Enlarge /. Hey, my macro lens is still working!
The new M1-powered MacBook Air is incredibly fast and the battery lasts a long time.
If you stop reading this review immediately afterwards, you should know that unless Windows virtualization is a requirement of your workflow, you should probably sell your old MacBook Air right away and buy this thing instead.
Say you have a grand or something lying around that you wouldn't be spending on anything else. But hey, if you do then I can confidently tell you that, despite my opinion on a legion of Doubting Thomases (including me!) About Apple's newbies to its own PC silicon, my examined opinion now gives far, far more stupid possibilities to part with your money.
A brief caveat to this "rating"
Apple MacBook Air (Late 2020)
(Ars Technica may receive compensation for sales of links to this post through affiliate programs.)
Apple provided Ars with a couple of M1 Mac Minis for review. One of them went to Samuel to write it down and the other went to Jim to do his silicon analysis. Apple declined our request for a model of an M1 laptop.
The MacBook Air reviewed here is my personal device that I bought shortly after the unveiling. I wrote this ASAP after I received it but I had to wait for the device which is why you all had to wait for the review. (This is also why this is an intermediate configuration and not in stock or maximum like most test devices – I increased the RAM to 16GB and the internal storage to 1TB because that's what I wanted.)
Since this is my device, I come into this review from a slightly different perspective than some of the other publications that do MBA reviews. I'm not going to tell you why you should buy a MacBook Air or how it might work for you. But I will talk about what it was like to own it for a few days and how the device fits into my life. I do most of my power user duties on the desktop rather than a portable device, but occasionally I have to leave the office and be on the go – and the M1 MBA will be a great travel companion. You know, as soon as we can get back on the streets without worrying about epidemics and such.
|Technical data at a glance: 2020 MacBook Air (M1)|
|screen||2560 × 1600 at 13.3 in|
|operating system||macOS Big Sur 11.0.1|
|Central processor||Apple M1|
|GPU||Apple M1 (8 core)|
|hard disk||1 TB SSD|
|Networking||802.11ax Wi-Fi 6; IEEE 802.11a / b / g / n / ac; Bluetooth 5.0|
|Ports||2x Thunderbolt 3 / USB 3.1 Gen 2 / DisplayPort, 3.5 mm headphones|
|size||0.16-0.63 x 11.97 x 8.36 inches (0.41-1.61 x 30.41 x 21.24 cm)|
|guarantee||1 year or 3 years with AppleCare +|
|Price as rated||$ 1,299|
|Other advantages||720p FaceTime HD camera, stereo speakers|
Approaching such a device as a tester differs from approaching a device as a consumer. When the UPS guy drops it off, you can't just tear open the box and jump in – there are things you have to do first.
Tripods. Lighting. I have to iron the big white broom cloth so I have a background for pictures. I have to try to remember where the DSLR battery is.
It's the strangest thing about working for Ars, even after eight years. Your tech buying experiences aren't always your own – sometimes Ars readership will come along.
After unpacking, I logged in and ran some benchmarks. That's the first thing to do when you run a check – either run the benchmarks first, or run them dead last, and I wanted to get them out of the way because that's, you know, my laptop and me I'd actually like to use it for things instead of running it on battery tests for 20 hours.
This is the box it comes in.
This is all that is in the box. (Well, almost everything – you get a real laptop, too.)
2015 13-inch MacBook Air with i7 drive on the left, 2020 13-inch MacBook Air with M1 drive on the right.
The older MacBook Air design is a bit bulkier, although the screens are the same size.
A story of two laptops.
Out with the old, in with the new. (If anyone wants a copy of the awesome Last Starfighter wallpaper on the old MBA I got it from this reddit thread.
Just days earlier, I had used my living room HTPC – a basic 2018 Mac mini – to run the full set of Mac comparison benchmarks for Samuel's Mac mini test. I got a pretty good sense of how quickly the Intel Mini's hex core i5 beat through each of the tests since I'd just seen the numbers, and after talking to Samuel and Jim I expected the new one to get the M1 MBA would beat the Intel-powered mini.
I just didn't know how hard a hit would be.
Get the benchmark parts out of the way
That's how fast it is in a series of charts and graphs.
According to Apple, the MacBook Air's M1 is voltage limited to function within the thermal envelope of the fanless design. The dismantling of iFixit shows in detail that the Air's M1 cooling system is a completely passive affair, with only one heat transfer plate between the M1 CPU and the aluminum case. I was expecting similar performance, but maybe a little less than the M1-powered Mac mini, and I've more or less achieved that. The Air's M1, however, is capable of at least a few minutes of full-bore Firestorm core power before throttling back.
disassembled at iFixit. "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/MBA_M1_2020_49_v1-scaled-1-640×480.jpg "width =" 640 "height =" 480 "srcset =" https: / /cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/MBA_M1_2020_49_v1-scaled-1-1280×960.jpg 2x”/>Enlarge /. The passive cooling system of the M1 MBA was dismantled at iFixit.
While benchmarking, I found that subsequent runs of the Final Cut Pro export would slow down dramatically – the first export would complete in about 1 minute and 19 seconds, but if I did the export again right away it would be a little less than 2, Take 5 minutes – and the air would feel pretty warm. After the lid was closed to hibernate until the air cooled and then the export was repeated, the time was back in the 1:20 range.
To achieve a more sustainable utilization, I cloned the source video three times and then repeated the export process. Based on a cold start with the MBA chassis at ambient temperature, the result was 4 minutes and 21 seconds. This time I opened the Activity Monitor's CPU graph to spy on the core usage. All eight cores were busy until about 2:56 a.m. At this point, half of the cores – presumably the high-performance Firestorm cores – were under 50 percent loaded and stayed there until the run was complete.
Start a long export with all four cores flaming away.
But after a few minutes four of the cores – probably the high-performance Firestorm cores – throttle back.
A second run immediately after that lasted 7:37 – not quite twice as long, but in that direction. The Activity Monitor CPU usage graph showed half the cores (presumably the high-performance Firestorm cores) at half load for the entire run.
Further testing – including running several runs after the MBA was turned off for about an hour to ensure it had cooled to ambient temperature – did not reveal anything that resembled a precise, repeatable time interval for throttling to begin. The best I can do is say that it looks like if you throw a heavy workload on the MBA it will run full bore until the Firestorm kernels are too toasted, which is between 3 and 6 minutes seems to last. Then the Firestorm cores are reset until they are around 50 percent utilization, and the amount of heat generated at that level appears to be within the sustained heat capacity of the design.
(These are subjective measurements taken under the indoor environmental conditions that were taking place in my house when I was doing the tests. Your results may vary.)
I hate USB-C charging, give me MagSafe back
The other important thing for a portable device like the MBA is battery life, and that's what we're going to talk about. But first, very briefly, losing MagSafe sucks.
Yes, I know that I will be late for the discussion. I know MagSafe was wiped out a few hardware revisions ago, but I'm switching from a MacBook Air with it to a MacBook Air without it, and plugging in a USB-C cable feels like going back to the damn dark days . I've been happy with MagSafe plugs on my laptops for nearly a decade – the quick one-handed click, the easy, no-hassle pull to release, and the friendly LED that tells you when they're all charged.
Way, but don't forget. I miss this one so damn much.
Sticking a plug into a friction plug is stupid – two hands are often required depending on how you're holding things. It's just stupid. This is an anti-customer regression of functionality. I'm sure there are good reasons for this, and it will save Apple money on the MBA's bill of materials and warranty support, but I hate it and it's awful. This isn't the premium Apple experience I want to pay for.
I used the M1 MacBook Air for work all day one day, filling about 11 hours 24/7 with Slack, email, Zoom conferencing, messaging, and surfing the web, and the Air was still 40 percent on Battery meter when the day was over. This is considerably longer than my old MBA from 2015, which threw in the towel around five o'clock. (Unlike the official battery test, my unofficial work test was done with adaptive brightness and night shift activated, and there was quite a bit of idle.)
In the official Ars battery test, in which the screen was locked at our reference brightness of 200 nits, the M1 MBA lasted 877 minutes – just over 14.5 hours. The charging time from almost dead to full took just over two hours with the supplied 30 W adapter, with the device switched off during the charging process.
But I don't usually spend the day working on my laptop. Instead, the place my old MBA most often lets me down is long flights. When I live in Houston I usually fly United, and United is particularly lousy with power plugs. If you can't get certain seats, you're out of luck. In my experience, my Intel MBA is good for three, maybe four hours of watching movies before he dies as a Doornail. So if I fly to California or pretty much anywhere it's more than a couple of hours away and I can't get a power outlet seat, I know I'll probably need to bring a book.
The M1 Air laughs at my old MBA. It laughs at it, gives it noogies, and flushes its head over the toilet in the locker room.
/. Artistic impression of how I felt about the M1 MacBook Air's battery life as it kept playing Westworld episodes without running out of juice.
I left the M1 MBA and played 4K Westworld episodes from the UHD BluRay box set, full screen and at maximum brightness, with the sound booming at maximum volume. After ten hours, I finally gave up and turned off the laptop. At this point, it still said that 13 percent of the battery was left. This is not only enough for a domestic flight, but also for an international flight from the USA to Europe.
A quick note on getting back to sleep: During the Air Reveal, Apple showed how quickly air is resumed from standby by having Senior VP Craig Federighi lift the lid of a sleeping MacBook Air and take a look at it, all set to the gentle sounds of Barry White. While I can't tell Barry White is playing when I open my laptop, I can say the M1 Air wakes up from sleep very quickly. It's not that it's faster than my Intel-powered Air, as the 2015 model sometimes wakes up immediately – but it sometimes takes a second or two for the Air 2015 to flash when the lid is lifted. The M1 Air is much more consistent – I've only had this thing for a few days, but every awakening from sleep was lightning fast.