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Issue 19.1

REVIEW

MacBook Air (Late 2020)

Issue: 19.1 (January/February 2021)
Author: Marc Zeedar
Article Description: No description available.
Article Length (in bytes): 9,323
Starting Page Number: 12
Article Number: 19102
Related Link(s): None

Full text of article...

When my "Apple Silicon" MacBook Air arrived, I worried there was an error as there was not a single indication anywhere on the box that the Mac inside contained an Apple M1 processor. Everything looked identical to the previous generation Intel-based machines.

This really is much of the story: the new Air is just like the old one. It's like buying a car with a different engine inside, while the exterior is unchanged. Perhaps, for the next generation, Apple will shake things up with a new design but, frankly, now that Apple has fixed the awful "butterfly" keyboard, there's little that's wrong with this form factor. The Retina screen is wonderful, the keyboard great, the addition of Touch ID is a time-saver, and having two USB-C ports is an improvement over my old 12\" MacBook that this replaces.

You also won't notice much of a change when you use the computer. If you didn't know that an Apple M1 ARM processor was inside, you couldn't easily tell—unless the lightning fast response is a giveaway. You would be able to tell by the battery life, however, for the new Air runs all day on a charge. (And I do mean all-day—even working in Xojo, which is not a low-power task, I get more than 12 hours.)

I had expected compatibility problems, both due to the new nature of the M1 CPU and the required macOS Big Sur operating system. I was pleasantly surprised, however, even shocked, at how well everything worked. Most Big Sur bugs have been aesthetic ones, minor visual glitches that will be fixed over time. If you're coming from Catalina, you'll be fine, but moving from an older OS may require some new software as 32-bit apps won't run at all (just like under Catalina).

Almost all the software I tried just worked. Intel-based software requires a translation step on first run, but this is transparent and only takes a few extra seconds on first launch. (One program I tried to run refused on security grounds, claiming it had been modified—obviously the translated app didn't match the original checksum, so the app thought it had been hacked.)

While I wouldn't expect any problems and wouldn't hesitate recommending an M1-based Mac for an average user, those who make a living off their computers should know that this is still early days and if you have specific software or hardware you need to run, it's worth researching or testing to make sure it works with the new CPU architecture before buying.

All the Apple-provided apps have been recompiled for ARM and run at native speed; many third-party apps are being updated. The M1 apps run like lightning. Most launch as fast as I can switch to them already running on my Intel MBP.

If you want some actual benchmarks, here are some numbers comparing my Intel-based 16\" and 13\" Macs with the M1 (both native and Rosetta translated):

Single Multi

MBA M1 1698 7437 Apple M1

MBA M1 1321 5773 Intel (Rosetta)

MBP 16" 1094 7114 8-core i9 2.4GHz

MBA 13" 718 1469 4-core i5 1.1GHz

Graphics Metal

MBP 16" 25474 AMD Radeon Pro 5300M

MBP 16" 4904 Intel UHD Graphics 630

MBA M1 19020 M1

MBA 13" 3758 Intel Iris Plus

What's really scary is that most Intel-based apps run faster on the Air than they do on my decked out 8-core Intel i9 MacBook Pro 16\" that cost more than three times the Air M1!

(A simple example: the Finder's built-in Zip compression of the 2.3GB Xojo folder took 1m20s on my Intel and 1m5s on the Air. That's just crazy. I expected the M1 to be slightly faster than my i5-based 13\" MBA, but not the i9-based 16\" MBP!)

The performance blew me away and made me decide to make the Air M1 my everyday Mac. (I'm keeping the MBP for certain tasks and its bigger screen, but clearly its days are numbered.)

As a Xojo developer, you may be wondering just how well Xojo works on the Air. Here the results are mixed. While Xojo itself runs just fine, the IDE isn't native yet, so you're not running at the top speed yet. This will change, however, and when it does, Xojo should fly on this machine. Right now it still takes forever to launch (longer if you have lots of plugins), and compiling is longer if you make "universal" apps as your project has to be compiled for both Intel and ARM.

Also, Xojo isn't the most optimized for multicore processors, so you're really not taking advantage of the extra cores on either the M1 or Intel. (The reports I've seen of compiling improvements for Xcode show a much greater speed increase on the M1-based machines.)

The bottom line is that right now an M1 isn't going to dramatically change your Xojo life. However, it won't hurt your workflow, either. It's pretty much just as fast as any Intel-based Mac you have and unless you're doing certain speciality work involving high-end graphics (GPU) or multi-processors, you won't lose much by working on an M1.

Note that the Air has no fan and while that's a plus for me (I like quiet), it does mean that the CPU can be throttled (slowed down) in the situation where it gets overworked for too long. My needs are modest and I've never seen this, but if you're doing heavy compiling or video conversion work for hours at a time you might be better off with the M1-based Mac mini or MacBook Pro which have fans and can run hotter if needed. Benchmarks posted on the internet generally show that all three M1 models perform pretty much the same, so you don't gain or lose much based on the model. Choose the one that best fits your need (i.e. a mini can work if you already have a display and don't need portability).

You also may want a machine with more memory or disk space. The M1's "unified memory" and new architecture does mean native apps use a lot less memory than on Intel and that efficiency basically means an 8GB Air is equivalent to a 16GB Intel. Even when my 8GB machine started using the SSD as virtual memory, however, I noticed no slowdown and even benchmarks were minimally effected. Still, a 16GB model might be more future-proof and certainly can't hurt. (After realizing I could use the M1 for real work, I changed my mind on the lower configuration and ordered a 16GB/512GB replacement Air.)

Most Xojo users probably aren't getting an M1 as their main machine; most just want one to test building applications for Apple Silicon. In that regard, you can't go wrong. Initially, I wasn't sure a test machine was really necessary—Couldn't I just hit "compile for ARM" and be done?—but, once I began test compiling apps for the M1, I ran into a few odd situations and gotchas where having an actual machine will alert you to those problems.

Note that compiling for the M1 is still brand-new for Xojo, so some of those issues will go away with more testing and development. Long-term, it may be possible to create universal apps and not test them on an M1 Mac but, for the near future, I'd say it's essential. Since Apple Silicon Macs are new and a relatively small market at present, you could wait a few months but, considering the reasonable cost of these machines—the best bang for your dollar of any computers on the market—you have little to lose if you can afford to buy one.

It's also worth mentioning that these first M1 machines will be the slowest and least capable that Apple will release. If you can only afford one new Mac in the next 12 months, I'd wait and get one of the more powerful models sure to come out in 2021.

In my case, I want an ultra-portable to use around the house and traveling, so it's worth my getting an M1 Air. When Apple eventually updates the 16\" MBP to Apple Silicon, then I'll have a tougher upgrade decision!

End of article.