MacBook Air M1 First Impressions

My MacBook Air M1 has arrived and these are my observations in the first few days. I’ll publish some additional details later after I’ve spent more time with it. While the form factor is identical to the Intel model, it’s new to me, so I’ll be covering its size and feature set in addition to the M1 inside.

Ordering & Shipping

Supplies of M1 Macs have been constrained since they were released last month and shipping from Apple has been measured in weeks for quite a while. Some configurations are available sooner than others and stock comes and goes quickly at resellers, frequently selling out in hours.

I bought directly from Apple on December 3rd and was given a delivery estimate between December 11 and 18th. The 11th came and went without a shipping notification, followed by the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th. I told myself that if Apple didn’t ship it by the 16th there was no way I’d get it by the 18th. Online forums confirmed as much – some models were taking up to six days to arrive after shipping.

I had resigned to receive it the week of Christmas when I was surprised by a shipping notification on the 17th. I expected a delivery estimate into the next week but was surprised to see my original December 18th as expected delivery. Not only was it being shipped overnight, it was being shipped from Pennsylvania, not China as I had expected. It arrived as promised, at about 10 AM last Friday; quite a feat given our snow storm the prior day and the backlogged state of shipping in holiday 2020. In total the process took a little over two weeks.

Size & Weight

The MacBook Air is smaller than the 15″ MacBook Pro it’s replacing. Mathematically it takes up about 23% less area, is 2″ narrower, and 1″ shallower. The Air is a wedge shape, so it’s really thin at the front but thicker at the back. Apple uses a lot of shaping tricks to make the Air look thinner than it is. It has the exact same width and length as the current 13″ MacBook Pro, but with a thinner front and a slightly thicker back.

The numeric difference seems small but feel big. The Air is easier to balance and easier to pick up while still packing in a full-size keyboard, a large trackpad, and enough room for my palms. It is juuuuuust thin enough to be easy to move around while still fitting comfortably on my lap. It also weighs 30% less than my Pro, adding to its portability.

The Screen

That’s a fast transfer over Thunderbolt

In order to shave down the size I had to accept a smaller screen. The Air has a 13″ screen capable of scaled resolutions up to 1680 x 1050, which is one step below the 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution of my Pro. I have less screen real estate but it’s a reasonable tradeoff for the smaller size and lower weight. I’ve had the exact same screen size in the past and got by just fine.

The Air’s display is about 20% dimmer than my Pro. I expected this to be more noticeable, but I don’t find brightness lacking. The colors are very rich and everything looks good. It also has True Tone, which adjusts color temperature to match the room. My Pro didn’t have this and it really makes the Air’s display stand out.

The Keyboard

After breaking my Pro’s keyboard and getting it replaced, keyboard quality has become very important to me. I don’t hate my Pro’s keyboard, but over time I’ve grown more frustrated with its loudness and short key travel. The reliability has been terrible too ā€“ keys stick all the time and require a weird ritual to clean out. I’m terrified of getting crumbs on it for fear of having to take it back to Apple again.

After years of customer complaints and reliability nightmares Apple finally fixed the issue by taking the keyboard from their standalone Magic Keyboard (which I love) and jamming it into their notebooks. Good move. This keyboard is phenomenal. Key travel is perfect, keys are responsive, a bit clicky but not too loud, and crap doesn’t get stuck under them. They provide a very pleasant typing experience.

Apple also changed some of the dedicated function keys around ā€“ there is now one for spotlight, speech dictation, and Do Not Disturb. The function key also brings up the emoji palette, a welcome addition. I appreciate the real escape key and am not missing the Touch Bar at all. I also like that the Touch ID button is physically separate from the rest of the keys. It is very difficult to find it by touch on my Pro because it isn’t distinct. What can I say, it’s a great keyboard.

Speakers & Color

The speakers are good ā€“ they are plenty loud, especially given that they are so small. They have less bass than my Pro, but they have better treble. Not overall better or worse than the Pro, just different, and good enough for music and movies.

I mentioned earlier that my Air is the gold model and it’s a cross between gold and rose gold. I compared it with some other gold Apple products to see where it fell. It ends up somewhere in between my gold iPad Air 2 and a rose gold iPhone 6s. It’s as if you took the gold iPad Air and poured some rose gold into it. In some light it looks a bit more copper. Either way, it stands out like I want it to. As an added bonus, Apple ships gold Apple stickers in the box instead of white. I don’t know if this is new for the M1 model or is just standard for the Air, but it’s super cool. I have Apple stickers of all sizes, but they’re all white. Not anymore!

Compatibility

I read a lot of forums while waiting for my Air to ship so that I’d be aware of any issues people were encountering. As expected with new hardware running on new software, there are hardware issues on occasion. There are issues with external monitors, docks, data transfer speeds, screen artifacts, battery life, software functionality, and random crashes. So far I haven’t run into any issues.

I’ve connected to my Belkin Thunderbolt Dock and 4k display without issues, I’ve plugged in multiple external drives with no problem, and I’ve imported photos from SD cards. The Intel applications I use all work fine, including Lightroom Classic, NetNewsWire, Office 365, VSCode, and Atom. I’ve even deliberately used non-M1 versions of Chrome and Zoom with no issues.

Performance & Battery Life

I’m working through more in-depth tests, but overall I’m getting great results. So far everything is snappy and the battery is lasting 6+ hours at full brightness and constant usage. That isn’t anywhere near Apple’s 18 hour claim, but I’m doing a lot more than watching Apple TV content on a half-bright screen. Six hours is great through mixed workloads of Lightroom editing, web browsing, You Tube, file transfers, and Time Machine backups. My Pro would give me two hours if I was lucky.

The translation that occurs on first launch of Intel applications is incredibly fast and everything performs well afterward. Lightroom is as fast, or sometimes faster than my Pro. That might not sound that great, but Lightroom isn’t even running natively on my Air and it has half the available RAM. That equates to a more powerful, more portable photo machine and that’s great for me. I expect even better performance when Adobe releases an M1 native version next year.

Wrap Up

I’m very happy with my purchase. I’ve got a great machine that is smaller, lighter, and faster than what I currently have. I’m excited to see the improvements and optimizations Apple makes for its M1 machines over time and I’m excited to use native apps that are optimized for this new hardware. More testing to come, but initial impressions are great!

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