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Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire
Runs Intel apps well with Rosetta 2
Native apps run even better
Beautiful Retina display
Excellent battery life
Not a lot of ports
Webcam still just 720p
Overall design unchanged
Powered by Apple’s ARM-based M1 chip, the MacBook Air brings impressive raw power, fantastic battery life, and whisper-quiet operation to the table.
Lifewire purchased the MacBook Air to evaluate its features and capabilities. Read on to see our results.
The new MacBook Air with Apple’s custom M1 chip looks a whole lot like the old MacBook Air, but looks can be deceiving. While the line didn’t receive any major physical overhauls for the late 2020 edition, the inclusion of Apple’s ARM-based M1 processor lifts the lightest MacBook to new heights. With impressive processor power and benchmark results, whisper-quiet operation, and all-day battery life, all loaded into a familiar lightweight form factor, the M1 MacBook Air is an impressive machine.
The MacBook Air line has always been admirable from a portability standpoint, but they’ve always felt more like a second laptop than something designed primarily for work. If you want to get real work done, that’s what the MacBook Pro is for. With the raw power of the M1 chip though, I wondered if Apple might have finally shaken up that paradigm. I was able to spend about a week with the new MacBook Air as my main laptop, both around the office and on the go, which gave me the opportunity to test that theory.
The elephant in the room with Apple Silicon is that it locks you out of dual-booting Windows and cuts you off from apps and games that aren’t available for macOS. With that in mind, I endeavored to use the M1 MacBook Air for every non-Windows task possible, testing things like real-world performance and responsiveness, how my productivity was affected, battery life, and even how well it handles gaming.
Apple made some massive changes between the last MacBook Air and this one, but you can’t actually see any of them. The physical design of the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is exactly the same as the 2019 model, so if you’ve seen one of those, you know exactly what you’re getting here. That’s a bit of a letdown, as the unchanged look and feel of this laptop doesn’t really match the revolutionary changes to its internal hardware, but that doesn’t mean the look and feel are bad.
When I say that the physical design is unchanged, that isn’t an exaggeration. Despite big changes under the hood, the dimensions and weight of the M1 MacBook Air are unchanged from last year. It has the same thin profile, narrower toward the front than the back, the same Space Gray finish, and the same reflective Apple logo on the lid. The left edge features two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, just like last year, with a lone 3.5mm headphone jack on the right edge. No additional ports or connectors, that’s all you get.
Also unchanged from the last model is the power situation. There is no dedicated charging port, so you have to use one of the USB-C/Thunderbolt ports. With only two ports for all of your peripherals, video, power, and everything else, most will have to invest in a USB-C hub of some sort. During my time with the M1 MacBook Air, I used a USB/HDMI/Ethernet/SD Card hub without any issues.
Opening the M1 MacBook Air up, the full-sized backlit keyboard is framed by stereo speakers on either side and flanked by the same massive trackpad as the previous model. The keyboard itself is the same Magic Keyboard that made the jump from MacBook Pro to the MacBook Air line last year, and the scissor-switch keys feel just as good as they ever did. Above the keyboard, the 13-inch Retina display is also boxed in by the same chunky bezels as the previous model.
It would have been nice to have seen changes in some of these areas, like additional ports or a thinner bezel, but the MacBook Air already had a solid design, and Apple clearly chose to focus on internals this year instead of external design changes or big new features.
The display appears unchanged from the previous model, and that’s mostly true. It’s a beautiful 13.3-inch Retina display with a native 2560x1600 resolution, 400 nits of brightness, and Apple’s proprietary True Tone feature that’s capable of switching up color temperature to better match the light in your environment. For example, it will appear bluer when exposed to daylight or bright fluorescent light, and become warmer and more orange at night.
Since the size of the panel remains unchanged from the 2019 model, and the dimensions of the laptop itself are also unchanged, the 2020 MacBook Air still has the same chunky bezels as its predecessor. That isn’t the end of the world or anything, but it does detract from the premium feel of the device a little, especially when compared to other laptops I’ve used that have much slimmer bezels.
The biggest change here, or really the only change, is that the display in the M1 MacBook Air supports a wider color gamut. In fact, it supports the same P3 wide color gamut as the MacBook Pro. Most general users don’t really need this, but it is especially useful if you do a lot of photograph or video editing. If you’ve previously had to go with the MacBook Pro line because you do precise color work, this change means you might be able to save some money by switching to a MacBook Air.
The M1 chip has some pretty massive stats on paper, and Apple made some bold claims about increased performance during the ramp-up to the release of the first M1 hardware.
The full power of the M1 is unlikely to be realized until more native apps are available, but my initial experience with the new MacBook Air left me impressed.
Big Sur runs great, which is to be expected as it was designed with the new M1 hardware in mind. Menus load quickly, and navigation is snappy and responsive. If you’ve become used to staring at Apple’s infamous spinning beachball, don’t expect a whole lot of that here. Likewise with native M1 apps, which load and run with the sort of instantaneous response you normally associate with a brand-new iPad Pro, and handling of older Intel Mac apps also felt pretty seamless once they all received Rosetta 2.
Before I can really talk about the performance of the M1 MacBook Air though, it’s important to point out a few things. Since the M1 chip is ARM-based, and Macs have been using Intel silicon for a while, there’s a sharp line drawn in the sand between the last generation of Mac hardware and the 2020 MacBook Air. You can’t run Windows on this laptop, and you also can’t run old macOS apps natively.
In order to run apps that were originally designed for Intel Macs, the new MacBook Air has to make use of a translator called Rosetta 2. When you try to launch an app that wasn’t natively designed for an M1 Mac, Big Sur asks to run Rosetta 2 first. If you give it the okay, the rest of the process is seamless and invisible.
The only exception is Windows itself. While you used to be able to dual boot Windows and macOS with the help of Bootcamp, and thus run any Windows app on your Mac, that’s no longer an option. Microsoft has experimented with Windows on ARM devices before, but Windows doesn’t run on Apple’s M1 hardware.
Getting back to Rosetta 2, it worked extremely well in my experience. I was able to run resource-intensive apps like Photoshop and Lightroom without a hitch, which is great because Adobe hasn’t yet released native versions for M1 hardware.
I was even able to get Steam up and running via Rosetta 2 and install some macOS games like Civilization 6 and Streets of Rage 4.
Both games ran flawlessly despite the necessary intervention of Rosetta 2 to ensure compatibility.
In addition to just using the MacBook Air organically, I also ran a few benchmark tests that turned up predictably impressive results. First I ran the Wildlife Unlimited benchmark from 3DMark that’s technically designed for iOS. Since Big Sur and the M1 chip are designed to run iOS apps natively, it seemed like a good starting point. In that benchmark, the MacBook Air turned in a score of 16,272 and managed to output 97 frames per second (fps). As a point of comparison, the Mac mini hit a slightly higher score of 17,930 and 107fps with its one additional GPU core.
I also downloaded GFXBench Metal and ran a few benchmarks from that as well. First up I ran the Car Chase benchmark, which simulates a 3D game with advanced lighting and shaders. The MacBook Air managed an excellent 60fps in that benchmark, which would be great if Car Chase were an actual game and not a benchmark. I also ran the less intense T-Rex benchmark, which resulted in a slightly higher result of 70fps.
Between benchmarks and experience, the M1 MacBook Air is clearly a powerful little machine that’s more than ready for both work and play. Whether or not developers will actually embrace the new hardware as a gaming platform, when macOS has always been an afterthought in that department, remains to be seen. But the M1 MacBook Air is definitely up to the task.
Rosetta 2 acts as an intermediary between the new hardware and the old software, allowing you to run just about anything on an M1 MacBook Air that you could have run on an Intel MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air has never really been a productivity machine, with professionals typically opting for the aptly named MacBook Pro. With the new MacBook Air, that line is blurrier than ever before. The MacBook Pro and MacBook Air have nearly identical M1 chips, with the Pro including an integrated 8-core GPU compared to the 7-core GPU in the Air. The Air’s Magic Keyboard also features physical function keys instead of the controversial Touch Bar found on the Pro.
Beyond those differences, the MacBook Air does a pretty convincing impression of a MacBook Pro. Apple has actually created a bit of a strange situation where a lot of people who would have normally opted for a Pro don’t really need to. I was able to use my test unit for literally all of my daily work activities, from researching, to writing, to editing images in Photoshop, with zero issues.
The Magic Keyboard, unchanged from the final Intel MacBook Air, is a joy to use. The keys have a satisfying amount of travel, are just clicky enough, and I appreciate the physical function keys. The trackpad is also great, although I substituted a mouse when working at my desk.
The only time I needed to switch over to a Windows device was for extracurricular after-work activities. Most of the games I’m currently buried under either don’t have a great macOS client, like Final Fantasy XIV, or don’t run on macOS at all, like Genshin Impact. In terms of pure productivity, the M1 MacBook Air never let me down. Your mileage will necessarily vary if you rely on apps or utilities that only run on Windows.
The MacBook Air (M1, 2020) features the same great stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos support as the previous generation. Framing the keyboard and firing upward, these speakers are both loud and clear. They’re a bit heavy on the high end, but sound pretty great whether listening to music, streaming YouTube videos, or watching movies on Netflix.
When I loaded up YouTube Music in Safari and cued up Led Zeppelin's “Immigrant Song”, I only needed to set the volume to about 50 percent to fill my small office at a comfortable listening level. Cranked all the way, the speakers are louder than you’re likely to need, but they remain clear without any real distortion.
The MacBook Air includes an 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 card with legacy support for 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, and it also supports Bluetooth 5.0. It doesn’t have a wired Ethernet port, but you can connect to a wired internet connection via one of the Thunderbolt ports if you have the right adapter. I did so, it worked pretty seamlessly.
I didn’t run into any networking issues during my time with the MacBook Air, whether using a wired or wireless connection. Connectivity was rock solid with both types of connections, and I experienced solid download and upload speeds that were in line with what I expected out of my internet connection.
Putting the network connectivity of the M1 MacBook Air to the test, I first plugged in a USB-C/Thunderbolt hub and hooked up via Ethernet to my gigabit cable internet connection from Mediacom. At the time of testing, I measured my download speed at just shy of 1Gbps at the modem. Using the Speedtest app from Ookla, the MacBook Air registered an impressive 931Mbps down and 62Mbps up.
For wireless, I connected the MacBook Air to my Eero mesh Wi-Fi system and checked speeds at a variety of distances and locations. When measured in close proximity to the router, I measured a top download speed of 390Mbps. Then I checked again at a distance of about 30 feet, and I measured a top speed of 340Mbps. Moving 50 feet away, with walls and appliances blocking the signal, the MacBook Air still managed to hit 290Mbps.
The M1 MacBook Air is an impressive machine, so the fact that it still has a seriously unimpressive 720p webcam is a letdown. This is the same camera found in last year's model. Strangely enough, it’s also the same camera you get in the much more expensive M1 MacBook Pro. Clearly, Apple thinks it’s good enough, even though it really isn’t.
The good news is that while the hardware hasn’t been updated, the M1 chip does some heavy lifting behind the scenes to provide marginally improved results. This results in reduced noise, better dynamic range, and better white balance than the previous version. The bad news is that while it’s technically improved thanks to better post-processing, it still isn’t that great a camera, especially compared to competing laptops that give you a 1080p webcam instead.
The camera is good enough for video calls, but you’re not going to impress anyone with a super sharp image or colors that really pop. Make sure your lighting is decent, and that’s about all you can do.
One of the marquee features of Apple Silicon is reduced power usage compared to Intel chips, which translates directly into better battery life. Apple made bold claims about an all-day battery in the run-up to the release of the M1 MacBook Air, and they really delivered.
I was able to use the MacBook Air all day while out of the office, and still had battery life left upon arriving home at night.
To really test the MacBook Air, I looped YouTube videos in Safari and left the laptop alone. Under those conditions, it took nearly 12 hours for the battery to run down. Your mileage will vary depending on usage, and some apps take more power than others, but the M1 MacBook Air is truly built for all-day use between charges.
The M1 MacBook Air comes equipped with Big Sur, the latest and greatest iteration of macOS, and the rest of the usual suspects. Apple built Big Sur from the ground up with the M1 chip in mind, and they’ve also rebuilt the old standards like Safari to run natively on the new hardware. Beyond that, you can also run a wide variety of iOS apps and Rosetta 2 allows you to run pretty much any legacy Intel Mac app that you want.
The two issues with software on the new MacBook Air both have to do with the switch to Apple Silicon, and I’ve already addressed both to varying degrees. The first is that you can’t run Windows on an M1 Mac, and the other is that it will take a while for developers to get on board with the M1 architecture.
The Windows problem only affects some people, but it’s a big issue for the ones who are affected. Since you can’t install Windows on an M1 Mac, you’re essentially cut off from running Windows apps natively. Emulation is also a no-go at the moment, although Parallels has promised that they have a solution on the horizon. Another solution may be on the way in the future in the form of an ARM version of Windows, but neither are on the table right now.
For the time being, you’ll either have to hold on to your old Intel Mac or split time between the M1 MacBook Air and a dedicated Intel device if you absolutely need Windows for work or gaming.
As far as third party developers building apps specifically for M1 Macs, that will come with time. And until your favorite app gets the native M1 treatment, I was pretty impressed with the capabilities of Rosetta 2 to get legacy apps up and running. Some take longer to get going than others, but it’s a one time thing to get each app going on the M1 MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is actually a bit more expensive than the previous iteration of the hardware, with an MSRP of $999 for the base model. That’s about $100 more than the base configuration of the 2019 model, which is a bit strange considering the fact that Apple went in the other direction with the pricing of the M1 Mac mini.
Despite the price increase, the capabilities of the M1 MacBook Air make it worth the investment. It’s a bit of a different calculation if you absolutely need access to Windows, in that you’ll need both a MacBook Air and a secondary machine to get by, but anyone who can live solely in the macOS ecosystem will find this laptop to be a pretty great deal.
With Apple extricating itself from the world of Intel silicon, an important question is arising: should you sail away in the M1 boat, or jump ship to a pure Windows machine? If you’re locked into the macOS ecosystem, the answer is easy, but it’s more difficult if you’ve been straddling the line.
On the Windows side of the walled garden, the Asus ZenBook 13 is a great little laptop that fits the same basic niche as the MacBook Air, with a decent mix of performance and portability. It has an MSRP of $799 which is a couple hundred dollars less than the M1 MacBook Air, but it’s also less powerful and the battery doesn’t last as long.
You do get some extra ports with the ZenBook 13, including a Type-A USB port, HDMI 2.0 port, and a microSD card reader, but the Intel UHD graphics lag far behind the M1 chip, and the display resolution is also lower. Having all those ports built-in is nice and convenient, but you can duplicate that functionality with a $30 USB-C hub if you don’t mind carrying around the extra hardware.
If you can’t live without Windows, then the ZenBook 13 is a decent port in the storm. It also had enough ports that you probably won’t have to carry around a USB hub. Otherwise, the M1 MacBook Air is superior in just about every way and more than justifies the slightly higher price tag.
Apple Silicon is built for mobile performance.
With the M1 chip under its hood, the 2020 MacBook Air leaves the competition in the dust, turning in unreal benchmarks and silky smooth real-world performance. You can find a cheaper ultraportable with more ports, but only if you’re willing to take a big hit on performance and battery life. If you can live without the ability to run Windows apps through Bootcamp, then the M1 MacBook Air is a must-buy.
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