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This week, we published reviews of Apple’s latest Macs, the MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the Mac mini desktop. All three seriously impressed us, but it wasn’t due to any kind of external redesigns. Apple dropped its long-running use of Intel processors for a brand new homegrown chip, called the Apple M1, which takes the performance of these machines to new (and different) heights.
The MacBook Air, in particular, really benefits from the boost in performance, bringing it rather close to the M1-based MacBook Pro despite its $999 starting price. Still, there are a lot of things to consider about this system-on-chip (SoC) processor though, which has up to 16 cores for handling compute and graphics tasks.
You can read our in-depth M1 performance analysis piece for more details on how the M1 works and how different applications run on it, but for many the main question will just be: Do I need one now? We’ve got you covered with the guide below, which walks through how the M1 (via the three new machines) is relevant to different groups of shoppers.
If You Have an Old MacBook…
This is probably the easiest recommendation to make. Got a Mac laptop (Air, Pro, or plain 12-inch MacBook) more than two or three years old? You’ll probably want one of the new MacBooks before too long. If you like and use MacBooks, but your current years-old model is malfunctioning, generally showing its age, or otherwise frustrating you, it’s as close to a slam dunk as possible to assume you’ll enjoy a new M1 model.
The M1 chip will deliver a breath of fresh air, especially if you’re a current MacBook Air user—the smallest MacBook is now just about as fast as the MacBook Pro, no longer the second-string counterpart. This transforms the Air into a near-pro-level laptop despite its slim build. If upgrades to the keyboard and more modest component improvements in recent years weren’t enough to get you to buy a new model, this was the one worth waiting for. The improved battery life (nearly 30 hours on our video rundown test) also helps. This is simply a much better deal than it has been before, and you’ll be rewarded for your patience by going for this model. Plus, if your MacBook Air is more than a couple of years old, it’s likely running the “Broadwell” (5th Generation Core) version of Intel’s mobile CPU. Apple resisted moving on from this nigh-ancient CPU until just a couple of years ago in the Air. Going from that generation of chip to M1 will be a major leap.
For MacBook Pro owners, while the new laptop doesn’t fully bump it up a whole class, it is absolutely faster than the previous models. The M1 is a performance shift compared to the Intel-based MacBooks, so even if we’d still say the new MacBook Pro is meant for the same type of users, those users will have a much better time. (There are some caveats for professional users, so read on for the media professionals section below.) Again, also check out the performance piece linked above for the specifics on how the M1 handles existing software.
The takeaway here: If you own a definitively old MacBook Air, MacBook, or MacBook Pro and are in the market for a replacement, get one of the new M1-based MacBooks. For desktop users, owners of an older, pre-2018 Mac mini will similarly benefit from the new M1-based model.
Another option, if you have an especially aged Mac, is buying a late-model Intel-based Mac, now at a cut price. If you aren’t a real performance hound and have a smaller budget, this is also a sound strategy. Simply by virtue of being new, it will be an improvement over your aging laptop.
If You Have a Recent Mac…
From here, the answer to “M1 or not M1?” starts to get less clear-cut. If you bought a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, or a Mac mini, in recent years and it’s working fine, it’s pretty difficult to direct you in good conscience to run out and buy a new one.
At the same time, budget aside for a moment, the M1 machines are definitely faster. Particularly if you’re on a MacBook Air, even the early-2020 Intel-based model, you might feel your work straining against its performance. The M1-based model excels at media tasks like the past versions could never hope to do.
The boost in battery life is also appealing. But again, I’d be hard pressed to tell anyone with a functioning 2020 MacBook Air to spend $1,000 on a new one so soon. Perhaps you can sell your older laptop to help justify the purchase, or hand it off to a family member in need.
MacBook Air owners stand to gain the most, but for owners of a recent MacBook Pro, it’s harder to justify. The M1 is superior to the Intel models, no doubt, but even the modest performance gap is not enough that I’ll tell you to ditch a perfectly good 2019 or 2020 MacBook. Most users don’t have workloads that would make this a very smart use of your money, as tempting as the added speed may be.
Things get even trickier when considering a (temporary) issue with applications running natively on M1-based Macs. At the moment, only Apple’s first-party apps and a handful of third-party programs are written to run natively on the M1 chip, and these are called Universal apps. Major apps like those in Adobe’s Creative Suite and Microsoft Office do not yet have Universal versions, meaning they (and many others) run through a layer of emulation. These emulated versions are still usable, but efficiency is lost. This is an issue that applies to the MacBook Air, too, but is more likely to apply to MacBook Pro and Mac mini users. That leads us to our next group of shoppers.
If You’re a Media Pro…
In particular, media professionals will need to grapple with the Universal apps issue the most, and are the users most affected by the performance differences in the first place. This is potentially an issue, but it’s still pretty seamlessly handled by macOS. The majority of users can get by on emulated software, will be thankful for the M1’s base improvements, and not have to think about this much further.
Content creators are another matter. Those currently using a MacBook Pro or Mac mini for work, where margins of speed and wait times make a big difference, are the main beneficiaries of what the M1 could offer. If you’re a media pro, you will be thankful for the decreased video encode and Photoshop edit times.
To get a sense of the performance jump in both emulated and Universal apps, check out the following benchmark results:
The Handbrake 1.4 Beta and Cinebench R23 results are those running natively, and you can see how much of a difference this makes. (See the individual reviews of these laptops for deeper breakdowns of these results.) Eventually, all major applications will be converted to Universal apps, but there will be a waiting period. (Apple noted that a Universal version of Adobe Photoshop is planned for early 2021, and Adobe Lightroom for this December.) It’s worth noting that even through emulation, though, the M1-based systems outpaced the Intel models in some cases. The apps that run natively beat them by a much bigger margin, showing what’s possible on the M1 chip.
The main takeaway here is that for professional users, it may be worth waiting to get in on M1. The chip alone is worth it in a vacuum, yes, but its maximum potential will not be realized for many applications until more Universal apps are developed and released. If you absolutely need the best performance right now (especially if you’re replacing an old laptop rather than a recent one), go for it. You can enjoy moderate improvement in emulated applications now and major improvement in native apps. If you’d rather avoid this headache and wait until it’s settled down, you can buy these same laptops in six months, or wait for the (presumptive) updated 2021 models.
If You’re a Windows User…
Finally, we come to the crowd Apple would need to convert. Not all Windows users can or would switch to a Mac, whether due to Windows-specific program needs or familiarity with Windows only. But not all laptop shoppers are Windows diehards. Note that the newest version of macOS, named “Big Sur,” launched alongside these laptops. We have lots more about the changes in Big Sur at the link.
The MacBook Air makes a very strong case for shoppers seeking the best value on a portable laptop. Macs have not typically been associated with value, with loyalists accepting a premium on the price, but the low-cost M1 MacBook Air is changing that equation. It’s faster than similarly priced and some more expensive Windows laptops, with a build at least as good (many would say better) than the nicest Windows machines.
We’re big fans of the Dell XPS 13, and would recommend it to any ultraportable shopper, but the MacBook Air makes its case with the boosted performance of the M1 chip. It is suddenly not only on par with Windows equivalents for media and professional tasks, but superior in many cases. That alone makes it an appealing proposition. For $999, it’s difficult for me to find a reason to not suggest it to Windows users as a gateway Mac (again, unless you just won’t or can’t use macOS).
Meanwhile, the 13-inch MacBook Pro has long been a go-to for media professionals. I suspect many of the people who would potentially use a MacBook Pro are already doing so with an older model, but if you’ve stuck with Windows until this point, the M1 certainly makes the best case to do so yet. The Touch Bar and slightly superior chip on the MacBook Pro (eight graphics cores) compared with the base-model MacBook Air (seven cores) are the main upgrades for pro-grade users, and the Apple price premium is more evident here.
As for the Mac mini, it’s only gotten better. It has a stellar $699 starting price, more than competitive with the best compact Windows desktops in its price class. There are many less expensive Windows options, but those are a definite step below the boosted power of the M1 Mac mini. It’s a seriously impressive little box.
The only hurdle, again, is macOS. As mentioned, this is the throughline in all of these products and the biggest caveat for anyone considering a jump to the M1. Your willingness to try the M1 will hinge on this more than anything, but given how much it has impressed us, we can recommend it to all but the most Mac-resistant shoppers.
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