Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020)

After writing laptops considered harmful late last year, in the aftermath of single-handedly propping up Apple’s most recent blowout financial quarter as they booked the revenue for my Mac Pro, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the tail end of the thesis. Does M1 do anything to change my mind about whether the overall set of compromises in any M1-powered laptop results in something attractive to me.

Then one of my closest friends, who happens to also be a fellow Apple financial quarter propper upper with a Mac Pro, recently bought himself an M1-powered MacBook Air. Like me, he sometimes doesn’t relish sitting at his desk for fun after a long day at work sat there in service of a paymaster, despite the allure of an even higher specification Mac Pro than I have, sitting there waiting to do his bidding. For him, today’s MacBook Air is the next best thing for when he’s done for the day at his desk, but he still wants to carry on computing from the comfort of somewhere else afterwards.

I’ve thought about that general idea non-stop for the last few months, in the context of my own situation. I’ve got things I want to do at a computer in my spare time, but I often can’t bring myself to do them at my desk in the evening after having sat there all day. My mental health currently doesn’t let me put enough gas in the tank to get through a day that way. I’ve sometimes thought about whether I need to fill my time with non-computer things for fun and resign myself to only using computers professionally, but my brain isn’t wired up that way. So that either means a solution to computing away from my desk, or waiting until the weekend.

When it comes to the former, I’ve got an iPad Pro 2018, but honestly it’s just not even close to being the right machine for both how I want to use a computer, and the kinds of things I want to do with it. It’s a common refrain these days, as folks across the iPad-using spectrum slowly fall out of love with the capabilities that Apple have built into iPadOS to let you really use it. The multitasking is atrocious and there are certain kinds of workflow that remain impossible with it.

Lack of a useful shell in order to drive and automate the system, and the complete inability to write native software for it without having to use a Mac, are real deal breakers for me. iPads come with very powerful hardware, yet they also come with a completely unfulfilling method of using them, especially the lack of ability to tinker with the machine under the covers or have it do your bidding with your own software. I’d argue it’s not a real computer until it has the ability for its users to write brand new software for it, and that limitation is galling.

Then there’s the fact that without the really expensive ($349!) Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro, or a third-party solution that does the same thing to allow for screen angle adjustability, as a writing device to allow me to create things like this away from my desk, it’s practically useless. As I mentioned in the referenced essay, the ergonomic performance of a laptop is compromised from the start by its very design, and the $179 Smart Keyboard Folio for the iPad Pro doesn’t achieve good laptop usability in any credible sense. It’s far too flimsy, lightweight, and doesn’t offer comfortable adjustability in the screen angle.

Given how you’ll tend to sit in front of a laptop, it’s critical that you’re able to get the screen in front of you in a way that’s comfortable and doesn’t require you to contort yourself in order to reach the keyboard and see what’s on the screen. You need some weight in the base of the thing to pull that off, when it’s on your lap. The Smart Keyboard Folio does nothing to counterbalance the weight of the iPad Pro itself; you need the Magic Keyboard for that.

Enough about how poor the iPad Pro is at reducing compromise when used as a laptop replacement unless paired with an expensive accessory. Let’s talk about the real thing.

Driven by the desire to get back to writing regularly, both here on my blog and with a book I’ve started writing, but without the energy and will to sit at my desk and do it, I bought a MacBook Air (M1, 2020) a few days ago and have spent enough time with it to have initial impressions. The key thing I wanted to work out quickly, before the window to return it closes, is how good it is at minimising all of the compromises enough to make it enjoyable and productive to use when I want to work away from my desk. In other words, does it fulfil that promise I thought it had in laptops considered harmful?

The initial answer is (thankfully!) I really think so! I’ve written every word of this with it, and because I can’t picture ever wanting to use it at a desk in any serious way, so I’ve written this all downstairs either sat on the sofa as I am now, or sat in my favourite chair that I like to use for reading on weekend mornings.

Performance is excellent and nothing feels objectively slow or janky. Every animation is buttery smooth. Every processor- or storage-intensive operation completes almost as quickly as I’m used to on my oversized Mac Pro. The only noticeable slowness compared to that machine is the odd storage-heavy task, but it’s close, and that might even be down to the initial post-setup indexing and whatnot that modern macOS likes to do.

Being in Mac Pro territory for everyday usage and responsiveness means it’s noticeably way faster in my normal uses compared to my older late 2014 iMac with Retina 5K display. It’s the responsiveness executing what you ask of it that I think is most noticeable. Waiting for the machine to do something barely happens, as it should be in any good computer. That’s one thing I really like about the iPad that more traditional machines struggle to replicate, unless they’re specced to the gills with the good stuff. This base-spec $999 config MacBook Air is iPad and high-end workstation-like in its responsiveness.

It’s a MacBook Air, so being powered by an M1 means there’s also no fan and it doesn’t get hot. Machines like this — small, very thin and light, and clearly aimed at maximum portability — due to the compromises in packaging to achieve that, tend to get warm and then need annoying fans to keep that in check. You don’t have to worry about any of that with this machine and it’s an incredibly positive attribute. Nothing I will do will ever have it make any noise. All personal computers, no matter the form factor, should be like that as much as possible. A really nice additional benefit is that over time it won’t suffer from any dust ingress and I’ll never have to worry about opening it up to clean that out at any point.

The screen is as good as I’ve ever looked at. Interestingly, Apple configure macOS to drive the 2560x1600 display with a non-integer scaling rate out of the box. Apple’s display scaling routines, especially the text rendering system, are peerless, and allow you to lean on the scaling system in order to effectively ignore the native resolution and only focus on whether things are the right size on the screen. On this display, everything looks great regardless of the scaling setting, and macOS remains leagues ahead of its peers in the desktop operating system space in that regard.

Other really great touches include a very fast Touch ID sensor for unlocking it and authenticating various actions you might perform on the system, although there are some weird places in the OS where you need to prove identity that aren’t plugged into it. I think one of those is fixable at least (using it to authenticate privilege challenges in your shell, such as sudo).

The heavily-touted instant on is also really good in practice. Other laptops obviously also wake from sleep quickly, but there’s quickly and then there’s iPad-esque, was-it-ever-really-asleep-at-all levels of really fucking quickly. The trackpad is completely peerless when compared to those on Windows laptops that I’ve tried, and the battery life seems as amazing as everyone says it is.

Out of the box I hated the keyboard. I’m still not keen. I’m used to a different class of keyboard entirely, so I was expecting to feel that way to start with and have to give it a real chance. Thankfully the layout is solid enough so that a little judicious remapping can smooth over the worst problems, but there’s nothing that can be done about the noise or the feel. Both are bad, but they’re a compromise in service to the form factor, and rectify recent criticism levelled at Apple over the fragility brought to bear by their prior switch and keycap design. They’re also both quite a bit better than anything else I’ve typed on in a laptop form factor, including the horrible keyboard in the Smart Keyboard Folio for the iPad Pro. So the keyboard’s not great, but it’s good enough.

I’ve only had it a few days, and I’ve only really used it for a few hours following initial setup, but as a laptop it’s already the best I’ve ever used because of how some of the compromises I care about melt away. My thesis that laptops are almost never worth those compromises that they make to enable the form factor still holds, but that means some can pass my personal tests. If I had to have one to work on during the times where I can’t be at my desk with the Mac Pro for whatever reason, my short time with it confirms it passes my tests and I’ll keep it.

As I thought, it’s the M1 that makes it possible. Excellent platform-level responsiveness and overall core performance from the CPU complex and GPU, paired with very high performance I/O, class-leading additional accelerators (ISP and ML in particular), and all in a low-power design that enables excellent battery life and no need for any active cooling. Well done everyone at the LDC and the wider Apple that creates the beating heart of their own SoCs like M1, and make something like this machine possible.