclave, and more.

8-core CPU

It’s crazy to think that we have a MacBook Air with an 8-core CPU, but this is the chip that’s at the heart of the Apple M1. The 8-core CPU is broken up into a cluster of four performance cores (p-cluster) and four efficiency cores (e-cluster). Depending on the type of workload, each cluster can help drive the MacBook Air in the most efficient manner possible. For example, if your Mac is performing a background download, then the efficiency cores may handle the brunt of the work, but if you’re exporting a 4K video, then the performance cores will step up to bat. As you’ll learn, this design has a huge effect on battery life.

The four four efficiency cores span cpu 0 – cpu 3, while the four performance cores span cpu 4 – cpu 7. Here’s an example of what these cores look like in action when under different types of loads:

Resting idle

Most cores are idle

Downloading Logic Pro from the Mac App Store

Efficiency cores are at work, while performance cores remain idle

Running Cinebench benchmark

All cores at work

In this review, I wanted to do direct performance comparisons to the previous entry-level Intel MacBook Air from earlier this year. That machine sported a 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-generation Intel Core i3 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz. The entry-level machine also came with 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, similar to the Apple silicon version. Thus, I think comparing these two machines is a good litmus test — pitting the performance of Intel versus Apple silicon. All tests were performed while the machines were connected to power, so battery life throttling does not come into play. I also made sure to close all running apps that I could on each machine before running these tests.

Geekbench 5

It’s clear to see from our MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro Apple M1 benchmark, that these base model machines are very close in performance. For a benchmark as brief as Geekbench 5, the sustained performance advantages of the MacBook Pro aren’t readily seen.

But here lies the real interesting test. How does Apple silicon perform against Intel silicon? I pit both 2020 MacBook Air models against each other, and it’s immediately clear that Apple silicon is far superior. In single-core performance, there are noticeable advantages, but in multi-core Apple’s 8-core CPU devastates the base model dual-core Intel i3 found in the MacBook Air.

Cinebench R23

Testing with Cinebench was interesting because this is where you get an opportunity to see the active cooling advantages of the MacBook Pro come to light. Unsurprisingly, both machines absolutely gut the Intel-based MacBook Air, but notice the nearly 500 point difference in multi-core performance between both M1-flavored MacBook models.

7-core GPU

The base model MacBook Air comes with a 7-core GPU, while higher-specced versions and all MacBook Pro models feature an 8-core GPU. The reason for this difference is explained in a post by 9to5Mac’s Ben Lovejoy, but it basically boils down to binning.

At any rate, Apple’s GPU has been said to feature performance better than that of a discrete GTX 1050 Ti on an integrated chip. Although a GTX 1050 Ti is far from cutting-edge, to be able to get this type of performance out of an iGPU, a first-generation iGPU at that, is impressive. To test these claims I ran several tests using Final Cut Pro, Unigine, and Geekbench. Keep in mind that the Unigine tests run using Rosetta 2 translation, which could result in degraded performance. Yet, when compared to the Intel-based MacBook Air, none of that matters.

Ungine Heaven and Unigine Valley (Rosetta 2)

Even when running using Rosetta 2 translation, the difference between the Intel-powered MacBook Air and the M1-powered MacBook Air is stunning, if not downright laughable.

Geekbench 5

Geekbench, too, demonstrates the large gulf in performance between Intel and Apple silicon, but it also showcases the advantages of having an extra core and active cooling with the MacBook Pro.

Final Cut Pro performance

Besides Safari, my most used Mac app is Final Cut Pro. When editing videos in Final Cut Pro, the M1-MacBooks feature key advantages that you won’t experience on any Intel-based Mac laptop.

The biggest advantage is the 10-bit HEVC (H.265) performance. HEVC is a highly compressed video codec that needs good hardware encoding and decoding to be usable. The iPhone 12 features such hardware, which is shown by its ability to now shoot, play back, and export 10-bit 4K HEVC videos with ease. Now similar ease of use comes to the Mac, which is perfect timing with flagship cameras like the Sony Alpha 7S III and Canon R5 relying heavily on 10-bit HEVC compression.

On my Intel MacBook Air, I cannot play back 10-bit H.265 videos at all without lots of dropped frames, resulting in stuttering playback. And trying to export such videos on Intel MacBooks? Depending on the length of the video, that can feel like an exercise in futility. This chart speaks for itself:

Exporting a 2-minute HEVC clip shot with a Canon R5 (shorter is better)

Playing back and exporting 10-bit 4K HEVC videos on the M1 MacBooks is amazing. Not only is playback smooth, even when several effects are employed, but exporting is extremely fast. In some cases, transcoding and export was even faster than a 28-Core Mac Pro with dedicated W5700X graphics. That’s not to say that these first-generation Apple silicon Macs are the end-all-be-all for every Final Cut Pro user or scenario, but I was shocked at how well it performed in day-to-day editing on a base model MacBook Air without any sort of active cooling.

I’ll have a lot more to talk about in future posts and videos relating to Final Cut Pro and new Apple silicon hardware. Generally speaking, I think most users will be impressed by the results, especially those who need to work with 10-bit video for HDR workflows.

16-core Neural Engine

Thanks to the 16-core Neural Engine, operations assisted by Machine Learning can be faster and more efficient on Apple’s new Mac hardware. For instance, Final Cut Pro’s Smart Conform functionality, which employs machine learning to automatically reframe clips with an aspect ratio different from the project aspect ratio, is noticeably faster on M1 Macs. Pro applications like Pixelmator Pro can upscale images while maintaining sharpness and clarity even faster than before.

It’s still too early to see the types of machine learning improvements that I’m expecting, especially with pro apps like Final Cut Pro. The Neural Engine could potentially be used for features like automatic captioning and transcription among other exciting prospects.

Unified memory

With these new Macs, Apple has placed RAM right on the M1 die, which means that a machine like the Mac mini, which used to feature user-replaceable RAM, no longer benefits from such a feature. While this is unfortunate for those that like to add their own RAM after purchase, the benefits of this unified architecture mean increased memory access speed, and direct access to the entire pool of memory from the CPU and GPU, Neural Engine, etc.

The MacBook Air can be configured with up to 16GB of RAM, but my base model version features just 8GB. If I was using an Intel-based MacBook Air, I wouldn’t even consider using a machine with such little memory to handle my day-to-day creative workflow, but Apple’s implementation of unified memory cannot be compared 1:1 with typical RAM configurations.

Basic day-to-day usage is relatively unaffected by the amount of RAM, or lack thereof. The MacBook Air is competent with only 8GB of RAM even when running lots of apps simultaneously, even with a dozen Safari windows, and even when swapping out to the SSD.

With that being said, if you’re running pro apps like Final Cut Pro, I absolutely recommend maxing out to 16GB of memory, because you will notice performance benefits when working with high-end video projects. Although 8GB is “fine” for many cases, I think it makes sense to upgrade to 16GB of RAM if you have the means. Even if you leave the storage at the entry-level 256GB designation, at least upgrade your RAM, since unlike storage, it can’t be bolted on later.

Fast SSD

Apple says that the SSD inside of the Late 2020 MacBook Air is roughly two times as fast as the SSD in its predecessor, and I’ve been able to corroborate those claims via a head-to-head comparison using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test utility. I also pitted the SSD against the base model 256GB SSD inside the 2019 Mac Pro, and found read speeds to be similar, but write speeds to be much less than the M1 MacBooks.

This speed increase is handy when considering that the 8GB machine will need to swap memory out to disk quite often. Although the SSD is far slower and features more latency than system memory, having the increased storage speed, which is in part thanks to the integrated storage controller, assists with overall system performance beyond reading/writing of user-files to disk.

Wi-Fi 6

The MacBook Pro is the first desktop Apple computer to feature Wi-Fi 6 compatibility, also known as 802.11ax. Wi-Fi 6 features a higher theoretical throughput than its predecessor, 802.11ac (retroactively, WiFi 5). The iPhone 12 features Wi-Fi 6, so I was able to connect to it as a hotspot to verify the 802.11ax connectivity.

Connecting to my iPhone 12’s hotspot via Wi-Fi 6

Top speeds aside, Wi-Fi 6 is more about better managing network capacity and congestion via upgraded MU-MIMO, and the implementation of such technologies as orthogonal frequency division multiple access. It will be several years out before the real benefits of Wi-Fi 6 begin to be fully realized in the consumer space, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Thunderbolt / USB4

Like all recent MacBook Air models, the late 2020 version features just two USB-C ports on the left side of the machine. These ports are used for both I/O access for devices like SSDs, network adapters, docks, hubs, and displays. The ports are also there to facilitate charging via the included USB-C cable and power adapter.

Most importantly for Mac users, these USB4 ports feature backward compatibility with Thunderbolt 3 and older flavors of USB as well. It means that all of your Thunderbolt 3 peripherals should work (unless you’re waiting for a driver update from a vendor like Universal Audio), and all of your older USB 3.x and USB 2.x devices should work as well. USB4 itself is capable of Thunderbolt 3-like 40Gbps performance with USB4 certified devices and features tunneling of DisplayPort and PCI Express. In the future, a device doesn’t necessarily need to be “Thunderbolt” compatible to experience similar benefits that we’ve all grown accustomed to with Thunderbolt 3.

Apple’s initial M1-enabled MacBooks can officially connect to a single external display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz, in addition to the built-in display. That’s a bit of a downgrade when compared to the early 2020 Intel models, which could connect officially connect to up to two 4K displays (or a single 6K display) along with the built-in display. There is a known workaround for getting past the display limitation, but it requires extra hardware.

I tested both new MacBooks with the Pro Display XDR and they both connected instantly at full 6K resolution, and allowed for 5Gbps connectivity with the additional three USB-C ports on the rear of the display. I noticed that the M1-based MacBooks featured much better animations than the Intel version when connected at 6K, which comes as no surprise based on the GPU benchmarks showcased earlier.

One of the biggest changes with the M1-powered MacBooks is the outright lack of eGPU support. If you’re like me, and have used an eGPU for added graphics performance with past Macs, this may be a disappointment. However, considering how much better the graphics performance of these M1-MacBooks are, it may not be the big of a loss, especially when more powerful versions of Apple’s chips arrive in products like the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

Battery life

We all knew going into the announcement of the M1 MacBooks that battery life could see marked improvements due to Apple’s design efficiency, but I’ve been truly impressed by how good the battery life is on both machines.

The MacBook Air, with its up to 15 hours of wireless web and 18 hours of movie playback has been nothing short of impressive. Of course, in real-world usage, no one uses “wireless web” for 15 hours, or does “movie playback” for 18 hours. Depending on your needs, computer usage can be an incredibly mixed bag, and there’s no set number that will apply across the board for everyone. However, I can attest to the fact that these MacBooks have incredibly long battery life, so much so that it was honestly hard to believe initially.

I was able to use my MacBook Air for a full workday, writing, browsing the web, chatting on zoom, and editing video and photos, and the machine was only at 50% by the end of the day. I woke up the next day, and did several hours of zoom video calls and web browsing, and the machine finally gave me a warning to plug in when it reached 10%. And that was “just” the MacBook Air. For the MacBook Pro, battery life was even more impressive, allowing me to do numerous hours of zoom, video editing, and web browsing, without as much as sniffing the power outlet, over the course of two days.

And here’s the thing: these are Apple’s smallest MacBooks with the least amount of internal battery. I’d be shocked if the 16-inch MacBook Pro didn’t come with “all-day battery life” in the most literal sense. Apple could also decide to reduce the footprint of its 16-inch MacBook Pro while still retaining respectable battery life. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that Apple’s prowess for designing efficient chips in the iPhone and the iPad has paid dividends in the notebook arena.

Apps

Macs featuring Apple silicon can run three different types of apps: Universal apps, Apple silicon (iPhone and iPad) apps, and Intel silicon apps. Universal apps are the most desirable Mac apps, because they feature arm64 and x86_64 binaries, and can thus run on Apple or Intel silicon Macs. On M1-equipped Macs, the app will default to arm64 unless otherwise specified in the application’s Info panel.

M1 Macs can also run apps that are exclusively designed to run on Apple silicon, aka iPhone and iPad apps. These apps can be download from the Mac App Store via the iPhone and iPad app section. Developers of these apps have the option to opt-out, so popular apps like Instagram and TikTok aren’t yet officially available, but there are unofficial means of obtaining them.

Although the iPhone app experience on the MacBook Air has been a mixed bag, it will no doubt get better with time, and I’ve already been able to identify a few gems during my testing period. Marco Arment’s Overcast podcast app can be run on Apple silicon Macs, and it works great. Other apps, like the Apollo Reddit client work great as well.

Last but not least, M1-equipped Macs can translate apps designed for Intel silicon. Using the Rosetta 2 translation environment, Intel-specific applications are translated upon launch, and then the translated executable is launched in place of the original. All of this usually happens in mere seconds and is mostly invisible to the end-user, except for the initial launch of the first Intel-design app. Sometimes Intel apps can take a bit longer to launch than Universal apps, and sometimes they can experience issues or outright lack compatibility. Rosetta 2 is not meant to replace Universal apps and not every app will work properly when translated. Keep in mind that kernel extensions and virtual machine apps that virtualize x86_64 computer platforms cannot be translated.

There’s also the notable lack of Boot Camp support to install and run Windows on a secondary partition, and that could be a non-starter for some individuals who rely on running Windows on Mac. Microsoft has an ARM version of Windows, and Apple has indicated that the ball is in Redmond’s court with regard to future ARM Windows support on M1-flavored Macs, but we’ll have to wait and see how that transpires.

Rocket League (Windows version) running, albeit with graphical glitches

With that being said, users on the macOS Big Sur 11.1 beta are able to run some Windows apps using the CrossOver translator utility from CodeWeavers. Using CrossOver, I was able to install the Windows version of Steam on my Mac and download and play Rocket League at a respectable frame rate, but it wasn’t perfect. I plan on covering CrossOver support in a future post and video.

9to5Mac’s take

There is very little negative to say about these MacBooks. Apple has taken a design like the MacBook Air, which it more or less perfected with the early 2020 refresh, and made it 10 times better. This is no hyperbole. These M1-powered MacBooks are such a huge improvement in performance and battery life with virtually no negative baggage. I can’t see myself ever wanting to go back to an Intel-based laptop.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been watching Apple’s progress in chip design since the original iPad launched back in 2010. Apple has been auditioning, for years, its silicon design ability, and we’ve been more or less testing it for the last decade. This isn’t some unproven technology that Apple miraculously made appear out of thin air (no pun intended). What is surprising, however, is just how well Universal apps run, and just how well translated apps run under Rosetta 2.

Chances are you, as the end-user, won’t even know that anything’s different when you power up these machines and begin using them. All you’ll know is that your computer instantly wakes from sleep, your favorite apps work, and that battery life seems an awful lot better than you remember it being on your last MacBook. And that, folks, is the biggest sign that Apple’s new machines are a success.

While these aren’t perfect machines, the most exciting thing about the M1’s debut is the awesome future potential of Apple silicon in the Mac. If it’s already this good in the beginning, what will desktop computing look like several years from now? Exciting times, indeed!

What do you think? Have you purchased a new M1 MacBook? Sound off down below in the comments with your thoughts.

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