You really wouldn’t pick it from the outside, but Apple’s undergoing a major change in the way it makes its premium priced MacBook laptops. While the external design hasn’t changed at all, underneath the hood of its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13 laptops, Apple’s switched out Intel processors in favour of its own ARM-based “Apple Silicon” processors. Specifically a new Apple-designed processor called the M1 that it claims makes its new laptops faster than just about any Windows laptop on the market today.
Apple sent me a MacBook Air to test out, and I was keen to see just how well that claim stacks up – and indeed what the benefits or drawbacks of this shift away from Intel processors might be if you’re an existing Mac user.
With the new Apple Silicon processors comes a new version of Mac OS known as “Big Sur”. If you’re curious, the last few Mac OS upgrades have all been named for California landmarks, but what makes Big Sur more interesting is that it’s designed for both existing Intel Macs as well as the new Apple Silicon Macs, even though the underlying processor architectures are very different. On an existing Intel Mac, existing Intel apps run exactly as they used to, and when you’re getting new apps they’ll look for Intel-compatible code.
On Apple Silicon Macs, however, there’s two distinct approaches. Newer (or freshly compiled) apps will use what Apple calls a “Universal” App approach. That’s code written for both Intel or Apple Silicon, taking advantage of the new power and efficiency of the Apple Silicon systems, and it’s definitely the faster approach if a universal app exists.
What if it doesn’t? That’s when Apple’s effective emulation layer, called Rosetta 2 kicks into action, running the Intel code through an interpretation layer to allow it to operate. Rosetta 2 apps are a little slower, and in my testing they were also sometimes a little more power intensive as well.
All of this works because the new M1 processor really is impressive in operation. In head to head benchmarks, the M1 – found in Apple laptops that start at around $1,599 – compares fairly equitably with an Intel Core i9 processor as found in the MacBook Pro 16, a laptop that starts at around $4,500. There are other reasons why you might want that pricier laptop, but as a first shot fired against the Intel processor juggernaut, it’s a remarkably effective one for basic processing tasks.
That shift to ARM also brings all of Apple’s apps under the one roof – which means that the MacBook Air M1 can run your iPad or iPhone apps as though they were native Mac apps. That builds on work Apple did to bring mouse and keyboard support to iPads in earlier software releases, because it’s not like the new MacBook Air has a touchscreen to speak of.
All of this is good, but it doesn’t make the MacBook Air an automatic must-buy for every laptop owner. Rosetta 2 tries its best with allowing Intel apps to run, but not every app will work – or work well – within its confines. Apple’s essential argument here is that developers need to get with the Universal App framework, but that’s not going to happen for every single app out there.
Equally, if you were a fan of using Apple’s rather nicely designed hardware but dropping Windows 10 onto it, that’s also not as easy as it used to be. Apple’s “Boot Camp” software, which let you power up directly into Windows is no more with Big Sur, which means you’ll have to use subscription virtual machine style software such as Parallels if you need a Windows experience.
The M1 is a good everyday use chip, but it’s graphics performance isn’t up there with the best – or even arguably the mid-range – of Windows gaming laptops, which is also a consideration for many.