Apple MacBook Air (2020, M1) - Full Review with Pros and Cons
Apple’s MacBook lineup this year may look the same from the outside as the last iteration but how they function has changed considerably. With Intel processors being underwhelming to say the least since the launch of AMD’s Ryzen lineup, it was clear that Apple didn’t want their supposed top-of-the-line laptop lineup to be weighed down by Intel’s processors. Thus, they decided to use the knowledge they had with producing ARM processors for iPhones and iPads and came up with the all new M1 chip. While people were skeptical when they were initially announced, initial reception of the new chips have been quite good. The massive improvements make it a compelling buy for buyers looking for an premium ultraportable at a reasonable budget.
Build and Quality
Nothing much has changed on the outside with the laptop sporting the all too familiar aluminium unibody chassis and the Magic keyboard which is a huge step up from the controversial butterfly switches which felt like typing on a slab of metal and had major reliability issues. Kudos to Apple for producing arguably the most premium laptop chassis out there. The laptop is balanced well and can thus be opened with one hand without any issues. Overall, build and quality is the one department where you just can’t beat Apple.
The display still has somewhat chunky bezels for a laptop released in 2020 while most Windows alternatives have switched to slimmer bezels on at least three sides. The laptop weighs under 1.2 kgs and is thus an ultraportable The OG MacBook Air was the first laptop to be classified as such. It has a fanless design in contrast to the single fan found on the last model (which didn’t really do much) which makes it entirely quiet and more power efficient.
Ports, I/O and Connectivity
Ports remain the same as the last iteration with only two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left side. This means that you will have to live the dongle life and buy a Thunderbolt supported dock if you want to plug in even a simple USB stick or hook it up to an HDMI display. Due to the ARM architecture of the M1 chip, external GPUs are not supported as they were on previous MacBooks.
With the move to the M1 chip, WiFi 6 has finally arrived for MacBooks. This was one aspect where it had been lagging behind Windows laptops for quite a while now. However, it only connects at a maximum of 80 MHz which barely makes it an improvement over its predecessor.
Nothing to expect here. Even if you manage to open up the bottom panel, literally nothing is user-upgradable. So you have to keep that in mind while choosing the configuration. The only thing that can be replaced is the battery and even that is bit of a hassle due to the unconventional screws Apple has used to fasten the bottom panel.
Keyboard – The keyboard on the MacBook Air is the improved Magic keyboard that debuted last year. It has a decent amount of travel and tactility. These use regular scissor switches instead of the controversial butterfly switches. The Air model does not come with the touchbar on top and features regular F1-F12 function keys instead. This can be a pro or a con depending on the person and what they are planning to use this machine for.
Touchpad – The touchpad, as is on all MacBooks, is arguably the best in the entire market with its premium glass finish and enormous size which have no parallel in the Windows side of things. It does not get better than this. Interstingly enough, the touchpad does not actually click down and instead uses haptic motors to provide feedback. Something which Apple has been doing for quite a while now.
The MacBook Air has a 13-inch 2560×1600 16:10 glossy display. Still no touchscreen though, even though almost every competing Windows laptop has it. Given the fact that the laptop can now natively run all iOS and iPad OS apps it would have made perfect sense to include a touchscreen.
Touchscreen aside, the display is top-notch and is an improvement over the previous iterations. It goes up to 417 nits in terms of brightness and covers 98.2% of the professional DCI-P3 colour space (and the entirety of the sRGB colour space). The contrast is not that great and comes out to about 1000:1 whereas the chunky bezels make it look a bit outdated.
It is still a LCD panel and not an OLED one, but those are typically reserved for high-end laptops whereas the Air is the cheapest in Apple’s lineup so you can’t really complaint about that. The display does use PWM for brightness levels less than 50% but the frequency used is way too high to be an issue.
This is where the M1 SoC shines over the Intel chips found in the previous generations. Apple had years and years of experience designing ARM chips for iPhones and iPads but people were still curious to see what their silicon could do in a laptop form-factor. The M1 SoC combines the CPU and the GPU much like what we see on smartphone SoCs.
The CPU has four high power cores running at 3.2 GHz and four low power ones running at 2.1 GHz following ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture. The low power cores help improve battery life to a significant extent and the high power ones are used only in intensive tasks. While there are a few native ARM apps already available, x86 apps can be emulated using the Rosetta 2 compatibility layer. In terms of raw performance, it blows the quadcore Intel offerings out of the water in native ARM apps and is better even in emulated x86 apps.
The GPU in the M1 SoC is also quite an improvement, offering performance similar to the Nvidia Geforce GTX 1050 in terms of raw benchmarks. Previous generations of the Air have had to make do with Intel’s horrendous integrated graphics and this change makes it a somewhat viable option for video editing on the go.
The base model comes with 256GB of NVMe SSD storage which can be configured to upto 512GB. Keep in mind that it is not upgradable down the line so it is always recommended to go for the higher storage options if you can afford it. As is the case with all thin-and-light laptops, there is no provision for a 2.5 inch hard disk drive.
The Macbook Air has dual front firing speakers on both sides of the keyboard. Honestly, these are the best speakers you can find in this form factor. They get loud and yet have faithful audio reproduction. The fanless design also helps a lot in this regard. They may lack a bit in bass but that is nearly impossible to do in such a small device since subwoofers require large drivers.
The 49.9 Wh battery may not seem like much for a premium ultraportable but the performance and power optimizations made possible by Apple using their own silicon has improved the battery life tremendously. While surfing the internet with 150 nits of brightness it can last as long as 16 hours which is remarkable. Even at full brightness, it can easily provide 8 hours of screen time.