MacBook Air Update

I’ve had my M1 MacBook Air for over four months now and so far my experience has been pretty good. I spend a good deal of my time surfing the web and the Air is perfectly awesome in that regard. When I’m not surfing the web I’m using Lightroom Classic to process and edit my photos. My initial impressions of Lightroom were good and after more extended use I’ve learned “some things”. Let’s take a look.

Imports Are Better

I recently started taking photos again after my typical it’s-too-cold-out-winter-break, and it was a good opportunity to test out the performance of Lightroom on both my M1 Air and my 2016 Intel MacBook Pro. As part of my import process I generate preview images so that I can scroll through and inspect my images quickly during editing. On my Pro this often took a while and made it sound like an airplane readying for takeoff. I wondered if my Air could match or exceed the Pro’s speed even though it was running translated code.

I ran a test across both machines by importing 657 24 MP RAW images from my Nikon D750, generating a full 2880 pixel preview at medium quality for each image, and applying lens and chromatic aberration corrections. Both machines were tested with Lightroom Classic 10.2 running on Big Sur 11.2.3 with no other applications running. I used a brand new Lightroom library and cleared the RAW cache for each test.

The process is broken into two stages – importing and generating previews. Both machines imported in about the same time, with the Intel machine coming in a tiny bit faster. This makes sense since I used the same memory card and card reader. There was a huge difference, however, in preview generation speed. The MacBook Air was nearly four times faster than the Pro. And it doesn’t have a fan so it was completely silent to boot!

Here are the numbers:

Time (seconds)MacBook Air
Apple M1, 8 GB RAM
2016 MacBook Pro
6th Gen Intel i7, 16 GB RAM
Generate Previews1:154:17
Import 657 24 MP RAW photos (17 GB), generate Medium quality previews at 2880 pixels, apply Lens + CA corrections

This is an absolutely phenomenal result for a system with a first-generation processor running translated code in complete silence in a 2.8 lb package!

But 16 GB RAM is Best

Imports are great, but what about the rest of the flow? I spend far more time editing images than I do importing them, so this is pretty important. I’ve had a range of mixed experiences here. Popping open the Air to edit a quick photo is great – the edits are responsive and things are fluid. This is definitely faster than my Pro where nearly every edit has a noticeable delay to it. Scrolling through my photos is quick and full resolution previews load fast.

Things on the Air get more complicated if I decide to edit more images in a row, however. Sometimes I’ll start to see visible delays as I move between images and start applying edits, especially brushes. If I have other applications open, especially Photoshop, my entire Mac slows to a crawl. Everything is slow – scrolling is laggy, edits are delayed, even menus open slowly. Other times I’ll edit 20 images for an hour with everything staying fast and fluid.

I couldn’t pin it down for a while and then it hit me – RAM. The Air only has 8 GB of RAM, and while Mac OS manages it well, it can’t create memory space that isn’t there. It’s not uncommon for Lightroom Classic to “use” almost 12 GB of RAM which is 50% more than the physical RAM I have available. I’ve recently been quitting everything nonessential and it has provided a much better experience. That’s unfortunately an old trick from the Classic Mac OS days, but it works for now. I’m not sure if the translation uses more memory, but I’ll be interested to find out if this is less of an issue once a native version arrives.

In Conclusion

Despite the memory issue, my overall editing experience is better on my Air than it was on my Pro. I’m consistently getting 4+ hour editing sessions on battery, which is twice the length on my Pro. Combine that with better performance and it’s a huge win for me. In hindsight I should have just paid the extra $200 for the 16 GB model, but this will work fine while Apple builds up its real pro support. My next Mac will probably be a 13″ Pro with 32 GB RAM and Apple’s super-amazing successor to the already-good M1.

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