Last year, Apple began switching to its own processors, the first of which was the Apple M1 chip. This is the third time in the company’s history that it has moved its line of personal computers from one processor architecture to another. For the first time in 1994, Apple switched from 32-bit CISC-chips of the Motorola 68000 series to RISC-PowerPC processors, then in 2006 to x86 chips from Intel, and now the transition to its own ARM-processors has begun. The latter have managed to prove themselves well in Apple smartphones and tablets, but I will tell you how successful the first “computer” chip of the company M1 came out in this review using the example of the new model of the MacBook Air laptop.
In the box with the Apple laptop, you can find a power supply, in the case of the Air it is a compact 30 W, as well as a USB Type-C cable to the same connector.
The kit is minimal, but this is true for most of these models. And at the very least, buyers can look forward to finding traditional Apple logo stickers in the box.
The materials in the MacBook Air M1 have not changed, Apple traditionally used a one-piece aluminum panel for the base of the case, which is covered from below by a removable cover made of the same metal. The company has been using the Unibody design since 2008, and during this time has brought production processes to perfection, so there have been no complaints about the build quality of Apple laptops for many years. MacBook Air M1 does not stand out in this regard, all the parts fit tightly, the case does not squeeze, including in the keyboard area.
The laptop screen is covered with a protective glass, the frames around the matrix today cannot be called thin, but they are not so large as to be striking. The back of the display is protected by an aluminum panel, like the rest of the case, it has a matte finish, and in the center there is a glossy Apple logo.
As you can see, the design of the MacBook Air M1 is nothing new, especially for those who are planning to upgrade to it from the previous version, in which they have already managed to update the keyboard. But this is still a pleasant-to-use design, which has managed to prove itself well, so it is unlikely to disappoint users, especially with a new filling.
The MacBook Air M1 has a 13.3-inch LED-backlit IPS display with a resolution of 2560×1600 pixels (227 ppi), an aspect ratio of 16:10, a maximum brightness of 400 nits and support for True Tone.
The latter, through the use of a light sensor, adjusts the color temperature of the screen to the environment. It can become “warmer” or vice versa “colder” depending on what kind of lighting the user is working in and therefore it is better to turn it off during photo or video processing.
Compared to the previous version, Apple has slightly updated the matrix of the laptop, now it supports an extended color gamut DCI-P3 and the colors look a little more colorful. But, as always, the company’s factory calibration is at a very good level. The display is pleasant to use both during normal office work and during image processing.
Apple M1 processor
Here we come to the most important innovation in the MacBook Air – the use of Apple’s own M1 processor, built on the ARM architecture. And it is worth dwelling on it in more detail.
Apple M1 is a 5nm 8-core chip built in 4 + 4 scheme. It uses 4 performance cores, clocked at 600 to 3204 MHz, which also contain 192 KB of instruction cache, 128 KB of data cache, and 12 MB of L2 cache.
The additional 4 energy-efficient cores are much smaller than the main ones, using 128 KB of instruction cache, 64 KB of data cache, 4 MB of shared cache and operating at frequencies from 600 to 2064 MHz. The use of a 5-nanometer manufacturing process allowed Apple to fit 16 billion transistors in a chip, by comparison, in the A12Z Bionic 10 billion transistors.
And since the Apple M1 is a system on a chip, it also includes integrated graphics cores. The younger version of the MacBook Air M1, which came to our test, uses 7-core graphics. Apparently, Apple simply blocked one of the blocks, making the older and more expensive modification with an 8-core graphics accelerator more attractive to buyers.
Another feature of the Apple M1 is the use of the unified memory architecture. Previously, the RAM in the MacBook Air was soldered to the motherboard, but with the new processor this is not necessary, since now it is literally on the same substrate as the chip. This, of course, did not improve the maintainability of the device, but it does allow Apple M1 components to access the same data without copying it into multiple memory pools. This, in turn, increases productivity and reduces power consumption.
Otherwise, the system on the Apple M1 chip contains a 16-core neural coprocessor for accelerating machine learning computations, a Secure Enclave coprocessor for data encryption, a Thunderbolt / USB 4 controller and an ISP for image processing.
Performance and software
Even on paper the Apple M1 looks pretty ambitious, but what about the real performance of a system based on it? Let’s take a look at the example of the test MacBook Air M1. This is the base model in Apple’s lineup and features an Apple M1 processor with 7 graphics cores, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD storage, Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0 wireless modules.
I’ll start with synthetic benchmarks, as I had the opportunity to directly compare the MacBook Air M1 with the 2018 model, which uses a 14nm 2-core Intel Core i5-8210Y processor clocked at 1.6 to 3.6 GHz. After the announcement on Apple laptops, Intel made it available to other manufacturers in Q1 2019, so this chip can still be considered a fairly fresh solution. For performance tests, I used the utilities available on macOS: Geekbench 5.3 and Cinebench R23. The results exceeded all my expectations, the MacBook Air M1 was radically faster.
In Geekbench 5.3, the new laptop scores 1,724 points in single-threaded and 7617 points in multi-threaded mode, while the 2018 MacBook Air only scores 730 and 1501 points, respectively.
If you believe the internal Geekbench 5.3 rating, which includes performance measurements only on Apple computers, then in this particular test, the MacBook Air M1 turns out to be faster than a 27-inch iMac with an 8-core Intel Core i7-10700K, and in multi-threaded faster than a 16-inch MacBookPro with a Core i9-9980HK.
Of course, you shouldn’t judge only by the synthetic test, in a number of real tasks Apple M1 will still be inferior to these processors. However, this does not negate the fact that the new MacBook Air is very powerful for such a compact laptop.
In everyday tasks, such as working with a browser, mail, instant messengers, as well as documents, the system works quickly and smoothly, providing very comfortable performance. I have been using Apple laptops periodically since 2010 and have not remembered for a long time that the OS and programs in the base model were so “flying”. For example, sometimes it happens that when editing images you drag not one, but, say, 20 full-resolution photos into the editor window. Earlier the Air would hang on such tasks for a long time, but with the Apple M1 it takes 30 seconds.
Considering that such a laptop is mainly bought as a “typewriter”, then for most potential users its capabilities will be enough with a margin. But it is also suitable for programming and for editing 4K video. And even a little for games.
Speaking about software, it is worth noting that the test MacBook Air M1 was running macOS Big Sur version 11.1. The OS itself and system programs are pretty well adapted to the new processor. Apple has had trouble moving from one architecture to another in the past, but this time the company has managed to turn on some magic.
Firstly, the developers began to quite actively adapt their x86 applications for ARM, for example, the corresponding version of the Chrome browser was released very quickly and the Microsoft 365 office suite was updated. Secondly, for those programs that do not use the new architecture, Apple has implemented the Rosetta emulator 2, and funnily enough, many applications work better on the MacBook AirM1 than on older x86 models. At the same time, the user does not need to configure or download anything, Rosetta 2 turns on automatically. Thirdly, it is now easier for developers of iOS applications to adapt their software from iPhone and iPad to macOS, so a lot of new programs have been added to the App Store for the desktop system.
I can’t say that I used any too specific software on the MacBook Air M1, but all the applications that I needed and with which I worked on previous Apple laptops started and worked on the new one without problems. Including performance tests that I was initially worried about working. Therefore, I can state that the first stage of Apple’s transition to a new processor architecture in its laptops was definitely a success.
MacBook Air M1 ports
In its laptops, Apple is not particularly worried about the number of connectors, using USB Type-C ports and offering users the necessary adapter.
In this regard, the updated MacBook Air is no exception, on its left side there are two Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports with a USB Type-C connector, which support charging Power Delivery, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt 3 up to 40 Gbps, USB 4 up to 40 Gbps. s and USB 3.1 Gen 2 up to 10 Gbps. Accordingly, both ports can be used for charging, for data transfer, as well as for connecting monitors via an adapter.
There is only a 3.5mm audio jack on the right side of the case. Surprisingly for Apple, the company still hasn’t removed it, which is undoubtedly good for owners of wired headphones.
But in general, I would like to see more ports in the MacBook Air M1, ideally – USB 3.0 on the right side. Not new, but still up to date. Or an additional USB Type-C with charger support.
Keyboard, touchpad and TouchID
Since 2015, Apple has used a new type of butterfly keyboard in its Notebooks, which made it possible to make the keys travel less and, accordingly, to reduce their height, and then the thickness of the case. But these buttons had an unpleasant feature: if they got clogged, they could stop working. And their design did not provide for the possibility of removing the mechanism for cleaning, it just broke. For several years Apple tried to fix this, added a special protective film under the keys, but in the end they gave up and, starting with the MacBook Pro 16, they began to install the Magic Keyboard keyboard with a proven “scissor” mechanism in new laptops.
The MacBook Air received the Magic Keyboard last year and luckily it upgraded from the M1. Some Apple laptop users may disagree with me, but typing large amounts of text on a keyboard with a “scissor” mechanism is still more convenient than with a “butterfly”. Slightly longer key travel makes keystrokes softer and quieter.
The main change in the MacBook Air M1 keyboard was the layout, Apple slightly changed a number of function buttons, adding a search key instead of invoking the application menu, as well as enabling text dictation and switching to sleep mode instead of adjusting the keyboard brightness. The latter is changed automatically using a light sensor, or manually from the quick settings menu.
In addition, the left Fn key is now combined with switching layouts, and it can also be assigned to another button, for example, to Caps Lock or to their combination.
The touchpad in the laptop has not changed, Apple uses a rather large glass panel with a linear actuator Taptic Engine, which simulates pressing due to vibration. The touchpad itself understands gestures well and knows how to determine the degree of pressure. Overall, this is still one of the most comfortable touchpads that allows you to work comfortably with a laptop without using a mouse.
The functional row of buttons on the keyboard of the MacBook Air M1 ends with a power button with a capacitive TouchID fingerprint scanner, which is used for login instead of a password, in some applications for additional data security, and for making purchases with Apple Pay. The fingerprint scanner works very quickly and accurately, from touching to recognizing a fingerprint pattern takes less than a second.
Audio and webcam
On the sides of the laptop keyboard are external speaker holes. They sound great, especially for such a compact model, very loud and quite voluminous.
Headphones to the MacBook Air M1 can be wired via a standard 3.5 mm jack on the right side of the case, or wirelessly via Bluetooth 5.0.
At the center of the display’s top bezel is a 720p FaceTime HD camera. Apple claims that its picture quality has improved over previous versions thanks to the neural coprocessor in the M1 chip, which accelerates machine learning tasks, which also include image anti-aliasing and detail enhancement. But in practice, the difference is not felt, the picture quality is mediocre. However, it is the same in all compact laptops, so if necessary, it is better to buy an external webcam.
MacBook Air M1 autonomy
The laptop has a built-in battery of 49.9 Wh (4382 mAh), which according to Apple is enough for 18 hours of video playback or 15 hours of use in the browser. And these figures are close to reality, the MacBook Air M1 was enough for me for 15.5 hours of use, this included working with programs such as Safari with 15+ tabs, Mail, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft To Do and OneNote , listening to music on Spotify, editing text in Word, and processing photos in Pixelmator Pro.
The laptop is charged from a compact 30W power supply, a full charge from 0 to 100% takes 2 hours and 23 minutes. It is interesting that it can run on more powerful chargers for smartphones, I tried this at 40 W, and from laptops, connected at 65 W, but the battery does not charge. At the same time, the battery can be recharged from a 25W power supply, for example from Samsung smartphones, although this will take longer.
Despite the familiar design and characteristics, the MacBook Air M1 is a revolutionary compact laptop that proves that the transition of such devices to processors with ARM architecture is not only possible, but also provides significant advantages. Including higher performance with less power consumption, and, as a result, increased autonomy.
Otherwise, like previous models in the series, the MacBook Air M1 will delight the user with materials and workmanship, an excellent display, comfortable keyboard and touchpad, and loud speakers. The only thing that Apple should improve in this model is the number of ports, adding USB 3.0 or another USB Type-C to the right side of the case.