APPLE M1 MacBook Air vs M1 MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2021) Comparison

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In this article, I give you my Apple M1 MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro 13-inch (2021) comparison with specs included. It’s M1 time, the Apple silicon M1 processor which I have come to realize may stand for ‘miracle’ and I have been testing these things for a week and just trying to make them stutter and fail it’s pretty impressive.

So, we got the Macbook Air and the 13-inch Macbook Pro, both of these were the Apple M1 ARM-based CPUs inside. Well, I could have done these as two separate review articles maybe and glom some more visits in there but, honestly, there’s so much that’s very similar in these it makes sense to put them together and maybe to help you decide which one you should buy while you’re at it.

I was cautiously up very cautiously optimistic about Apple’s new ARM CPUs for their Mac laptop models. Why do I say that? Because manufacturers always make high in the sky claims for how great their new hardware is, the software, or whatever it is.

And, while Apple tends to be a bit more honest, like when they make battery runtime claims they’re typically actually correct. Unlike PC manufacturers when they show you graphs that have no numerical values or what they’re comparing against exactly it’s a little unclear.

I was just kind of worried even with my trust in Apple, a little bit more than some other companies when it comes to their claims, but it’s the history of emulation and things like that.

Originally when Mac switch from Power PC to Intel processors, they use rosetta which was an emulation layer and that actually wasn’t that bad in terms of performance. It wasn’t that sluggish but we’re talking so long ago that programs were much less capable so we weren’t really looking for the kind of performance that we are today so that’s a little worrisome.

And then you look with Windows ARM right okay and the Surface Pro X, for example, there’s a piece of hardware I just wanted to own and to buy. Because it was so drop-dead gorgeous. Great display, pen support, removable keyboard, but windows on an ARM is just still really not great. They finally just added support for 64-bit applications on there. That took a while so there was hurt right there.

Say if you’re using the links adobe cc programs and all that sort of thing. And it’s still kind of sluggish and they’re still driver issues because drivers need to be different for the arm-based model. So compatibility all this performance photoshop you can just watch it sometimes stuttering and staggering even using 32-bit photoshop older versions.

So I thought you all how good could this be. And we get both of this in-house with very very similar specs inside. Both of these are the m1 CPU with eight gigs of ram. This sounds pretty paltry by today’s standards, especially for a power user like me and five 12 gig SSDs. And they are just phenomenally fast.

So those arm native applications just absolutely fly. I have a 16-inch MacBook Pro with the Core i9 and the Radeon 5500m and I’m talking in some tasks that these little guys are actually faster. And when you’re looking at emulated software which is going to be the adobe cc suite until I believe January of 2021.

They have a bait out now but it’s missing some features for photoshop and a few of the other apps but let’s just call it that. It’s still fast and snappy. It’s every bit as fast in photoshop. Working with my Sony a7 mark iii files and doing many edits and color corrections and all the stuff that i normally do and having several raw files open at once as if i was using my 16-inch MacBook pro. This is crazy.

While we talk about this whole intel versus arm software so most of the benchmarks out there which actually for mac aren’t a lot but geekbench 5 and cinebench r23 you know those are already arm native our universal application. So that’s nice so we’re actually benchmarking it. But then we look at things like say geekbench 4 which has not been updated.

And look at the score on screen right now. That’s the same score that you could possibly see with a core i7 6 core 45-watt CPU on a mobile workstation. And it’s approaching that of the Core i9 MacBook pro that I have 16-incher. And that’s under rosetta that’s under emulation.

So the fact that you might be using software that’s going to take a while till it gets updated in January to me that’s not something to worry about. That’s not a reason to wait if you want to buy one of these machines. Microsoft office they have betas available now that are for arm processors but you can just use the intel version it’s not a problem.

The first time you try to run an intel program it’ll say the mac will say aha rosetta 2 isn’t installed do you want to install it and you think okay I’m going to have a cup of coffee go away wait no it takes like about three seconds installs it and boom you’re ready to go. So all of your intel apps will run. This doesn’t mean it’s all wonderful roses and puppy dogs and happy because there are some gotchas here.

So the with big sur which is the operating system that Apple just released and of course these run and require. And not just with big sur but when it comes to arm1 max2 they changed a few things. The driver architecture for USB devices. Now that won’t matter for a lot of people. Keyboards mice SSDs external hard drives that use the standard operating system level drivers those devices do will be just fine.

But if it’s a specialty device that requires a specialty driver. Say you want to install the latest razer mouse you have to make sure that they have actually an arm mac version available if you want to install their special software to tweak the settings on that particular kind of mouse. But more importantly, a lot of you who watch us are artists because we review a lot of pen displays.

Wacom if you need their drivers they have drivers ready for big sur but not for arm until the end of january or beginning of february. So if you have a cintiq pro or even in two hours you’re going to have to wait before you can use one of these macs. So again it’s kind of specialty USB kind of products that this is going to be an issue with but there’s a few of them out there.

Next up is the fact that one external display only that’s all you can hook up to. These it seems to be limitation of the chip. So yes you can use the internal display the laptop’s display plus that external monitor. You could even use wirelessly use an iPad display to add in an additional monitor if you want so then you would have three displays total going there and with counting the built-in panel.

Or you know you can use that airplay to use a tv as well as a wired monitor. But only one wired monitor. So for those who need more than that well this isn’t the mac for you. You have to wait for whatever they come up with next in 2021. Also obviously these are built despite the performance on their most affordable existing chassis for the MacBook Air and the MacBook pro.

This means only two Thunderbolt 3 ports which also nominally are usb4 but I’m that gets complicated. Anyway, you only got two ports on here. So it’s the same problem that you always have with these macs so you’re going to need a little Thunderbolt 3 hub or a usbc hub whatever it is you want. I’ve tested this with thunderbolt 3 docks it actually works just fine. The ones that I was using my 16-inch MacBook pro and there’s a bazillion little usb hubs out there.

But port constraint as ever it is the. The more expensive MacBook Pro 13-inch with four Thunderbolt three ports is still intel basis. The existing model nothing has changed there. The chassis haven’t changed at all as you can see. So for those who are hoping for a fresh new look or something to go with these fresh new processors no not really. Now with the MacBook air, one thing to note the very base model has an eight-core CPU and they’re all the same m1 CPU clocked the same by the way.

And that eight-core means eight high power four high power cores and four low power cores. And just like smartphones do. Uh but the base model has a seven chord GPU. If you go up one notch to go with that eight gigs of ram and two and five 12 gig SSD instead of a 256 gig SSD is that one 1250 or something uh then that one gets you eight cores.

And then you’re looking at the same thing that’s in the 13-inch MacBook Pro and this becomes mystifying to some people as to which they should get. Other than the fact that you might have a design preference for one over the other. The slightly lighter MacBook air with the wedge design versus the well traditional MacBook pro design.

And here are the differences. You get a fan in the 13-inch MacBook pro and this is a fan you will never hear. If you put your ear right up next to it while you do final cut protests or gaming which believe me i did a lot of you will hear the fan but it’s so quiet. But it can prevent that little bit of thermal throttling that might happen for long demanding tasks.

Say you are playing a game like tomb raider or something like that or you do what we do which is to produce 8 to 12-minute-long videos. So obviously that’s hours of editing time. So you’ll get a little less throttling or no throttling really on the 13-inch MacBook pro versus a little bit on the MacBook air. The other difference is the display.

While normally they look the same in terms of resolution 2560 by 1600 it’s a the usual 16 by 10 aspect ratio ips retina display and all that sort of thing the MacBook pro is 100 nits brighter. So for those who appreciate or need a brighter display, there’s that. Also, the contrast ratio is significantly higher on the MacBook pro. Not just because it’s brighter but it has better lower black levels. You can see those values on the screen right now.

And the MacBook airs black level of 0.45 is not really that great. But subjectively looking at them they look similar and they both look very nice. Lastly, you get a bigger battery in the 13-inch MacBook pro. So that translates into 10 to 15 percent longer run times. And the charger with the MacBook Pro is bigger and higher capacity is a 61-watt charger versus 30 for the MacBook air.

Well, the pro is a bit brighter display maybe it needs more power it has a bigger battery to charge. But not we’re not talking like twice the capacity either in terms of battery. So I don’t know if it’s a perk it does charge faster. So there are the real reasons why you would choose one or the other. So let’s talk about real-world performance now. You’ve seen the benchmarks flying across the screen while you’ve been watching and listening to this thing and you can see the benchmark numbers are phenomenal.

I mean it’s beating my 16-inch MacBook pro for some CPU tests. Not for a graphics test because well the Radeon 5500m that I have is still going to be faster for something like the unigene valley GPU test there. But still, in real-world tests which is what counts here in which we have to rely on a lot more with the mac when not running windows on the mac, we’ll talk about that in a minute too because there aren’t as many benchmarks out there. So i spent the whole week doing everything I could with this thing.

Photoshop lightroom latest editions of that the intel versions of those running flawlessly running fast. I mean I’m working with 24 mega raw files and I’m doing all sorts of effects on them and I’m putting correction layers on them and I typically have five to eight open at a time it’s fine. Lightroom works great. You’re going to see a final cut test coming up in a minute which is arm native and I think it’s still a selling point for a lot of people who buy a mac because final cut kind of rocks so well on the mac.

And the performance is amazing. And by the way, I’m using a Samsung t5 external SSD. That’s where all my media files and my project files are because I think most of us who do serious video editing all the time with 4k footage you’re going to run out of space constantly on the internal storage device. And you’re just going to wear it out and all that sort of thing so most of us actually work with an external drive.

So even that said it’s a fast enough drive that I didn’t see any performance issues. But let’s take a look at the final cut right now. Okay so to test this out in final cut pro. And again this is the base model of the MacBook pro but the same performance we see pretty much on the MacBook air model with an eight-core GPU and a core CPU and this has only eight gigs of ram.

So we’ll talk a little bit about memory pressure and all that sort of thing. And pretty much I’ve just got final cut pro running. Now I’ve seen some tests and people throw together videos and it’s pretty much just a single timeline without all of this stuff that we throw on top which is to say a whole lot of beauty shots or b-roll whatever you want to call it which complicates matters a lot each with their own effects grading transitions all of this footage here graded.

This is actually a motion template that well I didn’t bother installing here so that needs it. And say we want to do something like well I really wouldn’t do this but we want to do something like add a tint to this. Not advisable but hey but just to see how that affects you know playback or something like that. But we have a better quality turned on by the way not better performance. And we do allow background renders.

Nothing that I have been able to do here has brought this machine to its knees. It has stayed fluid working through an 8-minute 4k 30 frames per second project with all sorts of stuff going on here. Color grading again on everything. Audio mostly just playing with the levels that sort of thing and removing some noise.

So what’s the memory pressure like. If we go here we can see right now it’s at 43 it was up to 74 earlier. And we can see final cut pro is now using three gigs. Earlier it was using 7.73 gigs and this is only an 8 gig machine. So obviously it’s hitting virtual memory. The interesting thing here though is that I really couldn’t tell. There was no stuttering there was no problem with playback.

But I would say obviously if you don’t want to hit virtual memory then getting a 16 gig model would make more sense even if the performance is certainly acceptable here. So for those of you who use adobe products primarily never as well optimize for macs as well as windows. But still, there are videos out there if you want to watch and Premiere seems to behave pretty well.

I’m not a premier person so I didn’t test that one. Again photoshop lightroom is delightful. What about games right because you know it used to be you had to really get a 16-inch MacBook pro if you kind of wanted to play some games. And it’s absurd to think about doing this on the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro lower-end models. So that’s what I did.

Now you’re not going to find you know the latest greatest metro exodus or something necessarily available for the mac and dlss and all that other Nvidia goodness. But still, we look at the tomb raider test and that is just too easy. Now tomb raider is an older game now right. So you can see 109 frames per second going there. Whether it’s the MacBook Pro the MacBook air is the same and really even with a little bit of throttling on the MacBook air it didn’t really do more than take off five frames per second which is nothing when you’re looking at those frame rates.

So then that was too easy so we went to the shadow of the tomb raider a newer game 2017 game and something that we still use to benchmark and test windows gaming laptops with much more powerful hardware. And it did decently enough about 34 frames per second on average when playing at medium settings and 1440 by 900 resolution. So no this is not going to replace your Alienware gaming laptop is it.

But for gaming on the go, it’s fine. And the more amazing thing just like when running photoshop which isn’t that hard these days is it really just like doing final cut pro with our eight-minute-long video with lots of edits and all that sort of thing it doesn’t even get hot to the touch. I mean it’s getting a little chilly you know I wouldn’t mind it if it warmed my lap a little bit no. Neither of them would do that.

Warm slightly warm that’s about all they did fan no fan really. And when playing tomb raider you have to put your head near that 13-inch MacBook pro to say oh yeah it is running just a little bit. It is crazy. Now I wish I could give you all sorts of internal metrics but Apple hasn’t given anybody the hooks yet to measure the CPU temperatures. The closest we get is the SSD temperatures.

Now since the SSD is soldered on board here well that might be a good indication somewhat of the zone temperature. And typically around 33 34 degrees centigrade which would be very very chilly. So that’s the other amazing thing here with this. With my 16-inch MacBook Pro, you know how that goes that thing just can roar with the fans when you make it work hard.

Even the 13-inch MacBook pro can get pretty darn hot to the touch and noisy when you’re making it work hard. And there are coders out there who’ve been sharing how well this thing has been doing with Xcode and swift for compiling and sometimes even beating out their 16-inch MacBook pro. This is a once-in-a-10-year moment honestly in technology.

I’m just tickled by all this it’s good stuff. But just to temper that a little bit it’s the same old mac thing going on here. You can unscrew the bottom cover if you want but for the most part what would be the reason. Everything is soldered on board. Let me tell you everything is glued down in this house right. So the SSD which is really fast and faster than the previous generations is integrated and soldered onto the motherboard. It’s not a little m.2 SSD it’s something custom-engineered by apple.

The upside is the performance is phenomenal there. A ram is soldered onto the motherboard. You cannot upgrade that. So if you think you might want that 16 gigs of ram you better order it that way because you can’t change it after the fact. Serviceability nah, upgradeability nah.

I mean you know an apple service deck can replace the battery they can swap out your motherboard which is what it’s going to take if the ram or the SSD fails or the CPU or the wi-fi or any of those things. So that’s still life with the mac just to temper some of your joy for a moment. But there’s one more thing to quote steve jobs. Battery life and again oh my god these things run on unicorn farts. I’m telling you it’s just mental right.

This was the hardest thing to test because I actually went a couple of days without running the battery down on each of these. So those test times too. This is just not what you expect to see. I mean mac’s usually a pretty decent battery life you know but nothing like this. So apple claims whatever 15 hours 18 hours and it was a pc maker we’d say yeah you always say that and we always get six to seven hours you know. In this case, they could be right.

I mean and this is a variety of tests using photoshop doing some final cut and doing the everyday normal things that we do like watching some NetFlix and hitting the web and social media and email all those sorts of things. I’m not saying I played tomb raider for 18 hours straight no that i don’t mean. But in a mixed-use case of probably what most normal people would do it’s really hard to quantify but you know apple’s claims are not pie in the sky crazy. It’s that good while being that fast.

I mean AMD Ryzen zen 2 got me really excited on the pc side of the house but this is even getting more exciting. Between AMD and apple wow good things are happening. So there you have it two max two amazing macintoshes. The m1 arm CPUs are fantastic for battery life. There’s like no heat generation to speak of on these. The performance is much above what I would have ever expected even when running intel applications in emulation mode.

The drawbacks are going to be you’re going to have to wait for some things like those who use Wacom city for example for drivers for that to appear. If you need windows on these now you. Bootcamp is pre-installed but if you run it says sorry it won’t run on our mac. So if you need windows which is something that I think apple needed as a crutch when they switched over to intel because they were trying to get market share back and they were saying hey look you can run windows too so it’s okay to buy us I think they feel like they don’t really need that anymore.

So I don’t think we’re gonna see it. Now parallels are working on an updated version with a VM that can run windows again. And we’ll see how that goes and how the performance is. I’m not gonna be too worried at this point because things have been so darn rosy but you know. So should you buy these? It really depends on what you need. You know if you are a 16-inch MacBook pro kind of person and you want a bigger screen or you need those four thunderbolt ports and two isn’t enough for you obviously wait.

I’m sure, the next year 2021 apple will have something for those who need that sort of thing. If you want a desktop instead well there is a mac mini which offers basically the same internals as these and can drive two displays not just one. And that’s available now. But if you want an iMac I’m sure that’s coming mac pros eventually. I’m not sure what they’re going to do for the graphics to kind of you know approximate the level of radion performance that they had before but they pulled up these CPU miracles. I’ll wait and see what they do at the GPU next.

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