Laptops have historically been a mixed bag for me. My first laptop was a 13 inch MacBook Pro that came with Snow Leopard on it and I used and loved the living hell out of it. It was a solid machine and even though I had my problems with macOS (namely Finder), it didn’t stop me from using that machine. Then when I started university I was given a Lenovo Thinkpad by the university. So I used Windows and those Lenovo Thinkpads for a couple years. I was never particularly a fan of any of them. The trademark Thinkpad TrackPoint did nothing for me and the quality of the screens on these laptops were horrendous. They were not pleasant machines to use.
Near the end of my stint at university I decided to go back to a MacBook Pro but the only one I could afford at the time was a base model 13″ 2015 MacBook Pro. This machine out of the box when it was new was a shit machine to use. Base model Intel i3 CPU with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD space was not great when I got it and it progressively got worse as time passed. I never really enjoyed that machine. After I dropped out of university, I had little desire or need to use this machine so it just became this expensive paperweight that I regretted buying but I didn’t particularly wanted to get rid of because of the lingering “what if” of needing a laptop again. So it mostly stayed in my backpack and I would only take it out every so often to run OS updates on it.
Fast forward to mid-2020, most of my computing was still mostly focused on my desktop PC. By this time however, I had this extremely strong desire to get rid of the now 5+ year old MacBook Pro but I also wanted to replace it with something equivalent just in case I start needing a laptop again.
Considering I was using Windows full time I started looking into the Windows laptop market, specifically in the 13” model space. I wanted something in the 13” size so it was portable and I wanted something that had reasonable performance for the kind of work I wanted to do (heavy web browser and web app usage along with my work related usage involving Linux servers). Nothing in the Windows space particularly appealed to me too much, the Huawei Matebook series of laptops looked like the closest thing to a perfect laptop for me but I still had some hesitancy of investing into a laptop again considering the last few years of unpleasant interactions again. So I held off on a decision.
At WWDC 2020 in June, Tim Cook announced that Apple would be transitioning away from using Intel processors in their Mac line of computers. They were going to transition to the ARM64 based “Apple silicon”. At this point I was intrigued. Intel’s stagnation in the processor space and AMD’s lack of presence in the laptop market meant that the laptops were stuck with a stagnant Intel monopoly with little performance improvement year over year. If Apple could shake up the laptop processor market with its new chip it would be a big deal for the future of laptop computing. Apple also revealed the Rosetta translation layer which would enable x86_64 applications to run on this new ARM64 chip so I was not overly worried about this particular processor architecture transition.
In November 2020, Apple announced the first of the Mac computers that would be launching with the M1 chip in it, the MacBook Air. It would be launching alongside an updated Mac mini and a 13” MacBook Pro model, both of which were also going to be using the same M1 chip in it. Initial reviews of the M1 MacBook Air were exceedingly positive.
The new MacBook Air with Apple’s M1 chip is a triumph. In a week of testing, I have pushed this computer and its new Apple-made processor to its limits and found that those limits exceeded my expectations on nearly every level.
Coming into this review, I had a catalog of potential pitfalls that Apple could have fallen into when switching from an Intel chip to its own processor. Chip transitions are devilishly hard and don’t usually go smoothly. This MacBook Air not only avoids almost all of those pitfalls, but it gleefully leaps over them.
Not everything is perfect, of course. Apple’s insistence on using dumpy webcams continues to be a bummer, and running iPad apps is a mess. But as I used the MacBook Air, I often found myself so impressed that I had a hard time believing it.
Believe it. The MacBook Air with the M1 chip is the most impressive laptop I’ve used in years.
Coming from someone like Dieter, this was extremely high praise indeed. For a seasoned technology reviewer to say that a M1 MacBook Air was the most impressive laptop they’ve used in years meant that this was indeed a very good laptop. Even after reading positive reviews of this I held off on buying one. I still wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to buy another laptop.
Fast forwarding again to April 2021, an incident happened that changed my mind about buying a new laptop. I was using my 2015 MacBook Pro to write one of the reading list blog posts for this blog. As I was writing it and browsing between some tabs in my web browser, the MacBook Pro became uncomfortably warm. Warm enough that while I had it on my lap as I was typing I had to stop and put the laptop aside as it was getting uncomfortable. I wasn’t even doing anything particularly intense! A couple tabs in Firefox and a MarsEdit window shouldn’t be making a laptop this warm. So, after that I made the decision to get myself one of these M1 MacBook Airs as a replacement device.
The Trade-In Process
As part of this process of getting a new laptop I also wanted to get rid of this MacBook Pro I had. I decided to use Apple’s trade-in program to do this. It was quite simple and hassle free. When I put in the order, I also added a trade-in into the process. I got sent a trade-in kit via UPS, I put the old laptop and the charger brick in the packaging as per the instructions, sealed it up and dropped it off at the nearest UPS store. A few days later I got a refund for the amount of the trade-in directly to the payment method I used to order the new laptop. All in all, nice and simple. I could have possibly sold the old laptop via a different method for more but I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of dealing with possible buyers and other such problems.
So some hardware specs:
- 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU (there is an optional 8-core GPU model)
- 16GB of RAM (the base model comes with 8GB)
- 512GB of SSD storage (the base model comes with 256GB)
- Space Grey colour
The basic reason I opted to upgrade the RAM and storage from the base model is mostly just a bit of future proofing. I want to keep using this machine for a while and I wanted to make sure I had enough RAM and storage to meet any future needs. Also, you cannot add those on later so better to spend a bit more now than regret it down later. I wasn’t particularly eager to repeat the mistake I made when I bought that 2015 MacBook Pro with base model specs.
As for the colour choice, the other two options were Silver and Gold. Silver was just a little too boring for me and the Gold colour isn’t really my style, so I opted for the Space Grey colour instead. I wish that these laptops came in the fun colours that the new M1 iMac comes in.. I would have loved to be able to match this laptop with the blue of my iPhone 12.
First impressions out of the box were: wow, this laptop is light and thin. Coming from a 2015 MacBook Pro, this device felt like a piece of paper rather than a paperweight.
The keyboard is really quite good. After years of hearing about bad laptop keyboards from Apple, I was glad that skipped that entire generation of bad keyboards and landed on the good side. I am typing this review on the M1 MacBook Air and it is an absolute joy to type on. The keys have just enough travel and feedback to feel good about your typing without feeling mushy.
The trackpad is standard Apple fare which is to say its good, nothing to complain about but also nothing to write home about. It is just what I need.
I am greatly enjoying the addition of the TouchID sensor to the device. It is on the right hand corner of the keyboard and using it to unlock the device is painless and works like a charm.
The M1 MacBook Air comes with two USB C (USB 4/Thunderbolt 3) ports on the left side and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right hand side. This for my use cases is the perfect amount and type of ports. I did buy a USB-C to USB-A dongle and a USB-C to Ethernet dongle for the rare times I will be needing to plug in a USB-A device or Ethernet into this machine but those will be staying in my backpack most of the time. For those curious about the Wi-Fi capabilities, the M1 MacBook Air does come with a WiFi 6 capable chipset.
The Battery Life Situation
Apple’s battery life spec testing says that this M1 MacBook Air can give you up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing and in my day to day usage so far I believe it. This M1 chip really just /sips/ power even when using heavier applications like Mozilla Firefox instead of Safari or web/Electron applications like Spotify or Slack. I haven’t gotten around to fully draining this device’s battery but I’m confident it could last me a full 8 hour work day on battery and then have some juice left over to watch a TV show. Consider me impressed.
It’s Quietly Cold!
The M1 MacBook Air has no fans and therefore is quiet. One of my complaints about the MacBook Pro I had before was that it would get uncomfortably warm performing basic tasks. I have tried the exact same tasks on this laptop and I could not get it to be even perceptibly warm to the touch. I reckon if I ran something like a video encode for a hour I could get this thing to be slightly warm to the touch but in my normal day to day usage, this thing does not get warm at all. For me, this is an impressive feat considering this laptop does not use a fan based cooling system.
One of the things that continues to be the same since my teenage days with my first Mac is that I like using macOS for the most part. There are a few issues I have, namely I still don’t particularly like Finder but the rest of the operating system is enjoyable enough for me. What really makes macOS special to me is amount of good quality third party software on it. From text editors like BBEdit, FTP/SFTP clients like Transmit or audio recording tools like Audio Hijack, the Mac is filled with quality software made by small independent software studios. I am writing this review on MarsEdit, a blog publishing/writing tool. As far as I know there is no equivalent on Windows anymore (remember Windows Live Writer?).
I am also enjoying utility applications like Alfred and Bartender. Little Snitch helps satiate my curiosity about the ongoing network traffic on my Mac. The biggest reason I like using Alfred is that I can open it, type in ‘lo’ and hit enter to lock my Mac. Spotlight doesn’t seem to surface this particular functionality so I disabled the Spotlight keyboard shortcut and replaced it with Alfred. Yes, I know about the keyboard shortcut to lock your Mac, I find it a bit awkward and I couldn’t find a way to change it to something nicer, so for now I use the Alfred method.
Buying a lot of this third party software adds up but I don’t particularly mind paying for software that is of good quality and useful to me, especially when it is made by a small indie team or even a single person. There is also the fact that all of the software I’ve bought does not use the subscription model so they are one time costs for the license (and a smaller major version upgrade cost in the future for some of them). MarsEdit 4 for example is a one-time USD$49.95 purchase. Wherever I could I bought the software directly from the software maker’s website instead of using the Mac App Store because I want to support indie developers without also having to give some of that money to Apple.
As for macOS in general, I am ambivalent to the redesign at the moment, I am mostly focused on relearning basic things like keyboard shortcuts and trackpad gestures. I haven’t used macOS regularly in a long time so its going to be a while before I have definitive criticisms of the current design iteration.
The Rosetta Effect
One of the software related things I was curious about was the Rosetta translation layer for x86_64 applications. I am happy to report that it works seamlessly without any noticeable issue. One of the first applications I installed on my new laptop was the OneDrive application, this application required the installation of the Rosetta translation layer before it would start. Once Rosetta was installed, the OneDrive application started with no issue whatsoever. Since then I’ve had not had any issues with Rosetta as far as I can tell. Since that first non-M1 native application launch I can’t tell which applications are native and which ones are using Rosetta without looking it up.
To be honest, this is the ideal situation for me, I don’t particularly care if an application is M1 native or using a translation layer as long it is working properly. Apple has achieved the “it just works” effect here with Rosetta and that is pretty impressive.
Overall, I think that this is one of the best computers I’ve bought in a long time. The last time I felt this satisfied with a computer purchase is when I built my desktop PC. Like my desktop PC, this machine is a joy to use on a daily basis and there is this sense of comfort when using it. I get the feeling where the computer becomes invisible and you get into the flow of whatever it is you are doing.
The M1 MacBook Air is as fast as I need it to be at all times, I’ve never encountered a situation where I found the computing power lacking. The hardware quality is fantastic, from the keyboard to the screen. The software quality available on macOS especially from third parties is bar none some of the best software out there.
It is rare that I’m unreservedly happy with a computer. I’m sure with time I will find some faults that bother me but as of right now, the M1 MacBook Air is a breath of fresh air.