After the promise, it’s time for the verdict: Are ARM Macs as good as Apple announced when it debuted in November? The MacBook Air is the first of two new Apple laptops to undergo an extensive test. The perfect opportunity to measure how well an ARM architecture can replace an Intel processor.
In November, Apple introduced several Macs with a new processor called the Apple M1 rather than the usual Intel Core, ending a partnership that had lasted since mid-2006. Adaptation for computers of the Apple A SoCs that we usually find in smartphones and tablets of the brand, the M1 is based on an ARM architecture. The first three devices to benefit from it are the Mac Mini, the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air.
Apple’s promise is big about the Apple M1. Very good performances. A sharp drop in consumption (at equivalent performance). A standby mode that consumes nothing. And an almost immediate wake-up call. Without forgetting certain advantages in terms of compatibility: iOS applications can easily be transferred to the Mac… and vice versa. And these are just a few of the advantages of the processor.
But what about in real life? We were lucky totry the MacBook Air with Apple M1 processor. And, in other words, the experience is truly surprising. Without being as dazzling as the promise of the keynote, it is really much more fluid than that offered by a MacBook Pro under Intel. And above all, the MacBook Air is finally coming out of its office straitjacket. At what point ? Answer in this comprehensive review of the ultrabook, here in its cheapest version.
|MacBook Air ARM|
|Screen||– 13.3 “Retina display (IPS LCD) with True Tone display
– Up to 1680 x 1050 pixels
– 400 nits
– DCI-P3 color space
– HDR10 compatible
|Fanless design (completely silent)||Yes|
|Dimensions and weight||– Height: 0.41 to 1.61 cm
– Width: 30.41 cm
– Depth: 21.24 cm
– Weight: 1.29 kg
|Chip (CPU, GPU and Neural Engine)||Apple M1 with 8-core CPU, up to 8-core GPU and 16-core Neural Engine|
|RAM||8 or 16 GB of unified memory (GPU, CPU and Neural Engine)|
|Storage||SSD from 256 GB up to 2 TB|
|Touch ID (fingerprint reader)||Yes|
|Autonomy||– Up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing
– Up to 18 hours of video playback on the Apple TV app
– Built-in 49.9 Wh lithium-polymer battery
– 30W USB-C power adapter
|Connectivity||– Two Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports used for charging, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40 Gbps), USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10 Gbps), Thunderbolt 2, HDMI, DVI and VGA (via adapters not included)
– 3.5mm headphone jack
|Wireless network and connectivity||– Wi ‑ Fi 6 802.11ax
– Wi-Fi 802.11a / b / g / n / ac
– Bluetooth 5.0
Price and availability
The MacBook Air M1 is already available. Apple has been marketing it since November 17, 2020. It is available both in Apple Stores and in the usual brands. Please note, not all versions are available everywhere.
MacBook Air M1 starting price starts at 1129 euros in version 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. That’s a pretty aggressive price tag since it’s not only lower than the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, but it’s also lower than the MacBook Air (2020) released a few months earlier. This will not please Apple customers who bought their MacBook Air in the first half of the year.
There are of course several options to tailor the computer to your needs. You first have the choice between the M1 chipset with 7 cores for the GPU and the one with 8 hearts (the CPU and the neural coprocessor do not change). Count around forty euros difference between the two, for the same storage volume. Note that the second is not available in a 256 GB version. On the RAM side, you have the option of doubling it for the modest sum of 230 euros.
On the storage side, you have to pay 230 euros to upgrade to 512 GB, 460 euros to switch to 1 TB and 920 euros to go to 2 TB. Either, for example, the version with the M1 processor with hepta-core GPU, 8 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage at 1589 euros. The most expensive version of the MacBook Air M1 is offered at 2319 euros. You have the M1 with the octo-core GPU, 16GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage. Some options are very expensive here. Others are really worth the effort (like the extra GPU core).
Our video test of the MacBook Air M1
The MacBook Air M1 doesn’t have a design that changes much from previous MacBook Airs. You find a beautiful brushed aluminum chassis whose lower part (the one with the keyboard, the battery and the motherboard) is bevelled. This means the computer is thicker at the back than the front. Specifically, the MacBook Air measures 0.4cm thick at the front and 1.6cm at the back, at the hinge. Compared to the 2017 MacBook Air, the MacBook Air M1 is slightly thicker by a few millimeters.
This MacBook Air is identical to the dimensions of its predecessor. It measures 12 ” wide and 8 ” deep. On the hood you will find the usual brand logo. And, under the computer, you have the four silicone feet. There are also a dozen screws with a star pitch (usual format for MacBooks). This will allow access to the interior and change the battery or SSD hard drive, etc.
You notice that there is no opening for an air intake under the MacBook Air M1. This is one of the big changes this computer has over its predecessors: it doesn’t use any ventilation to remove heat from its processor. A piece of metal is responsible for dissipating the heat and carrying it towards the hull by thermal conduction. The MacBook Air M1 is therefore very quiet, although it also performs very well, as we will see.
If you compare the MacBook Air M1 (or the Intel 2020 MacBook Air) with the 2017 MacBook Air, you’ll notice that the former is slightly smaller. It loses a little more than 2 cm in width and 1.5 cm in depth. This more than compensates for the overweight noted earlier. By the way, it shows on the scale. The MacBook Air M1 weighs, like the MacBook Air (Intel, 2020), 1.29 kg, against 1.35 kg for the 2017 model.
Wireless connections and connectivity
Now let’s look at the product slices. We find there three connectors. The first, on the right edge, is a 3.5mm jack port. It is interesting to note that Apple retains a connection here that it claims to be obsolete in telephony. The future is wireless audio, she says to justify its removal from iPhones. We have to believe that the future is selective, because here the 3.5mm jack port dies hard. Our opinion: Apple needed the space monopolized by the jack port, but did not know how to justify it otherwise. Apple doesn’t need this space here. The firm therefore leaves the port.
On the other side, you find two USB / Thunderbolt ports. Remember that these Thunderbolt ports accept USB accessories, making them extremely practical. These are extremely versatile ports, capable of charging the ultraportable and connecting all possible peripherals, such as storage media. It is DisplayPort compatible, so you can connect an external display to it. Finally, they can be used as network connectivity.
Thanks to adapters, it transforms to adapt to the connectors of your choice: USB type-A, HDMI port or Ethernet port. They are very convenient ports. There are only two here. This means that you will sometimes have to make a choice: charge the MacBook and access a storage device, or take advantage of a second external display and be plugged directly into a modem router, etc. We would have liked a third port, next to the jack port. MacBook Pros have four USB / Thunderbolt ports. There it is comfortable.
Another point of negative details, the two ports are very close to each other. There is only a few millimeters in between. This means that some adapters cannot be plugged in simultaneously. In other words, sometimes you will have to choose your devices based on this small size. We made the same point about Huawei’s Matebook X.
Side wireless connection, you have Bluetooth, WiFi. The version of Bluetooth is 5.0. This allows any type of wireless device to be connected. This version of Bluetooth is used in particular for TrueWireless AirPods type headphones, but from alternative brands (AirPods benefit from proprietary technology). On the WiFi side, this is the version 6. That’s good news, because this version of WiFi is one that will catch on quickly.
Of course, this MacBook Air M1 is compatible AirPlay and AirDrop. The first allows you to share your screen on a compatible device (Apple TV or television, such as the Sony Bravia XH90 recently tested in our columns). The second allows you to transfer files from one Apple device to another.
Now let’s open the computer and focus on the lower part. You discover a full keyboard with 79 standard keys. This is a Magic Keyboard, the MacBook Pro keyboard that arrived in the Air line earlier this year. Each key is separated from its neighbor, which allows you to enter text very quickly, without the risk of typing next to it. You will find the classic keys, as well as 12 function keys, the “Escape” key as well as the inverted T-shaped directional cross.
As before, you will find the power button in the upper right corner. It incorporates a typical fingerprint reader Touch ID. This key is obviously used to secure the computer and your personal data. It is also used to pay with Apple Pay and validate downloads on the App Store. Again, this is a technology that tends to fade from iPhones, but still survives on computers.
You will notice that the MacBook Air does not have the Touch Bar, this touch bar that you find in the MacBook Pro. This bar is extremely practical, because it is customizable and contextual. You put the shortcuts you want there and some keys change depending on the software. Here, the Function keys are not so convenient. It is time to change them.
The keyboard is backlit with multiple brightness levels. The time of inactivity beyond which the keyboard turns off can be configured. The shortest is 5 seconds. And the longest is 5 minutes. Thirty seconds should be enough not to get frustrated, while maintaining good control over battery life.
Under the keyboard, you will find a rectangular touchpad. That’s a pretty big space, but less wide than the pavement of the MacBook Pros. It is multi-touch and Force Touch compatible. This means that you have several levels of interaction with the touchpad. Click a first time, then, without lifting your finger, press a little harder to feel a second “click”. There you get a different context action from the simple click. Usually this will open a preview (if you release your finger, you exit the preview). macOS supports many gestures with multiple fingers for navigating the system and from one application to another.
Last detail about the lower part of the MacBook Air M1: the speakers. They are positioned on the side edges of the keyboard. They are therefore perfectly positioned vis-à-vis the user. The sound produced by these two speakers is powerful, clear and detailed in the midrange and treble. On the low side, the sounds are also detailed, but lack depth. However, the audio equipment of this MacBook Air M1 is comparable to the brand’s more expensive models.
Now let’s move on to the top of this frame with the screen. Apple is innovating very little here, taking over the panel of its MacBook Air (2020). However, we don’t blame the brand for making this choice: the screen of the MacBook Air M1 is really excellent. Why change it, taking the risk of doing less well?
Concretely, this is a model of 13.3 inch with borders of a good centimeter around the display. The screen ratio is 16 / 10th. It therefore appears slightly higher than it is wide, compared to television panels. The top edge is even a little wider to accommodate a Facetime HD camera that also doubles as a light sensor. The latter offers a decent resolution, but not extraordinary either.
The definition of this screen is 1600 pixels high and 2560 pixels wide. Or a little more than a Quad HD. We are therefore in the middle between a Full HD and an Ultra HD. The screen resolution is 227 pixels per inch. Which is very reasonable for a computer screen. The nature of the backlight is IPS LCD. The maximum advertised brightness is 400 nits (or cd / m²). The panel is compatible HDR10 and DCI-P3. It is also True Tone compatible.
Our measurements show that the panel offers excellent behavior, whether in terms of contrast or colorimetry. We measured 407 cd / m² in maximum brightness, a little more than the 400 nits announced by the brand. We found an average contrast of 1020. A very good number for a laptop screen. Another excellent figure, that of colorimetry: the average color temperature is 6,700 Kelvin, or very slightly above the ideal value.
Average Gamma and Average Delta E are both good below 3. The first is at 2.2 and the second is at 1.2. See on the graphic elements above. On the left, the Gamma value scrupulously follows the reference curve. In the center, the same goes for the color temperature. Finally, on the right, we see that only two colors deviate from the ideal values. But the gap remains moderate. Color reproduction is therefore excellent. All in all, the screen of the MacBook Air M1 is really excellent. This is confirmed in use, where we have seen beautiful contrasts, beautiful colors and very wide viewing angles. Beware of adaptive settings that distort colors and light. We are thinking in particular of Night shift which reduces the blue.
Interface and applications
Once the MacBook Air M1 is on, you enjoy the latest iteration of macOS: Big Sur. This is numbered 11.0. This means that Apple is finally turning the page on MacOS X. The Cupertino company has been running on MacOS X for almost 20 years: from the Cheetah version (10.0), released in June 2001, to the Catalina version (10.15 ), deployed at the end of last year. This bodes well for many changes. And this is confirmed, of course.
The first changes are to be found on the interface side. With a first general remark: Apple drew a lot of inspiration from iOS and iPadOS to change the appearance of macOS. First of all, the dock is no longer a simple rectangular solid that appears when your mouse grazes the bottom edge of the screen. It is now independent, with rounded corners, like that of an iPad. Inside, the icons have also been revised for a look that is closer to iOS. Now the icons of macOS system apps will be identical to those of iOS.
Another inspiration from iPadOS: the new control center (or Control Center for purists). This is a screen adapted directly from iPadOS that appears when you click on the new icon (the second from the right, between Siri and Spotlight) in the top bar. Here you can directly control WiFi, Bluetooth, Screen, AirPlay and Airdrop, etc. If an icon seems more useful than another, force-click on it and drag it into the bar. Child’s play.
Third inspiration, the new widget center. Until now, notifications and widgets (which were rather sketchy and were meant to replace Dashboard, which disappeared with Mojave) were gathered in one and the same screen. But this dusty system is just a bad memory. It is replaced by widgets taken directly from iOS 14 and iPadOS 14. You can place them wherever you want. You can choose their size, for different use. And you can finally interact with it in a modern way. Only minor complaint, in the end, the disappearance of the calculator widget that we found extremely practical (but victim of an annoying bug). It is replaced by a native application.
Of course, the move to Big Sur allows Apple to modernize and improve native applications. With a first ergonomic change: the side menus are now clearer thanks to a simpler graphic charter. The application benefiting from the best improvements is Safari, with a new customizable home screen, a new tab management system, an integrated translator and new security tools.
The others are Messages, with a conversation management system and new possibilities for interaction (especially with animated GIFs finally integrated), Plans, which now offers tour guides in partnership with Lonely Planet, a view similar to Street View, and interior maps of some buildings for pedestrians.
You will also see a new native application appear: Apple tv. This is the first time that the firm’s streaming service has arrived on macOS. However, its arrival is not a surprise, all other Apple services are already present in the OS (Arcade, Music, iCloud, etc.).
Other important information about the applications: extensive software compatibility MacBook Air M1 (and all other platforms with the Apple M1 SoC). If you go to the App Store with this MacBook Air (or with the 13-inch MacBook Pro or even with the Mac Mini), you will find that you can search the Mac App Store, but also the App Store for iOS and iPadOS. Because, as Apple promised, platforms with SoC M1 are natively compatible with iOS applications. And, that’s a hell of a leap forward.
Now, with Macs running Apple M1, you have three different types of application. You have the universal applications. These are applications developed to be natively compatible with the M1 processor, but also other macOS and iOS platforms. All Apple apps are, of course, universal. And others will follow suit. And the more the better, as we will see in the section on autonomy.
Then there are the applications for ” Apple Silicon “. These are the applications developed for iOS and iPadOS. The example here is Dead Trigger 2. The operating system makes them run relatively well, but there’s a compatibility issue: a trackpad and mouse are no substitutes for a touchscreen. Some applications, including games, are not optimized.
Finally, there are the applications ” MacIntel “. These are the ones that were developed for Macs with an Intel processor. Apple has developed a kind of emulator called Rosetta (here in version 2). For the user, it is transparent. But at the OS level, the MacIntel application is separate from the kernel. Which causes incompatibilities. We installed Steam to try and install games that are a little more greedy, like Divinity by Larian Studios. The game installs, launches, and crashes a few seconds later. Unable to access the game.
With these three types of compatible applications, Macs with M1 processors have the most comprehensive software library. It must still be fully compatible.
Let’s come to performance, another great promise from Apple. This claims that a Mac with M1 is more powerful than a great Windows laptop. Why ? Because the architecture of M1, inherited from ARM like Apple Ax processors for iPhones and iPads, is faster and less power hungry. So it’s time to take a look at exactly what the Apple M1 is worth.
First, a quick reminder of the configuration of our test copy of the MacBook Air M1: Octo-core M1 SoC at CPU level (four powerful hearts and four thrifty hearts), hepta-core at GPU level. This component also integrates 16 hearts for the neural part and it is accompanied here by 8 GB RAM. This is the lightest configuration. Note, however, that the tests published on Geekbench affirm that there is not yet more glaring to go for 16 GB of RAM and for the version of M1 with eight graphics cores.
With Geekbench, we get a score slightly higher than 1700 points in single-core and a score very close to 7600 points in multi-core. These are very similar scores to any you can see on the Geekbench portal. These are very high scores compared to other Apple platforms. Comparing with all other platforms, we learn that all M1 platforms (including the one we are testing) are much more powerful than MacBook Air or MacBook Pro equipped with Core-i3, Core-i5 and even Core-i7, even those with double the RAM.
On average, the single-core score of the MacBook Air M1 is 50% higher than the score of the MacBook Air released in early 2020. And its multi-core score is twice as high. Again comparing with other Macs available, only two platforms outperform the M1 today: the Core-i9 and the Xeon.
On the GPU side, the MacBook Air M1 is also very good. By comparing the scores it obtains with Geekbench tests with those of a MacBook Pro running Core-i7 (with integrated GPU), the MacBook Air M1 gets 80% to 100% higher ratings depending on the graphics engine (Metal or OpenCL, respectively). These are very impressive numbers.
Another promise kept by Apple with the M1, the MacBook Air M1 is very fast and very smooth. The start-up sequence only lasts 17 seconds from complete shutdown. And it does not exceed the 25 seconds during a restart. In addition, the computer wakes from sleep immediately after opening the screen (or pressing the start button). As with a tablet.
Autonomy and recharging
Let’s finish this long test with autonomy. Here again, Apple made big promises. She claims that the MacBook Air M1 would be able to offer much better battery life than the MacBook Air (2020), despite a big increase in power. More range and more power at the same time? This is a commitment that does not lack ambition!
Especially since the battery capacity of the MacBook Air M1 remains identical to that of its predecessor. The battery has a capacity of 49.9 Wh. On the Apple website, you can read that the MacBook Air M1 offers a battery life of 15 hours of Internet browsing (on Safari) and 18 hours of video playback. This represents an announced gain of 50% over the MacBook Air (2020).
What about in real life? The battery life of the MacBook Air M1 is, according to our records, much more enduring than its predecessor. We can confirm that the autonomy is greater than a big day of continuous work. If the battery is fully charged in the morning, you can leave with peace of mind, without worrying about the charger, and come back in the evening with enough power for the evening. Anyone who works primarily on office tools will be happy to know that the promise is yet to be abused.
Of course, this autonomy will depend on the type of applications you use. Indeed, universal applications and macOS Big Sur are perfectly optimized to work with the SoC M1 and get all the power from it at lower energy costs. On the other hand, the iOS / iPadOS applications and, above all, the Macintel software, are not as well optimized. We have noticed a decrease in battery life when you use these.
Likewise, the MacBook Air M1 is cut out to run games, like Fortnite running at 60 frames per second. But this is obviously to the detriment of autonomy. We advise players to keep a small space in their backpack for the charger so that they do not run out at the critical moment.
On the charger side, Apple delivers with the MacBook Air M1 a 30 watt USB type-C compatible charger. With this one, you find approximately a third of the battery in half an hour dump. It takes 2 hours for you to come back to 100% from 0. These numbers are in the good average, but they do not change from the previous MacBook Air.
There will certainly be a ” before ” and one ” after »Apple M1. Switching to a new architecture is nothing short of a small revolution for Macs. Finally, computers will benefit from an optimization as extensive as that already enjoyed by iPhones and iPads. This could only be possible when Apple had mastered the hardware and software. This is now the case. And the MacBook Air M1 benefits greatly.
Because the MacBook Air M1 not only gains in autonomy, one of the key points in an ultrabook, but it also gains in performance, giving it enough power to surpass the MacBook Air sold at the start of the year, under Intel Core i3 and Core i5, and for compete with the majority of recent MacBook Pros. The MacBook Air has never been so versatile thanks to the SoC M1.
In addition, there are other significant advantages: the ability to run games, compatibility with iOS and iPadOS applications, and the need for an active cooling system. The MacBook Air M1 does not heat up and is very quiet. These are details, but it changes everything.
Finally, last advantage and not the least: the MacBook Air M1 is cheaper than the MacBook Air (2020). Several tens of euros separate them. It may be nothing on a budget of 1200 euros. But the price-performance ratio of this ultraportable compared to its predecessors has never been higher. Obviously, the other two M1-equipped computers, the Mac Mini M1 and the MacBook Pro M1, will also benefit from better value for money. But, in our opinion, it’s the MacBook Air that gets the most out of it.