Apple’s new MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is an absolutely fantastic laptop, and thanks to some brilliant new additions in the form of Apple’s own M1 chip (which replaces the Intel processors the company used to use), and an improved screen, the MacBook Air no longer feels like a compromise for creatives who don’t want to (or can’t) pay the higher asking price for the MacBook Pro.
In previous years, the MacBook Air has been a pared-down version of the MacBook that was a great thin and light laptop for day-to-day use, but due to its low specs wasn’t really suitable for intensive creative workloads like editing ultra high definition videos or rendering complex 3D animated scenes. However, this latest version comes with the same M1 chip that’s featured in the new MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020), which means for the first time, the MacBook Air can pretty much compete with the more expensive laptop. So much so, it certainly deserves a spot in our round up of the best laptops for graphic design, as well as the best laptops for students.
Even better, it’s still the most affordable MacBook you can buy right now, and it means if you’re looking for a thin and light 13-inch laptop for video and photo editing, then the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is an excellent choice.
MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Price
The MacBook AIr line has for a while now been the most affordable way to get an Apple laptop, and the good news is that even though Apple has made some big changes to the laptop itself, it’s kept that affordable price tag.
In fact, the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) starts at £999 for the model with an M1 chip with an 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD, which is the same price the earlier 2020 model of MacBook AIr launched for.
Impressively, Apple has launched an updated laptop for the same price it was asking for the previous model – which itself was actually cheaper than the 2019 version! While the MacBook Air certainly can’t be described as a budget laptop, it still remains excellent value for money – more so, in fact, due to it offering improved specs at the same price.
You can also buy a more powerful model for £1,249, and this comes with an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. The extra GPU core should give the MacBook Air a decent performance bump when it comes to graphically intensive tasks, and the extra storage space will be very welcome for digital creatives who need to store lots of large files.
That higher specced version features similar specs to the MacBook Pro M1 model, including an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU, but the Pro has a smaller SSD of 256GB, and is £50 more expensive.
So, for budget-conscious creatives, the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is an easy recommendation. We actually reviewed the £999 model, and we were incredibly impressed with the results, and that version undercuts competitors like the Dell XPS 13 by quite a bit. Apple may not be a brand you often associate with value for money and ultra-competitive prices, but as the new MacBook AIr proves, maybe you should.
MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Power and performance
While the M1 is Apple’s first SoC (System on Chip) for a laptop, you may not think that – this is an incredibly accomplished bit of hardware, and the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) which uses it, offers one of the smoothest computing experiences we’ve enjoyed in a modern laptop.
It runs the latest version of the macOS operating system, known as Big Sur, which has been built from the ground up to make use of the M1’s capabilities (you can also install Big Sur on older MacBooks as well), and the operating system feels fast and responsive.
It boots up impressively fast (another bonus of using the M1 chip), and we opened up numerous apps at once, and they popped open quickly. Swapping between apps, both new and old, was quick and seamless.
If you’ve been using MacBooks for a while now and have your favourite apps, then you don’t need to worry about Apple moving from Intel to its new M1 architecture. While all of Apple’s most popular apps have new M1 versions, an increasing number of third party apps, from the likes of Serif and Adobe, are also porting their apps to the M1 architecture.
Even more impressively, Apple’s Rosetta 2 tool can be used to run older apps designed for Intel-based MacBooks. After initially installing Rosetta 2, you should be able to run legacy Mac apps seamlessly. We ran a number of older apps and they ran fine, though there have been reports that some older apps have a few compatibility options. We didn’t notice this – in our time with the MacBook Air (M1, 2020), we didn’t notice any problems at all, and couldn’t really tell the difference between apps running natively on the M1 hardware, and the apps running via Rosetta 2.
The new MacBook Air can now also run a huge selection of iOS apps for iPad and iPhones, including some of the best photo editing tools. Over the years iOS apps have become impressively complex and feature-rich, and they mostly run great on the MacBook AIr (M1, 2020). You can also run iOS games, and again these are now often graphically-impressive titles, and we tried several and they ran very well, even if they were originally designed for touchscreen devices.
When it comes to more intensive tasks, the MacBook AIr (M1, 2020) also seriously impressed us, and didn’t feel noticeably slower than the MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020) most of the time. Considering they both now run on the same M1 chip (though some versions of the MacBook Air, including the model we reviewed, have a 7-core GPU compared to the MacBook Pro’s 8-core) that’s not too surprising, and in our synthetic benchmark tests, including Cinebench and Geekbench 5, we saw that the M1 chip can easily rival 11th generation Intel CPUs – and at times the new MacBook AIr’s performance rivalled the 16-inch MacBook Pro, a much more expensive device.
This is an incredible turn of events for the MacBook Air, as it it no longer a compromise laptop for people who need to sacrifice power for price. It can go toe-to-toe with many more expensive laptops.
We did some 4K editing with FInal Cut Pro, something which wasn’t really achievable in the older models, and the MacBook Air did brilliantly. It also handled 8K footage as well in our tests – an achievement that would have been unthinkable on older MacBook Airs.
Throughout our tests the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) remained completely silent thanks to its fanless design. We were worried that this may mean that the laptop struggles to keep performing during long intensive workloads, and Apple itself recommends the MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020) for that kind of thing, as it still has a fan.
But, apart from getting a bit toasty towards the back of the laptop, we found the MacBook AIr (M1, 2020) kept up admirably.
The M1 chip also brings speed performance to the SSD storage, and we were impressed by how quickly the drive loads up apps, and how quick it is to move large files to and from the hard drive. If you often work with large media files, this thing is going to be a revelation.
Battery life is also excellent, with it lasting just over 11 hours in our battery life test, where we run a looped 1080p video until it dies. This is a fantastic length, easily outclassing the likes of the Dell XPS 13, though it’s not quite as long as the new MacBook Pro’s battery.
Still, we were able to work almost two full work days without needing a charge.
MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Display
At first glance, you may think that the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) has the same display as its predecessor, and you’d be mostly right. It remains 13.3 inches with a 400-nit LED backlit display, and a Retina display of 2560 x 1600 resolution, and comes with Apple's True Tone technology, which automatically adjusts the color temperature on the screen based on the ambient light.
However, there is one big change to this display that will be a bit of a game changer for digital creatives: it now supports the P3 wide colour gamut, which allows the display to show off more vibrant, accurate and true-to-life images.
P3 is an industry standard for video editing, and previously P3 support was exclusive to Apple’s MacBook Pro range of laptops. The fact that Apple has brought this to its cheaper laptop is very commendable – and it means the new MacBook Air is now more of a compelling purchase for digital creatives.
So, the display remains excellent on the MacBook Air (M1, 2020), but we do have to point out that there are Windows laptops that offer higher resolutions, touchscreens and OLED technology, which means MacBooks no longer have the best screens in the business.
MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review: Features
The MacBook AIr’s biggest features is the powerful new M1 chip housed in a thin and light design (measuring 0.41–1.61 x 30.41 x 21.24cm and with a weight of 1.29kg), and fanless design.
It’s an incredibly premium looking and feeling laptop, even if the design is largely unchanged from the previous model (which in turn was the same as the 2019 model).
There are still only two Thunderbolt 3 ports, which means if you need to plug in memory card readers, or peripherals that use the standard USB connection, then you’re going to need an adaptor.
The keyboard is the new Magic Keyboard, which was introduced to MacBook Airs earlier this year, and replaces the older Butterfly keyboards which were prone to breaking. The new keyboard isn’t just more reliable, but we find it much more comfortable to work on, thanks to a more responsive feel and slightly deeper key travel.
There’s also the Touch ID button, which lets you log in to macOS with your fingerprint (and pay for things using Apple Pay). We found this to be a fast, reliable and secure way of logging into the laptop.
Should you buy the MacBook Air (M1, 2020)?
So, would we recommend the new MacBook Air (M1, 2020)? Absolutely. Apple hasn’t just made the best MacBook ever, but one of the best laptops ever. This is a seriously impressive laptop that combines a sleek and stylish design with enough power and performance to handle even demanding creative tasks.
The fact that it also offers incredible battery life, and is cheaper than many of its competitors, further cements its position as one of the best laptops of 2020.
It’s so good, in fact, that with its increased performance and P3 colour support, it actually almost makes the 13-inch MacBook Pro redundant. For anyone who wants a powerful, affordable, and lightweight laptop for creative work, this is the laptop to get, no question.