Last year I picked up a very expensive computer — a top of the line 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro upgraded to an i9, 1TB of storage, and 16GB of RAM. But I just couldn’t wait to see how these M1 chips actually perform, so I decided to pick up the base $999 MacBook Air to see how it would hold up side-by-side with my 16-inch behemoth. The results are incredible.
When these computers launched — and early reviews confirmed their performance blew everything else out of the water — I faced a bit of a predicament. Like many others, I’m coming from a 16-inch MacBook Pro, so there’s no obvious upgrade path. For now, Apple Silicon is only available in 13-inch models.
But I couldn’t help myself — I had to check these out at least, and if I’m not buying an outright replacement for my daily machine (yet), it just made the most sense to go with the cheapest notebook model. If nothing else, I’d get an idea of what Apple’s entry-level laptops are like and I could write this article.
I almost didn’t do it; if you’re anything like me you probably can’t help but cringe at the idea of spending over a thousand dollars on a computer with just 8GB of RAM. But I’m here to report that not only does this machine more stuff at once better than my 16-inch i9 MacBook Pro for normal everyday use, it’s significantly better. Everything makes it obvious that Apple spent serious time optimizing every corner of Big Sur for Apple Silicon — and perhaps equally so put its Intel machines on the back burner.
While everyone else out there has done a great job of trying to quantify the performance boost with benchmarks — which do indeed confirm that the M1 outperforms the top-end MacBook Pro Intel chips — I wanted to try and provide a more subjective experience to answer one burning question that many people have: Under what circumstances is the base-level $999 MacBook Air with the M1 and 8GB RAM powerful enough?
I was skeptical going in, because it’s been readily apparent for years that 8GB of RAM on an Intel MacBook is not enough for me. My typical workload tends to involve juggling maybe half a dozen different apps open at the same time (Slack, Messages, 1Password, Notes, Safari/Chrome, and some others here or there), a dozen or more browser tabs, and some light podcast editing or the like. That load demands at least 16GB of RAM on an Intel MacBook in my experience. Not so on Apple Silicon.
So far, I’ve been able to push the laptop to the absolute limits of my normal workload and not see a single sign of sluggishness. I’m being actively “reckless” with managing my apps and leaving several things open that don’t need to be open. I’m able to keep as many Safari tabs open as I like. Seriously, unless you are actively working with files that are over 8GB in size (for video editing or the like), I just can’t imagine that most people can push this laptop hard enough to even slow it down.
In one experiment I did yesterday, I tried to push it to the absolute limits to see at what point it would slow down. So I opened up 12 apps at once. No sign of slowing down. Added 2 x86 apps emulated with Rosetta 2. No sign of slowing. Added an app running full screen to see if it would drop frames switching between screens. Nope. Added a Safari window with 24 tabs. Nothing. So I added six Safari windows, each playing videos at 2160p, Spotify in the background, and tried to take a screenshot. Only then did the computer finally grind a halt. I was greeted with the familiar rainbow spinning wheel of death.