Apple's MacBook Air has been a known quantity for years, a favorite among super-thin ultraportables, but one that received only occasional, modest updates. We liked the model updated in early 2020, but its keyboard improvements aside, it was not a transformative edition.
The MacBook Air's performance has always remained secondary to its price and size, but that paradigm has shifted with the introduction of Apple’s own M1 processor. Alongside its new "Big Sur" OS update, Apple dropped its long-running use of Intel processors for this homegrown silicon solution, and in doing so, infused the MacBook Air with new life (while maintaining its fanless design).
The MacBook Air launches alongside a new 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini, also running on the M1 system-on-a-chip (SoC). All are impressive, but the improvement to the MacBook Air impresses most. At $999 (as tested), it's the best value among Mac laptops, especially when combined with its nearly 30-hour battery life and premium super-slim build. Eclipsing its predecessors, the M1-based MacBook is our top-pick Apple laptop for 2020.
Unsurprisingly for one among the world’s hottest computers, the look of the new MacBook Air is extremely familiar. Not much has changed since the previous version on the skin, and you would be hard-pressed to inform the 2 but the shell. It still comes in three color options: Space Gray, Gold, and Silver. The all-metal design is sturdy and high-quality, still delivering that envy-inspiring MacBook feeling numerous years after its debut.
All of that's to say: The MacBook Air remains one of all the foremost luxe portable builds of any kind. It measures 0.63 by 11.97 by 8.36 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.8 pounds, one of all the thinnest laptops available and definitely on the lighter side. Some Windows laptops have it beat on weight (non-touch models of the Dell XPS 13 and also the 2.4-pound ThinkPad X1 Carbon, to call two high-end examples), but the real-world differences once you’re under 3 pounds are pretty slight. Any student eager to take this to class, or a business professional toting it on a daily commute, will find it a good travel companion. You’ll hardly notice it in your bag, living up to the Air in its name.
We focused heavily on the keyboard for the previous MacBook Air review, and permanently reason. Apple finally replaced its much-maligned butterfly keyboard, vulnerable to issues with dust and broken keys, with its new Magic Keyboard. The latter is after all back again here, providing a far better typing experience than the butterfly keyboard and avoiding the malfunctions that plagued the butterfly mechanism.
On the Magic Keyboard, each key incorporates a rubber dome and scissor-switch (an older, but time-proven mechanism) that play a bouncier typing experience with more key travel. Since it’s not new this laptop, it doesn’t stand out as a significant pro of this model specifically, but it’s still a positive inclusion.
In addition, the Touch ID sensor within the top right corner of the keyboard allows you to power on the laptop and sign up together with your fingerprint, putting the necessity for passwords on the rear burner. There’s no Touch Bar option on the MacBook Air as there's on the MacBook Pro, which suggests you get a physical escape button on the highest left corner of the keyboard. Some shoppers will consider this a plus; the Touch Bar is polarizing.
Joining the top-notch keyboard is arguably the simplest touchpad on any laptop, which shouldn’t be news to any past MacBook user. just like the keyboard, that’s not unique to the current version of the MacBook Air, but if you’re upgrading from an older machine or switching from a Windows laptop, this may desire a giant improvement. For one, the touchpad is oversized for the scale of the entire laptop, which provides you much room for panning and gestures.
More important, though, is that the touchpad is extremely smooth and responsive when panning and pressing, thanks partially to its virtual haptics. this implies you’ll get identical feedback from clicks and presses regardless of where you move on the touchpad because it’s responding digitally. It’s a uniquely satisfying and responsive touchpad, making this a good laptop for acting at an eating-house or on a plane with no mouse. (When working in cafes and 737s becomes an everyday thing again.)
Next up is the display, also as brilliant as ever. Apple’s 13.3-inch Retina Display is once again utilized here, delivering 2,560 by 1,600 pixels in a 16:10 aspect ratio. This is nontrivially higher than the full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) resolution that's common on most mainstream laptops, but still well short of 4K. The latter is generally reserved for high-end content-creator laptops (and desktops) that can benefit from the greater pixel count, but it’s a drain on battery life and much more expensive. For the lighter kind of general use work, a MacBook Air is intended for, the Retina Display’s resolution is extremely sharp without being overkill.
For this new edition of the MacBook Air, this is what it’s all about. Apple has broken away from many years of Intel-based systems, instead opting to create and implement its own processors in its hardware. The first of these is named the M1, used in this system as well as the new MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Taking a page from the processors it uses in iPhones and iPods, Apple is moving to a system on a chip (SoC) architecture for the M1, meaning one unit that handles both the processor computations and graphics output, while also incorporating other elements such as the system memory and the storage controller.
it’s worth testing the MacBook Air’s graphics chops (beyond the same old tests we run on integrated graphics) to determine what the M1 can do. Intel recently pushed its own integrated offerings up A level with Iris Xe (and Iris Xe Max) in its 11th Generation "Tiger Lake" CPUs, so M1 graphics come at a relevant time. As a reminder, the actual M1 kick in the bottom model of the MacBook Air has seven GPU cores, while the M1 chip utilized in the new Mac mini and MacBook Pro has eight.
The graphics benchmarks include the synthetic GFXBench 5 Metal test (already a Universal app), the old-standard Heaven 4.0 graphics simulation, and also the built-in benchmark tests of two full retail games that job on both macOS and Windows 10: Rise of the Tomb Raider and Total War: Warhammer II.
While there are some diminishing returns at the upper visual settings (see Heaven and also the two retail games on the very best quality settings), the M1’s graphics performance could be a breakthrough. Compared directly with the previous MacBook Pro and MacBook Air on GFXBench (which runs natively on both M1 and Intel chips) and Heaven, the M1’s performance is twice nearly as good in some places, and comfortably superior elsewhere. At higher settings, the MacBook Pro hangs close, but as before, the 2019 MacBook Air is left within the dust. Again, not a 3D creation powerhouse, but still a giant improvement for GPU-based tasks.
As for the real-game tests, we weren't ready to return and run Rise of the Tomb Raider and Total War: Warhammer II on the older machines or other Windows laptops, but as you'll see on the chart, we've got those results for Intel’s "Tiger Lake" whitebook, a sample laptop we tested with something of a best-case-scenario installation of an 11th Generation Core processor and Iris Xe graphics. Note that thanks to the 16:10 display, the MacBook Air had to run these games at 1,920 by 1,200 pixels rather than 1,920 by 1,080.
Now, few would choose a MacBook Air as their ideal gaming machine, but you'll see that it’s plenty capable of low-to-mid-tier gaming. Gaming is way from a distinct segment market, and lots of college students and other MacBook Air owners who use the laptop for work also are curious about some casual and lower-setting mainstream gaming on the side. Frame rates above 30 frames per second (fps) are considered playable, and it hits that on both games at the medium preset (and more on the lower settings). You’ll note it’s quiet even with the Tiger Lake white book, which creates a noteworthy new baseline for integrated graphics going forward.
If you accept that this can be a compromised gaming experience from the beginning given the kind of laptop it's, having the ability to reasonably run some games is another arrow within the MacBook Air’s quiver. Of course, the most issue is that a lot of (nay, most) AAA games simply aren’t available for macOS, and people that work are ported and run through emulation. Simpler games (and many indie titles) launch or release on Steam, but most of the foremost titles will likely never come to macOS. Still, for people who are (plenty of legacy games included), the MacBook Air can play them reasonably smoothly.
Last but certainly not least, the battery life on this laptop is nothing short of exceptional. It ran for 29 hours and 1 minute on our battery rundown test, producing one of the longest results we’ve ever recorded. The battery life on the MacBook Air has always been good, but presumably, improvements and efficiencies made possible by the M1 chip (such as kicking light-lift tasks like video playback to the low-power-consumption "efficiency" cores) have boosted its life even further.
The new M1-based MacBook Air is simply an amazing laptop. The build quality is among the best you can find, the debut of the Apple M1 SoC is very impressive (even if the jury is still out in some areas), and the battery life is longer than all but a few alternatives. What’s more, and not always a given with Apple products, is that it’s a fantastic value.
As usual, Windows diehards (or those who simply need programs that are not available on macOS) in this price tier will still probably stick with the Dell XPS 13, or favored Microsoft Surface Laptop or Surface Pro. Some users will never be tempted from one OS to the other, and that’s fine. For everyone else, whether you’re an Apple fan in need of an upgrade, a longtime Windows user interested in jumping camps, or a platform-agnostic shopper seeking the best deal on an ultraportable laptop, the MacBook Air represents the cream of the crop.
The M1-equipped MacBook Air now packs far better performance than its predecessors, rivaling at times the M1-based MacBook Pro. At $999, it’s the best value among macOS.