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Apple MacBook Air M1 Review

When I was first tasked with reviewing Apple’s latest MacBook Air, with the primary point of focus being its gaming capabilities, I was skeptical. Mac’s aren’t known for their prowess as gaming laptops, and when you add in the fact that the new MacBook Air uses Apple Silicon, the M1 ARM-based processor, I assumed I’d spend a few hours playing Apple Arcade games and that was about it.But after spending a few weeks with the latest MacBook Air, I have to admit I was (partly) wrong. There are quite a few games and app stores that support Apple’s Mac lineup, and some of them even run on Apple’s own chip.

Apple MacBook Air M1 Review

While I wouldn’t rush out and buy a MacBook Air strictly for gaming, spending time gaming on one has opened my eyes. There’s more to it than that, of course. Before I dive in, though, here’s what I’ve been using.

Apple MacBook Air M1 – Specs

Here are the specifications of the Apple MacBook Air I’ve been testing:

  • Model: Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) (A2337)
  • Display: 13.3-inch LED (2560 x 1600)
  • Processor: Apple Silicon M1 8-core CPU
  • Graphics: Apple Silicon M1 8-core GPU
  • Memory: 16GB unified memory
  • OS: MacOS 11 Big Sur
  • Storage: 1TB SSD
  • Webcam: 720p FaceTime HD camera
  • Ports: 2 x Thunderbolt 4 USB-C 1 x 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Connectivity: WiFi 6 802.11ax, Bluetooth 5.0
  • Dimensions: 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.63-inches (WxDxH)
  • Weight: 2.8-pounds
  • Price: $1,649

The MacBook Air starts at $999 for an M1-equipped model, but instead of an 8-core GPU, you’ll get 7-cores. The entry-level model also comes with 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage. At the top end, a fully-kitted model features 2TB of storage and 16GB of memory for $2,049.

Apple MacBook Air M1 – Design

There’s nothing notable or special about the Apple Silicon version of the MacBook Air when it comes to design. It’s the same iconic footprint the Air has had for several years now. The space gray, gold or silver exterior is clean and free of any extra fanfare, save for the standard Apple logo on the lid. Speaking of the Apple logo, it’d be nice if Apple returned to the light-up logo on its laptop lineup, and there are rumors a completely redesigned MacBook Air is in the works, but until then, we’re stuck with the same ol’ design.

On the right side of the laptop’s deck is a headphone jack, with two Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports on the left side. Those two lonely ports are all you have to connect various peripherals and accessories to the Air, and frankly, they’re just not enough. I maxed out the ports simply connecting a gaming mouse and the charger.

A USB-C hub or dock is a must for the MacBook Air, especially if you plan on using it for any sort of gaming or, heck, even just connecting to an external monitor.

Opening the lid you’ll find a 13.3-inch Retina LCD display, with a 720p FaceTime HD camera just above it. As with the design, Apple opted to leave the webcam alone, and instead is using image optimization features that the M1 processor brings to the table. Overall, the webcam quality is improved, however a 1080p camera would be more beneficial.

The Air uses Apple’s newest Magic Keyboard, ditching the problematic butterfly mechanism that was prone to dust particles wreaking havoc on the old design. The new Magic Keyboard, thus far, has been reliable. The backlit keys have a bit of depth to them, allowing for touch typists or even mechanical converts to adapt on the fly with little struggle.

Above the keyboard is a row of keys that trigger various system functions like adjusting display brightness, media controls, Do Not Disturb and a Spotlight shortcut for quickly searching your Mac.

Face ID has yet to make its debut on the Mac line, and so you’ll need to rely on Apple’s tried-and-true Touch ID fingerprint sensor in the top-right corner of the keyboard to unlock the Mac, approve Apple Pay purchases or sign into apps like a password manager.

On either side of the keyboard is a speaker that is loud, but lacks the same depth and overall audio quality that my personal M1 MacBook Pro has.

Just below the keyboard is a trackpad. It’s plenty big enough, offering enough space to swipe, tap and scroll through MacOS using gestures.

Apple MacBook Air M1 – Performance and Gaming

Inside the new MacBook Air is Apple’s first processor that was designed in-house. It’s based on the ARM architecture, which is the same type of processor that powers the iPhone and iPad, or even Microsoft’s Surface Pro X. The M1 processor found in this MacBook Air has 8 CPU cores, 8 GPU cores and 16 Neural Engine cores.

When ordering an M1 Mac, you can pick between 8GB or 16GB of memory, which can be limiting for some. You won’t be able to change it out yourself, so what you order is what you’re stuck with. Same goes for storage, with the model I tested having 1TB. But you can get anywhere from 256GB to 2TB in the Air.

The testing regimen for the Air, naturally, is different from any Windows 10 gaming laptop I’ve tested. Most of the benchmarking apps IGN uses to provide quantitative numbers comparing performance between systems won’t run on a Mac. So, instead, the bulk of testing was done with real world usage.

That said, I discovered that some of the games IGN used for benchmarking in the past do run on a Mac, so I ran them. Rise of the Tomb Raider, for example, runs on the M1 MacBook Air. The built-in benchmark tool returned an average of 30 frames per second at the full 2560×1600 resolution, while lowering it to 1920×1200 bumped up the average FPS to 60.

Total War: Three Kingdoms installs and runs, but there are graphics issues throughout the entire game. Namely, big black blocks that move across the screen. As far as I can tell, these blocks are in areas where unrendered fog and rain are moving through a scene. The benchmark tool does run, though, and it returned a fairly low 23 FPS.

There isn’t a fan inside the MacBook Air. It’s completely and totally silent at all times, and it’s a little weird at first. I was accustomed to my 2017 MacBook Pro’s fan kicking on the moment I opened the lid to make its presence known.

I was worried about heat management when playing games, be it Tomb Raider (which I played the most of during my review period with the MacBook Air), or games from Apple Arcade like Lego Brawls. I installed TG Pro to monitor the CPU temps and receive an alert whenever they reached 100-degrees Celsius.

For the most part, temps would hover around 93-degrees, but every once in a while, they would jump up to the 100-degree mark before quickly dropping back down. Even though those numbers are higher than what I’d expect to see in a PC, there didn’t seem to be any downside to running the system for a long period of time at those temps. Heck, the housing didn’t even get hot. Warm, sure. But never hot to the touch.

Not every game could run. After installing Steam, I went through my personal library and installed any game that I could. Hitman installed, but failed at launch. Among Us and DOTA 2 installed and ran without issue, as did World of Warcraft.

I also installed Epic Games to see which games I owned would run on a Mac, and to my surprise, there were a handful, including Fortnite. Yes, you can still play Fortnite on Apple hardware. Just not iPhones and iPads. I dropped in for a few matches, and with the resolution set to 1920×1200, with settings on High, hitting 60 FPS wasn’t an issue.

I also played a handful of Apple Arcade games, some of them were a ton of fun – like Lego Brawls and Oceanhorn 2. All of them ran without issue, but that’s expected. Apple Arcade games are optimized for Apple’s hardware, big and small.

As I said at the start, I wouldn’t tell someone to go out and buy an M1 MacBook Air over a true gaming laptop, but I’m no longer completely shut off from the option.

Tomb Raider was by far the biggest surprise, running buttery smooth the entire time I played.

Apple MacBook Air M1 – Battery life

One of the main highlights of the MacBook Air and its new M1 processor is battery life. My experience with the new Air was impressive, with a daily battery life that lasted through an entire workday and into the evening. Apple claims battery life of 15 hours of browsing the web, or 18 hours when watching videos in the Apple TV app.

As with the rest of the benchmarks, I couldn’t run the PC Mark 10 battery test on the MacBook Air, so instead I reverted back to playing a 4K video on loop in VLC, and monitoring the MacBook Air until it turned off. The display was set to 50% brightness, while the keyboard backlight was disabled, along with Bluetooth. Wi-Fi was left on.

Best Gaming Laptops

The first time I ran the test, VLC wasn’t optimized for Apple Silicon. The battery of the MacBook Air lasted a respectable 5 hours and 32 minutes. However, the next day an update was released, optimizing VLC for the M1 chip inside the MacBook Air. I ran a subsequent battery test and it lasted 8 hours and 10 minutes.

While still falling short of Apple’s estimation, it’s more in line with our expectations, and also goes to show how important it is for developers to optimize their apps for Apple Silicon.

Apple MacBook Air M1 – Software

As is the case with Apple’s Mac lineup, there isn’t any pre installed bloatware or unnecessary apps. You get MacOS that includes apps like Messages, Safari, Photos, and the rest of Apple’s software suite.

There aren’t any apps dedicated to gaming or fine-tuning your system as is commonplace on gaming laptops, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Potentially the biggest issue you’ll run into with an M1-powered Air is software compatibility. I didn’t run through each and every gaming accessory program, but I did take a few minutes to install Logitech’s G Hub and Corsair’s iCue software and was able to use it, with connected accessories, without any deal breaking issues. Both apps can be a little sluggish at times, and it’s obvious they’re not optimized for Apple Silicon, but they work.

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