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Bill Bennett

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Two months with an M1 MacBook Air

Apple sent a M1 MacBook Air for testing in late November. I’ve spent the last two months using it as my everyday mobile computer. This write-up is not a conventional product review, it’s about the experience. View it more as a glimpse into a possible mobile computing future.

At first sight there’s little to tell the new M1 MacBook Air from the most recent model that now sits in the cupboard. There was no choice. It had to go in the cupboard. If they sat side-by-side on the desk I’d need to open both (or mark one) to know which is which. From the outside they are peas in a pod.

In fact its worse that that because when I set-up the new MacBook Air, I copied all the settings from my old one. Which means the opening display on both is identical.

The only physical difference are the small icons printed on the F4, F5 and F6 function keys. You have to look to notice. They show controls for MacOS’s Spotlight search, dictation and Siri features.

A globe printed on the function key at the bottom left of the keyboard tells you this can open an emoji picker. It’s not something I ever use. That’s because I learned to use Command-Space to open Spotlight. Apart from testing that they work, I have yet to use the other new functions.

Clues

There are a few more clues to help distinguish the two MacBooks. The M1 model is much faster. We’ll come to that in a moment.

The battery goes for hours longer between charges. We’ll look at that in more depth later.

Apple’s M1 MacBook Air is cooler and quieter. There is no cooling fan. It doesn’t need one. Mind you, the fan on the older MacBook Air doesn’t kick in until you push the hardware. With my writing work, that’s not common.

I’m a journalist. I spend the bulk of my MacBook time writing. I prefer lightweight writing apps over the big, sprawling word processors. Yet there are jobs where I have to use Microsoft Word. In normal use none of the writing apps in my toolbox draw on enough resources for the cooling fan to kick in.

Goodbye humming fan

To get the fan humming I’d need to run a media creation app or do a demanding spreadsheet or database task. It also hums when playing games.

That said, the old MacBook Air can still warm up during a lengthy work session. After two months with the M1 model, I’ve yet to detect the merest hint of processor heat.

Given that I spend the bulk of my MacBook time writing, I didn’t expect to get much of a performance kick from the M1. After all, it doesn’t help me type faster.

Processor intensive

Yet, in practice there are dozens of small processor intensive tasks that now work faster. I rarely used dictation on my Mac. It wasn’t great. It is now. The new MacBook Air shows how much processor speed changes that experience.

Likewise Siri. Because I’ve been a touch typist for years I tend to use keyboard commands others might prefer speech.

Movies load faster. Complex web pages perform better. On the odd occasion where I need to edit a photo, clip audio files or chew through a lot of data it all happens at speed.

I’ve never had a problem waiting for a MacBook Air to wake-up when I open the lid. It happens in a few seconds. With the M1 model, it happens in fewer seconds. That’s not a big deal, but I like it.

Pushing Safari

The other effect is more subtle than that. I’ve learned not to have more than a handful of apps open at any given moment and to not push Safari by opening lots of tabs. That could test my old MacBook Air. These restrictions have gone. when. testing this, I got bored opening new apps and tabs long before the new Air began to struggle with the workload.

You can benchmark the new Macs to get interesting looking figures. These numbers may mean something to certain people. Yet I’d argue everyday use matters more: The new Macs offer a much improved experience. It feels more fluid, more natural, there’s less of a gap between what you might want from a computer and what you get.

One aspect of the M1 Macs that worried users was the 16GB limit for system Ram. The MacBook Air never had more Ram, but MacBook Pro models could have 32GB. Desktop Macs could have 64GB.

In the event, it’s not an issue. M1 Macs have a design that does more with less Ram.

To my surprise I found I ended up more excited and enthusiastic about the new M1 MacBook Air than expected.

The new normal

The problem with performance boosts is that higher speeds soon become normal. As an acid test, I fired up the old MacBook Air. I wanted to know different the new experience was. The test confirmed it, the M1 MacBook is much better.

There’s a link between a fast processor like the M1 in the new MacBook Air and gigabit fibre.

Few, if any, everyday applications that push a gigabit fibre connection to the limit. Yet having plenty of headroom means you’re never going hit a speed barrier. Likewise, even if you have modest computer needs, there are times when headroom is useful.

Say you’ve spent months working from home on gigabit fibre. Then, say, you return to the office and a more modest connection speed. That connection now feels laggy and flat, even though it may be fast by accepted standards.

That’s how the M1 MacBook Air feels after using the Intel model.

Battery

One reason I switched from Windows to a MacBook Air seven years ago was the improved battery life. I could get more than ten hours from the MacBook. The Windows machine it replaced struggled to do three hours.

At that time I had a job working part-time in an office. I’d take my MacBook on the bus and work a full nine-hour day without hunting for a power outlet. Two years later the MacBook could still last the entire working day. It changed how I worked.

The Air had enough battery life for a long-haul flight. Enough to work in the Koru lounge and for the trip to, say, Singapore with a few hours of down time for naps or meals.

Apple’s M1 MacBook Air almost doubles that time. I won’t be taking any long-haul flights soon, but, if I did, it would get me to Barcelona or Paris.

Working from home, I can go a couple of days without charging.

This is the start

It’s interesting to realise that Apple used its new processors first in low-end models. There are M1 models of the MacBook Air, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro and the Mac Mini. The message isn’t that subtle. If Apple’s low-cost laptops are this fast, what can we expect from more expensive models?

Which leaves us with another question. How is this going to affect the Windows laptop and PC market? At the time of writing, Apple’s low-end Macs are at least a generation ahead of Windows computers. When Apple releases its Pro model computers that gap could be wider.

Let’s stop and qualify that last paragraph. The NZ$2200 eight core M1 MacBook outperforms almost every Intel-based laptop. This includes models costing twice as much. There may be faster Windows laptops out there. Good luck finding one.

Fanless

Intel can’t build a fast fanless Windows laptop. The Air is silent. If that matters to you, that’s an Apple advantage its rivals can’t match.

When I first switched back to Macs from Windows, I configured my MacBook to dual boot Windows and MacOS. I stopped doing that years ago. If there’s a spare Windows licence in my home, I can no longer find it.

Reports suggest a MacBook Air runs Windows faster than native Windows laptops. That has to rattle Intel.

Last week Intel responded with its own set of cherry-picked benchmarks in an attempt to prove… well, it’s not clear what that goal was other than to muddy the waters.

No doubt Intel will respond. But from a computer user point of view, you now need a powerful reason to choose a Windows laptop over a MacBook.

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