Burning Intel’s effigy has only empowered Apple to pave the way for a new generation of ultrabooks
With prior warning, Apple had primed us for a serious shakedown that would realign the ultrabook pyramid. They weren’t wrong in doing so because right on cue for the holiday season, they have dropped their own silicon on the PC industry like a nuke from hell. The Apple M1 chip, based on ARM, has found its way in three new devices - the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13 and the Mac Mini. None of which have received any aesthetic updates but the internals have been thoroughly spruced to make way for the new boss of the house. The 13.3in MacBook Air that I have on test here still looks incredible after all these years of being unwrapped from a manila envelope. Even though other Windows-based ultrabooks have caught up and even surpassed the Air in terms of screen goodness, the wedge shape, lightweight, precisely etched speaker grilles and the beautiful copper-gold finish in the unibody construction still evoke a sense of awe about it, both from an engineering and production standpoint. Even more so when you know it holds the key to Apple’s next-generation of computing!
The numbers game
For a PC enthusiast, the Apple M1 chip comes as a life sentence, with no room for upgrades. And that’s perhaps its trump card too. The first notebook processor in the world to be built using the 5nm process, the M1 packs in a mind-boggling 16 billion transistors that unify everything from an 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, memory, I/O, security and a 16-core Neural engine. With every crucial task on a single chip, Apple has really harnessed the power of M1 SoC to make for shorter signal paths than ever before to carry out instruction sets faster than ever before. The variant we have on test here is the 512GB option that also comes with an 8-core GPU as opposed to the 7-core GPU on the 256GB model. You can spec up to 2TB of SSD along with 16GB RAM if you really want to push your credit limit and the longevity of the MacBook Air and I have to say, it does sound like a tempting option for those who want the form factor of the Air but don’t want to compromise on the performance.
With big gains in the Neural Engine performance, capable of computing up to 11 trillion operations per second….breathe in, breathe out….the new MacBook Air makes its superiority felt in many subtle ways besides in your face blazing media encoding speeds. Features that I never used much like Dictation worked like a charm without a single error in converting my speech to text in real-time, while Photos did a far better job of grouping faces without having to manually tag each one of them. Apple’s own apps like iMovie, Photos and even Music, which seems to be weighing down older Macs, feel sprightly to open and execute commands. More often than not, all of these performed better on the M1 MacBook Air than on my daily 16in MacBook Pro! Music opened and loaded about 3-5 secs quicker with all the album artwork on the home page, Adobe InDesign files were snappier by 2-3secs again and nothing slowed down as you keep piling on the windows or tabs. The fact that Photoshop and InDesign work faster and flawlessly even through Rosetta 2 holds tremendous promise for the Universal Adobe apps to be released next year. In real-world usage, the MacBook Air tangibly outperforms Intel-based Macs and while I didn’t have any other Windows laptops on hand to compare, compared to our office desktop PC which is armed with an Intel Core i7 with 32GB RAM, the Air opened large files embarrassingly quicker. Even everyday things like AirDrop on voluminous files is speedier as is rendering a pdf file in full resolution.
The numbers all tell you how many times faster the CPU and GPU are, but the truth really is in the pudding and the fact is, this pudding is a powerhouse. And not just in performance but even in managing battery life. With a much tighter performance controller designed from the ground up, the MacBook Air now even puts the iPad to shame with its ability to last much beyond a full working day. Even with some heavy lifting like running Adobe CC via Rosetta 2 to design and edit our magazine layouts, music always-on, generous amounts of YouTube consumption, more than eight tabs on Safari open at any time, Notes, Whatsapp, Messages, Mail and a couple of remote controllers for home automation...all this and the MacBook Air still retained 20% of its charge after the end of a 12hr workday. Even after having Big Sur display a warning that the battery was below 10%, I squeezed out more than an hour of screen-on time along with the backlit keyboard, writing this very review! If this isn’t stupendous, I don’t know what is. Especially when you consider that the thermal envelope of the Air is much lower than on the Pro models that feature active cooling fans. It never got even uncomfortably warm while resting on my lap all day, without the need to throttle down on power. One of the biggest gains through the M1 chip has been a unified architecture, eliminating the need for a separate graphics card and Apple claims that even with this integrated graphics, it’s 6x faster than the previous Intel-based Air. I’m no hardcore gamer but Asphalt 9 suffered from no frame drops or stuttering even on its highest graphics settings and Arcade games were delightfully snappy, rendered beautifully by the Retina Display.
All-inclusive, or not
Compatibility with most common apps, Universal or Intel is a non-issue, except if you’re looking for something specific. A radio jockey friend who also happens to be the morning show host implored me for some early feedback on the M1 and after adding one to his shopping cart realised that Avid Pro Tools isn’t supported, even through Rosetta translation. So, if your workflow involves specialised software, it would be prudent to check for M1 release dates. Otherwise, non-universal apps translated via Rosetta 2 didn’t show any signs of being slow compared to the Intel-based MacBook Pro on hand. In fact, the M1’s architecture even allows it to run iOS apps if the developers wish to. Don’t go around looking for Instagram or Snapseed just yet, they aren’t there. Also, their efficacy will depend from app to app since running a touch-optimised app on the trackpad focused Mac will never be the same.
Where the MacBooks leave almost every PC laptop in the dust is the sound quality and the Air too exhibits a wide-open soundstage with sounds that appear to emanate from a much wider source than the body of the laptop suggests. Clarity and loudness score high which by itself is an incredibly difficult feat given the size of the speaker enclosures inside this slim chassis.
Big Sur is a great refresh to Mac, giving it a coat of new gleam and shine and bringing it closer in operation to iOS too, with the control centre and notifications that emulate iPad and iOS functionality, albeit with a trackpad. But we can keep hoping for a hybrid touchscreen Mac and Big Sur makes it look like that dream is closer to being manifested.
Is the rest the best?
Besides all the newfound power, it would nice to find some new design bits too, but instead, this is exactly what we have been getting from iterative updates of the MacBook Air for years now. So you do get a better screen with a wider colour gamut (P3) support now, 400 nits of brightness, higher than HD resolution, new function keys that have Spotlight, DND and dictation, Touch ID and the now-legendary multitouch trackpad. Thankfully, the scissor keys are back for the backlit magic keyboard and they work really well, muting the key sound to a premium click instead of clattering. Sadly though, the 720p FaceTime camera still is riddled with noise and is best used only in natural light or brightly light rooms, even though the new image signal processing engine does its best to improve colours and definition. The display looks nice and crisp and frankly, the bezels while visibly thick, don’t get in the way at all. Port side, it’s still a pair of Thunderbolt 3/USB-4 ports and a headphone jack but the Air also gets support for WiFi 6. On paper, you might feel the need for more port but you quickly realise how much of our lives have moved to the cloud that I honestly never even used more than one for charging.
This isn't old wine in a new bottle, rather the opposite and there are not many reasons to complain. The all-new wine, or in this case the M1 silicon, is quite honestly the new benchmark for efficiency and performance. It makes the MacBook Pro feel like overkill if you’re not a full-time video editor and handles everything I could throw at it with aplomb. Minus long stints of running 4K video tests, it never even got warm and its compatibility with most legacy Intel apps is impressive. It may be the first generation of an all-new chapter for Apple but it’s fully baked to take on whatever 2021 and beyond can throw at it. It’s only got me more excited for the future of Apple laptops and what developers do to bridge the gap between MacOS and iOS now that it’s (almost) a reality!