I keep a big, hardcover book next to my couch for when I want to edit photos in Lightroom with the computer on my lap. Without that tome to protect my legs, my laptop slowly roasts my thighs as if they’re salty, delicious slabs of meat at a South African shisanyama. Laptops get hot when you subject them to resource-intensive activities. That’s just a way of life—and why they generally need fans to stay cool. But when Apple announced its new MacBook Air last week, the company promised the new M1 chip would keep the whole machine cool even without a built-in fan to funnel hot air away from the delicate electronics.
After almost a week of putting the new MacBook Air through the wringer of my daily computing routine, I’m extremely impressed (and my thighs remain shockingly uncooked, even without the book). The M1 chip certainly seems like the real deal.
What’s the difference between this and the old MBA?
Earlier this year, Apple announced its intentions to break up with Intel, the company that had been making chips for Macs since early 2006. Apple silicon was already inside iPhones and iPads, but now it is taking on its most power-hungry machines.
The Apple silicon product built for the Mac is called the M1 and it’s a system on a chip. That means essential components like the processing cores, graphics cores, the neural engine, security enclave, and even the system memory are all part of one bigger slab of silicon. You’ll find this same basic configuration inside iPhones and iPads.
How fast is it?
It sounds complicated on paper, but in the real world, it translates to a tiny, silent computer that’s absurdly fast. I ran the MacBook Air through the popular benchmarking software, Geekbench 5, which puts computers through a standardized set of computing tasks and spits out a score to help compare one machine to another. Apps open instantaneously, photo previews snap into full resolution immediately. It’s extremely impressive.
That’s not to say that the Air will replace every MacBook Pro or Mac Pro out there. The lack of a cooling fan means that performance does indeed start to slow down as heat builds up. After an hour of editing photos in Lightroom, the MBA had clearly throttled back a bit when it comes to computing power—things took a bit longer. The new M1-based MacBook Pro has a fan built in specifically for this purpose—in fact, that and the battery are the main difference between the two machines (unless you count the Touch Bar, which I do not.)
Lastly, you can now run iPhone apps directly on an M1 Mac by downloading them directly from the macOS App Store. So, if you want to load up the iPhone version of Among Us and try to murder your friends in adorable ways, you can do so. I can’t see myself using iPhone apps on the Mac all that often. They’re built with a touch interface in mind, which doesn’t always translate well to a mouse and keyboard. Also, companies can keep their iPhone apps out of the Mac App Store, which means some of the software you want—yes, that includes Instagram—isn’t available. Right now, iOS apps on the Mac are kind of a mess, so don’t get too excited about it just yet.
Who should buy it?
I can easily say that the new MacBook Air is the best overall laptop I’ve ever used. That said, this is still a transition period for Macs. Buying the new M1 MacBook Air means buying into a first-generation product, which always carries at least a bit of risk. Before taking the leap, I’d recommend making a list of all the apps you use regularly and checking on whether they have optimized yet or when they plan to do so. But, barring any weirdness that pops up down the line, the MacBook Air is a rather amazing start to Apple’s new generation of Macs.