36 hours with the M1 MacBook Air

I want to get right into this review, because I am honestly just so excited about this computer, but I really need to start by talking a bit about my setup first.

For the last 7 or so years I've been using a 13" 2012 Retina MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM and 128GB SSD¹.

I got it basically when I graduated from design school in 2013 and it's been my main computer ever since.

Over the last eight years that laptop has lasted me through many jobs, countless projects, logos, websites, and shoots. It's crazy to think that I went from being a brand new designer to where I am now using that one computer.

But it's been starting to show its age recently. Even though it has a Retina display and still feels really quite light and slim, the computer just feels sluggish to use. The 128GB SSD is too small in this day and age. I think the wifi chip is starting to go on it, and it doesn't support macOS 11 Big Sur, so I've been thinking that it's time to finally upgrade and obtain a new Macintosh.

But Macs are expensive, and for the last few years the Macs in Apple's lineup have been experiencing some... issues². once rumours that Apple was going to be releasing Macs with their own in-house designed processors I knew I had to wait for that. So I held out for a long time.

So finally, a few days ago, Apple launched the first Macs with their new line of M1 processors. They were promising much faster speeds over previous laptops as well as vastly improved battery life, and then the reviews came out and everyone was was talking about how amazing these new computers are. So I got one. And they're right, this thing really is fantastic.

What I got

The computer in front of me is the 13" MacBook Air with the better 8-core GPU, 8GB unified memory, and 512GB SSD storage.

After running my previous Mac on 8GB of RAM and feeling how it was starting to get so sluggish, I really wanted to order this new M1 MacBook with 16GB of RAM. I thought for sure that that's what I needed, but then I started seeing some YouTube videos talking about how this new generation of Macs handle RAM so much better now. Since the base models come with only 8GB of RAM, to get 16 I believe that would then be a custom order. So I would have had to wait 3 more weeks before receiving it. I'm impatient, and since I could also save money and get the laptop sooner, I cancelled that order and walked to Apple Metrotown and got the 8GB unified memory model instead.

My desk setup

My previous setup consisted of the 2012 13" MacBook Pro running in clamshell mode plugged into a 2008 Apple 24" Cinema Display.

Even thought this setup was quite old, it still felt incredibly modern. The products were designed for each other so the monitor just plugged right into the side of my MacBook perfectly without the need for any dongles.

Now, there may be a way for me to use this M1 MacBook Air with my Cinema Display, but I've been wanting to upgrade the monitor to something with Retina-quality resolution for some time anyway. And though I love the display's aluminum and glass design, I really don't want to have to fuss around with any dongles or anything. If I can't just plug the monitor directly into the laptop with one cable, I don't want it.

Apple sells these “UltraFine” displays on their website that are manufactured by LG but designed in coloration with Apple to work well with Macs. There are two sizes, a 4K 24" model and a 5K 27" model. I ordered the 4K version and that will probably show up in a couple of weeks. I'm super excited to have a more modern display with a higher pixel density, and even though I'm a little sad Apple doesn't have their own consumer level external display in their lineup right now, this will have to do until they do.³

So right now I'm just using the laptop on its own. I was able to clear the old monitor off my desk and now I just use the laptop all on its own, with my iPad Pro to the right, being used as a second display via Sidecar⁴.

I must admit, it is nice being able to have a less crowded desk for once. But I am excited to get the new LG monitor. I love being able to sit back in my chair and use a bigger display at the proper height. It just makes working feel much more purposeful for me.

But, I haven't even gotten to the best part of this new desk setup yet: it's completely wireless. That's right, I don't even need to keep a charger at my desk, and with Sidecar working wirelessly as well, I don't even need to have a cable for my external display.

I'm able to do this because the battery life on this new computer is so good. Basically, I just charge it over night, and then use the laptop unplugged all day without having to even think about power.

It's very elegant.

Next-gen battery life & charging

According to iFixit's teardown, the actual battery is completely unchanged from the last version, but Apple's new processors are so power efficient that they are able to get basically double the battery life now.

It's really insane, and totally amazing.

I didn't track hours or anything, and System Preferences > Battery doesn't show you hard numbers but this laptop lasted me from morning till night today. I just kept using it. I was playing games, downloading Creative Cloud apps, watching YouTube, and listening to music through the internal speakers (which are great by the way).

One of my favourite bloggers, Basic Apple Guy, writes:

There were seven times in the past week when I would check the battery indicator after 20 to 30 minutes of use only to see that it hadn't gone down. The battery life has been so good that I began to worry on a number of occasions if there was something wrong with the battery monitor. I can't overstate how little battery this laptop sips, regardless of what task you throw at it.

The combination of performance and battery life in these new computers is a revelation. I'm so glad that I waited for Apple Silicon.

This MacBook Air is also my first laptop with USB-C charging. It's handy, because now I only need to carry around one power brick to charge my phone, iPad, and laptop. I have the All Your Small Things Pouch from lululemon which I use to carry the following items

  • 30W USB-C Power Adapter
  • USB-C Charge Cable (2 m)
  • USB-C to Lightning Cable (1 m)
  • 5W USB Power Adapter
  • Apple Watch Magnetic Charging Cable (1 m)

The biggest change this new laptop has given me is that I now no longer have to carry around a dedicated laptop charger. Definitely a good thing because I like to take my laptop with me most places, now my bag can be even lighter.

Between the way more efficient battery life and the new USB-C charging system, the computer strikes a wonderful balance of being very efficient, while also being very powerful performance-wise.

Performance

Even thought I have dreams of being a super creative YouTuber, I don't really do any heavy video editing or anything right now. But even just running regular productivity, writing, and design apps it does everything instantly. If I open an application from scratch, it just opens. It just feels incredibly fast.

And my concerns about 8GB of RAM not being enough were unfounded. I've been able to open as many apps as I wish, with as many browser tabs as I wish, and the computer just keeps up perfectly.

If you are thinking about getting an M1 Mac, you absolutely do not need to upgrade the RAM. The way these computers handle memory is way more efficient than how an Intel Mac operates. So yeah, just save your money. 8GB is just fine for these laptops.

The computer is also completely silent. Just like an iPad, it has no fan, so no matter what I do on this computer it just stays 100% silent. This is actually one of my favourite features of the new MacBook Air. The experience of using the computer is so much more calming knowing that no matter what I do, it's never going to whir up and start vibrating, like my old MacBook Pro would do all the time.

It stays cool to the touch, and completely silent. It's amazing.

On security

This Mac essentially has two main authentication systems: a Touch ID fingerprint sensor on the keyboard, and also a feature which lets you unlock and and authenticate things using Apple Watch.

These two systems kind of work together, but if you are using an Apple Watch, it kind of makes Touch ID a moot point.

Let me explain.

So you sit down at your laptop, open it up, and if you're wearing an Apple Watch, the computer then just realizes it's you and bypasses the password screen all together.

Having the Apple Watch on your wrist makes the process of unlocking an M1 Mac a lot more seamless.

A lot of reviews have been mentioning that they wish the new Macs had Face ID cameras in them. Though that would be great, I find that turning on the Apple Watch unlock feature basically achieves this same result without having to include expensive and complicated dot projector face scanning cameras.

If the goal is to have a laptop that knows it's you without you having to even touch it, then we already have that with Apple Watch unlock. And it even works while wearing a mask, which Face ID obviously can't do.

It also has a Touch ID sensor though, and then that comes in handy for things like authenticating purchases using Apple Pay.

The combination of both these features together works quite well.

In conclusion

I'm so excited about this computer.

The combination of completely silent while still powerful performance and amazing battery life is like next level.

The fact that they even kept the price the same as the previous model is impressive as well.

Now is a wonderful time to buy. If you have anything but one of the newest Intel Macs, I 100% recommend these new M1 Macs, especially the Air.

It's never been a better time to be a Macintosh user. The future is bright. ⚡

Footnotes

¹ Before that, I was using an 11" MacBook Air.

² I'm talking about the butterfly keyboard fiasco mostly.

³ I do believe that they are working on this. My theory is that what's holding them back from just releasing it is that the display shares a new industrial design language with the upcoming redesigned iMac. Once the new iMac is released, I predict new Apple designed external displays will come shortly after.

⁴ Sidecar is awesome by the way. I'm not a big external monitor person, but having the little iPad on my desk and being able to throw MindNode, Messages, or Slack on it for reference is really handy.