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Fashion Magazine

Apple MacBook Air with Apple M1 Chip is an Astonishing Breakthrough

Apple Silicon launches with stellar battery life and uncompromising power

The MacBook Air’s brain transplant is an unalloyed success. After running on Intel gray matter for more than a decade, the transition to Apple silicon is surprisingly smooth and, in most ways virtually unnoticeable.

Shortly before the world plunged into a pandemic, Apple upgraded its popular, ultra-slim notebook with a new Intel 10th Generation Core i CPU and replaced the derided butterfly keyboard with the reengineered Magic keyboard it first unveiled with the 16-inch MacBook Pro in 2019. Little did we know that this would be the last MacBook Air with an Intel processor.

As COVID-19 took hold and Apple, like virtually everyone else, adjusted to our new reality, the company was cooking up a generational shift, one that it would have to unveil during its first-ever virtual World Wide Developer’s Conference.

During the keynote, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed that they were working on Apple Silicon (ARM-based processors, similar to those that already power all of its iPhone and iPads), and that it was set to begin the 2-year process of transitioning all of its Macs to the new platform (and away from Intel). While not officially combining its mobile and desktop platforms — MacOS, iOS and iPadOS — into one, the Apple Silicon would, among other benefits, allow for mobile apps to run on the desktop platform.

During the keynote, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed that they were working on Apple Silicon (ARM-based processors, similar to those that already power all of its iPhone and iPads), and that it was set to begin the 2-year process of transitioning all of its Macs to the new platform (and away from Intel). While not officially combining its mobile and desktop platforms — MacOS, iOS and iPadOS — into one, the Apple Silicon would, among other benefits, allow for mobile apps to run on the desktop platform.

Undertaking such a radical transition during the most tumultuous time in recent human history is arguably risky, at best. Still, Apple was building on an already impressive processor track record. Its A-series CPUs, which Apple builds with silicon partners, are so powerful and impressive, and typically more than your standard smartphone need, that I was excited about what Apple Silicon might mean for desktop performance.

Now, I’m using the first fruits of that labor: A 13.3-inch MacBook Air running Apple’s M1 chip, its first bit of Apple Silicon (the company also unveiled a 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini running the same processor).

The same, yet different

Apple’s new MacBook Air with Apple M1 chip is, externally, at least, identical to the MacBook Air I looked at in March. As I mentioned, it has the same Magic Keyboard (such a vast improvement over previous ones) and Touch ID/power/wake button. For what it’s worth, the Touch ID is an almost flawless biometric security system. I registered my index finger and then used it to unlock the system (later I used my Apple Watch), log into apps and sites, and make purchases.

The gorgeous (though not touch) 2560 x1600 Retina display is unchanged, as is the 720p FaceTime camera above it (the camera gets a quality assist from the M1, but I wish Apple would install a 1080p camera). There are still the robust stereo speakers arrayed on either side of the backlit keyboard and that massive 4.5-inch x 3-inch Force Touch trackpad right below it. As I write this review on it, I still marvel at the layout, engineering, and utility.

There are the same three ports as last time: one 3.5 mm headphone jack (how much longer will that survive?) and two Thunderbolt USB 4 ports. I really wish Apple would add just one more USB-C port on the other side.

Its dimensions (0.16-to-0.63 inches x 11.97 inches x 8.36 inches) are still worthy of a manila envelope and at 2.8 lbs., it still lives up to its name.

A big difference

Inside, though, things are quite different. Apple’s custom silicon, the new M1 chip is, in almost every way, vastly more powerful than the Intel silicon found in previous generation MacBook Airs.

Apple’s first homegrown desktop CPU is quite similar to the A14 Bionic found in the iPhone 12. The M1 is built on an ultra-efficient 5 nanometer process (Intel is still working its way from 14 nanometers to 10). Inside are 8 cores (4 performance and 4 efficiency). And, just like the A14 Bionic, there’s a 16-core Neural engine.

As soon as I unboxed the new MacBook Air, I ran a series of Geekbench 5 benchmarks on it, which is where I learned Apple clocked the M1 at a roaring 3.2 GHz.

Benchmark results are nothing short of stunning. Apple’s custom silicon, which in my $1249 unit includes the 8-core GPU (the $999 model drops that down to 7-cores and pairs it with 256 GB of storage), produced eye popping single- and multi-core CPU test numbers. The OpenCL score, which looks at graphics performance puts the Apple M1 in a class by itself. Its numbers beat even some of those from MacBook Airs configured with Intel core i7 CPUs (albeit two generations back).

I had expected good numbers, Apple’s A-Series chips typically beat the best Qualcomm has to offer, but I never really thought about doing the “apples-to-oranges” comparison, pitting Apple’s mobile numbers against the best Intel has to offer for consumers (pro-level silicon like Intel’s Core i9 is still going to beat Apple silicon, which is why Apple’s high-end systems will still offer Intel chips for the foreseeable future).

Now, however, I was seeing desktop-class (really better than desktop class) numbers from an ARM CPU. From that point forward, my expectations for what this MacBook Air could handle recalibrated, anticipating that this system could handle whatever I threw at it.

Working all day and more

There are many reasons Apple decided to build its own silicon. Among them is the experience it had guiding silicon partners on the development of bespoke processors, of gaining more performance than virtually all other ARM players, and what it would mean to own the whole stack to drive not only major performance gains, but possibly achieve even greater system efficiency wins. That last part could translate into almost unheard-of battery performance for a laptop. Apple is, though, not the first to marry mobile silicon and desktop operating systems.

A couple of years ago, I had, with the Samsung Galaxy Book2, my first experience with Windows 10 on an ARM CPU. Suddenly, 15 hours of battery life on an ultra-portable was a thing. I never imagined I’d see something similar on a Mac.

Apple claims the MacBook Air with M1 can get 15 hours of battery life with wireless browsing and 20 hours of wireless video playback. I set up Netflix to play through all of Better Call Saul (or as much of it as I could get through). I started the rundown at 2PM and finished it the next day at 1:45. There were a few times where Netflix paused the playback on its own and one stretch where the system slept for 3 hours. Overall, I’d say I achieved the 20 hours of video playback. And when I started working off battery life, opening Safari browser windows, launching Final Cut Pro, Pixelmator Pro, and playing Arcade and AppStore games, I got roughly 15 hours.

In other words, the M1 is a battery champ and stands ready to transform the nature of mobile work (when we all get mobile again).

Getting to work

While the M1 silicon is the star of the show here, it would be impossible for it to get its work done without macOS Big Sur, a desktop OS update that not only makes noticeable design and interface changes but is engineered to connect ready apps with the best the M1 has to offer. I think this is one of the primary reasons the MacBook Air with Apple M1 experience is so smooth.

As I noted earlier, I downloaded and installed a variety of apps without thinking very much about whether or not they would run. Native Apple Apps like Mail, Safari, and Maps work as if nothing’s changed. There are Big Sur updates like the new Control Center, Notifications update, a redesigned App Launcher, Cycling routes in Maps ,and in Safari Instant privacy reports under the shield icon and a new Start Page. However, Apple’s native apps also give you a glimpse of what’s possible when apps are written to tap directly into the M1’s native power, especially since most Universal apps won’t arrive until later this year or early next.

Apple Final Cut Pro running on the M1 impressively manages multiple 4K video streams, complex overlays, and cross cuts. The M1 rendered a 20 minutes 4K video in approximately 10 minutes. Normally such an operation would be accompanied by distracting system fan sounds but the MacBook Air M1 is silent. There is no fan, just an efficient cooling system.

Apple’s M1 chip handles both the mundane and the entertaining with equal aplomb. I played Apple’s Arcade’s beautiful and haunting Little Orpheus, losing myself so completely in the game that 15 minutes had passed before I moved my hands off the keyboard. I also downloaded Asphalt Legends from the mac App Store and had a really good time racing cars on the excellent, colorful Retina display.

Aside from fantastic battery life and excellent performance, the other big benefit of an ARM CPU on the Mac is that the laptop can now run iOS and iPadOS apps. This, however, is not as exciting a development as you might expect. The list of useful, available iOS apps is relatively small. I could not, for instance, find Instagram or LinkedIn or games like PUBG and Headsup.

iOS apps that are ready for M1 operation, like Kitchen Stories and the popular game Among Us run in small windows that I could not maximize to the full Retina display size.

It’s the first indication that the connection between iOS and macOS is more of a steadily flowing stream than a raging river.

Thanks to Rosetta 2, some full-scale apps like Cisco Webex, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop worked surprisingly well on the new platform. It does give you a moment’s pause when you see the message that the app you’re about to download and install was built for Intel CPUs, but the combination of Apple’s M1, macOS Big Sur and Rosetta 2 provide a stable and, during my tests, at least, crash-free experience.

Even so, this all represents just a mere sampling of Intel apps on M1. As you install necessary work and even entertainment apps, your results will surely vary.

The good, the great, and the why

I do have some questions. The new MacBook Air with Apple M1 is a clear mobile work champ and yet there’s no LTE option. Apple is clearly nudging mobile and desktop systems together, why shouldn’t they share this ubiquitous connectivity option? Is Apple waiting to introduce an M1-based 5G MacBook Air next year (how cool would that be)?

I wish Apple has sent me the baseline, $999 MacBook Air with its 7-Core CPU. I don’t imagine the benchmarks would be wildly different, but that OpenCL number would surely be lower, by how much I do not know. In any case, keep in mind that I tested the $1,249, 8-core, 512 GB model (all systems come with at least 8 GB of RAM, which mine had).

Those questions aside, Apple M1 chip, Apple’s first home-grown silicon, is a major achievement. It’s powerful, stable, sips power, and can power up in seconds. The compatibility circle that encompasses native and many third-party apps (thanks to Rosetta 2) is not just commendable, it’s usable. As a result, the Apple Silicon strategy leaps out of the starting gate and gallops into a future where Intel on Macs will, ultimately, be nothing but a warm memory.

Apple’s gonna sell a lot of these MacBook Airs.

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