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M1 MacBook Air long-term review: A year later, here's what I wish I'd known

The price and performance of Apple Silicon is excellent, but it's not all unicorns and rainbows. Before you buy the 2-year-old M1 MacBook Air, here's what you should know from a long-term user.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

This review was originally published on March 29, 2021, and was updated on July 29, 2022.

Apple recently launched the 2022 refresh of its lightest MacBook, but the 2020 version, with its M1 chipset, is still going strong for me. I bought a gold 8GB/256/7 core GPU MacBook Air in early January 2021, making it a year and a half of ownership since then. The MacBook Air form factor has always been my favorite -- the early '90s HP Omnibook 300 spoiled me for any notebook over three pounds -- and I've owned a half-dozen since the 2nd generation SSD version.

This review on the 2020 MacBook Air is written from my perspective as an analyst and a writer. I do lots of research, and I commonly have two dozen or more open browser tabs, plus Mail, Messages, Preview, and a dozen more apps open. I also edit videos and make video calls, but I keep 25TB of storage attached to a desktop iMac for bigger projects. After spending a year and some with the M1 MacBook Air, here's what I wish I had known before buying one.

Also: The 6 best Macs: Is the Mac Studio or MacBook Pro right for you?

First, the good news

I had a 64GB 12.9" iPad Pro with Magic keyboard as my mobile workstation for over a year. Performance and battery life were great, with no fan noise, and ran almost every app I needed.

But the MacBook Air does all that and more, in a lighter and less costly package. Better performance. Two times the memory and four times the storage. Dead quiet. Great battery life. Larger trackpad and display. Flexible multitasking and window layout. Excellent I/O options with Thunderbolt 3 and USB 4.

But depending on how you prefer to work, there are some real deficits. No Apple Pencil. No touch screen. No Face ID. No 4k camera. No snapping off the tablet from the keyboard.

None of these are deal killers for me, but they might be for you. I do miss Face ID, but thanks to the Air's Touch ID and Watch unlocking, not much.

Now for specifics.

No regrets with 8GB memory

Apple charges an exorbitant $25/GB for RAM. However, the excellent performance of the 4GB, 2020 iPad Pro gave me the confidence to buy the 8GB MacBook Air.

One day I wanted to see what it would take to overwhelm 8GB of RAM, so I left every app, window, and tab open all day. Safari and Firefox each with a dozen tabs open, Mail, Messages, Preview, Calendar, one or more Notes apps, Scrivener, and Final Cut Pro, and utilities, including Copyclip, iStat Menus, Magnet, Default Folder, Typinator, Thesaurus, and a VPN.

Also: Best iPad: Which model should you buy?

After several hours of adding load, I started seeing beach balls. All it took was killing a few unused apps to settle things down.

I interpret this casual test to mean that for other than all-day, heads-down Pro users, 8GB of RAM is plenty. If you're using the MacBook Air to make money, then splurge on 16GB.

Everyone else, save your pennies. Considering that the 13-inch 2020 MacBook Pro performance is essentially identical, and its other specs -- 20% brighter screen, slightly better mics, 12% faster graphics, another couple of hours of battery life (with four ounce (110gm) more weight), the Touch Bar -- it isn't worth the 20% to 30% cost uplift to me. Maybe it is to you.

I'll have another money-saving tip in a future piece. Stay tuned.

The not-so-good news

Despite all the goodness of the MacBook Air, there are issues. I'll save the worst for last.

iOS apps and games

The iOS apps that are available on macOS work pretty well. For example, the iOS video editor LumaFusion works well and costs a fraction of FCP X.

If iOS games are your happy place, you'll find that touch interfaces don't transfer well to a trackpad and keyboard. Keep your iPad for gaming.

Kernel extensions

Changing security settings to add kernel extensions is a pain. Kernel extensions now require a reboot or two and some non-obvious navigation. It'll get harder as Apple enhances macOS security.

Screen brightness eats battery life

This is an FYI nit, or nits. Apple Silicon sips power, but today's LED backlights don't. If you crank the display up full, there's a noticeable -- 2-3 hour -- reduction in battery life. Better than Intel MacBooks, but this is why Apple is pushing micro-LED backlighting.

Backups may not work at all

This is something that pros especially should be aware of: bootable backups are possible, but if your internal SSD completely dies, that bootable backup will fail too. I'm still investigating the issue, and Apple doesn't have a clear statement of direction, but this may mean the end of third-party backup utilities.

Also: How to easily connect an internal SSD to a USB-C port on your PC or Mac

The workaround? A second Mac. Suboptimal, but it works.

Comments welcome. Apple will have to really up the ante on future Macs to compete with the MacBook Air. But if you see things differently, let me know in the comments.

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