Apple MacBook Air (2020) M1 vs Apple MacBook Air (i3, early 2020) full review

Apple promised earlier this year that it would release new Macs before the end of 2020 that would feature its own custom-made processors. These Apple Silicon models have now arrived, with the first out of the blocks being the New MacBook Air Silicon. We take a look at how it compares to the Intel-based model it succeeds and whether you should start saving now to enter the Silicon age.

Price and availability

With the fancy new M1 processor onboard (more on that below), you may expect that the prices for the new MacBook Air would rise slightly. Well, you’d be wrong, and like us you’re probably shocked too. The truth is that Apple has announced that prices will start from £999/$999 just as they did with the Intel-based Airs updated earlier this year.

This means the line-up looks like this:

MacBook Air Silicon

  • MacBook Air Silicon, Apple M1 chip with 8-Core CPU and 7-Core GPU, 256GB storage, 8GB memory - £999/$999
  • MacBook Air Silicon, Apple M1 chip with 8-Core CPU and 8-Core GPU, 512GB storage, 8GB memory - £1,249/$1,249

These replace the Intel-based MacBook Airs released at the start of 2020, which lined up like this:

MacBook Air (Intel, 2020)

  • MacBook Air (2020), 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Intel Core i3, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD: £999/$999.
  • MacBook Air (2020), 1.1GHz quad-core 10th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD: £1,299/$1,299

If you look closely, you’ll even notice that the 512GB version has had a price cut on the Silicon model. With the release of the Silicon Airs, the previous models have now been discontinued, but you should still find them selling through from various retailers, at least in the short term until stocks run out. Read our MacBook Air deals round up for the best offers.

The new Silicon powered Air models can be ordered immediately from Apple, with the release date set for 17 November 2020.

Design and features

There’s little doubt that the major changes that have been made to the MacBook Air are all found on the electronic components rather than construction. The new model is practically identical to its predecessor, with the classic wedge-shaped chassis measuring 304.1mm x 212.4mm x 4.1mm-16.1mm and weighing in at 1.29kg.

Ports

On the flanks there are two Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports with support for USB 3.1 (Gen 2), but the newer models have the new USB 4 variant, presumably because of Apple’s departure from Intel. You’ll also find 3.5mm headphone jacks on either model and the Touch ID sensor for unlocking the device and using Apple Pay online.

Display

There are a couple of differences though, in that while there’s no change with the backlit Magic keyboard that dispels the issues that plagued Apple’s ill-conceived butterfly variant, the display has seen an upgrade on the new MacBook Air. It’s still a 13.3in LED IPS panel with a resolution of 2560 x 1600 and True Tone technology, but Apple has added Wide Colour (P3) support to bring out more vibrant hues on its new favourite son.

Macbook Air Silicon vs MacBook Air 2020: Display

Silent Running

Another significant upgrade is that this model comes with no-fan, allowing the new MacBook Air to offer silent running even when things get busy, as they are bound to when you see how the processor has been beefed up.

For a full in-depth look at the new model, read our complete guide to the MacBook Air (Apple Silicon 2020).

Performance and specifications

There’s no doubt that the headline feature in the new MacBook Air comes in the small, square shaped processor that lies at the heart of the upgrade.

No gridlock on the M1

Apple’s debut silicon for the new age of Macs is the M1 SoC, and it looks to be a grandstanding way to begin. Boasting 8-Core CPUs (4 high performance and 4 high efficiency) and either 7-Core GPUs or 8-Core GPUs, depending on which model you buy, it seems to be an absolute beast.

MacBook Air Silicon vs MacBook Air 2020: M1

Apple states that the new processor bests the Intel version in the previous MacBook Air in a number of ways. These include the following capabilities:

  • Export a project for the web with iMovie up to 3x faster. 
  • Integrate 3D effects into video in Final Cut Pro up to 5x faster. 
  • For the first time, play back and edit multiple streams of full-quality, 4K ProRes video in Final Cut Pro without dropping a frame.
  • Export photos from Lightroom up to twice as fast.
  • Use ML-based features like Smart Conform in Final Cut Pro to intelligently frame a clip up to 4.3x faster.
  • Watch more movies and TV shows with up to 18 hours of battery life, the longest ever on MacBook Air.
  • Extend FaceTime and other video calls for up to twice as long on a single charge.

That’s a pretty compelling list, especially when you consider that Apple is eviscerating its own previous product rather than that of a rival. The claims don’t stop there though, as Apple says that due to the M1’s storage controller, SSD performance can be up to twice as fast as the old MacBook Air, while machine learning (so facial recognition and the like) are up to nine times the speed. CPU performance is three times faster, graphics are five times faster, and all of this while battery life has been extended so that you can get up to 15 hours of web browsing or 18 hours of video playback.

Macbook Air Silicon vs MacBook Air 2020: Specs

The M1 even gives the lamentable 720p FaceTime HD webcam a boost by reducing noise and improved camera image quality, something that has become an essential element in these days of endless Zoom calls.

MacBook Air Silicon vs MacBook Air 2020: Video Calling

There are some other improvements here and there, with WiFi 6 now standard and the tight integration with macOS Big Sur meaning that older apps should run on the new hardware without issue. The older MacBook Air will also be able to take advantage of new feature in macOS Big Sur, but it’s clear that Apple is now gearing things towards the M1 powered devices, with the newly announced Mac mini Silicon also now available. We look at the M1 Mac mini vs Intel Mac mini in a separate article.

Of course, we’ll need to test these claims in our own full review, but Apple is usually pretty accurate when comparing its own products, so expect the new MacBook Air Silicon to deliver some truly impressive results compared to the Intel-based version of 2020. Early benchmarks for the MacBook Air are promising so we have high hopes. 

For more information about Apple Silicon read our Guide To Apple Silicon And Apple's ARM Mac plans. We also have this comparison of Intel vs Apple Silicon. We also compare the M1 MacBook Pro and the 2.0GHz MacBook Pro.

Here’s a breakdown of specifications for both models:

  MacBook Air Silicon MacBook Air (2020)
Display 13.3-inch LED IPS display; 2560-by-1600 resolution, 227ppi pixels, 400 nits brightness, Wide color (P3), True Tone technology 13.3-inch LED IPS display; 2560-by-1600 resolution, 227ppi pixels, True Tone technology
Processor M1 SoC, 8-core CPU with 4 perform­ance cores and 4 efficiency cores, 7-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Intel Core i3
Memory 8GB (configurable to 16GB) 8GB (configurable to 16GB)
Storage 256GB, 512GB, 1TB or 2TB 256GB, 512GB, 1TB or 2TB
Touch ID Yes Yes
Graphics  M1 7-core GPU Intel Iris Plus
Ports 2xThunderbolt 3 /USB-C (USB4). 3.5mm headphone jack 2xThunderbolt 3/ USB-C, 3.5mm headphone jack
WiFi WiFi 6 WiFi 5
Bluetooth 5 5
Camera 720p FaceTime HD 720p FaceTime HD
Battery  49.9‑watt‑hour lithium‑polymer battery 49.9‑watt‑hour lithium‑polymer battery
Speakers Stereo Stereo
Operating system macOS Big Sur macOS Big Sur
Dimensons 304.1mm x 212.4mm x 4.1mm-16.1mm 304.1mm x 212.4mm x 4.1mm-16.1mm
Weight 1.29kg 1.29kg
Price £999/£1249 £999/£1299

Verdict

The new MacBook Air Silicon models look to be a huge step forward for the range, without adding higher prices or changing the classic, sleek design. There are possible teething problems ahead, as with any major change of hardware, but if the M1 processor lives up to even half of its potential then the new Airs will indeed fly.

Specs

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