Monday, 01 March 2021 00:35

First look - the 2020 MacBook Air with M1 processor - wow!


In my hands and in use at various times during the past 48 hours, the MacBook Air with M1 processor is super fast, has great battery life, runs a wide range of iPhone and iPad apps, has no cooling fan and even makes Office 365 run without the "Intel beachball of slowdown pain".

For several months now, I've been using the 2020 MacBook Air with Intel Core i3 processor, and compared to an Intel i5 2019 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar that I've been using, both with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSDs, the performance has been what I thought was pretty good for computers that aren't at the top of the line in terms of processor speeds, cores, or memory.

Apple's own apps are fast, without having a big drain on the battery. For example Google's Chrome browser on macOS is known to be a memory hog and chews through battery life, with Apple's own stats showing two extra hours of video streaming battery life using Safari than using Chrome.

That stat was shown at one of the keynotes from the last couple of years, and given Safari was written by Apple for Apple's computers and users, Chrome and Firefox are installed on my Intel-based Macs, but are very rarely used. 

I do use Word 365 a lot, and certain actions in Word cause what I term the "Intel-derived beachball of slow pain", because something as simple as selecting a sentence, opening the right mouse menu and clicking the "font" menu item shows a beachball spinning for a couple of seconds before bringing up the relevant menu on an Intel-based Mac.

So, I've been wanting to try out the 2020 MacBook Air with M1 processor since they launched, and I've finally got my hands on one, and wow! The speed difference is noticeably fast and smooth, and the battery life is much longer, too.

I've only charged the unit once when I first unboxed it, and while I haven't had the chance to use it constantly, I did spend at least a couple of hours last night loading software onto this new M1 Mac, rather than transferring all the apps and cruft from the Intel Core i3 equipped 2020 MacBook Air.

As I type, there is still 58% battery life left, and according to the battery time estimate that Activity Monitor, there's still 13 hours and 7 minutes of battery life to go.

I've no idea as yet how accurate that is, but my Intel-based MacBook Air would have needed charging by now if it lasted thing long at all.

So, back to Word 365 on this new M1 Mac. It is FAST! There are no stuttering slowdowns, and the first time I clicked on the "font" right hand mouse click menu, I saw the beachball spin for literally a split second, and I haven't been able to make the beachball re-appear since, despite trying to make it appear again.

You can really feel the speed of this device compared to its Core i3-equipped predecessor, and this is seriously impressive stuff and feels like a massive and very welcome upgrade.

Also, there's no fan noise to contend with, which I'd hear at times when running Word, or doing Zoom meetings, on either of the Intel-based Macs.

I haven't had a Zoom meeting on this unit yet, but it will be a real pleasure not to have to hear the fans spin up when I do. When I first installed Zoom earlier tonight, it offered to download and install an M1-optimised version of Zoom the first time I installed it, promising better performance, so I did just that.

In addition, the M1 MacBook Air can have virtual backgrounds - be they still images or videos - something the Core i3-based MacBook Air just isn't powerful enough to do without having a physical green screen.

Meanwhile, the Core i5-based MacBook Pro can do virtual backgrounds, but there's nothing more annoying that hearing that fan noise spin up halfway through a Zoom call on Intel-based Macs or Windows PCs.

Also, when I installed Paragon Software's NTFS for Mac, so I can read and write to NTFS formatted hard drives and USB sticks, macOS wanted to install the Rosetta 2 translation software, which happened in a few seconds.

Since then I haven't checked which apps are native to the M1 and which aren't, but everything thus far has just worked.

My favourite radio app on iPhones and iPads is ooTunes - and this was available in the App Store and now resides on my M1 MacBook Air too.

Of course you have to use the trackpad rather than touch the screen - which makes you wonder when a touch-screen based MacBook might appear in the future despite Apple's constant protestations that no such Mac is forthcoming - but it is very cool to see iPhone and iPad apps on my Mac, and I look forward to trying more of them out!

There's plenty more testing to do, but as they say, first impressions count!

The MacBook Air 2020 M1 is a seriously fast machine, and its battery life improvements seem incredibly impressive.

Intel is in trouble here, and given its highly selective benchmarks and ads talking up various benefits of a PC, Intel knows it's in trouble, too.

Here's my unbox video, the article continues below, please read on!

This is only the first M-series processor from Apple, with more powerful versions already being worked on in Apple's labs, if not already complete, the future for Apple's 5nm M-series processors is as bright as ever.

Meanwhile, Intel can't compete without going to its much more expensive Core i9 processors at the cost of high heat and short battery life, with Qualcomm's ARM-based processors to run Windows 10 PCs might have 5G connectivity and the promise of longer battery life than Intel processors, but no-one is shouting from the rooftops about performance, and certainly not the way they are with the M1.

I'll have more to say in the future, but from this first impression since unboxing on Saturday the 27th of February are extremely impressive, and this is the slowest an M-series processor is ever going to run.

It's only going to get faster from here on out, ushering in a next-generation class of computing experiences that have eluded Intel and Microsoft over the past decade.

It feels like 21st century computing is finally here at long last, rather than the last decade of incremental updates that just haven't been all that impressive in the PC world, from Intel at least.

AMD has done incredibly amazing work to seriously trounce Intel in the processor space, and if there's anyone that is going to give Apple a run for its money, it's AMD, not Intel or Qualcomm.

In the meantime, only Apple makes M1 processors, so I'll definitely have more to say in the future, but if you're looking for a new Mac, an M1 equipped model for all your everyday uses is the one to get.

Steer well clear of Intel-based models unless you need a Mac Pro with Intel processor for super high-end animation and other high performance computing work that everyday users don't do, and stay away from second hand Macs with Intel processors.

Get an M1 processor in your next Mac, and prepare to be blown away!

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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