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M1 MacBook Air: a laptop that does not suck

January 16, 2022 in Hardware

I take my laptop places

For me, the M1 MacBook Air is the best laptop. In this moment in time, it’s the best laptop, ever. It’s the future of laptops, even.

I got the new laptop in May 2021, so I spent about half a year with it by now. When the M1 Pro and M1 Max CPUs were announced in fall 2021, I was happily surprised that they only differ from the M1 in my Air by number of cores (and the RAM). The cores are, essentially, the same. What this means is the M1 MacBook Air has top single-core CPU performance. Now I like my laptop even more.

What about multi-core performance? It’s not a single- or double-core machine as we are used to see in an Air. The M1 MacBook Air has 4 high-performing and 4 energy-saving CPU cores. For comparison, the Pro and Max have 6+2 or 8+2.

So you only get a multi-core benefit from the Pro laptops if you can utilize more than 4 cores in parallel. For some people, like video producers, this is obviously a great deal. But on me, a web developer, multi-core performance is wasted. Neither Ruby nor front-and-back-end JavaScript utilize multiple cores. So the four cores of the Air are plenty for all my needs.

As an anecdotal but bold benchmark of CPU performance, the M1 MacBook Air beats my previous 4-core 2.9 GHz i7. But it doesn’t just “beat” the Intel CPU. It has heterogenous cores and clever task distribution, and because of this working with the M1 feels much faster. It’s surprising to see this much power in the slimmest laptop I’ve ever owned.

So, performance-wise, you want a laptop with an M1 chip. But, what about the newly released MacBook Pros? Many benefits of the Pros don’t mean as much to me, because I mostly use my laptop at a desk. In clamshell mode, with a hub and a monitor attached. I don’t need ports or a better screen.

I would prefer more RAM. At least, in theory. In practice, I don’t feel RAM constrained. And I typically run 10GB worth of VSCode sessions, with tab9 completion and app servers. Could be Apple’s RAM and SSD both are so fast. According to iStat Menus logs, memory pressure stays under 50%.

The MacBook Pros are great machines, no doubt. But for me, the Air has something they don’t. Or rather, it lacks something they have.

The M1 MacBook Air has no fan. In this, it is unique. No fan means no vents, and no ingress of air and everything it contains. Perfect for working on the bed, or in the wide outdoors. I have no fear of using it on the beach. Especially with the good old keyboard that you can clean.

Besides, I love that my laptop is perfectly silent, with no “ifs” or “buts”. You’d think it throttles a lot, but no - I don’t experience thermal throttling. According to iStat Menus logs, my performance CPU cores stay under 50 degrees C for 99% of the time. (A Ryzen 5600 in my gaming rig can barely stay under 50 idle.)

Any former laptop without a fan was clearly handicapped. Good for casual use, but not for professional software development. But now, we have a fanless laptop with a state-of-the-art, top performance CPU. Finally, a laptop that doesn’t suck, in any sense. And it feels like the future of computing. After the M1 MacBook Air, fans in a laptop sound like an atavism.

So, should you get an Air or a Pro? I would say, go with the Air, unless you know you need the extra cores or the RAM. The Pros are a better all-in-one machine, so if you work primarily in “laptop mode”, then they have clear advantages in ports and screen. But I suggest saving on the laptop and investing in an ergonomic desk setup instead. Slouching in front of a laptop all day is not healthy, no matter how fancy it is. And when you do take a field trip to a cafe or a park bench, the Air will be lighter and smaller.

What’s a computer? This is a computer.

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