Upgrading my MacBook Air: Intel or Apple silicon?
November 18, 2020 7:16 PM   Subscribe

My 2013 MacBook Air will soon be crossing the rainbow bridge. Should I replace it with a new M1-powered MacBook Air, or the previous 2020 model?

On one hand, my computing needs are pretty modest, I'm wary of buying v1.0 of anything, and the new Macs seem to be a weird hybrid of new CPU and old everything else. On the other hand, I like that the M1 models have a longer battery life and run cooler. Plus the speed and the fact that they run iOS apps are cool, but not necessary.

Some other notes:
- Money is an issue, and so is longevity.
- Although I like a nice benchmark, I don't need monster computing power. I mostly use my computer for the web, gaming, and MS Office apps. On very rare occasions I do a bit of image or video editing (GIMP/iMovie) or front-end web development (Sublime Text, Cyberduck, WordPress).
posted by PlusDistance to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You mention gaming, that's about as demanding as it gets. A previous vintage Air is not going to be able to do much in the way of gaming. Some elaboration on what you want to play would be helpful.

In general, though, the only reason to buy Intel at this point is physical ports or Windows on Boot Camp. You would have to buy some moderately pricey USB-C adaptors or a dongle to use USB-A devices, plus an adaptor for any displays. That said, the single-core performance is shockingly good, better than a high-end Macbook Pro. Frankly, everyone is getting a deal because the only Apple silicon to be had is on the newest 5nm process, so everything is fast, even the "low-end" Air. The multi-core benchmarks that have come out show that it is far less thermally throttled than the previous Airs so video editing is also fast.
posted by wnissen at 7:27 PM on November 18, 2020

Best answer: I'd be very hesitant with the m1, the benchmarks are good, but it's only been in the hands of the public for a day or two. If you decide on the m1, I would still wait 3-6 months to see what people think then.

You will need to look into the specific games you play, to see if they are, or might become compatible. These are probably going to be the biggest obstacle.

Office is in beta already I believe, so you should be okay there.
posted by TheAdamist at 7:28 PM on November 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

M1, for sure, BARRING GAMES. It’s going to be much faster, the battery life is insane, and even in emulation it’s faster than the majority of current Intel laptops.

...so you really need to consider the games angle. The M1 Air will crush all of your stated needs except possibly games. Perhaps you can find someone to run gaming tests for you? I haven’t seen detailed results on those yet.
posted by aramaic at 7:41 PM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well if you ever want to run windows-based games via dual boot or WINE, you should definitely avoid the M1 mac, I doubt those will ever work there. Also older mac games may or may not actually work, Rosetta 2 is the emulator/converter that is supposed to make intel apps work on M1, but I would expect that to have issues with games as emulators normally do. Open source stuff will convert fine but commercial games may never work.

To be honest commercial game developers are very quickly abandoning Mac due to all of the issues with code signing and support, and this is likely to get even worse with the new hardware. I would expect the number of new mac console-style games to go down over the next few years, so intel with dual boot/VM would definitely be safer for those. But, if you prefer mobile-style games, all of the iOS games are now much easier to port so those will definitely have Mac versions.
posted by JZig at 7:43 PM on November 18, 2020

Best answer: It would be foolish to buy an Intel Mac at this point, unless you need a form factor that isn't available with an M1.

If you want a 13-inch laptop, get an M1 MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. All the reviews have been over the moon about the quality of the machines. It is not a typical 1.0 device with hiccups and things that don't work. All reports are that Intel emulation is seamless and that Intel apps actually run faster under emulation than they did on the previous versions of the MacBooks that had Intel chips.

Intel Macintoshes are now legacy devices. All the investment from Apple and from developers will be going towards Apple Silicon Macs. And by all accounts they are already very good.

Believe me, I have been burned by buying version 1.0 Apple devices in the past. But this doesn't seem to be one of those situations.

Dieter Bohn: New Chip, No Problem: The new Arm-based system has exceeded almost every expectation

Marques Brownlee: Apple M1 Mac Review: Time to Recalibrate!

Devindra Hardawar: MacBook Air M1 review: Faster than most PCs, no fan required
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:45 PM on November 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

If Wine and Windows apps are important to you, CodeWeavers just announced that the current version of Crossover runs on the new M1 MacBooks. They have screenshots of Quicken and Among Us, and a video of Team Fortress 2 running on the new MacBook Air.
That's incredible when you consider that we're on literally the cheapest Apple Silicon device you can buy - one that gets thermally throttled and is missing a GPU core.

I can't tell you how cool that is; there is so much emulation going on under the covers. Imagine - a 32-bit Windows Intel binary, running in a 32-to-64 bridge in Wine / CrossOver on top of macOS, on an ARM CPU that is emulating x86 - and it works!
Full disclosure (in case it's not obvious) - I'm a fanboy. But these new machines do seem great.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 8:03 PM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Contrarian opinion: Get a nice ThinkPad.

My present laptop is a 2019 16" MBP. It is absolute unadulterated crap. Less than a year old, and there's a discolored stripe down the right side of my screen and it crashes once a week under not-terribly-heavy use (it's the watchdogd bug, if anybody wants to search it up, and there's no reliable solution to it). And do not talk to me about the ridiculous, useless TouchBar.

I bought it full-freight because my prior MBP died suddenly in January after a mere three years (yes, yes, fine for a Windows laptop, but Apple was supposed to do better than that) of the absolute ninth circle of hell that was the butterfly keyboard.

Apple has completely destroyed my previous trust in its hardware. I'm plotting a migration.
posted by humbug at 8:19 PM on November 18, 2020

If CodeWeavers already have it working in basic form, I might have been too pessimistic about support for older games. Games with a large mac user base (like Hearthstone) should be fine. Well-programmed old games should be fine. Poorly programmed older games without a large user base are questionable, and future support depends on what Apple does to court game developers as they have been doing a very poor job recently.
posted by JZig at 8:21 PM on November 18, 2020

Best answer: I suffered through the first-generation MacBook Pro with the 2.16GHz Core Duo, which didn't last long and ran extra hot (because, while the Core Duo wasn't a G5 by any stretch, it was still a hotter chip than the G4 and Apple hadn't figured it out yet). I'm usually pretty conservative regarding first-gen products in general , and I'm going to second Winnie the Proust here: get the M1 one. The Apple Silicon one is, in my opinion, really sort of.. not a first-gen product. It may be first-gen as far as a shipping Arm-based system that runs full-fat macOS, but.. only sort of? Apple's been making their own Arm chips for quite some time now (in the A-series chips that go into iPhones and iPads), so they have plenty of experience shipping these things in devices with thermal and power envelopes that are much smaller than you get in a laptop. The common underpinnings behind macOS and iOS/iPadOS are the same and have run on Arm for ages now. Rosetta 1 (as in on my 1st gen Intel MacBook Pro) was pretty incredible then and the new Rosetta 2 stuff is, by all estimation, even better; if anything, it's just.. not quite as much faster than the old machines as running native code is. (Meaning it's faster than the old machine.)

Wine and such have been mentioned but Parallels is coming too and since Microsoft is still working on their (also shipping) Windows on Arm stuff that may also be a viable option in the future. (And, also look to more iOS titles being released for macOS too - you can already, today if you have the hardware, run iOS apps on Big Sur on Apple Silicon but the apps themselves need to be set up to work with non-touch.)

I would also say that this would definitely be a machine I'd very much considering getting AppleCare or another reputable extended warranty for if you don't already; these still are a new generation chip/SoC and since you can't exactly slot out a processor on them (or RAM or SSD because it's all the same "chip") if issues do crop up it might be nice to have the extra warranty. (I may also be a bit cautious because my own 2019 13" MBP had to go in for service - the webcam gave up and the keyboard backlight stopped working [note: keyboard was otherwise fine amazingly] - and that's the first machine I've had to have in for service in a very long time.)
posted by mrg at 8:30 PM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

I still say never buy v1 of Apple hardware...wait for v2 where they’ll fix the worst mistakes they left in for v1
posted by sixswitch at 8:53 PM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have a 2012 MacBook Air, also been thinking about this. But as someone else who expects my MacBook to last the better part of a decade, I don’t think I want to be trying to run an intel machine in 2025 when the changeover is complete and you’re in legacy territory. I’m gonna wait a year if my current machine holds up, but if not I’d be pretty comfortable with the M1 machines.
posted by skewed at 9:10 PM on November 18, 2020

Best answer: In November 2020, the only reason to get a brand new Intel Macbook Air is if you hate money and like wasting it on computers that are slower, hotter, have worse battery life and will have almost no resale value once the migration to M1 is complete in a year or two.

If you can wait, and you're into the folk wisdom about version 1 of Apple hardware, then by all means wait until the Spring to see how the early complaints about the M1 Air shake out, and consider waiting for the next revision if it seems bad.

There are legitimately good reasons to wait a while on M1 Macs (GPUs, very large RAM requirements for specialized workloads, Docker), but the folk wisdom about version 1 of Apple hardware is just that: folk wisdom. They screw up on version 10 just as much as they screw up on version 1. (Software is different! Never install version .0 of a new macOS!)

Whether you wait or not, get AppleCare and use a credit card that gives an extra year of warranty. This is good advice for any Mac.

And don't buy a new Intel Macbook Air. Good grief!
posted by caek at 9:14 PM on November 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

My vote is for the M1. If you can't wait a year for version 2, I think it's a better investment. They're definitely improved over the old 2020s and the battery life is nuts. Any compatibility issues will be worked out - everyone knows this is the next thing for Apple. I also suspect running iOS apps will become more useful than it seems now.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:15 PM on November 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Definitely M1 without a doubt unless you are certain you need to run Windows (and many Windows apps might be able to work but don't bet on them).

If I didn't have absolutely no use for one at the moment (run an imac for desktop and a 12" macbook that has to run old windows xp software sometimes) I would be all over one of these
posted by tillsbury at 1:35 AM on November 19, 2020

From a longevity point of view I would definitely go with the product which is the future for Apple, not the legacy one. As the entire Mac line-up switches over to Apple Silicon, and as developers (and Apple) increasingly expect people to have the extra power, I think the old Intel Macs are going to start ageing really badly. Especially the lower-powered ones like the Air.

(obviously the advice to hold off a few months if possible to see if any problems show up, and to give developers time to update their software, is sensible)
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:29 AM on November 19, 2020

Best answer: The performance stats look great for either M1 line.

I've used a lot of Macs. My main questions would be that it only has 2 USB ports. I guess people will buy hubs for all their externals. I also guess Apple are thinking that the longer battery life makes up for using a port for power. But the battery has not been long-term tested in work situations.

In the Marques Brownlee review for example, it's obvious that he's using it as a second machine/non-work machine. We need reviews from people who have it on 12 hours a day, multitasking and using it as their only machine for work and everything else, for months and months. What happens to the battery life after a year or two years? - and when it gets to the point of declining battery life, and lack of ports, how much will Apple charge to replace it?

When I was dealing with the butterfly keyboard and a broken screen (both eventually replaced) I spent a lot of time at the genius bar, there were a lot of other conversations going on there basically "oh you need a new battery but that's really expensive so you might as well upgrade your machine."
posted by carter at 4:12 AM on November 19, 2020

btw I'm not critiquing Brownlee. His work machine is elsewhere and that is what he is using. He's not going to copy his work environment over to the M1. But I don't think that running some benchmarks and video for 14 hours over 4 days (or whatever he said) is a realistic user scenario.
posted by carter at 4:20 AM on November 19, 2020

Why not buy a well-equipped cheapo legacy macbook 15? 16? 17? pro/air for less than 1k from an authorized reseller for a couple of years and then wait till all this shakes out?
posted by lalochezia at 5:24 AM on November 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Absolutely the M1 MacBook Air.

The main difference between the Air and the Pro is that the Pro has an active cooling system, so under prolonged heavy load, the Air will throttle while the Pro will engage the fan. Early reviews seem to indicate that it takes a lot of demand to get the Air to throttle, so for your purposes you probably won't have to worry about it.

I've heard that iOS apps on the Mac are a mixed bag so far, but let's face it—so is Boot Camp. I fought like hell to get my Mac mini to run Boot Camp, and ran into all sorts of issues. Eventually I just gave up. So I wouldn't go with an Intel Mac just for Boot Camp, since it might be flaky or not work at all.

Early reviews point to the M1 Macs running circles around the Intel Macs. This isn't Apple's first rodeo with chip design, either—they've been doing it for years with the iPad and iPhone. I'd buy an M1 with confidence.
posted by vitout at 6:07 AM on November 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you're buying today, between an Intel MacBook Air and an M1 MacBook Air, M1 all the way. If you were shopping against higher end MacBook Pros you can make the case for Intel in certain uses, but an Intel-based Air isn't going to excel at gaming or anything else. The only reason to consider one would be if there's a fire sale.
posted by Pryde at 1:42 PM on November 19, 2020

I got an intel Air in the first half of 2020 and I like it a lot in general but holy hell is the built-in camera terrible, which is particularly galling in these Days of Zoom - I ended up getting an external camera because the video was so fuzzy and grainy and my students were commenting on it. I thought it was maybe just me but patrolling the internet suggests that it's definitely A Thing with this model. So if this is something you're likely to find a dealbreaker, find out if the M1 is using the same camera before you buy. If it is, maybe it's worth holding out for a Pro.
posted by media_itoku at 9:49 AM on November 20, 2020

The new MacBooks have the same camera's as the old ones. That has been a consistent negative in the otherwise positive reviews that have come out.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:24 AM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

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