After years of development, Apple has finally released Macs powered by its in-house “Apple Silicon” chips, and the result is a massive gain in battery life and performance. With the new M1 chip inside, the latest 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro bring the benefits of Apple’s mobile platforms to a traditional laptop design.
Apple has been beta testing these Macs in plain sight for the last five years, since the launch of the original iPad Pro, as the M1 chip is essentially an upgrade to the one that powers the high-end tablet. In short, all the things you love about the iPad are now in Macs.
The MacBooks both have phenomenal battery life, are silent in use and the Air — despite having no fan inside — remains cool to touch after hours of work with no noticeable hit to performance. If you dive into technical benchmarks you will see some throttling of the Air after sustained heavy usage, but in the real world I just couldn’t perceive any drop.
The one question we had before the M1 was announced was how these new chips would work with apps written for Intel-based machines. Those old enough to remember the last Apple hardware transition know how sluggish the old apps felt running under emulation. Here, remarkably, there is no hit to performance. The M1 can run legacy apps just as fast, sometimes faster, than Intel-based Macs.
For apps already updated, including all of Apple’s own software, Microsoft Office, Chrome, and more daily, the performance is astounding. Apps load instantly, even with large projects inside. Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro export and render up to five times faster, and feel so much more responsive with multiple tracks.
There’s also little things you might only notice if you already use Macs daily. Filevault now unlocks immediately, thanks to the Secure Enclave being part of M1. It also feels like these chips have greater headroom than any laptop I’ve used. For day to day tasks, like email and browsing, the Macs feel like they’re idling, hence the incredible battery life.
You only notice the battery going down after sustained use. And while the main difference between the Air and the Pro is the fans inside the Pro, I only managed to spin the fans running a Final Cut Pro render project specifically designed to push Macs to the limit. In standard usage, even using Final Cut with multiple 4K unrendered tracks, I just couldn’t get those fans to spin. Final Cut performed just as well on the fanless Air, with just 8GB of RAM. Serious professionals will want to wait for the next version of Apple Silicon, designed for the larger laptops and desktops, but if you just dabble in a bit of photo, audio or video editing you’ll be blown away by these machines.
It wouldn’t be an Apple review without one major annoyance, and here it is: the camera is stuck at 720p. Apple says users will see improvements with the camera thanks to the neural engine of the M1 — and sure, the camera does perform better in low light — but it’s still a pretty awful image. For anyone stuck on Zoom all day you’ll want to buy a USB camera. I’d recommend the Logitech 922 for most users, or any of the apps that can turn an iPhone into a webcam. Elgato’s EpocCam is compatible with the M1 Macs.
The massive benefit of these M1 chips for our endless days on Zoom is these Macs are silent. My 2020 Macbook Air sounds like a 747 when the fans kick in, normally a minute or two into a Zoom call. On both new laptops you can Zoom all day, without ever hearing a fan or looking for a power point.
The Macbook Air and Pro both run the same M1 chip, which makes recommending one device over the other tricky this time. I prefer the design and extra battery life of the Pro, and the microphones sound far better, which is important these days. If you can afford the Pro, you’ll appreciate the better design and battery, but honestly the Air is more powerful and more efficient than any Intel-based laptop, so you’ll be equally happy with it.