MacBook Air with Apple's own M1 chip is faster and has better battery life than Intel-based predecessors

Apple MacBook Air 2020 with M1 chip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple made a good decision to ditch Intel and develop its own chips for its Mac computers. I’ve been testing the $999 version of the MacBook Air with Apple’s new M1 chip for the past several days, and it’s faster and offers better battery life than what equivalent Intel models offered.

Companies like Microsoft have also issued laptops with lower-powered Arm-based processors from Qualcomm and others, but those computers tended to come with a lot of compromises. Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, for example, didn’t always support legacy apps, wasn’t as powerful, and had poor battery life compared with Intel-based Windows computers. Based on my testing, the MacBook Air avoids those kinds of compromises.

Apple did make a lot of wild promises about its new M1 chip. It said it’s faster than 98% of the laptops sold in the last year (which may be true, given that many are low-cost Chromebooks and entry-level Windows computers). It also promises up to five times faster graphics for some tasks and all-day battery life. I couldn’t verify all those claims, but it is noticeably faster than its predecessors.

It’s also the first Mac to run iPhone and iPad apps, but doesn’t have a touch screen, which means those apps aren’t particularly useful, and there’s a limited selection anyway. It feels like a fast laptop, not some kind of dramatic new hybrid like the first Surface was. But long term, the new chip opens doors for Apple to make touch-screen Macs that let you interact with apps without a mouse or keyboard. Or maybe it’s laying the foundation for some sort of iPad that can run both Mac and iPad apps.

Here’s what you need to know about the new MacBook Air.

What’s good

MacBook AIr 2020 with M1

The new MacBook Air looks identical to the model Apple launched in March. It has the same keyboard, which fixed a lot of reliability problems with the one that Apple had been using since 2015.

The biggest change you might notice on first glance is the screen, which is now just as colorful as the one on Apple’s more expensive MacBook Pro laptops. It helps images and videos look more accurate and will be useful for folks who want to edit visual content on the MacBook Air.

In fact, the new MacBook Air is perfectly capable of editing videos with pro-level software like Final Cut 10.5 — in the past, many professionals have relied on the $1,299 MacBook Pro for video editing. I tested some editing on it and found that the laptop easily handled scrubbing through a 4K video without any hiccups I’d normally see on the previous-generation MacBook Air with an Intel chip.

I ran a few software tests just to see how much faster the new MacBook is and if it met some of Apple’s claims. Using software that measures the power of the processor, called Geekbench, I found the new MacBook Air to be twice as fast as the Intel-based equivalent model at some tasks and more than three times as fast at others.

2020 MacBook Air with M1 chip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I repeated these tests in some real-world environments, like in the game Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I don’t think folks normally think of Macs as gaming systems, but Apple’s website says the game runs 3.5 times faster than the MacBook Air.

That’s true: the old MacBook Air can barely run the game while the new MacBook Air can run it fine and on higher graphics settings. That game is 2 years old, though, so I still wouldn’t think of the Mac as a powerhouse compared with laptops with dedicated graphics chips from Nvidia or AMD. But, it’s more powerful than the Intel’s embedded graphics.

Apps open quickly, too, but are more on par with the MacBook Air from earlier this year. I didn’t notice any sort of slowdown even when I had lots of tabs open in the browser and about a dozen different apps open.

The new MacBook Air has longer battery life than the Intel models, too, despite the faster chip. I turned it on at 9:15 a.m. and still had 28% at 6:12 p.m. after using it most of the day, running benchmarks and watching a nearly two-hour movie in 1080p. Apple promises up to 18 hours of battery life if you’re just watching a movie, versus 12 hours on the last MacBook Air. But how you use your computer will drastically change the battery life. I think most folks will get a full day.

2020 MacBook Air with M1 chip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It’s really quiet, too, since there’s no fan inside to kick on while you’re in the middle of work. But that comes at a cost: the bottom gets pretty hot.

The chip change does not break any old apps — at least the ones I use — you can still run the ones that were designed for older Macs. I was able to download and open a bunch of apps from third parties that weren’t built for M1, like Spotify, Cisco AnyConnect, Geekbench and Google Chrome. They worked just fine. New versions of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator optimized for M1 chips are coming later.

2020 MacBook Air with M1 chip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The M1 chip also lets the MacBook Air run some iPhone and iPad apps, but a lot of app makers have opted out from having their apps published. I found some apps I use regularly on my iPhone, like the calorie-counting app “Lose It,” CNBC and HBO Max, but there aren’t apps for Instagram, any of Google‘s products, Netflix or Hulu, which is kind of a bummer.

Also, the iPhone and iPad apps that do work on the new Mac are fairly limited — you can’t make HBO Max full screen, for example. Moreover, most of these apps are designed around a touch screen, so unless Apple adds one to a future Mac, this feature is mostly a novelty and an easy way to use apps that otherwise weren’t available on Mac.

What’s bad

2020 MacBook Air with M1

On a strict design level, there’s not much “wow” factor here. The new MacBook Air still looks and feels exactly like the last MacBook Air, just with a faster processor, better screen, support for iPhone/iPad apps and longer battery life. Those are great improvements, but they probably aren’t going to drive a lot of upgrades in the short term.

The M1 MacBook Air only supports one external monitor instead of two like on the last MacBook Air. I use two additional screens every day, so people who have a similar work flow might be upset about this. Also, while the 720p webcam offers sharper and clearer video thanks to additional smarts from the M1, it’s still a lower resolution than what you’ll find on other computers, like the Microsoft Surface, which has a 5MP camera. It’s fine for FaceTime, though.

I also couldn’t test every app out there in the week or so I had with the new MacBook Air. So there may be apps that don’t run properly on the new M1 chip yet. Your mileage may vary, though all of the apps I use for work and play ran fine.

I am also a little peeved that I spent $999 on a MacBook Air back in March only to have it replaced by a faster model with a better screen and more apps just eight months later. I guess that’s the pace of technology, but it still stings for people like me who expect a new product to be state-of-the-art for at least a year before it’s replaced.

Should you buy it?

2020 MacBook Air with M1 chip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I tested the $999 MacBook Air and think it’s a great buy for the price if you need a new computer. I was pretty blown away by how powerful it felt compared with Intel models, and I think people will be pleasantly surprised to see it can handle tasks like video editing compared with previous models.

But, if you’re just starting to think about new MacBooks, you may want to wait a little bit. It seems like there’s a lot of power here to enable new features that could launch in versions of the MacBook Air with a new design, perhaps with touch screens, a better camera and new options like Face ID.

At the rate Apple’s releasing new computers, you might not have to wait long.

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