The MacBook Air M1 might finally be 'enough' laptop for most people

From the outside, you'd be forgiven for thinking not much has changed with the latest MacBook Air. — Picture by Erna Mahyuni
From the outside, you'd be forgiven for thinking not much has changed with the latest MacBook Air. — Picture by Erna Mahyuni

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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 25 — The MacBook Air has often been hailed as the “enough” computer; as in enough for most people.

I found previous MacBook Airs rather underpowered but I suppose they would work for the kind of people who, at most, would open 40 tabs on their browsers and crunch an Excel spreadsheet or five.

Yet with the pandemic happening people discovered they needed to demand more of their computers.

Decent webcams were a must for online web conferences, and educators were now tasked with creating engaging online teaching experiences, that often included making videos.

It seemed serendipitous, then, for Apple to announce its own Apple Silicon M1 processors that would offer more performance for lower prices than for its Intel processor lineup.

Things I still don't like

I might as well start with the nitpicking; besides the innards, you can't tell the difference physically between previous and current MacBook Airs. Touchpad, keyboard, screen, chassis ― I understand the “if it's not broke, don't fix it” mantra but there's also being boring.

Apple isn't supposed to be boring.

Spotlight indexing is also slower than I'd like ― decided to do the more challenging route of just porting over an entire installation from the previous MacBook to this one.

It was surprisingly fast and smooth, over in less than two hours with no hiccups.

It was, however, annoying to wait for a whole week before Spotlight finished indexing all my files and applications, and while it easily found native apps, non-native apps (which were the ones I used the most) took a lot longer.

If you're dependent on BootCamp or apps reliant on x86 Windows apps, perhaps stay away from M1 Macs. This means people using very specialised apps that don't have viable Mac versions.

This still won't be a Mac for gamers though that still doesn't exist right now, unless you're a very casual gamer and are content with older games, or less graphics-intensive indie games such as the very popular Hades.

My budget and free time did not include trying the AAA title that Apple used to demo the new M1 machines, Baldur's Gate 3.

However, I can confirm that any game that can run on a 2017 or 2018 MacBook Pro will run fine on a MacBook M1 but not at max resolution ― at most you can expect mid-resolution performance.

I'd promised social media followers to try streaming games from the Mac but the M1 had software conflicts with the OBS streaming software and XCOM 2 running at the same time.

The fix (Mac streamers take note) is to get the game running first and only then start OBS. Trying a different order will get you either crashing or loud staticky audio for your attempt.

I'm still not convinced that the lack of fan will not cause issues in the long run as tests with more GPU-intensive applications — various games, third-party (non-Apple native) video editors such as VN Video Editor, Ableton Live 10 Lite and Filmora with 4K res files did see a fair, though not overly noticeable, amount of heat being generated.

Generally I do not work with air conditioning most of the time so perhaps this might be a factor to consider as well.

What's good: Less annoying as a workhorse

For purposes of testing, I downloaded the Unity platform and fiddled with some basic programming ― or basically making Lego minigames with the Lego microgame environment.

Of course it worked faster on a 2018 MacBook Pro model and while the M1 did manage to run the software it needed a little time, likely due to having to run the Rosetta 2 software in the background.

Rosetta 2 is Apple's own solution to help run apps made to run on x86 infrastructure, also be able to run on M1 chips.

Expect to spend a little time waiting for non-native apps to start up the first time, but fortunately the wait isn't over-long.

Running native Apple apps are of course not a problem but the demos of Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro (newly updated to support Silicon) also ran smoothly though I confess am not an advanced enough user of those apps to push the M1 to its limits.

I did not experience severe crashes or hanging, though non-native apps that relied on Apple's Rosetta software to work would take slightly longer to launch and were noticeably slower than native apps. These included most Steam games, the Edge and Firefox browsers as well as Microsoft Office 365.

Yet even with that, the MacBook Air M1 is a quiet machine that unlike previous generations does not sound like a plane taking off when you try to open more than two apps at a time.

Opening multiple browsers or tabs at the same time with Word documents and Apple Music did not see a drop in performance as it would with older MacBook Airs.

For the money, you're still getting a better deal than other ultraportable books. Most Windows ultraportables in this price bracket wouldn't have CPUs as capable as the new M1.

Besides the mostly minor software conflicts I experienced, as a day-to-day machine, the MacBook Air M1 is a satisfactory machine and its battery lasted through an average workday for me (8-10 hours of word processing, browser-based applications and YouTube/streaming apps in the background).

Even without being plugged in I barely saw any performance dips, likely due to the M1 not needing to throttle performance as much when not connected to a power supply.

So, which Mac do I get?

If you're on a budget, the base model with 8GB RAM, a 7-core GPU processor and 256GB SSD drive (RM4,399) should last a good three to four years but beyond that you might begin to feel its limitations.

For future-proofing, the extra RM800 for 16GB of RAM seems steep but might just be enough to make the MacBook Air M1 do right by you for four years at least.

Upgrading the storage to 512GB or more is nice but not necessary considering you could just use an external drive or cloud storage.

I don't really see much value in upgrading to  the 8-core GPU model but if you're a pro-level user with photography/graphic design/multimedia being your core use case, and if you mostly use Adobe products and not Apple-native apps, a Pro might suit you better especially if you do a lot of video rendering.

Is it worth going the full hog and upgrading to the 8-core GPU, 2TB drive and 16GB RAM?

Honestly if you need specs that high you might be better off with the MacBook Air Pro M1 that at least comes with a cooling fan. As efficient as the Silicon processors are, graphics-intensive apps will generate heat that will wear down components.

Still, as far as price-to-performance ratio goes, the MacBook Air M1 might offer the best value in the ultraportable category for now.

The MacBook Air M1 is available now online on the official Apple Store and at official retailers with prices starting from RM4,399.

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