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Testing out the entire new Apple Mac M1 lineup

These three new systems, the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini, speed past their predecessors -- but not without some caveats for early adopters.

The early performance numbers proffered by Apple and others looked promising. By switching away from Intel chips to its own Apple silicon M1 design, the latest Macs were much faster than previous versions, even faster than most Windows PCs. At least on paper.  I got a chance to test all three new systems -- the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini -- those performance boosts were confirmed when compared to the early 2020 versions. Yes, benchmark tests are different than real-world use, but at least they give us a standard to judge similar things by. And using that standard, even decently specced Macs from earlier in 2020 just could not keep up. 

Read more: MacBook Air M1 hands-on: Apple silicon and Big Sur bring big changes

Note that these hands-on impressions are based on spending just a few days with all three new M1 Macs, so they should be considered preliminary. We'll continue to test and compare these systems to other MacOS and Windows devices and offer updates to our advice as needed.

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Comparing the new M1 Macs with their Intel counterparts at the CNET Labs Brooklyn outpost. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Advice for early adopters

The real difficulty comes in deciding if the M1 Mac ecosystem is ready for you and your specific needs. Some apps -- but not many as of yet -- have been optimized as universal apps to run natively on the M1. Mostly Apple's own apps, which already ran great on Macs even before this. There's also DaVinci Resolve, a video editing app and Microsoft Office, both in beta form. 

Some others are coming soon, such as Adobe's Lightroom, although Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere -- all programs I use regularly -- are tantalizingly out of reach, coming in M1-native forms sometime in 2021. Until then, you'll need Rosetta, Apple's x86 emulator.

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The message you get the first time you run x86 software on an M1 Mac. 

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

Rosetta (technically Rosetta 2, the original was from 2006, when Apple computers first switched to Intel chips from PowerPC ones) automatically installs itself the first time you attempt to install a non-native app. So far, it's let me install things like Adobe apps, including Photoshop and Premiere, Steam for gaming and Google's Chrome web browser. 

In Adobe Premiere, which is not "native" on the M1, editing a few 4K video clips (shot on my phone) was fine on the Mac Mini, although adding motion graphics caused stuttering. Is this something a native version would fix? We'll have to wait and find out. 

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Dan Ackerman/CNET

The same clips in DaVinci Resolve 17.1, handled lots of quick cuts and transitions easily with the same clips. Note that the default version in the Mac App Store is currently version 16, but for the new "universal" M1-ready version, you have to get this new beta of version 17.1. I tried the same project on the Mac Mini, MacBook Air and an early-2020 Intel MacBook Air -- just something basic, throwing on a lot of transitions while cutting between 4K clips. On the Mac Mini and M1 Air, I still got a little stuttering on a couple of the transition effects while previewing in 4K, if I dropped the preview render to regular HD, it was fine. On the older Intel Air, DaVinci Resolve ran smoother than I expected, but still stuttered in real-time previewing, even at just 1080p.

As discussed in my hands-on deep dive with the new M1 MacBook Air, while on paper, these new systems should be able to handle a lot of casual or mainstream gaming, I had little luck in installing and running Mac-compatible games from Steam, and the Steam app itself ran poorly under Rosetta. My next step will be trying games from the Mac app store and other sources. 

Based on a few days of hands-on testing and use, here is some initial buying advice for each of the new M1 systems. 

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Dan Ackerman/CNET

MacBook Air ($999, £999, AU$1,599)

The ever-popular Air feels like the easiest transition to make. If you're thinking of buying a new MacBook Air, I don't see a lot of hurdles considering how this system is mostly used for mainstream chores, from office work to social media to video streaming. The Adobe apps I tried worked as well on here as on previous Intel Airs, which means there's only upside in the eventual universal app versions of those programs. 

As I said in the MacBook Air deep dive, the differences between the Mac and Windows capabilities of most laptops have narrowed significantly over time. It's now rare -- although not unheard of -- for a casual or mainstream user to run into the old problem of not having the right OS for the tool they need. 

The biggest reason to grab the new M1 Air over finding remaining stock in a retail store of the early-2020 Intel version is the battery life. The Apple silicon MacBook Air ran for 16 hours, 41 minutes in our streaming video battery drain test, which is by some measures tougher than Apple's own video playback test. That's amazing, considering the battery hasn't increased in size or capacity. 

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Dan Ackerman/CNET

Mac Mini ($699, £699, AU$1,099)

The Mini has been the right computer at the right time for some people, as it's a small but flexible desktop. With so many people working from home, that's an important selling point. I'm already using the Mini, along with LG's Mac-ready 24-inch 5K display, for design and video tasks, and it certainly doesn't feel like I'm using a $700 desktop. 

The Mini remains the least expensive entry point for MacOS, and this new version offers performance on par or slightly better than the M1 MacBook Pro, which costs nearly twice as much. Like the other M1 Macs, the downside is that you're limited to 16GB of RAM (and start with just 8GB), but storage options on the Mini climb all the way to 2TB, although that upgrade will cost nearly as much as the Mini itself. 

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Dan Ackerman/CNET

MacBook Pro ($1,299, £1,299, AU$1,999)

The Pro has the toughest case to make. It's more expensive than the Air by a good amount, but uses an almost identical M1 (with eight GPU cores, versus seven GPU cores on the Air), as well as having the same 8GB RAM/256GB SSD base configuration. For the extra $300 on the Pro, you're getting a slightly brighter screen; the Touch Bar; and a larger body with "active cooling," otherwise known as a fan, which can allow the M1 to run at peak speeds for longer without throttling down. Apple also claims up to 20 hours of video playback battery life, which we are currently testing. The Air's nearly 17 hours in our own tests leads me to expect the same or better from the Pro. 

If your Pro-level workflow is highly dependent on specific apps that don't have an M1 native version yet, you want additional RAM options or you need more than two ports (only the remaining Intel MacBook Pro models offer four Thunderbolt USB-C ports right now), I'd suggest a wait-and-see approach to the MacBook Pro. Or else consider getting an Air and boosting the RAM or SSD, or both, which will cost just $100 more than the base 13-inch Pro. 


Below you can see the results of our initial benchmark tests, which will be updated with new tests and new comparisons as we go. 

If you have a recent Intel Mac that still works for you, don't feel pressured to be the first person on the block with the first version of the new silicon. If you were already about to pull the trigger on a new Mac, especially if you're a mainstream computer user, the better battery life is a big win and the fanless design on the Air is long overdue. 

If you're a creative pro with mission critical pro-level needs, note that this is the first step in what will be a multiyear transition, and you should check to see where your software needs live on the ready-for-M1 timeline before becoming an early adopter. 

M1 Macs vs. Intel Macs


Geekbench 5 single-core Geekbench 5 multicore Cinebench R23 multicore
M1 Mac Mini 1743 7704 7796
M1 MacBook Air 1731 7518 6822
M1 MacBook Pro 1723 7457 7772
Core i5 MacBook Pro (13-inch Spring 2020) 1184 4143 4703
Core i5 MacBook Air (Spring 2020) 1142 2912 2635