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Apple’s M1 MacBook Air has that Apple Silicon magic

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Enlarge / Hey, my macro lens still works!

Lee Hutchinson

The new M1-powered MacBook Air is hilariously fast, and the battery lasts a long-ass time.

If you stop reading this review immediately after this, then know that unless Windows virtualization is a requirement of your workflow, you should probably just go ahead and sell your old MacBook Air immediately and get this thing instead.

Assuming you’ve got a grand or so lying around that you weren’t going to spend on something else. But hey, if you do, then I can confidently tell you that in spite of what a legion of Doubting Thomases (including me!) might have said about Apple’s freshman effort at its own PC silicon, it is now my studied opinion that there are far, far stupider ways to part with your cash.

A quick caveat on this “review”

Specs at a glance: 2020 MacBook Air (M1)
Screen 2560×1600 at 13.3 inches
OS macOS Big Sur 11.0.1
CPU Apple M1
RAM 16GB
GPU Apple M1 (8 core)
HDD 1TB SSD
Networking 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac; Bluetooth 5.0
Ports 2x Thunderbolt 3/USB 3.1 Gen 2/DisplayPort, 3.5mm headphone
Size 0.16–0.63×11.97×8.36-inch (0.41–1.61×30.41×21.24cm)
Weight 2.8 lbs (1.29kg)
Warranty 1 year, or 3 years with AppleCare+
Price as reviewed $1,299
Other perks 720p FaceTime HD camera, stereo speakers

Apple provided Ars with a couple of M1 Mac Minis for review. One of those went to Samuel for him to write up, and the other went to Jim for him to do his silicon analysis. Apple declined our request for any model of M1-powered laptop.

The MacBook Air being reviewed here is my personal device, which I bought shortly after the unveiling event. I’ve written this as quickly as possible after receiving it, but I had to wait for the device, which is why you all had to wait for the review. (This is also why it’s in kind of an intermediate configuration, rather than stock or maxed out like most review devices—I bumped the RAM up to 16GB and the internal storage up to 1TB, because that’s what I wanted.)

Because this is my device, I’m coming into this review from a slightly different perspective than some of the other publications doing MBA reviews. I’m not going to tell you why you should buy a MacBook Air, or how it might work for you. But I am going to talk about what it has been like to own it for a few days and how the device fits into my life. I do most of my power-user stuff on the desktop rather than on a portable, but I do occasionally need to leave the office and hit the road—and the M1 MBA is going to be a great traveling companion. You know, once we can hit the road again without worrying about plagues and stuff.

Unboxinating

Approaching a device like this as a reviewer is different from approaching a device as a consumer. When the UPS guy drops it off, you can’t just rip the box open and jump in—there’s stuff you have to do first.

Tripods. Lights. Gotta iron the big white sweep cloth so I’ve got a background for pix. Gotta try to remember where the DSLR battery is.

It’s the oddest part about working for Ars, even after going on eight years. Your technology buying experiences are not always your own—sometimes the Ars readership comes along for the ride.

So after unboxing, I logged on and ran some benchmarks. That’s the first thing you have to do when you’re reviewing—you either do the benchmarks first, or you do them dead last, and I wanted to get them out of the way because this was, you know, my laptop, and I’d actually like to use it for stuff rather than having it be tied up running battery tests for 20 hours at a time.

Only a few days earlier, I had used my living room HTPC—a base-config 2018 Mac mini—to do the entire set of Mac comparison benchmarks for Samuel’s Mac mini review. I had a pretty good feel for how quickly the Intel mini’s hex-core i5 banged through each of the tests, since I’d just seen the numbers, and from talking to Samuel and Jim I was anticipating the new MBA’s M1 would beat the Intel-powered mini.

I just didn’t realize how hard a beatdown it would be.

Getting the benchmarky bits out of the way

So here’s how fast it is in a bunch of charts and graphs.

According to Apple, the MacBook Air’s M1 is voltage-limited in order to function within the fanless design’s thermal envelope. iFixit’s teardown shows in detail that the Air’s M1 cooling setup is an entirely passive affair, with just a heat transfer plate in between the M1 CPU and the aluminum body. I was expecting performance similar to but perhaps a bit lower than the M1-powered Mac mini, and that’s more or less what I got. However, the Air’s M1 is good for at least a few solid minutes of full-bore Firestorm core performance before it throttles back.

The M1 MBA's passive cooling setup, <a href="https://www.ifixit.com/News/46884/m1-macbook-teardowns-something-old-something-new">disassembled over at iFixit</a>.
Enlarge / The M1 MBA’s passive cooling setup, disassembled over at iFixit.

In benchmarking, I noticed that subsequent runs of the Final Cut Pro export would slow down dramatically—the first export would complete in about 1 minute and 19 seconds, but if I immediately repeated the export it would take a bit under 2.5 minutes—and the Air would be quite warm to the touch. After closing the lid to hibernate until the Air was cool and then repeating the export, the time was once again in the 1:20-ish range.

To create some more sustained load, I cloned the source video three times and then repeated the export process. Starting from a cold startup with the MBA’s chassis at ambient temperature gave a result of 4 minutes, 21 seconds. This time, I opened Activity Monitor’s CPU graph to spy on the core utilization. All eight cores were engaged until about 2:56, at which time half of the cores—presumably the high-performance Firestorm cores—dropped to less than 50-percent usage and stayed there until the run completed.

A second run immediately after that took 7:37—not quite twice as long, but heading in that direction. Activity Monitor’s CPU usage graph showed half of the cores (presumably the high-performance Firestorm cores) at half utilization for the entire run.

Further testing—including several runs after letting the MBA sit powered off for about an hour to make absolutely sure it was cooled to ambient—failed to produce anything resembling a precise, repeatable time interval for when throttling starts. The best I can do is to say that it seems that when you throw a heavy workload at the MBA, it runs at full-bore until the Firestorm cores become too toasty, which seems to take anywhere from 3-ish to 6-ish minutes. Then it backs the Firestorm cores off until they show about 50-percent utilization, and the amount of heat generated at that level seems to be within the sustained thermal capacity of the design.

(These are subjective measurements, taken in whatever indoor ambient conditions happened to be happening in my house as I was doing the testing. Your results may vary.)

I hate USB-C charging, give me back MagSafe

The other major thing for a portable like the MBA is battery life, and we’re going to talk about that. But first, very briefly, the loss of MagSafe sucks.

Yes, I know I’m late to the discussion. I know MagSafe was deleted a few hardware revisions ago, but I’m going from a MacBook Air with it to a MacBook Air without it, and plugging in a USB-C cable feels like going back to the freaking dark ages. I’ve been happy with MagSafe plugs on my laptops for almost an entire decade—that quick one-handed snick into place, that easy no-fuss pull to disengage, and that friendly LED to tell you when you’re all charged up.

Gone but not forgotten. I miss these so damn much.

Gone but not forgotten. I miss these so damn much.

Jacqui Cheng

Having to shove a connector into a high-friction plug—often requiring two hands, depending on how you’re holding stuff—is stupid. It’s just stupid. This is a customer-hostile regression in functionality. I’m sure there are excellent reasons for it and that it saves Apple money on the MBA’s bill of materials and on warranty support, but I hate it and it’s terrible. This is not the premium Apple experience I feel like I’m paying for.

Battery life

I used the M1 MacBook Air for work all day one day, filling up about 11 hours of on-the-clock time with Slack, emailing, Zoom conferencing, Messages, and Web browsing, and the Air still had 40 percent remaining on the battery meter when the day was done. This is considerably longer than my old 2015 MBA, which throws in the towel around hour five. (Unlike with the official battery test, my unofficial workday usage test was done with adaptive brightness and Night Shift enabled, and there was a fair amount of idling.)

In the official Ars battery test, with the screen locked at our reference brightness of 200 nits, the M1 MBA lasted for 877 minutes—a bit over 14.5 hours. Charge time back from almost dead to full took a bit over two hours with the included 30W adapter, with the device powered off during the charge.

But I don’t usually spend the day working on my laptop—instead, the place where my old MBA most often lets me down is on long flights. Living in Houston means I usually fly United, and United is particularly miserly with power plugs—if you don’t get certain specific seats, you’re out of luck. In my experience, my Intel MBA is good for three, maybe four hours of movie watching before it’s dead as a doornail—so if I’m flying to California or pretty much anywhere that’s more than a couple of hours away and I don’t get a power outlet seat, I know I probably need to bring a book.

The M1 Air laughs at my old MBA. It laughs at it, gives it noogies, and flushes its head down the toilet in the locker room.

Artist's impression of how I felt about the M1 MacBook Air's battery life as it continued to play <em>Westworld</em> episodes without running out of juice.
Enlarge / Artist’s impression of how I felt about the M1 MacBook Air’s battery life as it continued to play Westworld episodes without running out of juice.

I left the M1 MBA playing 4K Westworld episodes from the UHD BluRay box set, full screen and at max brightness, with the sound blaring at max volume. I finally gave up and shut the laptop off after ten hours, at which point it still said it had 13-percent battery remaining. That’s not only long enough to last out any domestic flight—that’s enough to last you an international flight from the US to Europe.

A quick note on resuming from sleep: during the Air’s reveal, Apple showed off how quickly the Air resumes from standby by having Senior VP Craig Federighi lift the lid of a sleeping MacBook Air and peek in, all set to the mellow sounds of Barry White. While I can’t say that Barry White plays when I open up my laptop, I can say that the M1 Air wakes from sleep very quickly. It’s not that it’s faster than my Intel-powered Air, since the 2015 model will sometimes wake up instantly, too—but the 2015 Air also sometimes takes a second or two to blink on when I lift the lid. The M1 Air is much more consistent—I’ve only had the thing for a few days, but every wake-from-sleep has been lightning quick.

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LG says it might quit the smartphone market

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As usual, things are not looking good for LG’s phone division. As reported by The Korea Herald, LG Electronics CEO Kwon Bong-Seok sent out a staff-wide memo that the company was considering making major changes to its smartphone division, including possibly quitting the smartphone business.

Last week, Korean news outlet TheElec also wrote about this memo in a now-deleted post. The post was deleted because LG brutally debunked the report, calling it “completely false and without merit.” This week, LG is confirming basically the same memo report from the Korea Herald, complete with comments from LG. The Verge also got a thumbs-up from LG about the report.

“Since the competition in the global market for mobile devices is getting fiercer, it is about time for LG to make a cold judgment and the best choice,” an LG official told the Korea Herald. “The company is considering all possible measures, including sale, withdrawal, and downsizing of the smartphone business.”

LG’s smartphone business has been suffering for a while. As the report points out, LG’s smartphone division lost about 5 trillion won ($4.5 billion) over the past five years. The official earnings count has the division at 22 consecutive money-losing quarters. Today you won’t find LG on a “Global smartphone market share” chart; instead, it will be buried down in the “other” category. In the US, Counterpoint has LG at 13 percent of the market, due mostly to pre-paid sales.

LG Electronics’ CEO only landed the position 13 months ago and has undoubtedly been evaluating LG’s only money-losing division over the past year. In an interview in January 2020, shortly after being appointed CEO, Kwon promised “LG Electronics’ mobile business is going to be profitable by 2021.” It’s still not clear if that’s considered a reasonable goal for the company.

TheElec’s original scoop is backed up and translated here. You should definitely take it with a grain of salt since the outlet deleted the post and isn’t standing behind it, but so far, it seems to be correct. It contains an interesting tidbit that’s not in the other report: that LG will announce a direction for its mobile unit on January 26. TheElec also claimed that LG sent out a directive to “stop all developments except for the i project,” with “i project” being a code name for LG’s flexible-display LG Rollable smartphone. The last bit of the report sounds very plausible in raising the possibility that the LG brand will never truly leave the smartphone market and will instead farm out the logo to various white-label ODM companies.

Why would anyone buy an LG phone?

LG has never had a solid sales pitch for the smartphone wars. At the high end of the market, LG has always seemed to be overshadowed by its bigger Korean rival, Samsung. It shipped high-spec phones with heavy Android skins and a bad update plan, and when Samsung offers the same thing with bigger brand recognition, why would anyone pick LG? At the low end of the market, especially in the US, the company has reliably shoveled cheap, anonymous phones into carrier stores and the pre-paid market. This is something that needs to be done, but again, there’s nothing here that would make LG stand out from the crowd.

If anything, LG has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to building smartphones. The company’s phones are known for dying early and going into “boot looping,” an unusable Android failure state where the phone reboots repeatedly due to bad flash memory. LG was sued over boot loops in 2017, with the lawsuit naming every high-profile LG device released in 2015 and 2016. LG ended up settling. I know I’ve personally laid four LG-made Google Nexus 5Xs to rest over boot loop issues.

When the company wasn’t occupying the same lane as Samsung, it was trotting out ridiculous gimmicks that would be forgotten a year or two later: there was the LG G5 with its modular accessories, like a clip-on camera grip; the inexplicably banana-shaped LG G Flex; and an obsession with various “dual screen” designs like the LG V10’s notification display, the LG V50’s clip-on second screen, and the LG Wing’s “T” shaped design. You can see the company trying to do something different to stand out, but none of these ideas was good, or at least they weren’t a hit with consumers.

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CBS All Access is dead, long live Paramount+: “New” streaming service launches March 4

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Enlarge / Star Trek: Picard will be offered on the new/old streaming service.

It’s time for yet another streaming service—sort of. ViacomCBS has announced that Paramount+ will launch on March 4, but it’s more of an evolution than a wholly new service, as it replaces and expands upon the company’s previous service, CBS All Access.

The move to replace CBS All Access was announced several months ago. It’s in large part a result of the completion of the merger between CBS and Viacom, as CBS All Access launched before that merger, but the merger greatly increased the content library that could be put on a streaming service run by the company.

In addition to shows associated with the CBS TV network, Paramount+ will include content from properties Viacom brought to the mix, including MTV, BET, Comedy Central, VH1, and Nickelodeon, as well as theatrically released films from Paramount Pictures.

Beyond the myriad Star Trek shows that CBS All Access has already offered, planned original series for Paramount+ include a series based on The Godfather as well as a revival of VH1’s Behind the Music.

The sizzle trailer for Paramount+.

March 4 is the planned launch day in the US and Latin America, and a launch is planned in Nordic countries on March 25, as well as Australia around the middle of the year. Canada will also receive the service sometime this year, but a date has not been named—however, CBS All Access will be rebranded to Paramount+ right away in that country even before new content is introduced.

Before this point, CBS All Access was arguably best known for its various Star Trek programs; it included all the Star Trek TV series that aired on broadcast TV in the past, plus new Trek series like DiscoveryPicard, and Lower Decks. It did not, however, have the Star Trek movies at first, as those were owned by Paramount. The merger brought all Star Trek TV and movie content under one corporate roof.

CBS All Access also aired live TV, sports programming, and some additional shows like the critically acclaimed The Good Fight. Those will continue under Paramount+.

The past year and a half has seen numerous new streaming networks launch, including Peacock (NBC Universal), Disney+, and HBO Max, among others.

The onslaught has disappointed those who expected a service like Netflix or Hulu to offer virtually all content for a flat $10-per-month fee, but that was never going to be economically viable, especially as production costs for TV series have risen in recent years as viewers have responded to more lavishly produced shows—something the industry refers to as “prestige TV.”

The new normal for TV appears to be similar in some respects to cable, with each media company delivering a channel that primarily consists of the company’s own content, plus small amounts of licensed content.

Still, there are some significant differences in the new normal as compared to how TV used to work, even beyond the fact that the content is now delivered over the Internet. For example, the services aren’t bundled, so viewers can pick and choose which channels to pay for, and there are far fewer (and in some cases, no) commercials.

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CentOS is gone—but RHEL is now free for up to 16 production servers

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Enlarge / CentOS used to be the preferred way to get RHEL compatibility at no cost. CentOS is gone now—but Red Hat is extending no-cost options for RHEL further than ever before.

Last month, Red Hat caused a lot of consternation in the enthusiast and small business Linux world when it announced the discontinuation of CentOS Linux.

Long-standing tradition—and ambiguity in Red Hat’s posted terms—led users to believe that CentOS 8 would be available until 2029, just like the RHEL 8 it was based on. Red Hat’s early termination of CentOS 8 in 2021 cut eight of those 10 years away, leaving thousands of users stranded.

CentOS Stream

Red Hat’s December announcement of CentOS Stream—which it initially billed as a “replacement” for CentOS Linux—left many users confused about its role in the updated Red Hat ecosystem. This week, Red Hat clarifies the broad strokes as follows:

To summarize: we’re making CentOS Stream the collaboration hub for RHEL, with the landscape looking like this:

  • Fedora Linux is the place for major new operating system innovations, thoughts, and ideas—essentially, this is where the next major version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux is
    born.
  • CentOS Stream is the continuously delivered platform that becomes the next minor version of RHEL.
  • RHEL is the intelligent operating system for production workloads, used in nearly every industry in the world, from cloud-scale deployments in mission-critical data centers and localized server rooms to public clouds and out to far-flung edges of enterprise networks.

Although CentOS Stream could be considered appropriate and perfectly adequate for enthusiasts and home-labbers, the lack of a long, well-defined life cycle made it inappropriate for most production use and, especially, production use by shops that chose a RHEL-compatible distribution in the first place.

New no-cost, low-cost, and simplified RHEL access

As of February 1, 2021, Red Hat will make RHEL available at no cost for small-production workloads—with “small” defined as 16 systems or fewer. This access to no-cost production RHEL is by way of the newly expanded Red Hat Developer Subscription program, and it comes with no strings—in Red Hat’s words, “this isn’t a sales program, and no sales representative will follow up.”

Red Hat is also expanding the availability of developer subscriptions to teams, as well as individual users. Moving forward, subscribing RHEL customers can add entire dev teams to the developer subscription program at no cost. This allows the entire team to use Red Hat Cloud Access for simplified deployment and maintenance of RHEL on well-known cloud providers, including AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure.

Considering the previous public outrage about CentOS 8’s early demise, we reached out to Red Hat for clarification regarding availability guarantees—specifically, whether any guarantee was given that the terms of the free small-production use will stay valid for the length of general support for the RHEL version they cover. After some deliberation, this was the official answer:

A Red Hat subscription gives you access to all available versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux except for those in extended support. This access ends when the subscription ends, as does access to all related documentation, support, services, patches, etc., so it’s important to think about the subscription separately from the platform.

The Red Hat Developer program isn’t a fly-by-night or quickly-produced program; it has existed since early 2015 with multi-system deployments supported from 2018. The big change today is that now a small number of production systems can now be included under the subscription for individuals, but the program itself is tried and true. We’ve never removed anything from the program, only added to it, highlighted by today’s announcement.

The Individual Developer subscription is currently set up as a one year subscription. Renewals will be a simple process as close to “clicking a button” as possible. We have no intent to end this program and we’ve set it up to be sustainable—we want to keep giving the users that want to use RHEL access to it. The primary reason we need a subscription term is because it is legally difficult to offer unlimited terms globally and as new laws come into effect, for example GDPR, we need to be able to update the terms and conditions. This is similar to how our customers buy Red Hat subscriptions for fixed terms, not in perpetuity.

Our intent is to keep small-production use cases as a key part of the Red Hat Developer program and the Individual Developer subscription to help bring enterprise-grade Linux to more users.

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