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Take yourself back…

In the early months of 2020, I had two Apple MacBooks that I used regularly. A late 2016 15” MacBook Pro sat on my desk at home, constantly connected to an external monitor; for all intents and purposes this was my home “tower” computer. My second MacBook, the 2019 16” MacBook Pro, was my on-the-go computer that I carried with me every day to work. When the pandemic hit and I no longer found myself on the go every day, I (more or less) retired the 2016 and switched fully to the 2019 for everything. As the year went on, I found myself more often leaving the MBP connected to an external monitor and shifting my evening hour activities fully to my iPad Pro.

After the announcement of Apple’s M1 silicon, I sold my 2016 MBP and used it to fund the purchase of a new Mac mini to act as a true home office computer. It was an easy decision to make—the 2016 MBP was aging, the keyboard was getting annoying, and the fans were always on. Even using my 2019 MBP in the same capacity wasn’t a great experience, largely thanks to the poor thermal management in Apple’s latest generations of Intel MacBooks. If there’s one thing I now know, it’s that those old Intel MacBooks made much better laptops than they did desktops.

M1 all the things

I’ve been using the Mac mini for several months now, and I am constantly impressed at the machine’s performance. After a RAM and storage upgrade, this Mac mini driven by the new M1 chip from Apple is so, so good.

So, back to my 16” MBP. While it didn’t make the best “desktop” computer, it did a fine job on the go. The keyboard was much improved over the previous generation, but otherwise it was a very similar user experience to my older 15” MBP that I had already done away with. So, I had a crazy idea: what if I sell my 16” MBP and get the new MacBook Air with the M1 chip?

More of the same, and the same is great.

Before owning the M1 Air, I had never consistently used a MacBook Air. I understand the Air to have a sort of cult following. My wife had an 11” model from 2015 that she adored, although its screen was terrible. A friend of mine had a 13” Air (not sure what year) that he swore was one of the best computers he ever had. But, I want to make a quick clarification: this is not a review of the M1 MacBook Air. Much of the Air is the same as it has been for a few years—the only real difference for this article is the M1 chip. Instead, I want to highlight a handful of positives and negatives with this new MacBook Air that I’ve discovered during my own use.

As you may have gleaned from my earlier sentiment, the M1 runs my Mac mini well, and I’ve had essentially zero issues since it arrived at my doorstep. So, it’s no surprise that the MacBook Air with M1 is just as great of an experience. Heck, it may even be better since I can take it wherever I go.

Right out of the gate, I’ll admit that the design is a bit dated. Apple keeps the design that’s been in place since 2018’s Retina MacBook Air. While much of Apple’s design language ages well, a reduction in total overall space usage inside the laptop (thanks to the M1 chip) opened up possibilities for a redesign of the Air that could have been really great.

The maximum resolution for the M1 Air’s screen is 1680×1050. In a 13” display this is plenty pixel-dense, but keep in mind this is replacing a 16” MacBook Pro, and three more (or less) inches really does make a big difference. I also lose 2 USB-C ports by ‘updating’ to the Air. Even with these tradeoffs, though, this Air runs better, faster and smoother than my 16” Pro did—and it does it for half the price. Honestly, I’m OK with making a few concessions.

Performance

If you haven’t heard about the M1 SOC from Apple by now, it’s likely you’ve been hiding under a rock. I get that benchmarking it in the traditional sense is a challenge, and I understand the argument for user-repairable and user-upgradable hardware. Yes, it is another element of my life that I let Apple control—but man oh man, this thing flies.

My 16” MBP took 15 seconds to cold boot—that’s not exactly a long time. It is, however, far slower than the less-than-five second cold boot time of the MacBook Air.

Oh, and waking the M1 Air from sleep is instant. No, seriously. I can’t open the lid of the Air quickly enough to still see a black screen. It’s that fast. This is Chromebook territory, and it’s really, really wonderful. You probably don’t think that much about the few seconds you wait between opening your laptop’s lid and actually putting in your password. But once you don’t have to wait, it’s game-changing.

Apps run buttery smooth, as expected after my experience with the Mac mini. For third-party apps that were still being developed for the M1 early in 2021, the Air handled translation of those apps without issue (most notably for me, Adobe Lightroom). Now that full versions of most, if not all, apps are available specifically for M1, performance has gotten even better.

I’m all about that…bass.

Admittedly, there is nothing different between the M1 Air and Intel Air speakers, but I can’t go without calling out how continually impressive Apple’s sound engineering is. Apple can do small speakers really, really well. For me, it was my 2016 15” MacBook Pro that first really surprised me with its sound performance. Since then, each new device from Apple—from iPhones to iPads to actual speakers—have come with performed exceedingly well.

I’m not suggesting this is the best sound you can get, not by a long shot. The size limitations of smaller devices will always hinder optimal audio performance. But given the constraints, these speakers are plenty capable.

Sidecar

I mentioned before that switching from a 16” to a 13” screen would be an adjustment—and honestly, even now, the smaller screen is a bit small for my liking. Thanks to my ridiculous Apple gadget habit, though, I’m able to connect my iPad Pro wirelessly thanks to Sidecar, allowing me to extend or duplicate the display across both devices. This works flawlessly, and while a 12.9” iPad Pro costs $1000+, if you already have one, you have a spare monitor at your disposal any time you need it. I frickin’ LOVE sidecar.

And just so you know, Sidecar works on all modern iPads, not just the iPad Pro. Even the $329 iPad (6th gen and later) can work with Sidecar, and compatibility also includes the 5th-gen iPad Mini and the 3rd-gen iPad Air. Sure, those are going to be some pretty small external monitors, but for running certain applications like Mail or Music, it would be fine.

Courtesy apple.com

By the way, if you haven’t read my previous post about extra monitors, you should go check it out—I mention Sidecar there as well.

Thermals

Apple’s thermal management in the last few years of the MacBook Pro lineup has been lackluster, and not without some drama in the tech world. I had thermal issues with both MBPs I mentioned earlier, although I’ll admit it did improve slightly with the 2019 model.

But…

The MacBook Air with M1 chip is the coolest running laptop I’ve ever used. I’m almost always warm, especially so when I’m using a laptop anywhere other than a desk or table. Typically, I can’t sit for too long with even a slightly warm laptop on my lap. But those days are behind me.

The MacBook Air is fanless, so it’s obviously going to be quiet. But given Apple’s history with poor thermal design in their laptops, it wouldn’t have surprised me if under load the MacBook Air got toasty. Instead, I think the temperature of my legs tends to raise the temperature of the bottom of the laptop, not the other way around.

Holy crap the battery

The aforementioned Mac mini in my home office is what I use full time for work on most days. Occasionally, I’ll move into the living room or dining room for a change of scenery, but because I use the mini so heavily, I don’t spend a ton of time using the Air.

Additionally, my iPad Pro continues to be my most used device overall thanks to its versatility. During the day, I use it to markup screenshots taken on either my Mac mini or my MBA, and I use it as an additional monitor when needed. In the evenings, it is the best device for consuming video, primarily on YouTube and Plex. I use it to play games, and I use it for reading.

The ubiquity of the Mac mini and the iPad in my daily workflows necessarily limits how much time I spend using the MacBook Air. In its announcement of the M1 Air, Apple claimed the battery would last a ridiculous 18 hours—this is 50% longer than the previous MacBook Air. And they weren’t lying.

I sometimes can go more than 3 days between charging. That’s bananas. Consider the following screenshot taken on April 28:

This was taken on the third day after the most recent charge to 100%. Based on the energy usage, you can see how sparingly I use the Air each day. But after two and a half days of intermittent usage, my battery charge has only dropped to 72%! Like I said…bananas.

I don’t love the speed of the included 30W charger, but it does a decent job, charging from 10% to 95% in about two hours. I much preferred the charging capabilities of my 16″ MacBook Pro’s 87W charger.

A proper keyboard…almost

I have to admit, I was a pretty big fan of the super slim butterfly keys when they started being used, first in the original 12” MacBook and then rolling out to the MacBook Pro. Low travel keys are great, and I never experienced any issues with the keyboard on my 2016 MBP. I also quite enjoyed the Touch Bar, although I don’t think it was ever focused on enough from a development perspective to make it really great.

This MacBook Air has neither super-low-profile keys nor a Touch Bar, and it’s kind of great. When the Touch Bar was originally released, so too was Touch ID for the Mac–and despite the Touch Bar being absent from the Air, it retains Touch ID in the upper right corner. I’m also really excited to have a physical escape key again. Otherwise, the keys offer a minimal but still reasonable amount of travel, as was the case with my 2019 MBP—and hopefully, there won’t be as many repair issues with these newer keyboards.

While the camera is good enough—although not great—having Face ID here instead of Touch ID would have been huge. I don’t love having to shift my right hand from the home row over to the Touch ID key when prompted (for instance, when trying to autofill a password from Keychain). Being able to just peek up at the camera instead would be a much quicker workflow. That’s certainly not a dealbreaker, but it is something that kind of annoys me. Otherwise, Touch ID on the MacBook Air is a great experience and works flawlessly.

My only real complaint with the keyboard—and one that I will go to the grave defending—is the addition of an emoji key. Simply put, this is something we just didn’t need. It irritates me that Apple, Logitech, and others don’t include a fn key on their iPad keyboards, which has been replaced by that same emoji key. And now, on the keyboard of the MacBook Air and probably all the upcoming MacBook releases, the fn key now doubles as an emoji key. When pressed without any other key, it serves as the emoji key; when pressed simultaneously with another key (fn + delete, for example), it retains its typical function. So, although my workflow and use of the fn key hasn’t changed, the mere existence of an emoji key on any computer is kind of ridiculous to me. 👎👎

The laptop for everyone

About a month ago, my dad called me up asking for a laptop recommendation to replace his Frankenstein’d Dell tower that has been chugging along for almost a decade now. This duration is thanks to modular upgrades over time; after all, you can’t beat an old Dell tower case that fits just about anything. After only a couple of weeks of use of this new MacBook Air, the answer was obvious—this is the laptop for everyone.

My parents are far from tech-savvy, and when they use computers, they use Windows computers. They’re not unintelligent, in fact, they are more open-minded about technology than many folks I know in their generation. But the idea of learning a new operating system was daunting to them, as was spending over $1000 on a laptop.

This MacBook Air is different, though—different from many Apple products ($400 wheels, $1000 monitor stands, etc). For the first time in a long time, thanks to the M1 chip, Apple is selling a fantastic piece of hardware whose price is pretty close to its value.

Look, if you’re trying to spend $400 on a laptop and expect it to last a long time, I wish you luck in your search. But for people like my parents who like to buy things and run them into the ground before replacing them (i.e., a 10-year-old Dell tower), these M1 Macs are making a lot more sense than previous generation Macs did.

Air vs Pro?

There is also the question of MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro. At the time of writing this (April 2021) the M1 chip is only available in the 13” MacBook Air and the 13” MacBook Pro. It is not yet available for the 16” MacBook Pro, although that should be expected later this year.

Still, comparing the specs of the 13” Air and Pro, there are only a few minor differences between the two, and a $200 price gap. I think I am with most reviewers when I say that currently, it doesn’t make sense to by a MacBook Pro. This is true both for the 13” model, but also the larger 16” model which can be equipped with an Intel i9 processor. In just a few months that Intel processor is likely going to be eclipsed by performance improvements in the Apple silicon available at that time. Moreover, Apple has committed to phasing out Intel Macs entirely. So if you’re in the market for an Apple laptop, you essentially have two options: wait, or by the 13” MacBook Air.

Value

The base model M1 MacBook Air starts at $999, and I opted to double the memory to 16 GB for an extra $200—but that is only because I can be kind of a snob about things. 256 GB of storage is plenty when most of my stuff lives in various cloud storage platforms. But for $1000, this could last for five to seven years if properly cared for.

Of course, I don’t imagine I’ll have my MacBook Air for that long, although who knows…weirder things have happened. But the Air is a solid product, and while I’d like to see an updated design and more ports, I’m perfectly happy with the purchase and would certainly recommend it to others—even to my parents who have never owned a Mac product.

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