Should You Buy the MacBook Air?
The MacBook Air is part of Apple's latest generation of Macs with Apple silicon, featuring significantly improved performance and battery life in a slim, fanless design. Announced in November of 2020, the MacBook Air is among the newest Macs in Apple's lineup and it is still believed to be fairly early in its product cycle.
Apple has updated the MacBook Air erratically in recent years, releasing two new models in 2020 and with no clear pattern prior to that, although the device has been updated every year since 2017. Now that Apple controls its own custom silicon for the MacBook Air, as opposed to using Intel processors, it is likely that the MacBook Air will see updates on a more regular basis in years to come.
Although there have been clear signs that an updated MacBook Air with a number of upgrades and improvements is on the way, rumors suggest that the model will not arrive until late 2021 at the very earliest, and it is more likely to arrive in 2022.
Since updated MacBook Air models are believed to be half a year away at minimum, it is currently a good time to buy a MacBook Air and for most people, there is no immediate cause to wait until new models arrive.
While the MacBook Air seems to be the best Apple laptop for portability and price, users who require slightly better performance and battery life, as well as the Touch Bar, should consider the M1 MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,299.
If software support is your main concern and you need to use specific software that won't run on an Arm-based chip, an older Intel-based MacBook Pro may be more appropriate. These models start from $1,799 and are available in 13.3-inch and 16-inch sizes, boasting more ports, RAM, and storage; however, it should be noted that these models are now much older than the M1 MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, and are expected to see a major overhaul later this year. In general, for most people, we do not recommend purchasing an Intel-based Mac at this time
The M1 MacBook Air
Apple in November 2020 refreshed the MacBook Air lineup with its new M1 chip, which is the first Apple-designed Arm-based chip. M1 chips replace the prior Intel chips, and bring major speed and efficiency improvements.
The M1 chip, which is Apple's first System on a Chip, features an 8-core CPU with four high-efficiency cores and four high-performance cores along with an integrated GPU that has up to 8 cores. The MacBook Air's CPU is up to 3.5x faster than the prior generation model, and the GPU is up to 5x faster.
Machine learning workloads are up to 9x faster so the MacBook Air is quicker at ML-based features like face recognition and object detection. With the M1 chip, SSD performance is up to 2x faster, thanks to a new storage controller, and the MacBook Air can be configured with up to 2TB of storage.
RAM maxes out at 16GB, and it is integrated directly into the M1 chip for a unified memory architecture that brings performance and efficiency improvements. Battery life in the MacBook Air is significantly improved, offering up to 15 hours of web browsing and up to 18 hours of video playback.
Most of the changes to the MacBook Air are internal, rather than external. There are no major design updates to the MacBook Air, and it continues to feature a tapered, wedge-shaped aluminum body with a 13-inch Retina display with slim bezels and a large Force Touch Trackpad. The MacBook Air comes in Space Gray, Silver, and Gold.
The 13-inch display features a resolution of 2560x1600, which is the same as the prior-generation model, but new this year is P3 Wide Color support for more vivid, true-to-life colors. It offers True Tone to match the white balance of the screen to the ambient lighting for a more natural viewing experience, and it supports up to 400 nits brightness.
Apple's M1 MacBook Air features a 720p FaceTime HD camera, which is the same as the camera in the prior model, but Apple says the M1 improves picture quality with better noise reduction, better dynamic range, and other features.
Like the prior model, the M1 MacBook Air has a Magic Keyboard with a refined scissor mechanism that's more reliable than the previous butterfly mechanism, offering up to 1mm key travel for a stable key feel.
The keyboard has been tweaked slightly and the function keys now include Do Not Disturb, Spotlight search, and dictation options, plus there's a new emoji Fn key. A Touch ID fingerprint sensor can be used in lieu of a password for unlocking the Mac, making purchases, and more, with Touch ID protected by the Secure Enclave.
The MacBook Air has two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports that support up to a 6K external display, and it works with WiFi 6 or 802.11ax and Bluetooth 5.0. There are stereo speakers with wide stereo sound support, a three-microphone array, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
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How to Buy
Pricing on the MacBook Air starts at $999 for the M1 chip, 256GB of storage, a 7-core GPU, and 8GB RAM, with a higher-end $1,249 model available with 512GB storage, 8GB RAM, and an 8-core GPU. The MacBook Air is available for purchase from the online Apple Store and Apple retail stores. Apple in February 2021 began selling discounted refurbished versions of the M1 MacBook Air at prices starting at $849.
M1 MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro
If you're trying to decide between purchasing the M1 MacBook Air or the M1 MacBook Pro, our Buyer's Guide goes through the similarities and the differences to help you figure out which machine will best meet your needs.
Some M1 Mac owners have reported problems with Bluetooth connectivity, which range from intermittent disconnects of wireless peripherals to non-functional Bluetooth connections. There's no fix at this time, but the Mac mini models appear to be most heavily impacted. It is not clear if it's a hardware or a software issue, but it's possible it's something we'll see fixed in a future macOS update.
M1 MacBook Air Reviews
Given the major speed improvements introduced with the M1 chip, reviews were unsurprisingly positive. The Verge called the MacBook Air the "most impressive laptop" that's come out in years, while Forbes said that it's similar to upgrading to a new iPhone processor - "everything seems preposterously fast and responsive."
Reviewers said that the MacBook Air performs like a "pro-level laptop," handling multiple apps with ease along with system intensive apps like Photoshop.
The MacBook Air has an "instant on" feature that's similar to an iPhone or an iPad, which reviewers were impressed with, and even though there's no fan, the MacBook Air stays cool and never got more than a little warm in reviewer tests.
Battery life didn't quite match Apple's maximums, but it did hit 8 to 10 hours of sustained work, which is far superior to the prior model. The one negative reviewers commented on was the FaceTime camera, which is still 720p and poor quality.
For more opinions on the MacBook Air and the other M1 Macs, make sure to check out our full M1 Apple Silicon review guide.
The M1 MacBook Air does not have any external design changes compared to earlier models. It continues to be made from an Apple-designed aluminum alloy that uses 100 percent recycled aluminum and it is available in Silver, Space Gray, and Gold.
The MacBook Air features has a wedge shape, tapering from thick to thin toward the front of the device. At its thickest point, the MacBook Air measures in at .63 inches, and at its thinnest point, it measures in at 0.16 inches. It's just a little bit thicker than the 2019 MacBook Pro, which was .61 inches at its thickest point.
When it comes to dimensions, the MacBook Air is 11.97 inches long and 8.36 inches wide, and it weighs in at 2.8 pounds, 0.2 pounds less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The M1 MacBook Air features a 13-inch display with slim black bezels, which is a design that's similar to the MacBook Pro design.
Since 2018, the MacBook Air has used a Retina display that is shaper, crisper, and clearer than the prior non-Retina display. The MacBook Air has a 2560 by 1600 resolution with 227 pixels per inch and more than 4 million pixels in total, with a maximum brightness of 400 nits.
The display in the MacBook Air supports True Tone, which is designed to tweak the color of the display to match the lighting in the room. True Tone works through a multi-channel ambient light sensor that's included in the MacBook Air models, which is able to determine both the brightness of the room and the color temperature.
After detecting the white balance, the MacBook Air is able to adjust both the color and intensity of the display to match the room's lighting for a more natural, paper-like viewing experience that also cuts down on eyestrain.
New this year is P3 Wide color support, which brings more vivid, true-to-life colors and is an improvement over the sRGB color in the prior model. Wide color offers 25 percent more colors than sRGB.
The M1 MacBook Air uses the same redesigned Magic Keyboard that was first introduced in the 16-inch MacBook Pro and the prior-generation MacBook Air. The Magic Keyboard does away with the butterfly mechanism that Apple has been using since 2015 as it was riddled with issues that led to key failure due to dust and other small particulates.
The scissor mechanism in the MacBook Air's keyboard offers 1mm of key travel and a stable key feel, plus it uses an Apple-designed rubber dome that stores more potential energy for a more responsive key press.
Apple tweaked the keyboard of the M1 MacBook Pro to change the available function keys. Launchpad and the keyboard brightness controls have been replaced with Spotlight search, dictation, and Do Not Disturb, plus there's an emoji Fn key.
The keyboard also features backlit keys controlled by an ambient light sensor to light up the keys in dark rooms.
The M1 MacBook Air has a Touch ID fingerprint sensor that's located next to the function keys at the top of the keyboard. Touch ID is powered by a Secure Enclave that keeps your fingerprint data and personal information safe.
Touch ID on the MacBook can be used instead of a password, unlocking the Mac when a finger is placed on the sensor. It also replaces a password for password-protected apps, and it can be used to make Apple Pay purchases in Safari.
The MacBook Air is equipped with a large Force Touch trackpad that has no traditional buttons and is instead powered by a set of Force Sensors, allowing users to press anywhere on the trackpad to get the same response.
A Taptic Engine powered by magnets provides users with tactile feedback when using the trackpad, replacing the feel of a physical button press. The Force Touch trackpad supports a light press, which is used as a regular click, along with a deeper press or "force click" as a separate gesture that does things like offer up definitions for a highlighted word.
Two USB-C Thunderbolt 3/USB-4 ports are included in the MacBook Air. With Thunderbolt 3, the MacBook Air can support 4K, 5K, and 6K displays and connect to eGPUs for faster graphics capabilities when necessary.
6K display allows the M1 MacBook Air to work with the Pro Display XDR and other 6K displays. The MacBook Air supports a single 6K monitor, a single 5K monitor or two 4K monitors.
Apple says that the M1 MacBook Pro is limited to one display up to 6K resolution or two with 4K resolution, but using DisplayPort adapters, M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models can run up to five external displays. This is only possible when using a mix of 4K and 1080p displays as the Thunderbolt ports do not have the bandwidth to run five 4K displays.
Along with the two Thunderbolt 3 ports, there's a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other side of the device. Other than that, there are no additional ports on the MacBook Air, with Apple having removed the USB-A ports and SD card slot seen in MacBook Air models prior to 2018.
M1 Apple Silicon Chip
The MacBook Air is one of the first Macs to be updated with an Apple-designed Arm-based chip rather than an Intel chip like prior MacBook Air models. These chips are called "Apple Silicon," and the chip used in the MacBook Air is the M1.
The M1 is Apple's first System on a Chip designed for the Mac, which means it has the processor, GPU, I/O, security features, and RAM all one one chip that's inside the Mac. Apple says that this allows for better performance and power efficiency for longer battery life.
Like Apple's latest A14 chips, the M1 is built on a 5-nanometer process, which makes it smaller and more efficient than Apple's prior chips. It has 16 billion transistors, which Apple says is the most that it has put into a single chip.
Unified Memory Architecture
One of the features of the M1 is a unified memory architecture, or UMA, It unifies high-bandwidth, low-latency memory into a single pool. This means that the technologies in the M1 chip can access the same data without copying it between multiple memory pools for dramatic performance improvement across the entire system.
Video processing is up to 3.9x faster thanks to the UMA, and image processing is up to 7.1x faster.
The M1 features an 8-core CPU and an integrated 8-core GPU (there's also a 7-core GPU option as explained below). The CPU has four high-efficiency cores and four high-performance cores. When doing simple tasks like browsing the web or reading email the MacBook Air will engage the high-efficiency cores to preserve battery life, but for more system intensive tasks like photo and video editing, the high-performance cores are used.
Compared to the high-performance cores, the high-efficiency cores use a tenth of the power while still delivering the performance that Mac users need for everyday tasks.
According to Apple, the M1 chip's CPU is up to 3.5x faster than the Intel chip in the prior MacBook Air, and GPU speeds are up to 5x faster. Base MacBook Air models come with an M1 chip that has a 7-core GPU, but the higher-end model with 512GB of storage comes with an 8-core GPU like the M1 MacBook Pro and Mac mini.
The M1 is designed to offer higher performance at every power level compared to competing laptop chips. It offers 2x faster CPU performance than the latest PC laptop chip while using 25 percent of the power. In GFX Bench 5.0 benchmarks, the M1 beat out the GTX 1050 Ti and the Radeon RX 560 with 2.6 TFLOPs of throughput.
In a Geekbench benchmark, the MacBook Air, which has a 3.2GHz base frequency, earned a single-core score of 1687 and a multi-core score of 7433, which makes it faster than the high-end 16-inch MacBook Pro models released in 2019. Those 16-inch MacBook Pro models are equipped with Intel's latest 10th-generation chips.
Further, the M1 chip offers the single-core performance that is better than any other available Mac.
Even when emulating x86 under Rosetta 2, the M1 Macs are still faster than all previously released Macs. With Geekbench running through Apple's Rosetta 2 translation layer, the Macs are achieving 78 to 79 percent of the performance of native Apple Silicon code.
R23 Cinebench benchmarks of the M1 chip come in at 7508 for multi-core and 1498 for single-core. The benchmark is for the MacBook Pro, but the MacBook Air has the same chip inside.
Comparatively, the high-end 2020 16-inch MacBook Pro with 2.3GHz Core i9 chip earned a multi-core score of 8818. The 2.6GHz low-end 16-inch MacBook Pro earned a single-core score of 1113 and a multi-core score of 6912 on the same test, and the high-end prior-generation MacBook Air earned a single-core score of 1119 and a multi-core score of 4329.
The 8-core GPU in the M1 chip is integrated (which means it is not a separate chip), and Apple calls it the world's fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer. It can execute 25,000 threads at a time and combines improved graphics performance with lower power consumption.
There's a new, more advanced Neural Engine in the MacBook Air that is up to 9x faster for machine learning tasks. The Neural Engine has a 16-core design that can execute 11 trillion operations per second, and along with machine learning accelerators, it makes ML-based tasks much faster.
Apps like Final Cut Pro, Pixelmator, and others that use machine learning for video, photo, and audio editing purposes benefit from the Neural Engine.
The MacBook Air does not have a fan for cooling purposes. Instead, an aluminum heat spreader dissipates heat, allowing for silent operation. That's one of the only internal changes in the new MacBook Air compared to older models.
The M1 chip is built on an Arm architecture instead of an x86 architecture like Intel chips, but it will still run apps designed for Intel machines thanks to Rosetta 2, a translation process that runs in the background and is invisible to the user.
Apple is also encouraging developers to create Universal apps that use a single binary and run on both Apple Silicon Macs and Intel Macs. Further, Apple Silicon Macs are able to run apps that are designed for iPhone and iPad.
We have details on apps that have been updated with native or universal support, gaming on the M1 Macs, running homebrew apps, and more. Check out our M1 tidbits guide for details.
With the efficiency improvements introduced with the M1, the MacBook Air has impressive battery life that far exceeds the battery life of the prior-generation model.
The same 49.9WHr battery that was in the prior-generation model now lasts for up to 15 hours when browsing the web and up to 18 hours when watching a movie through the Apple TV app.
In a test compiling open source code for WebKit, Apple's M1 chip excelled. The M1 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air compiled the code more quickly than equivalent Intel based models, but more notably, still had 91 percent battery life remaining at the end of the test, while an Intel 13-inch MacBook Pro had just 24 percent battery life left.
The MacBook Air supports 802.11ax WiFi, which is known as Wi-Fi 6, the newest WiFi protocol that's faster and more efficient than the prior-generation 802.11ac WiFi. It also supports Bluetooth 5.0.
Speakers and Microphone
The MacBook Air features stereo speakers with wide stereo sound support for watching Apple TV+ content or playing iOS games and there's a three-array microphone with directional beamforming for FaceTime calls.
There's a 720p HD camera built into the front of the MacBook Air for FaceTime calls. Apple has used a 720p front-facing camera for multiple years now and has not upgraded the quality, but this year says that the M1 chip allows for clearer, sharper images.
The M1 chip offers better noise reduction to pull more detail out of shadows and highlights, and the Neural Engine uses face detection to adjust white balance and exposure for more natural-looking skin tones.
The MacBook Air uses solid stage storage with capacities up to 2TB. Storage in the base level MacBook Air starts at 256GB, and the MacBook Air's SSD is up to 2x faster than the SSD in the prior-generation model.
SSD benchmarks have confirmed that the MacBook Air's SSD is indeed faster, hitting write speeds of 2190MB/s and read speeds of 2676MB/s. This is approximately twice as fast as the SSD in the prior-generation MacBook Air.
Technicians in China have discovered that the RAM and SSD in the M1 Mac can be upgraded after purchase, but this is something that's only been done in a test setting and these upgrades are not something the average person can undertake.
M1 MacBook Air
There are two stock 13-inch MacBook Air configurations available from Apple, in Silver, Space Gray, and Gold.
- $999 - M1 chip with 7-core GPU, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD.
- $1249 - M1 chip with 8-core GPU, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD.
Entry-level MacBook Air Upgrade Options:
- 16GB RAM - +$200
- 512GB SSD - +$200
- 1TB SSD - +$400
- 2TB SSD - +$800
Higher-end MacBook Air Upgrade Options:
- 16GB RAM - +$200
- 1TB SSD - +$200
- 2TB SSD - +$600
M1 Mac How Tos
Since the M1 Macs are using a new type of chip designed by Apple, there are some tips and tricks for doing things like transferring files, entering recovery mode, and finding apps optimized for the new machines. We have several M1-specific how tos that are worth checking out.
- How to Install Rosetta on Your M1 Apple Silicon Mac
- How to Start Up in Safe Mode on an M1 Apple Silicon Mac
- How to Use Apple Diagnostics to Test Your Mac
- How to Tell Which Apps Are Optimized for M1 Apple Silicon Macs
- How to Transfer Files Between an Apple Silicon Mac and Another Mac
- How to Reinstall macOS on an M1 MacBook Air, M1 MacBook Pro, and M1 Mac Mini
- How to Install Any iPhone or iPad App on an M1 Mac
What's Next for the MacBook Air
Apple is developing a thinner and lighter version of the MacBook Air that will have thinner bezels than the current model. It is expected to continue to have a 13-inch display, though Apple considered and decided against at 15-inch model.
The machine will feature MagSafe charging technology and a pair of USB 4 ports for connecting external devices. The upcoming MacBook Air will be a higher-end version of the 2020 MacBook Air, with the current model sticking around as an entry-level option.
The next-generation MacBook Air models could potentially come in colors similar to those of the 24-inch M1 iMac. Leaker Jon Prosser, who has something of a mixed track record, recently said that one of his sources saw a prototype Blue MacBook, which could be a MacBook Air in a new colorway.
The next-generation MacBook Air is expected to feature an updated version of the M1 chip. It will include the same number of computing cores as the M1 (eight), but it is expected to run faster. The new Apple silicon chip will support better graphics with nine or 10 GPU cores instead of the seven or eight in the current M1 MacBook Air.
Bloomberg believes the new MacBook Air could come as soon as late 2021, but Kuo says that Apple will introduce the new machine at some point in 2022, suggesting there may not be a refresh in 2021.
Apple is said to be working on a range of MacBooks with 5G cellular connectivity, which was rumored for 2020. The rumor comes from DigiTimes, a site that has a mixed track record when it comes to Apple info, and Apple did not release a 5G MacBook Air in 2020. According to Bloomberg, 5G technology could come to Macs at some point in the future.