Apple MacBook Air (2020) M1 full review

Sometimes Apple goes for more than a year without updating a Mac, and sometimes a Mac gets two updates in one year. 2020 was the year for the MacBook Air to get updated twice. Both times were decent updates, but the second update of the year was groundbreaking and yet the only thing that changed was the processor, and what a change it is.

Alongside the Mac mini and 13in MacBook Pro the MacBook Air gained Apple's M1 chip. Apple had made many promises about the move from Intel to its own processors, dubbed Apple Silicon, and announcing the new M1 Chips, the first of these Apple-made Mac system on chips, Apple was far from modest.

Apple's claims that the new MacBook Air is faster than 98% of PC laptops sold in the past year, and its boast that the graphics capabilities are five times greater, are high expectations to live up to and at first the internet collectively reacted in disbelief. But the hype is real. These Apple made chips aren't only good, they are going to change everything. Intel's chips are down.

Design

I'm sure you want to know all about the processor, but I will quickly run through some of the other features of the MacBook Air for the sake of everyone who hasn't owned a recent MacBook Air.

The design of the late 2020 MacBook Air is almost identical to its predecessor. It is almost the same size and weight as the 13in MacBook Pro, but because it has a tapered design Apple manages to shave off a little of the weight.

MacBook Air edge

I say it's almost the same because there is a slight difference to the keyboard. The function keys at the top of the keyboard now offer shortcuts to Spotlight search, Siri dictation and Do Not Disturb instead of Launchpad, key brightness down, and key brightness up. It's a sensible change on Apple's part - I tend to use Spotlight to search for apps rather than turning to Launchpad, but some may miss Launchpad. The Command + Space Bar key combination will still bring up Spotlight.

The other change to the keyboard is the arrival of a new icon on the function key. It may look familiar from iOS and it serves the same purpose there as it does here: it brings up the emoji keyboard (and other keyboards).

MacBook Air keyboard

These tweaks to the keyboard will at least help you identify that the MacBook Air you are buying is the M1 model and not the spring 2020 update or an even older model.

Another thing I should mention in relation to the keyboard is an issue that related to the butterfly-mechanism keyboards of MacBook Air sold in 2018 and 2019. Dust could get trapped under keys requiring a costly repair (in the end Apple started up a free repair program for this issue). That issue was rectified earlier in 2020 when Apple bought the Magic Keyboard to the Air.

The keyboard is pleasant to type on - I prefer it to the butterfly-mechanism keyboard that I never felt had enough movement. It's more like Apple's pre-2016 keyboard, so if you have a pre-2016 Mac and you like that keyboard then you'll probably be happy with the new one.

Sitting below the keyboard is a trackpad. On older Mac laptops I found that I would trigger the trackpad when typing, which used to cause the curser to move around and I'd suddenly be tying elsewhere in a document - this being one reason I use a separate keyboard with my MacBook Pro. Luckily this no longer happens.

However, I now have a new annoyance to contend with that relates to the selection of text in Pages: Currently if I want to select a paragraph or section of text I click at the beginning of the paragraph, press shift and then click at the end of the paragraph. This now selects the whole document up to that point. I need to get use to selecting a paragraph by clicking on it three times before I end up deleting everything.

Display

The display also offers a slight improvement on the early 2020 MacBook Air model: it now supports P3 wide colour. Like the older MacBook Air model and the MacBook Pro it also offers True Tone and a 2560x1600 pixel display. The MacBook Pro pips the MacBook Air's screen though with 500 nits to the Air's 400 nits brightness. There's certainly not a big enough difference between the screens to justify buying the MacBook Pro.

MacBook Air display

There is a very significant difference between the M1 MacBook Air and the Intel MacBook Air though. If you wish to plug in more than one secondary display you can't. The M1 MacBook Air is only able to support a single external display in conjunction with the built-in display (at up to 6K at 60Hz with HDR). The old Intel-based models supported multiple simultaneous external displays. The same is true of the MacBook Pro. If you want to plug in two external displays then, at least for now, you will need to opt for an Intel model.

There is, however, a workaround to add a second external display to an M1 Mac if you don't mind adding a third-party software driver and buying at least one extra adapter.

Spec

As I said earlier, Apple makes some pretty outrageous claims about the M1 chip and its capabilities. It turns out that the claims are pretty much true. Apple said that the MacBook Air offers up to 3.5x more CPU performance and up to 5x faster GPU speeds and it does. While it has to be said that the older MacBook Air didn't exactly feature the fastest of Intel's processors, it does mean that the MacBook Air is now in a different league to its predecessor.

However, that doesn't mean that the MacBook Air is now on a level with the MacBook Pro (M1 or Intel). There are two main ways in which Apple is hobbling the MacBook Air. The cheaper MacBook Air offers 8 core CPU and 7 core GPU, while the other Air and both M1 Pros offer 8 core CPU and 8 core GPU. We'll look into the difference that makes below.

The other difference is that the MacBook Air lacks a fan. Removing the fan in the MacBook Air will have the effect of improving battery life as the battery won't be required to drive the fan, but it does mean that the Mac will slow itself down rather than risk overheating. So you can expect the MacBook Pro to produce better results when dealing with more intensive apps.

My colleagues in the US had the 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU model while I have the 8-core CPU 8-core GPU model, which is perfect as I can confirm that there is a significant enough difference to warrant the £200 update (spoiler: there is a difference, but it's not huge).

In the sections below I will examine the benchmarks for both M1 MacBook Air models, and compare them to the new M1 MacBook Pro as well as the previous generation MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models.

Note that there were a few problems in terms of the benchmarking tools I could use. The tool I regularly use to measure graphics performance - Unigene Valley - isn't yet running on Apple Silicon. Luckily Geekbench 5 runs natively on M1 and does also measure GPU performance by using the GPU to do general computational tasks. You can test either OpenCL or Metal APIs.

The other complication is that Cinebench 23 arrived at the beginning of November - which means I don't have the Cinebench results for all the older Macs to compare to. It is at least M1 ready though.

Anyway, as you will see from the graphs below the M1 chip is everything Apple claimed it would be.

Processor

I was impressed when Apple launched the MacBook Air with Intel 10th generation processors in March 2020, but little did I know what was just around the corner. As you can see from the Geekbench results below, when it comes to multi-core processing the M1 is miles ahead of the 1.1GHz quad-core i5 option, which was the £1,299 option earlier in 2020.

But it's not just the processor in the Intel MacBook Air that the M1 leaves for dust: The still-on-sale 2.0GHz MacBook Pro, which ships with 16GB RAM as standard, lags behind the M1.

But most shocking of all: the build-to-order MacBook Pro with the 2.4GHz 8-core 9th generation Intel i9 processor is also beaten by the M1 CPU.

You'll notice that the M1 MacBook Pro is actually a fraction below the 8/8 M1 Air, this probably doesn't mean anything in particular though.

Cinebench also measures CPU performance, but the tool is a little more taxing as it uses the Cinema 4D rendering engine and runs for 10 minutes to really test how the system performs under stress and at peak temperature.

Here both M1 MacBook Air models bested the Intel MacBook Air and 13in MacBook Pro, but they fall behind the M1 MacBook Pro - perhaps this is where the addition of a fan comes into play.

The 16in MacBook Pro did at least keep face with a decent 9,024 to the MacBook Air's 7,047.

Graphics

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is how well the GPU performs in the Geekbench tests. However, what should be no surprise is that the 16in MacBook Pro with its dedicated Radion Pro 5500M graphics card was still a long way ahead.

Here you can see how the absence of the 8th GPU core holds back the 7-core model. But not as much as the difference between the older Intel units in this comparison.

As with the Cinebench CPU result, the M1 MacBook Pro performed better under the Geekbench graphics test, again, this is probably where the lack of a fan in the MacBook Air is holding it back.

It should be no surprise that the Apple graphics can't compete with the discrete AMD graphics in the 16in MacBook Pro. Unfortunately the M1 MacBook Air (and the M1 MacBook Pro) do not support an eGPU, so you can't plug in external graphics. 

Read & Write

It's not just the processor and graphics that have seen improvements. Either Apple has upgraded other components, or other changes inside the M1 Mac mean that you can expect improvements. For example, the read and write speeds achieved by the internal SSD have increased.

My usual tool for checking read and write speeds is the AJA System Test didn't work properly, so I've used the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. The test programs demonstrated that reading and writing data on the M1 Macbook Air is around twice as fast as it was for the Intel model.

Real-world use

These results do suggest that there will be a big difference even between the last generation and the new models. Chances are you are updating from a much older Mac and in that case you will really benefit from improved performance.

One obvious difference is the speed at which the machine starts up. I compared it to my 2015 MacBook Pro which took 60 seconds to start up. The M1 MacBook Air took 38 seconds. Of course when you compare that to the old days when there was time to make a cup of tea this probably isn't a huge deal.

MacBook Air M1 apps

The other way you will notice the M1 Mac is quicker is when it comes to opening apps - at least apps that run natively on the M1, rather than apps that are being converted by Apple's Rosetta 2 software. (Rosetta converts Intel apps so that they can run on the M1 and can therefore take a few more seconds to prepare them). I clicked on every app in the Dock and I couldn't click any faster than the speed at which apps were opening.

Most of the important Mac apps are now running natively on the M1 Chip, to find out whether the app you need is read read: Which apps work on the M1 Mac.

Battery

The battery is probably what is going to make the biggest difference in your real world use of the MacBook Air. The M1 MacBook Air has the same 44.9 watt-hour battery as the early 2020 model - but it lasts a lot longer. Apple claims 18 hours battery life for the M1 MacBook Air compared to the Intel model's 12 hours.

When I tested the battery using our standard test (of running a movie on a loop with the display at 150) I witnessed 82 percent more run-time compared to the previous generation model.

One reason for the longer battery life Is the lack of a fan in the newer model. However, Apple says that the 13in MacBook Pro can achieve 20 hours battery life though and that model has a fan - but it also has a bigger battery.

The other reason why the battery life for the MacBook Air is so much better is likely to be other efficiencies of the M1 Chip with its energy-saving cores and the Big Sur operating system.

In our test the M1 MacBook Air switched off after 19 hours and 55 minutes. The Intel MacBook Air lasted for 12 hours and 28 minutes.

Webcam

Increased battery life is not the only improvement Apple is getting from the same components. The webcam is still (inexplicably) the same poor 720p webcam that everyone has been decrying - especially in this age of video meetings - but the M1 brings improvements to the image processing. As a result you can enjoy improved exposure, contrast, and noise for your video - even in poor light.

I can't imagine why Apple still hasn't updated its webcams… Unless it has plans for something bigger in that respect - perhaps Face ID is on its way in 2021.

Ports

The other thing that hasn't changed is the number of ports on the MacBook Air. It's still offers only two ports. These are now USB 4 and Thunderbolt 3 ports (the two standard have a unified port).

Sadly the MacBook Air no longer support external GPUs and as I mentioned earlier you can only plug in one supplementary display.

Price

The MacBook Air, despite its improvements, is still Apple's cheapest Mac laptop, starting at £999/$999. In comparison to the MacBook Pro you get more storage for your money, but the MacBook Pro also offers improvements in battery life and the fan is likely to result in improvements when it comes to the more power-hungry apps. For the average user though the M1 MacBook Air represents a very good deal right now.

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Verdict

There is no doubt at all that the M1 MacBook Air offers a significant improvement compared to its predecessor in every way that matters, the highlights being much better battery life, software improvements to the FaceTime camera, and the significantly faster operation. There are still some areas for improvement though, for example the fact that you can't plug in more than one other monitor is proving to be an unforgivable omission for some.

The only question is whether to buy the MacBook Air or the M1 MacBook Pro, if the MacBook Air is so good how great are the next round of Mac updates going to be?

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