M1 Macbook Air for graphic design and 4K video editing (artist designer review)

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This review is from the perspective of a visual content creator, someone does digital art, graphic design, edits photos and 4K videos. There will be some comparison to the LG Gram 16 (2021) and M1 Mac Mini 2020 (review) just to give you some basis of comparison, and I will repeat portions of my M1 Mac Mini review here because performance is very similar.

The M1 Macbook Air and M1 Macbook Pro were released in November 2020 together with the M1 Mac Mini. These three Macs are the start of the transition from Intel processors to Apple’s own M1 processor.

I bought the M1 MBA to replace my old 15-inch Macbook Pro (2015) which was starting to show its age. The MBP 2015 fans would rev too often even when doing simple work like web browser, and the fans are usually quite noisy, too noisy for me when live streaming on Youtube. So I sold that Macbook Pro and bought a refurbished M1 Macbook Air and a secondhand LG Gram 16 (2020). I need a Windows laptop because the new M1 Macs no longer have Bootcamp to install Windows. On hindsight, I probably should have tested Parallels Desktop with Windows first. I did not regret my LG Gram 16 purchase though.

Below’s the comparison table for the computers mentioned in this review.

Model M1 Macbook Air M1 Macbook Pro LG Gram 16
Processor M1 8-core CPU, 7/8-core GPU M1 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU Intel i7-1165G7 (quad 2.8Ghz)
Graphics M1 8-core CPU M1 8-core CPU Intel Iris Xe Graphics
RAM 16TB 8 to 16TB 8 to 16TB
RAM 8 to 16TB 8 to 16TB 8 to 16TB
Storage 256GB to 2TB SSD 256GB to 1TB SSD 256GB to 1TB SSD
Weight 1.29kg 1.4kg 1.19kg
Display 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600 resolution 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600 resolution 16-inch, 2560 x 1600 resolution
Ports 2x Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 2x Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 2x Thunderbolt 3/USB 4, full-sized HDMI, 2x USB-A
Price From S$1449 / USD 999) From S$1849 / USD 1299 From S$2099 (16GB RAM, 512GB storage)

Official retail price of the LG Gram 16 and M1 MBA with 16GB RAM and 512GB storage is S$ 2099.

The refurbished M1 MBA I bought with 16GB RAM and 1TB SSD was priced at S$2,059 (US$1,532). Apple refurbished products can be purchased directly from Apple and prices are usually 15% off official retail (S$2,399 in this case). The LG Gram 16 (2021) I bought with 16GB RAM and 512GB storage is S$1750 which to me is a pretty good deal, and it comes with 2 years warranty.

AppleCare+ for the MBA is S$279. That will provide additional 2-years warranty for a total of 3.

Design


Design of the M1 Macbook Air looks great. The full metal body build quality is excellent. All the edges are cut to perfection.


Colours on the display look good out of the box. Using a Datacolor calibrator, I measured colour support for 100% sRGB, 89% AdobeRGB, 86% NTSC, 96% P3 and a maximum brightness of 313 nits. Colour accuracy is good and this is a bright display.


Resolution of 2560 x 1600 makes all the visuals look sharp but you can’t actually use the native resolution without UI scaling.


I’m using the 1440 x 900 scaling to make the UI elements big enough for my eyes to see comfortably. You can use 1680 x 1050 scaling to get more desktop space but the UI elements will be too small, at least for me.


It’s compact, portable and weighs just 1.29kg.


Apple has switched from using their disastrous scissor-switch to butterfly keys. So it looks like durability shouldn’t be a problem this time. Typing experience is fantastic. Trackpad is big and accurate.


There are only two Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40 Gbps)/USB 4 (up to 40 Gbps) ports on one side, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other side.


The port situation is quite limiting so you’ll definitely have to use a USB-C dongle.

If you work at home, and especially if you have to connect to devices that need power, e.g. external drives, I recommend getting a powered Thunderbolt 3 dock. You don’t want to have power cut off while transferring files.

General performance


General performance of the M1 Mac Mini is fast and smooth.

The internal SSD speed is up to 3,100MB/s writes and 2,800MB/s reads. It’s extremely fast to startup, launch apps, download webpages, open and save huge files. File transfer speeds through the Thunderbolt 3 ports (theoretical 40Gb/s or 5GB/s) is basically limited by your external drive speed, not the port protocol speed.

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Graphic design software such as Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator, Affinity Photo & Designer run smoothly. Editing hundreds of 16MP RAW photos is smooth with Adobe Lightroom Classic.

Unless you use 3D software or do complex video editing, the M1 processor should be able to handle any work you throw at it with ease. The fans rarely rev up, and this is great for people who need silent operation, e.g. while recording audio or doing live-streaming.

4K video editing

The internal drive is fast enough to handle heavy 4K footage. The downside is the base model comes with only 256GB of storage. Upgrading to the next tier 512GB cost US$200 or S$300, and it’s another US$200/S$300 to 1TB. Storage upgrade prices from Apple is expensive.

Alternative storage would be external storage. External SSDs that are fast enough for 4K video editing are

I would go with Samsung T7 for best value for money.


Video export time is around 55% of the length of the video project. A 10-minute video project takes less than 6 minutes to export. That’s quite impressive.

External monitor support

At the time of this review, M1 Macs can only support up to 2 displays. With the Macbook Air and Macbook Pro, that means you can only connect one external display.


If you need three displays, you can use MacOS SideCar together with your iPad if you have one.

M1 is able to run 4K displays at 60Hz smoothly.

Live streaming

I’ve live streamed several times with the M1 Macbook Air and performance is great.

With my Macbook Pro 2015, the fan noise is so loud that it can be captured by my microphone easily. That’s a big problem because you don’t want unwanted noise during live streaming.

The M1 MBA has no fans so there’s no noise. Live streaming is quite taxing on the processor but even so, the M1 MBA barely heats up. Performance is smooth throughout.

Software glitches

I held out for months before buying the M1 Mac Mini and M1 MBA because I wanted to wait for M1 versions of the apps.

The software I use are listed below in terms of frequency of usage.

  • Final Cut Pro
  • Adobe Lightroom Classic
  • Affinity Photo
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Microsoft OneDrive (Intel)
  • Backup & Sync from Google (Intel)
  • MAMP
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Affinity Designer
  • Clip Studio Paint
  • OBS
  • Medibang Paint Pro (Intel)
  • Krita

During this transition from the Intel to Apple M1 processors, older apps written for Intel processors will be translated by Rosetta 2 to run on the M1 processor. In the real world, the older apps should still run without issues. There’s going to be a hit on the performance of the apps but that’s offset by the better processing power of the Apple M1 vs Intel processor.


Most apps have made the transition to M1. Even the drivers for various pen displays that I test are also the M1 versions, and they work just fine.

Microsoft OneDrive app is still the Intel version but everything works fine. File syncing works. There’s even Finder integration where I can right-click on files/folders to perform OneDrive file management.

I did not experience any glitches with the listed software above.

Should you upgrade RAM or storage if you have limited budget

The upgrade from 8GB to 16GB RAM is US $200 (S$ 300). The upgrade to the next storage tier cost the same.

If you have limited budget, it’s actually alright to go with the model with 8GB.


When I’m exporting RAW photos and 4K videos at the same time, editing my Youtube thumbnail with Affinity Photo, playing Youtube video in the background with other Chrome tabs open, I’m usually using around 8GB out of the 16GB RAM. Most times I don’t export photos and videos at the same time so RAM usage is even lower. Having 8GB of RAM is going to impact performance significantly.

If you have the budget to upgrade, I recommend upgrading the RAM instead of storage.

You cannot add RAM after the purchase but with storage, you can add storage capacity via external drives or cloud storage. Instead of spending US $200 upfront to upgrade the storage from 256GB to 512GB, you can get Microsoft 365 Personal which is US $69.99/year which will give you 1TB online storage. Microsoft 365 will also provide backup so you won’t lose any files even if your MBA is damaged or lost. The Microsoft 365 Family (US $99.99/year) is even worth it because it can be used with 6 people and each will get 1TB storage.

When it comes to editing videos, even 512GB internal storage is not enough. You definitely need an external SSD to hold more video footage.

Should you get the M1 Macbook Pro over the M1 Macbook Air

In terms of value for money, both laptops have rather similar performance but the MBA is at least US $300 cheaper (or S$400 cheaper here in Singapore).

Here are the features/advantages the MBP has over MBA

  • 500 vs 400 nits
  • 61W vs 30W charger
  • Touchbar vs function keys
  • Fans vs no fan
  • 20 vs 18 hour battery life
  • Storage up to 4TB instead of 2TB
  • Better audio quality (supposedly)
  • Has 3-mic array which is better for video conferencing

Those features are nice to have but none affect performance or improve productivity.

If you want to get MBP for supposedly better performance due to better thermal cooling, it’s not worth the money. If you’re exporting short video projects (under 20 minutes), the processor barely even has time to heat up. I would touch the MBA after a 4K video export and the MBA is barely warm, and I export videos almost daily. Even if I’m a wedding photograph who has to deliver at the end of the day, I won’t pay for the extra performance which is negligible.

500 vs 400 nits brightness is not a big deal. I measured 313 nits with the MBA and that’s more than bright enough to use even under the sun.

The longer battery life may be worth getting only if you’re someone who has to use the laptop outdoors most of the time. Even so, the MBA can easily last from morning till evening when you get back home to charge it.

Some people like the touchbar, some don’t. I don’t like the touchbar because it doesn’t improve productivity. I’m all about the work. I judge technology base on how much time I can save, or how much more productive I can be.

What about that LG Gram

I wanted to include an Intel-based laptop running Windows just for comparison purposes.

If I spec both LG Gram 16 and M1 MBA with 16GB RAM and 512GB storage, both are priced the same. In this case, the LG Gram offers better value for your money. You get a larger display, more ports and it’s even lighter than the MBA. LG Gram 16 is not as solid since it’s not a metal body, keyboard and trackpad are good but not as good as Apple, and battery life is slightly shorter, 12-14hrs vs MBA’s 16-18 hours.


The LG Gram 16 is better value because the larger display allows you to scale the UI to the extent that you can have an additional column of palettes while reserving the same canvas space of the MBA. More palettes on the screen means more tools visible and accessible at a glance, and that means better productivity.

You can still get a full work-day battery life with the LG Gram 16 even though it’s 12-14hr vs MBA’s 16-18hr.

And there are more ports on the LG Gram. Full-size HDMI and USB-A are still very useful. It’s such a shame that a microSD card slot is included instead of a full size SD card reader. The only way I would use that microSD card slot is to buy a US $159 Sandisk 1TB microSD card to put it there permanently. That’s slot is such a missed opportunity.

Oh, performance between the M1 MBA and LG Gram 16 is quite comparable. While M1 processor may score better on benchmarks, in the real world when it comes to doing actual work, the difference in performance is not that obvious. Video export with Adobe Premiere Pro may not be as fast compared to Final Cut Pro on the Mac, but it’s significantly faster compared to using older versions of Adobe Premiere Pro and old Intel processors. The 11th gen Intel processors are power and noticeably more efficient.

My experience with Windows laptops in the past is not positive. This year, 2021, I actually bought a Windows laptop. It’s kinda rare for a Windows laptop to have more than 8 hours of battery life. So to have 12-14 hours with the LG Gram 16 is incredible.

Please note that it’s the LG Gram 16 that’s worth buying compared to the LG Gram 14, 15 which use 1080P resolution and the 17 which has lousier keyboard layout.

If you’ve watched or read the many reviews raving about Apple M1 thinking that Intel processors are left way behind in the race, I’m here to tell you that that’s not true. You’re not missing out on anything by going with Windows. And I’m saying that as someone who has used MacOS since 2007. It’s really great to see how Apple has forced Intel to actually compete.

Conclusion

The M1 Macbook Air is a good looking laptop with solid build quality and fantastic performance. The display is beautiful and bright. Keyboard and trackpad are wonderful to use. Battery life is insanely long. The main downside is the lack of ports as there are only two Thunderbolt 3/USB4 ports.

When it comes to visual content creation, the M1 MBA breezes through everything you throw at it. It can export 4K videos and doesn’t even heat up that much. So yeah, this is an extremely capable computer, and this is a very significant upgrade even when compared to the high-end 16-inch Macbook Pros from 2019. I really excited to see what new models Apple has planned for the 16-inch Macbook Pro.

I can recommend the M1 Macbook Air easily. But my general advise has always been this: choose based on the software you want to use. As mentioned earlier, the 2021 Intel-based Windows laptops are no slouch too.

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