Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: the best laptop for most people

The new MacBook Air reveals a world where thin and light laptops don't have to be compromised

T3 Platinum Award
MacBook Air M1 2020 review
(Image credit: Future)
T3 Verdict

The MacBook Air (M1) is a small revolution. As much power as you could need in a light and silent design, with giant battery life.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Stunning performance

  • +

    Fantastic battery life

  • +

    Excellent build quality

  • +

    Good screen

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    More ports would be nice

  • -

    Webcam still not great

  • -

    Some potential niche software compatibility issues

The Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) marks the start of something huge for Apple: computers made using their very own chips. Ever since the iPad debuted the first Apple-made chip back in 2010, we had our suspicions that this would be part of their long-term plan.

The M1 chip has brought that suspicion to life, a massive step forward for computing- this is simply one of the best laptops available, and will definitely be the best lightweight laptop for most people. This chip is as powerful as a 'pro' laptop, yet runs cool enough that the MacBook Air doesn't need any fans and is totally silent, while also delivering up to 50% more battery life than its predecessor… and somehow doesn't cost any more.

We're so used to laptops having compromises that we have to work around or understand, but that rule doesn't apply here. There are some potential issues we'll come to, but if you just want a computer than can do every standard computer task without breaking a sweat (but could do much more if you ever need it to in the future), the MacBook Air is pretty much unmatched.

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Price and release date

The MacBook Air (M1 2020) was released on November 17th 2020, and starts from £999/$999/AU$1,599 for its base model, which gets you an eight-core Apple M1 processor, a seven-core Apple GPU, 8GB of integrated RAM and 256GB of storage.

This is a pretty typical price for these kinds of specs, in line with Windows competition… except for the processor, of course.

There's a higher-tier model, which costs £1,249/$1,249/AU$1,949, and the main difference is that this version comes with 512GB of storage instead of 256GB, though also get an eight-core GPU. You again get 8GB of RAM here, though either model can be upgraded to 16GB of RAM for a (larger than is really reasonable) fee.

256GB isn't a huge amount – it's actually 251GB after formatting, and then over 30GB is taken up the operating system and included apps, so you get more like 220GB to play with.

However, that's probably enough for casual users. If most of your laptop use is web browsing, creating documents, watching videos and looking at your photos, this will be fine.

The problem is that you can't expand it at any time in the future, so if you can afford the more expensive version with more storage, we think it's a wise investment – when it comes to power, this could last you years, so you don't want to find that you might get into a hobby later where the lack of storage is an issue. You can actually go all the way up to 2TB of storage by paying more, too.

It's a similar story with the RAM. 8GB is fine for casual use – you won't notice any issues. We've been doing some more intensive stuff with our review model (which has 8GB) and it's kept up with us well enough. 

But again it isn't upgradeable in the future, so if there's any chance you might want to push your Air further in the future, it may be a wise bit of future-proofing.

MacBook Air M1 2020 review

(Image credit: Future)

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Design & build

Apple hasn't changed the design of the MacBook Air externally at all for this new version. It has the iconic tapered design that makes it lower volume than the MacBook Pro, even though they're about the same depth at the thickest point.

It has the tough aluminium build and impeccable fit and finish we expect from Apple's laptops. There are almost no joins, and it's totally sturdy.

It's available in the same three colours that it has been recently: gold, space grey and silver.

The keyboard is the new Magic Keyboard Apple uses on all its machines, and it feels great – comfortable, with good feedback and a nice amount of travel. The trackpad is large, easy to use and responds perfectly. There's a fingerprint sensor that doubles as a power key, which works well and is convenient.

On the left-hand side, you have two USB-C ports that actually pull triple duty: they're also Thunderbolt 4 ports and power ports. For connectivity, this makes them stunningly fast for hooking up external drives, and they can output video to external screens up to 6K resolution.

They're pretty overkill for the average user, though, and only having two ports can potentially be limiting. Not everyone will have a problem with it, since so much is done online these days, but it means you'll need to buy an adapter for uploading photos from a camera's SD card, say, or even to connect a standard USB plug on a printer or thumb drive. These adapters aren't too expensive, but it's just a little extra hassle.

On the other side, you've got a 3.5mm headphone jack, and that's it. Two more ports here (even if they were USB-C again) would be useful, since it'd mean you could plug the power in on both sides, and also just makes it possible to plug in more accessories.

The other design change is here is that there's no fan any more inside. Fanless laptops have been few and far between, but they're really nice – no hot air slowly cooking your lap, and no noise, even when you do something that turns out to be surprisingly intensive, like open Slack or watch a YouTube video.

The MacBook Air gets warm, but not excessively hot – it's noticeably cooler than almost any laptop we've tried, including the previous MacBook Air in particular.

MacBook Air M1 2020 review

(Image credit: Future)

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Performance

The new MacBook Air is screamingly fast for a mid-price, lightweight machine. Actually, it's screamingly fast for almost any laptop.

Its Geekbench 5 scores of 1732 in single-core and 7556 in multi-core give you an idea of what to expect: that is as fast for single-core performance as laptops get, and for multi-core performance it's stronger than the 16-inch MacBook Pro that costs more than twice as much.

It's not just benchmarks either – in practical tests such as video encoding or compressing files, we saw performance pretty much in line with hefty pro machines. The longer a task goes on, the more that an eight-core MacBook Pro starts to gain an advantage thanks to being actively cooled… but a machine like that costs triple the price of this!

That's all paired with storage that's incredibly fast too – we measured write speeds of 2292MB/s and read speeds of 2789MB/s using BlackMagic's Disk Speed Test, which is around twice what the previous MacBook Air achieved.

In combination, very fast storage and a very past processor means you don't really have to wait for anything to happen. Open the lid and the screen is already waiting for you put your finger on the scanner by the time you've lifted it – which instantly unlocks it.

Apps open immediately, working with files is lag-free, website loading is as fast as your internet can handle… there just no compromise for having a thin and light laptop.

Remarkably, this all applies to the graphics too. The M1's GPU appears to be close to what a mid-level discrete graphic chip is capable of, and is a massive leap forward from what came before in this kind of machine.

It's capable of playing all kinds of games smoothly enough, even when they haven't been optimised for the M1 chip yet – you can play newer games on decent settings, and we've been playing some favourites from Steam such as XCOM 2 and Planet Coaster. 

Those aren't high-end games, but they're more than capable of pushing this type of laptop beyond its limits even at middling settings normally, and we had no problem playing them at great frame rates. And this is the machine with a seven-core GPU – the higher-tier MacBook Air would have a little extra oomph from an extra GPU core.

It's no gaming machine, don't get us wrong, but that something this size and weight plays games this well at all is kind of mind-blowing.

MacBook Air M1 2020 review

(Image credit: Future)

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Software

The MacBook Air M1 runs macOS 11 (Big Sur), which has been optimised for the new chip, helping it to come on as instantly as an iPhone, and to help apps make the most of the multi-core processor.

For the most part, it looks and works exactly like any other Mac with macOS 11, but there are some key differences because of the different chip.

Because the M1 chip is built very differently to Intel chips, ideally all apps would have a custom version made for the M1 machines. All of Apple's apps do, and other developers are rolling these out at a good rate – even Adobe has early versions of Photoshop and Lightroom available, and Adobe has been infamously slow at this kind of thing in the past.

However, even for apps that haven't taken this jump yet, there is a solution called 'Rosetta 2' built into the operating system: any Mac app that hasn't had an M1 version made should still work, with the OS silently translating things in the background. This has a bit of a performance hit, but here's the thing: the M1 chip is so fast that it still runs these converted apps faster than an equivalent Intel chip.

It all means that even though this new breed of laptop has some compatibility issues in theory, in practice it's fine, and you wouldn't even notice when there is an issue.

That's not true 100% of the time, though. People who use more obscure software combinations may find real problems that stop some software running. The main issue tends to be with plugins (in music software, say) – the main bit of software may work, but a plugin may not.

We stress that this won't affect 99% of people – it's only really a pro issue with some specific setups. But because the M1 chip is new, it's a possible factor.

However, the flip side of all this is that the MacBook Air M1 can actually run iPhone and iPad apps as well as Mac apps. So if you have a favourite iOS app that doesn't have a good Mac equivalent, you can just download the iPhone version from the App Store instead.

In theory, great – in practice, it's mixed. The apps we've tried worked well enough as long as they're not too complicated about gestures and things (remember, no touchscreen on Macs, so the mouse pointer just becomes your finger).

However, half the ones you'd really want here have actually been excluded from running on the Mac by the developer. Instagram? Not there. Netflix? Nope. Prime Video? Forget it.

It's a nice option to have, but as much as we've wanted to make good use of it, we've struggled during our time with Air.

Another change is that this machine can't dual-boot into Windows, which is an option on Intel Macs. So for those who really just need some Windows software from time to time, that's not an option here.

And finally, there's no external GPU support on the M1 Macs currently – again, this is only a problem for a few people with specific pro needs.

MacBook Air M1 2020 review

(Image credit: Future)

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Screen & speakers

The MacBook Air's screen is a sharp 2560x1600 16:10 screen, which is the same as the previous Intel MacBook Air model. The typical brightness of 400 nits is also the same as before, and is bright enough for this kind of model. A bit brighter would be preferable because it can dim a bit too much when viewing off-angle – which happens with laptops unavoidably sometimes – but it's never a major problem.

The one change in the screen is that it now supports the wider P3 colour gamut. This means it can offer more realistic colours in some situations – the best way to take advantage is viewing your iPhone photos on it, because those are taken with the same wide colour range.

The MacBook Air has surprisingly good speakers speakers built-in too – they're really well balanced and full, and elevate the sound out from the body nicely, with pretty noticeable stereo separation.

Apple has also updated the microphone array here, which is welcome for video calls and similar stuff – the three-mic array is definitely better for clear audio.

We'll mention the webcam here too. Apple has kept it as a 720p HD model, but with improved processing from the M1 chip. And it's significantly better than the embarrassing webcam on the previous model, but struggles with ultimately basic stuff like white balance as well as being lower resolution than we want a premium laptop to be. It's fine, it's just not good. 

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Battery

Believe the hype. If you want a laptop where you just don't have to worry about battery life very much, this is it. Use it for a couple of hours and drop it 10% or so, close it on standby, pick it up tomorrow at the same battery level and use it some more… maybe charge it once a week.

It's just one less thing you have to think about, particularly if most of your use is regular casual browsing and light app use.

The most intensive on-going battery drain we managed on it was playing games, unsurprisingly, which taxes everything to the fullest. That reduced the battery by around 24% per hour, which still gives it fours of battery life – way beyond what thicker gaming laptops (or anything else) manage while playing. In fact, that's more than double what we'd expect an Intel equivalent laptop to achieve.

Outside of games, the most we pushed the battery was downloading huge files at speeds averaging 7.5MB/s, with the screen left on at full brightness too. This has the wireless tech going, the processor running to assign all that new data, and the screen is always a big energy drain.

And that still only drained 10% per hour. That was the worst-case scenario we found for standard use beyond gaming. Otherwise, Apple's claims of 15 hours of use seem totally in line with our experience.

MacBook Air M1 2020 review

(Image credit: Future)

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Verdict

The MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is the ideal laptop for most people, because it does the thing all great computers should: it just gets out of your way. 

It's so fast that it'll never slow you down. It'll pretty much always have charge. It doesn't get loud or overly hot. It's comfortable and light.

There are reasons people might not want to choose it – the limited range of ports, or macOS not being suitable for your apps, or worries that specialist software won't work with the new chip – but for the average computer buyer, this machine is just wonderful, and is good value.

And though it isn't part of the machine's specs, it's always worth noting that Apple is one of very few companies you can buy from where you can go directly into a company's store for repairs, which is always welcome peace of mind.