Apple MacBook Air (2020) M1 full review
While you could set your watch to Apple’s yearly iPhone release, Apple’s update schedule is a little bit more chaotic when it comes to its Mac range. When Apple released the Intel-based MacBook Air back in Spring 2020, everybody assumed that'd be it for another year - or possibly longer, if Apple's track record is anything to go by.
So, when Apple announced another MacBook Air, people were confused. But rather than being another simple spec bump, the new MacBook Air has been truly transformed – on the inside, anyway.
Featuring Apple’s new M1 chipset, based on the architecture of its hugely powerful A-Series chipsets for iPhone and iPad, the MacBook Air with M1 should be a serious consideration for those on the market for a lightweight-yet-powerful laptop right now.
Design and build
The MacBook Air looks almost identical to its predecessor, measuring in at 212.4mm thick, and it’s almost identical dimensions to the new MacBook Pro, but Apple tapered the design of the MacBook Air to help shave off a bit of weight and give it the distinctive Air look that Apple has lent on for years. It’s immediately noticeable as a MacBook Air, that much is certainly true.
It’s the same story in the port department, much to the disappointment to those hoping Apple would expand on the, ahem, minimal approach to ports on the MacBook Air. There’s a headphone jack, two USB-C ports and… nope, that’s it. Considering one of those two USB-C ports is used to charge the laptop, that’ll leave you with a single USB-C port at your disposal when tethered to the wall.
Of course, you’ve got the option of picking up a USB-C hub to expand the offering, but there’s no disputing that the MacBook Air could certainly use another port or two – even if they are USB-C. See our roundup of the best USB-C hubs, or for even more ports our recommended USB-C docking stations and best Thunderbolt docks for MacBooks.
It’s also appropriately light for an Air-branded laptop, weighing in at 1.29kg. That’s the same as the Intel-based MacBook Air, a slight surprise considering Apple has ditched the built-in fan system on the newer M1 model – but more on that later. Still, it’s not exactly heavy, especially when compared to Windows-based ultralights.
Apple had a colourful 2020, launching not only the iPhone 12 in a range of colours but the iPad Air too, so there was part of me hoping Apple would give the same treatment to the MacBook Air range. A Midnight Blue MacBook Air sounds enticing, right? Sadly that’s not the case this time, with Apple opting for the same Gold, Silver and Space Grey colour options it has offered for the past few years.
Though the display might measure in at the same 13.3in and sport the same high-res 2560 x 1600 display as its predecessor, there is one improvement to the M1-based MacBook Air: it now offers P3 wide colour support. That’s great news for creatives that want to use the MacBook Air for graphic design, offering a more accurate representation of colour, but the benefits extend to simpler tasks like watching movies and TV shows on the laptop.
It all looks very vibrant and colourful, but with a maximum brightness of 388nits during our tests, there are certainly brighter laptops on the market – Apple’s new MacBook Pro for one, which Apple claims maxes out at 500nits. It’s not a dim display by any means, but if you’re looking to work in brightly lit environments – or even outside – then you’ll want every nit you can get.
The bezels do run a little thick compared to some Windows alternatives in 2021, but that’s true of most of Apple’s Mac line-up right now. What is disappointing is the return of the same low-res 720p webcam embedded within those bezels, especially at a time where millions of people are working remotely and relying on video calls to communicate.
The M1 chipset does provide improved image processing so the webcam feed is slightly better looking, but it’s in desperate need of an upgrade. But hey, there’s always the 2021 model to look forward to…
The one downgrade compared to the Intel-based MacBook Air isn’t with the main display but external ones; the new MacBook Air can only support a single external display (up to 4K 60Hz with HDR enabled), compared to the multi-display support on offer from the Intel-based version.
With the same limitation on the M1-based MacBook Pro, it seems to be tied to Apple’s chipset rather than a lack of graphical power. It might not make a difference to everyone, but if you’ve got an existing multi-display setup that you hook your MacBook into, it could be a dealbreaker.
There is a workaround on how to connect two external monitors to an M1 MacBook but it involves downloading DisplayLink software.
Keyboard and trackpad
Apple has had a bit of an uphill struggle with its laptop keyboard reputation, with older MacBook users still wary after the butterfly mechanism debacle. For those unaware, the keyboard mechanism used on Apple’s laptop range from 2015 to 2019 suffered from performance issues when dust and debris got under keys, resulting in mispresses and other headaches you wouldn’t expect from premium laptops.
The good news is that Apple fixed the issue earlier this year with the Intel-based MacBook Air that released back in Spring 2020, swapping the problematic butterfly mechanism for the improved Magic Keyboard.
Featured in the newer MacBooks, the iPad Pro’s Magic Keyboard cover and now the M1-based MacBook Air, it’s an immediately noticeable improvement over the older butterfly-based keyboard – even on keys that do still work properly.
There’s more travel under your finger, and the click isn’t quite as satisfying as that of a mechanical keyboard, but there’s a nice feel to it. It’s certainly nice enough to use the MacBook Air to knock out articles and write long emails as I have been for the past couple of weeks.
Keyboard mechanism aside, the more eagle-eyed might also notice a few icon changes along the top row of keys – it’s one of the only differences compared to the older Intel-based MacBook Air. Apple ditched some of the lesser-used keys, like Launchpad and keyboard brightness settings, replacing them with functionality that better reflects how modern Mac users work and play.
That said, you’ll now find quick access to an Emoji keyboard, the Spotlight tool (though CMD + Space still works as an alternative) and Do Not Disturb on the updated keyboard. This is largely down to personal preference – I actually adjusted my keyboard brightness regularly on older models – but I’m sure there’s something here for most Mac users.
Below the keyboard you’ll find the same large trackpad featured in the past few iterations of MacBook, and it works just as well as you’d expect, providing ample space to swipe, tap and click away. And yes, it still features the frankly mind-blowing integration of haptic feedback that tricks you into thinking the completely static trackpad moves when you click.
The magic means you think you’re clicking like you would on a normal trackpad, without the added danger of Apple having to integrate actual moving parts that could fill with dust and other debris and become clogged over time. It’s one of the smallest features of Apple’s MacBook range, but one that never ceases to amaze me.
Specs and performance
Of course, it’s what’s inside that makes this MacBook Air especially interesting. If you hadn’t guessed by now, Apple has ditched Intel and has decided to use its own chipset – the M1 – in its latest laptop line, and it’ll eventually expand to the whole Mac collection in future. While some may be apprehensive about the idea of switching from Intel to an Apple-designed chipset, it’s worth remembering that Apple has been developing its own chipset for the iPhone and iPad for years with great success.
In fact, the M1 chipset is based on Apple’s latest A-Series processor for mobile devices, the A14 Bionic. Like the mobile chipset, it’s based on TSMC’s 5nm manufacturing process, boasting impressive power efficiency without skimping on performance. It’s one of the first laptops on the market to do so, with Intel still rocking the 10nm process, and the benefits – especially in terms of battery life, which I detail later – are immediately apparent.
More specifically, there are two variants of MacBook Air to choose from, and there’s a slight difference in performance. Both sport the same 8-core CPU, based on the latest ARM architecture, along with 8GB of RAM, but the entry-level variant with a 256GB SSD sports a 7-core GPU while the more expensive 512GB model boasts an upgraded 8-core GPU. It’s worth noting that you can expand storage up to 2TB on both models, but at a serious premium.
For transparency, we’ve been supplied with the more powerful 8-core variant of MacBook Air with 512GB of storage, which Apple claims is 12% faster than the 7-core variant.
Like Apple’s mobile chipset, the CPU is split into two: you’ll get four performance cores and four power-efficient cores, allowing the CPU to deliver serious power when required and run in a much more power-efficient way when it isn’t.
Combine that with the 7/8-core GPU and you’ve got serious power under the hood, with Apple’s claims of 3.5x jump in performance compared to the Intel-based MacBook Air largely ringing true to my experience with the new MacBook Air over the past few weeks.
In essence, the MacBook Air can keep up with whatever you throw at it. You can run your mouse along your toolbar, opening each and every app, and it won’t break a sweat. Apps designed for the M1 chipset open near-instantly, Apple Arcade games run flawlessly, the laptop feels responsive, and even Intel-based apps that use Apple’s Rosetta 2 wrapper to run manage to do so without a noticeable difference compared to native apps.
Of course, that will depend on the app in question, as there may be a difference in complex actions like export speeds in Intel-based creative apps compared to those that run natively on Apple’s M1 chipset, but I’m confident that most popular apps will run natively on the M1 within a year – there have already been plenty of new additions since the MacBook Air launched back in November.
With such great performance on offer, you might be tempted to get a MacBook Air in place of a MacBook Pro to edit video or run other graphically intense apps – it is cheaper after all!
The logic is sound, but while the MacBook Air can ramp up performance when required, the bladeless design of the laptop means it can’t sustain it over long periods. Once the laptop begins to heat up, it’ll throttle performance to cool things down, making it less than ideal for video editors and creatives that want to work for 6+ hours at a time.
Though frustrating for power users that’ll have to pay extra for the fan-cooled MacBook Pro for a portable creative workstation, it does mean that the MacBook Air is truly silent in operation.
The blistering performance of the MacBook Air is backed up by our benchmarks, besting not only the Intel-based MacBook Pro from early 2020 but many of the best ultralight laptops available right now. You can take a look at our benchmarks below to see how the MacBook Air compares:
The benefits of the new M1 chipset extend to power efficiency, and that’s proven with the MacBook Air’s battery life. It actually features the same 44.9Wh battery as the MacBook Air released in early 2020, but it lasts six hours longer, clocking in at 18 hours on average compared to 12 on the Intel-based model – according to Apple, anyway.
In our battery benchmark test, performed by looping a 720p video at 120nits brightness until the laptop died, the MacBook Air managed to last an impressive 16 hours 34 minutes. That’s much longer than the older MacBook Air’s 12 hours 28 minutes, unsurprisingly, and bests even some of the best Windows-based laptops.
It’s bested by the Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered Samsung Galaxy Book S, which clocked in at an incredible 25 hours and 24 minutes, but it’s safe to say Apple’s MacBook Air is much more capable – as seen in our benchmark tests.
It’s certainly an all-day device that you’ll feel comfortable using without fear of it dying mid-email, although it will admittedly vary depending on what you’re doing – you won’t squeeze 16 hours out of it if you’re rendering video, after all! Using the laptop to work from, with Chrome, Microsoft Word and other apps open, I managed to squeeze around 10-11 hours out of the laptop before it’d need topping up.
For context, Apple does claim that the MacBook Pro lasts a little longer at 20 hours, even with a fan system to power – but it does have space for a larger battery, after all.
The MacBook Air comes with macOS Big Sur out of the box, offering a much-needed facelift and bringing the Mac software more in-line with that of iOS with the introduction of features like Control Centre and advanced features within the Messages app. It offers synchronicity among Apple devices, with the ability to make and receive both calls and texts from your iPhone on your Mac, quickly switch between audio input when using AirPods and sharing files using AirDrop is a doddle too.
These features are available to any recent Mac, but there is one feature exclusive to the M1-based MacBook Air: the ability to natively run iOS and iPadOS apps. Yes, you read that right, sharing the same architecture as the A-Series means you can finally run your favourite iPhone apps on your Mac.
But as with these things, there is a catch: not all apps will be available on Mac. While Apple claims it’s as simple as clicking a box for developers that wish to make their iOS apps available on Mac, not all apps translate well to use on a laptop – how will you play a game that requires motion controls or use a drawing app that requires the Apple Pencil, for example?
For iOS apps and games that are available on the Mac App Store, including Kitchen Stories and runaway success Among Us, they work exactly the same as they would on your smartphone – aside from using a mouse to simulate touch input. The only real pain right now is that it’s hard to discover new iPhone and iPad apps in the Mac App Store, although this could be changed fairly easily in a future software update.
Despite the huge jump in performance compared to the Intel-based model released in early 2020, the MacBook Air starts at the same £999/$999 as its predecessor, making it the cheapest laptop in Apple’s range, although the more powerful model costs a little more at £1,249/$1,249.
If you’re curious about how the MacBook Air compares to the competition, take a look at our selection of the best laptops.
In my mind, there’s no better ultralight laptop on the market right now than the M1-based MacBook Air, especially at the £999/$999 price point. It may not look that different physically, aside from a few new keyboard shortcuts and P3 wide colour gamut support on the display, but it’s a complete transformation on the inside.
The Apple-designed M1 chipset, based on Apple’s A-Series processors, offers a significant improvement on the Intel-based MacBook Air from early 2020 in just about every way. It’s faster, more powerful and largely more capable too, but despite all this, there’s an increase in battery life too. Throw in the ability to run iPhone and iPad apps on the laptop and you’ve got a great, powerful ultralight laptop.
The only downside is that the performance can’t be sustained over long periods thanks to a bladeless design, meaning those wanting to do 6hr+ video edits may be better off with the M1-based MacBook Pro or Mac Mini.
Apple MacBook Air (2020) M1: Specs
- 13.3-inch LED IPS display - 2560-by-1600 resolution, 227ppi pixels, 400 nits brightness, Wide color (P3), True Tone technology
- M1 SoC, 8-core CPU with 4 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores
- 7-core GPU
- 16-core Neural Engine
- 8GB Memory (configurable to 16GB)
- 256GB, 512GB, 1TB or 2TB SSD
- Touch ID
- 2xThunderbolt 3 /USB-C (USB4), 3.5mm headphone jack
- WiFi 6
- 720p FaceTime HD camera,49.9 watt-hour (Wh) lithium polymer battery
- 304.1mm x 212.4mm x 4.1mm-16.1mm
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