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Apple M1 MacBook Air review: Laptops will never be the same again

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So, the new MacBook Air looks and feels more or less like the 2018 model that I have, but in use, it has fundamentally replaced my iMac and for many their 16-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple M1 MacBook Air review: Laptops will never be the same again
It may look the same, but trust me, it is not even close to being the same. It is a case of new wine in an old bottle. And boy, this new wine despite not being matured is so it is so fine. Yes, I am not talking about some new French Bordeaux -- but Apple's new Macs which have ditched Intel's processors for something new developed in-house called the M1. Now, all this had been foreshadowed at Apple's WWDC conference earlier this year which I covered here. Apple basically announced new processors based on the technology found in the iPhone and iPad, but these chips were for the Mac. This was a big change as macOS based products had been running on Intel processors -- as much of a hardware change this is, it is perhaps a bigger software change as in a way the foundational philosophy behind Intel's chips and the chips Apple uses in its iPhone are polar opposites. This would mean applications that would run on the Mac would now need to be recompiled for this new kind of processor. This is like a once in a generation event -- and for the Mac, it last happened in 2005-2007 when Apple dumped its old PowerPC processors for the ones by Intel. But now, these applications have to be compiled in the same way they are done for iPhone and iPad. This is a massive change, but Apple is handling it masterfully thanks to its Rosetta translation technology and the fact that its chip is so good coupled with its vertical end-to-end integration of hardware and software.
So, the new MacBook Air looks and feels more or less like the 2018 model that I have, but in use, it has fundamentally replaced my iMac and for many their 16-inch MacBook Pro which starts at more than 2x the price. This is game-changing and that's why I believe laptops will never be the same again. But then this is nothing new for either Apple or the MacBook Air. The moment Steve Jobs took out that first MacBook Air from that manila envelope, laptops had changed forever. Suddenly, we all wanted 7-8 hours of battery life, we wanted a full laptop experience but in a package that didn't break your back and suddenly everyone was okay not having an ethernet port and the CD drive. Everything was wireless. And every other laptop wanted to be a MacBook Air which triggered Intel to create the UltraBooks branding.
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This laptop will trigger similar things -- everyone will want 18-20 hours of battery life, people will start loathing fans if they already don't and they will expect that instant iPad and iPhone like responsiveness on a PC. Also, they will want that beastly performance of an entry-level iMac, but in something that you can hold with one finger going all Michael Jordon and basketball on it.
From the outside, it is fundamentally the same notebook -- it looks fabulous, meticulously engineered in aluminium but now having a good keyboard since Apple ditched its butterfly switch keyboards for very tactile and comfortable to use traditional keys. It is compact and light - and fan-less delivering a lot.
I believe that more than hearing how good it is, it is better to look at the tasks I managed to do. I did all of this on the base level model which has 256GB of storage, 8GB RAM and a 7-core GPU. Here's what I was able to do with it.
  1. Work on my basic office files on applications like Byword, IAWriter, Ulysses, Microsoft Office, Apple iWork apps -- and of course Google Docs on the browser. Byword and Microsoft Office were basically non-optimised apps, but they worked just fine. In fact, Microsoft Office apps like Word and PowerPoint opened faster than my 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro, my 2019 iMac, a Lenovo Legion 7i gaming notebook.
  2. Apple's Safari web browser is just a rocket ship. I didn't have issues getting all the plugins I am used to using particularly Grammarly. It provided fast browsing which also coupled with delightful battery life. I even tried Microsoft Edge, Brave and Google Chrome. Chrome was compiled natively for the M1 chip and performed quite nicely, but I did find that it sucked up more battery than Safari.
  3. I also used some pro-grade photo editing apps which I need for my daily use. In my case, I usually need Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom for photo editing. Both worked fine -- and mind you I was using the non optimised versions of the apps, even though there are betas out of the M1 optimised apps for the same. I also used Pixelmator Pro which was speedy in use. I also found that Lightroom exported a dump of 5GB worth of files faster than my iMac which has 32GB RAM.
  4. I also do a bit of video editing. As I am not very proficient in Premiere Pro, I stuck to my guns and just used iMovie for basic edits and FCP which by the way is already optimised. FCP or Final Cut Pro has tremendous performance on this machine. I was able to cut podcast video shot in 4K with streams from 3 different cameras and colour grade them into a unified timeline faster than my iMac which even had the benefit of the Blackmagic e-EGPU. This was stunning. It also helped that open source software like Handbrake works just fine and already has an M1 optimised beta out there.
  5. Since I am a hobbyist guitarist and interact with a lot of musicians, it was important that this aspect of the MacBook Air with the M1 chip was looked at. Most musicians rely on Apple's hardware, be it in the studio or if an electronic act or DJ for performance as well. That glowing Apple logo on the stage from gigs and concerts is iconic. So I had Delhi-based DJ, Ali Burrni, cook up a track with some samples on Logic Pro, Apple's professional digital audio workstation (DAW) who was easily able to cook up a small tune within 15 minutes using a bunch of samples running across 5 channels. Now, mind you this is nothing extreme but the fact that this can be achieved so painlessly speaks volumes.
  6. More so, it also retains compatibility with a lot of hardware -- for instance, it recognised my Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 audio interface when hooked up via the USB 4 slot. Its software also even ran on the machine, presumably via Rosetta but I couldn't tell a hit in performance. If anything it felt snappy. Other DAW programmes like Abelton Live are also working but in its case, there is a performance hit. But for DJs, Rekordbox which is like an essential tool for music management -- it works just fine on the MacBook Air. Again, this is another example of a pro-grade app working better than a normal PC under the Rosetta translation environment.
  7. As for gaming, I did a bit of light gaming with the M1 Mac with games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 which worked after a bit of jugaard. I was able to run Borderlands 3 which looked quite nice. This was astounding for two reasons as Borderlands 3 usually needs a discrete GPU with 8GB of RAM as a minimum and the fact this was running under Rosetta. This is a testament to the 7-core GPU on the M1 chip. Mind you, this could be better on the other M1 based Macs as they have an 8-core GPU. Generally, this GPU and machine are not about gaming, but it can be done, better than other machines of its price because of the raw power on tap. Shadow of the Tomb Raider was perhaps the prettiest game I played and it held its frame rates at 30fps at 1080p. Again, stunning performance. And once apps are optimised for the M1 chip, this could get better -- but game developers and macOS haven't been best friends which gives me some heartache. It is also worth noting this machine will have access to many iPad and iPhone games and will also have access to Apple Arcade.
  8. As far as the benchmarks were concerned, I don’t like to state raw numbers which can’t be backed up with context or real-world performance, but there are many videos out there on YouTube which will tell you that in single-core performance, the M1 MacBook Air delivers a knock-out to the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro, while in multi-core performance it is not far behind. It achieves all of this at less than half the price, half the size and without any fans. This is a transformational moment and huge wake-up call for the likes of Intel and AMD.
  9. More than this as a day to day computer, it is basically amongst the nicest I've ever used. I never hear a fan, it never gets warm, even though during the winters in Delhi, the cold aluminium of the MacBook Air can feel colder and it never felt lacking for horsepower. I almost never felt this was a notebook that just had 8GB RAM. More than all of this was the consistently astounding battery life I was clocking. I was often hitting 18-19 hours on a single charge.
    I could have 30 odd tabs open and Safari would not break a sweat. For a writer, it has one of the best keyboards of any notebook -- so that's a huge leap for me personally, and yes, no Touch Bar to wreck the typing experience. It also has a very exquisite screen on which Netflix lights up. It also helps that it has some great speakers to boot coupled with its really capacious trackpad which remains the class of the field 13 years on.
    But there are things you give up on to get this experience. And in some cases, things go from nasty to ridiculous. For instance, it still has that terrible 720p web camera. Sure, that iPhone 12 class ISP does brighten and smoothen up things but it is still quite a terrible camera especially for the age of work from home. You lose EGPU support which was a big deal for me, but Apple thankfully has augmented that with a much more powerful integrated GPU. But still, that's not a match for EGPU. And yes, since this is an ARM-based chip, you lose support for Windows via Bootcamp or Parallels. Apple says, if Microsoft brings Windows on ARM as something that a user can license like a normal copy of Windows 10, then the M1 Mac will support it, but that's in Microsoft's hands and it’s likely that the folks at Redmond will not budge. It also comes with just two ports which can be an issue for some.
    But at the end of the day, for the price Rs 92,900, there is no notebook on the planet that can match its capabilities. In fact, not even notebooks that cost twice as much can match the MacBook Air now that it has that M1 chip. That unique and elegant blend of portability, raw power, battery life and compatibility despite a major architectural change is transformational.
    It kind of feels like Apple is on the cusp of greatness which hasn't been fully unleashed because these laptops still look like the older models. It kind of feels like the way one first used an iPhone and an iPad. You knew that multi-touch and that user interface was the way to go immediately despite giving up on a lot of basic features. Over the years, those devices have grown to do more than anything before they could. In the case of the M1 MacBook Air, most people will not even get that feeling of compromising -- be its app support, be it battery life, performance. Laptops are never going to be the same for you once you have used an M1 Mac. So, yes, this is the best laptop in the world for most people -- I now choose it over the Asus ROG Zephyrus 14 which I claimed was the best in the business just months ago.

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