2020 M1 Macbook Air Initial Thoughts

Posted by Ryan Himmelwright on Tue, Mar 2, 2021
Tags hardware, apple, laptop, macbook, macos
Durham, NC

As discussed in my previous post, I decided to trade-in my 2019 16” MacBook Pro and replace it with a new 2020 M1 MacBook Air. So far, I think making the swap was a terrific idea. Here are my initial thoughts…

Background (what I ordered)

The M1 Air Box

The MacBook Air Box

To recap, I got the ‘second tier’ 2020 M1 MacBook Air (Silver, 8 gpu cores, 512GB ssd) and upgraded the RAM to 16Gb. I wanted to maintain the same RAM and storage that my MBP had. After an eternity (3+ weeks), the air was delivered.

What I Like

The M1 Air Side

Side of the MacBook Air

First, lets start with the good. There is a lot to say here, but these are my main thoughts:

  • It’s cool and quiet silent. It hardly heats up, and when it does, it is barely noticeable.

  • It is very portable. I can easily pick it up with one hand, and set it on my lap nearly anywhere.

  • I like having physical function keys again. I even learned how to utilize BetterTouchTool for window management using keyboard shortcuts, instead of the touch bar.

The instant wake is nicer than I thought it would be

  • Instant wake is actually delightful. I initially thought my sleep settings were misconfigured, and that the laptop wasn’t turning off when I shut the lid. It’s a feature that I thought “who cares” when it was announced, but after I tried it, my 16” suddenly felt unbearably slow for the few days I had both.

  • Rosetta II is amazing at what it does. Most apps just work because of it, even if they haven’t been ported to Apple Silicon yet. This has made the transition rather seamless.

  • It works surprisingly well at my desk on the laptop stand, possibly even better than the 16”. The laptop is about the same size as the stand, so I’m able to push it further back, out of the way, and it is much sturdier. The smaller screen hasn’t been an issue with the content I usually play on it at my desk (background videos or music). With how cool it runs, I also feel safer closing it to focus solely on my external monitor, as if I was using a mac mini.

New tabs in my terminal lagged for some reason on the MBP. Not on the Air.

  • My terminal instantly opens! For some reason on my mac, it always took a second to load the shell prompt in iterm with my config. On the air, it is instant.

  • Garage band works much better. It opens immediately and is ready. My 16” would freeze while loading, then sometimes beach-ball and crash.

  • The battery life is great. I don’t really think about it.

What Could be Better

My old MacBook Pro and the new M1 Air

The Air has thicker bezels compared to my old 16” MacBook Pro.

  • The screen bezels are rather thick, even compared to the 16” and could use some slimming.

  • More TB ports. The air has two Thunderbolt ports, on only one side of the laptop. I use hubs, so I don’t usually require more than the two ports, but it can be an issue to only have them on one side depending on where I want to place my laptop. Having one port on either side wouldn’t solve the issue either, because I wouldn’t like wrapping the power cord all the way around to the other port when my hub is plugged in. The only true solution is to have more than 2 TB ports, split across both sides of the laptop, even if you don’t need them all at the same time.

  • Some applications are still tricky to install. For example, I had to compile neofetch in homebrew (which was simple enough to do). I imagine this issue should resolve with time. Overall though, I haven’t really had any major installation issues.

What’s… Different?

The M1 Air Keyboard

The MacBook Air does not have a touchbar

There were a few things that were neither good nor bad, just different coming from an Intel 16” MBP:

  • Surprisingly, not having the touch bar. Not that I miss it, but I apparently got used to checking the time there and had to slowly break that habit.

  • The Efficiency cores are weird at first. I would look at my CPU usage when only running background tasks and wonder why the first four cores had such high usage, especially when compared to the other four. Eventually, I realized it was because the tasks were running using mostly the efficiency cores. So while it looked like there was a heavy load that it wasn’t being properly balanced across the cores… the work was actually shifted to be more efficient. This is the desired functionality, but weird to get used to at first if you’re someone that is constantly watching CPU usage like I do.

  • The smaller screen space. I got used to the smaller screen quicker than I anticipated, and I think the trade-off is worth it for the portability of this laptop. But it is different.

  • The speakers. The air has great speakers… but the 16” had truely amazing speakers. Like the screen resolution, this is mostly a physical size limitation, and I think the trade-off is well worth it here as well.

Conclusions

The M1 Air with Coffee

The MacBook Air with my coffee

This laptop has been remarkable. It reminds me of some of my previous portable laptops, like the x230 thinkpad and my x201e. That is a good thing. I loved both of those computers and their ability to be thrown in a bag on the go. It is a setup that pairs nicely with a powerful workstation, which I currently have. While the air has about the same footprint as both of those previous laptops, it is thinner, lighter, has more screen space, and is magnitudes more powerful. I can’t complain with that.

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