Ok, yes, I know that the MacBook Air is not a Chromebook. You know how I know this? Well, because I wrote half of this story on a Chromebook.
(Yes, that does mean the other half was written on the MacBook Air… and I’m not telling you which half)
I’m writing this as I switch back and forth between the M1 MacBook Air and Google’s Pixelbook Go. And as I do so, I can’t help but notice some similarities. And if you’re familiar with my tech articles of late, you’ll know that means I’m itching to compare the two computers.
Ok. I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t I compared Apple’s MacBook Air and Google’s Pixelbook Go to death? Haven’t I explored everything there is to possibly explore between these two computers? Isn’t it about time I move on?
Yes. Yes. It is true that I’ve spent a good portion of 2020 reviewing the 2020 MacBook Air and more than once I’ve compared it to the Pixelbook Go. On the one hand, that’s because the Pixelbook Go turned out to be one of the best computers I ever had the pleasure of typing on (read: it has a damn excellent keyboard). But on the other hand, every time I reviewed- and compared- the 2020 MacBook Air, that was the one hindered by Intel’s Core i3 processor and saddled with a loud- and rather useless- fan.
Now, the MacBook Air is running on Apple’s own M1 chip and is fan-free. And with a few other new features that Apple has brought along with the new processors, I think Apple has turned the MacBook into quite a successful Chromebook- or at least, something a little more competitive to Google’s computing offering.
This isn’t one of my Battle Royales (with Cheese); I’m not so much comparing the MacBook Air and the Pixelbook Go (again) as I am comparing ChromeOS and macOS- specifically macOS on the M1 chip. But since those are the two computers I’m using, don’t be surprised if a few direct comparisons come into play. And I will dedicate a small portion of this comparing hardware. I’m also not going to be declaring a “winner” here, as I’m more just trying to point out how Chromebook-like the new M1 MacBook Air is.
So, let’s get to it.
Chromebooks are known for their speed. They are quick to turn on, quick to set up, quick to get to work.
And with the M1 chip, the MacBook can do, well, most of that. The Apple logo- just like the Chrome logo- will greet you instantly when you first lift the lid (or when you lift it after shutting down the laptop); it will even greet you with Apple’s iconic start-up sound, which is a nice touch. And if you’ve already set up the computer, you’ll be signed in and ready to work in seconds.
Where it isn’t quite as speedy is that first-time setup. On a Chromebook, simply open the computer, sign in to Google and your Wi-Fi, complete a few other setup steps like Google Assistant or, depending on your device, fingerprint scanning, and you’re ready to go. Even if there is an update, it downloads and installs within a minute or two.
First time set up on the MacBook looks about the same; sign in to your Apple ID, into Wi-Fi, TouchID, set up Hey Siri, etc., and so forth, and then you’re into the computer (unless you had a Time Machine backup, in which case you’ll be prompted to start installing that). But where it takes some serious time is syncing all of your files; depending on how much crap you have stored in iCloud Drive and Photos, it can take hours before your work is all available. Granted, it is much faster with the M1, but it isn’t as fast as a Chromebook in this regard, as I was able to start working on my Google Docs files within minutes of setting up my Pixelbook Go. My Pages files seemed to be the very last thing Apple synced, as my massive camera roll for some reason took priority.
Another thing that isn’t as fast is resetting the MacBook to factory settings. Like with first-time setup, Powerwashing a Chromebook just takes a couple of minutes. Resetting any MacBook- Intel or M1- is nowhere near as simple.
Ok, we need to get sidetracked for a moment. I have a story to tell you. My first M1 MacBook Air ran into a problem. That’s bound to happen- these things are brand new. Long story short (you can read the long story here), my MacBook, about two weeks in, believed there was a critical issue with the battery. Whether there actually was (I hadn’t seen any performance issues) or whether it was just a software bug, I don’t know; since it was so new Apple decided the best course of action was to replace it. So this is where the second problem began, and the one that I feel is necessary to point out here: resetting it to factory settings was impossible.
Ok, it wasn’t impossible. But it certainly wasn’t easy. Even with an Intel MacBook, the process isn’t straightforward. It involves rebooting the thing into Recovery Mode, erasing the entire hard drive, reinstalling macOS, and then setting it all back up again. All things that a Powerwash does on a Chromebook, except on a Chromebook you just press one button and the rest is automated. I’ve never had to go in and manually erase the hard drive myself on anything other than a MacBook. If there’s an easier way, I haven’t found it (strangely, this process is so much easier on Apple’s iPads and iPhones).
But with the M1 MacBook, those steps didn’t work. First, it wouldn’t let me erase the hard drive. Then, once an Apple technician was able to walk me through erasing it, it wouldn’t let me reinstall macOS because the computer now believed there was no hard drive to install it onto. I’m not the only one who’s experienced this issue; Apple has since released some alternative directions to reset the M1 Macs, but they still aren’t that easy to complete, and one of them requires that you have a spare Mac (they’re lucky I own even one). But my point is, resetting a MacBook is convoluted, it is difficult, and it is relatively easy to screw up the process and brick your computer.
So yeah… that’s a pretty big caveat.
But hey, once you have the computer all set up, and so long as you don’t need to restore it to factory settings, the M1 MacBook Air- even the base-model- now is just as quick as a Chromebook at doing everything.
Another thing to consider with speed is how the computer updates. Both Apple and Google are excellent about keeping their computers up-to-date, with support for their products for years down the road. Apple’s updates are fairly quick, too, usually taking 10 minutes or less. They do, however, take over the entire computer when they are being installed, meaning you can’t do anything until the update is complete. A Chromebook, however, does all of the installing in the background while you are using the device, and then just prompts you to restart your device, which, again, takes literal seconds.
Chromebooks are also known for being able to do a lot with minimal software. Sure, like with any computer in 2020, you probably want at least 8gb ram to avoid some stuttering, but my Intel Core m3 Pixelbook has just as much speed as- and sometimes more than- my M1 MacBook Air.
Granted, however, Chrome OS can’t do all that macOS can do. When Chrome OS was first introduced, it was entirely browser-based. And while over the years it has gained support for Android apps and Linux programs (and recently for business users, some Windows program support), it primarily remains browser-based.
Most Chromebooks don’t come equipped with much internal storage, and that’s because Google expects you to use cloud storage for most of your files; Google Drive even comes baked right into the Files app (iCloud is, similarly, baked into Apple’s Finder app, but moving files there doesn’t mean they will automatically take up less space, and a good chunk of my MacBook’s storage is still taken up by iCloud Drive and Photos). Realistically, a Chromebook functions primarily as a portal into the Internet, complete with a screen, a keyboard, and a trackpad.
The MacBook, on the other hand, can do damn near anything. If there is a program you need, it should run on the MacBook. And though many of them haven’t been optimized for the new M1 chip, Apple built a program called Rosetta 2 that translates the app from Intel to M1, and for the most part, this works brilliantly. Sure, there are some heavy-duty apps that you should stay away from for now- like Adobe Premiere- but macOS is a big enough platform that those stragglers will soon be optimized for the M1 chip and when that happens, they’ll take full use of the power this chip provides.
And let me tell you what, the M1 is powerful. Personally, I haven’t scratched the surface of what it is capable of- I don’t do video editing or anything that would really tax a computer- but from my lengthy experience with the Intel Core i3 model from earlier this year, I can tell you that I’ve been able to do things with the M1 MacBook that would cripple the Core i3, and it stays cool even without a fan through tasks that would turn the Core i3 model into a space heater (it is definitely still possible to turn the M1 MacBook Air into a space heater, but it takes a lot more effort).
For example, when I first decided to go with the MacBook Air back in March, I unwisely decided to download all of the photos I had stored in Google Photos and upload them to my Apple Photos app. The Core i3 could not handle this task; first, it would begin to drastically heat up, and the fan would make it sound like it was preparing for lift-off. That in and of itself was annoying, but I would have been fine to just let the computer sit in another room and make its noise so long as it didn’t get hot enough to cause system damage. But after a while of processing like this, the Intel MacBook Air would throttle the performance down to a screeching halt. I spent weeks trying and failing to upload my 130,000 Google-stored photos. The M1 MacBook Air did it in a fraction of that time.
With power, we should also talk about battery life. Chromebooks are notorious for having excellent battery life. I routinely get at least 8–9 hours out of my Pixelbook Go, and that has been roughly true for every Chromebook I’ve ever owned.
For me, battery life is a pet peeve; I hate the idea of having a device that can’t get me through a single day of regular usage. The previous MacBook Air- and every Windows computer I’ve ever used- always failed that mark. But the M1 MacBook Air gets even better battery life than my Chromebook. I can honestly go about two days of my normal usage without needing to charge, which I would say is roughly 10–12 hours of screen-on time. Of course, I have been able to kill it in much less than that- uploading 130,000 photos to the cloud takes a toll (and even more of a toll when you decide to reverse course and put it all back in Google Photos… Backup and Sync is not optimized for the M1 and will drain the battery in just a few short hours)- but on most days I simply don’t even have to worry about it.
Ok, so we’ve already established that the MacBook Air can run rings around the programs that a Chromebook can operate. You can’t get Adobe Photoshop or Premiere or AutoCad or even iTunes running natively on a Chromebook.
But what you can get to run on a Chromebook is Android apps. Android apps are still somewhat new to Chrome OS- they’ve only been around for a handful of years and have slowly been gaining support with devices- but basically, the majority of the Android app market is available at your fingertips.
Granted, it has been a rocky road ever since they were introduced. Since not all Chromebooks are made equal, support for certain applications can be hit or miss. Some apps just won’t install on certain devices, others may not play well with being resized to fit into a laptop screen. Even on my Pixelbook Go, which is the best Chromebook I’ve ever used, sometimes Android apps crash for no apparent reason. But they are definitely more stable than they used to be. In fact, apps that I’ve previously had a real issue with- like Microsoft’s Word app for Android- are running a lot smoother than they were even just months ago.
Possibly the biggest reason why I believe the new M1 MacBook Air is like a Chromebook, however, comes with the M1’s support for iOS apps. Also the biggest reason I can relate the MacBook to a Chromebook, unfortunately, is how haphazard that support is.
Right now, the MacBook barely supports iOS apps. Or, more accurately, iOS apps barely support the MacBook; try as I might, I cannot find any of the apps that I use regularly on an iPhone or iPad in the Mac App Store. Popular photo editing apps like Snapseed or Photofox are nowhere to be found. I can’t even download Apple’s own app versions of their programs- on a Chromebook, I can download the Android app version of Gmail or Drive Google Docs (though I have no idea why I’d want to… the app version of Docs sucks on both Android and iOS).
For the apps that are available, there are many that aren’t useful. Some video apps like HBO Max will not support full screen. Some games that require touchscreen controls do not even have a way to be played, since the Mac doesn’t have a touchscreen (more on that in a bit).
Right now, iOS apps on Mac feel half-baked. But I’m not concerned about that; I feel like the complaints Mac users have about using iOS apps echo the same complaints Chromebook users had with Android apps first started appearing. Given time, we’ll get to where using an iOS app on a MacBook is second nature. But it definitely makes it feel way more like a Chromebook.
Ok, this is where I’m really going to be comparing my M1 MacBook Air to my Pixelbook Go a lot, and again, that’s because they are the two computers in front of me. But don’t worry, I’m not restricting my views on the hardware to these devices; I want to dive into all of the hardware options available for these two platforms.
Chromebooks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You can easily get a decent Chromebook for $200-$300 and run the same operating system that a $1000 Chromebook will run. Of course, depending on the money you spend, it is going to be a mixed back on the performance you receive. Cheaper Chromebooks will ship with less storage, less ram, and weaker processors. Chrome OS can run well on lower-end hardware, but for best performance, you’ll want around 8gb ram and something like Intel’s Core M3 or i3 processor, at least, so that means looking more at midrange devices.
Chromebook build quality is also all over the map. Cheaper Chromebooks will be all plastic, mushy keyboards, chunky chassis, and usually subpar trackpads. You’ll find a few diamonds in the rough, however. For example, Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet is a well-built tablet with a great detachable trackpad/keyboard for only $299. In the midrange, you’ll start to see some builds that combine metal and plastic along with slimmer profiles, and of course, if you elect to spend a lot on a Chromebook, you’re going to get build quality to match Apple’s machines.
For myself, the $649 Pixelbook Go is a good balance of cost, design, and performance. It has an all-metal body (magnesium instead of aluminum) that is thin and lightweight (I can literally carry both the MacBook and Pixelbook in the same backpack without it feeling too heavy), and it has nice, curved edges that feel great in my lap (by comparison, the MacBook Air sometimes feels boney with its sharper corners). And it has enough power and memory to get me through the tasks I need it for. It also has a touchscreen.
And yeah, that’s a big benefit for Chromebooks, especially if you are using Android apps. Most of them have touchscreens nowadays. Many (not the Pixelbook Go, unfortunately) can flip their screens around to be used in tablet mode. Many also support some sort of pen to use for drawings.
Now, let’s look at the MacBook Air. Of course, you don’t have cheap options with the MacBook. At a minimum, you’re spending $1000, and you can spend a lot more if you want.
No matter what you choose to spend on the MacBook Air, however, you get the same excellent design: an all-aluminum, super-thin body (you remember that Steve Jobs pulled the first one out of an envelope), a fantastic keyboard (second only to the Pixelbook Go’s), an equally fantastic trackpad, a beautiful display, and the M1 processor.
It is worth noting that the M1 in the base model is slightly different than the M1 in any other Mac; it only has 7 GPU cores compared to the 8 that comes in every other version of the M1 Mac. More money will also get you more storage or ram, but unlike with Intel Macs it won’t get you a different processor, so unless you need the higher performance of more ram or the fan-cooled design of the MacBook Pro, the cheapest MacBook Air will probably suffice.
As I mentioned earlier, unfortunately, Apple still hasn’t released a touchscreen version of the MacBook, which again is a bummer (and sometimes a hindrance) when considering the use of iOS apps on the Mac.
It would be easy to say the MacBook Air is pricey- it is- but it is honestly worth the price and design-wise it is up there with Chromebooks that are in the same price bracket.
Is My MacBook Air a Chromebook?
So, back to the big question. Is my MacBook Air a Chromebook now?
Hell no. There are many things that the MacBook does better than a Chromebook. In fact, I can install Chrome on my MacBook and get damn near the same benefits of a Chromebook, like using Docs offline. And I can install BackUp and Sync to put my Google Drive folder right in the Finder app.
But with the new MacBook Air, specifically with the benefits that the M1 brings (iOS app support, faster start-up and overall speed, better battery life, and no fan), it is beginning to close the gap on some of the benefits that Chromebooks have for a long time held over their Mac and Windows counterparts.
I’ve always loved my Chromebooks. Ever since I first purchased one back in 2013, I’ve always had a Chromebook in my house, even if I was using something else as my main computer.
The MacBook Air being more like a Chromebook probably won’t change that. But I definitely like that I’m no longer Chrome-bound to enjoy the efficiency that I’ve come to expect from Google’s laptops.
And I definitely like that my MacBook is a little more Chromebook these days.