Apple’s M1 chip has signalled a brand-new era for computing on the Mac. Seemingly gone are the days of “My RAM’s bigger than yours”, and endless arguments over who to blame for the slow progression of MacBooks (was it really always Intel’s fault?).
It has also revealed what many have claimed to be colossal improvements in battery life for Apple’s laptops.
However, recently, I stopped halfway through a morning of working solely on the M1 Air and found myself asking a rather simple question.
Is the battery life on these M1 MacBooks really that good?
Something had sprung a doubt in my mind. Maybe it was a cursory glance at the battery percentage which was lower than normal for that time of day, or perhaps it was because, deep down, I’m concerned that my opinion of the battery life has been shaped my marketing hyperbole and reviewer praise.
After all, is leaving a laptop to compile a bunch of code while unplugged really a decent reflection of how awesome its battery life is versus the outgoing model?
So, I decided to conduct my own M1 MacBook Air battery test. And the results were absolutely fascinating.
M1 MacBook Air battery life test: the rules
As always, I have zero interest in benchmarks. I want to know how the battery life translates to real-world productivity and convenience.
Thankfully, that made this particular test pretty straightforward. I’d simply pick a random day and use the Air for every task I needed to carry out that day.
I wasn’t allowed to tailor the tasks to push the battery, nor adjust my use of the laptop to either try and run it down more quickly or preserve the battery life. I would simply use it as though it was a desktop machine.
That meant forgetting about screen brightness, leaving apps open if I wanted to, and neglecting to close the lid when walking away from my desk.
So, the Air was charged overnight to 100%, and that’s where I started the journey early one Wednesday morning.
Time worked: 0hr 0min
Battery level: 100%
I start work ridiculously early, but that has always afforded me plenty of time to cram loads of work into one day. It also means I can grab a coffee, sit on the sofa and undertake relatively basic admin tasks before everyone else wakes up.
This particular morning, I had the usual round of YouTube comments to catch up on and reply to, a few emails to deal with and a bit of blogging to undertake.
Standard stuff. No hassle for the Air, which remained at 100% for at least the first 30 minutes of that initial work period.
Time worked: 1hr 46min
Battery level: 91%
That 9% of battery life was lost almost solely to web browsing and email.
When I say “web browsing”, I’m often referring to web apps too, such as Notion and Google Docs. I’m conscious these often cause Safari to chew through more battery but nearly two hours worked and 9% down didn’t feel too bad at all.
However, I’m one of those people who experiences that entirely unreasonable feeling of disappointment when a battery’s level dips below 100% for the first time. It’s confirmation that, actually, this battery is fallible, after all.
Time worked: 2hr 59min
Battery level: 78%
Just over an hour later, I’d again undertaken a fair normal variety of work, although, this time, it included some time in my members’ Discord server.
During that time on Discord (I was running the app, rather than the web service, which I feel it’s worth mentioning), a member known as Telly asked how the test was going and, specifically, what the screen brightness was set to.
So, I checked and discovered it was bang-on 100%. I didn’t feel like lowering it, either, and that’s an interesting aside if you’re currently considering between the M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro. The latter has a slightly brighter screen, and it’s during bright days like the one I’d chosen for my test that it might be more useful.
Incidentally, if you need further help choosing between the two, I recently published a video guide:
Time worked: 3hr 48min
Battery level: 67%
It’s amazing how much work you can get done when you get up early, right? At this stage, I’d near as dammit worked half a day’s ‘normal’ shift (whatever that is), and the Air’s battery still had comfortably more than half left in the tank.
By this time, I was conscious of how I was using the laptop and, specifically, how many apps I was leaving open.
At this time of the day, the active apps on my dock looked something like this:
- YouTube Studio
- Google Drive
- Spark email client
- Toggl Track
- Day One
Add to that a couple of Safari tabs, and it was a fairly busy machine. Although, I won’t lie – the battery life was starting to make me question whether the Air would make it to a 17:30 finish.
Time worked: 4hr 39min
Battery level: 60%
An hour gone, 7% lost.
I had to remind myself at this stage of how far I’d come. I was now approaching five hours of work and the battery still hadn’t hit the 50% mark. That’s pretty impressive, by any measure.
However, it’s at this time of the day that I usually open and use Microsoft Teams. I’ve heard about its tendency to leak memory like water through a sieve, but I’ve never really paid much attention to its impact on battery life.
It felt like this was a pivotal moment for the M1 Air. How would it handle Teams running for the rest of the day and an impending – although admittedly simple – Final Cut Pro video edit?
Time worked: 5hr 13min
Battery level: 55%
Lunch and run time!
Reflecting on the morning’s work, it had been completely non-intensive – as far as the MacBook Air was concerned. I never once pushed the CPU or asked it to do anything more than track the cursor on the screen and respond to text input.
The afternoon would be different, owing to the fact I had some Teams calls to join and the aforementioned video edit to take care of.
Time worked: 5hr 25min
Battery level: 53%
After lunch, I returned to the Mac, having closed the lid out of habit. It had somehow lost 2% in that time, which may be due to the number of apps I had left running in the background, but it’s still pretty impressive nonetheless.
I must admit, being able to happily leave a laptop unplugged for an hour with little worry about how much battery will be left when you return is rather lovely.
Time worked: 6hr 00min
Battery level: 41%
Fairly big drop that, right? Less than an hour worked and 10% gone.
Something was different. It was beginning to feel like the battery was draining quicker during the afternoon.
This prompted me to have a quick scan of the menu bar to assess what background tasks might be running. They included Dropbox, Day One, Toggl, Creative Cloud and Fantastical’s helper app. Not particularly strenuous.
I had undertaken that Teams call, mind.
Six hours of work and 60% battery consumed isn’t bad, but it isn’t “biblical”, is it?
More pressingly, I had a couple more Teams calls on the horizon and that video edit to undertake. Not to mention three and a half (at least) hours of work remaining.
Things were suddenly beginning to look rather bleak on the M1 battery front.
Time worked: 7hr 00min
Battery level: 23%
Due to the perennial problem of having to wait on other people, the video edit was still on my to-do list. However, in a little over one hour and 15 minutes, the M1 MacBook Air had chewed through 18% of its battery, and all I’d done was open and close Final Cut Pro and continue working in apps like Ulysses and Safari.
Surely, this thing wouldn’t hold on until the end of the day?
Time worked: 7hr 32min
Battery level: 14%
If you’ve ever watched the Top Gear episode where Jeremy Clarkson attempts to drive the length and breadth of the UK on a single tank of fuel, you’ll know how I felt at this stage.
Fourteen percent is dangerously low. I know that at 10%, macOS issues a battery warning and, at that stage, it’s pretty much game over – you have to plug in if you want to avoid losing anything.
During the 30 minutes since the previous update, I still hadn’t undertaken the video edit and had continued the very basic work (as far as the Mac is concerned) which had defined my day.
I’d plugged in an external USB drive for the video footage, but that’s pretty much the only sizeable change in state during that time.
Time worked: 7hr 47min
Battery level: 10%
Game over. Nearly eight hours into my workday, macOS signalled that now really would be a good time to plug that charging cable in, if I valued my work and livelihood.
I never got as far as the Final Cut Pro edit and I couldn’t risk trying it on 10% battery.
The party was over. The M1 had been defeated in less than my working day.
I immediately jumped onto my Discord server and asked members to guess how much battery I had left, nearly eight hours in.
“I’m thinking 75%,” said one member.
“By 5pm I’d have said 42% remaining,” said another.
They were shocked when I explained that the red battery indicator of death had appeared. And I kinda see why – I was disappointed, to be honest.
Then, someone (hey, Justin!) pointed out that I’d been Teams running for a large portion of the day and that it would be worth testing again without it spewing its memory leaks all over my pristine M1 MacBook Air.
So I did exactly that yesterday, and… well, the results were worse. I reached the dreaded 10% mark at 15:45 with nearly 7.5 hours worked. The only difference in terms of workload was a brief bit of time spent in Lightroom, but the rest of the day was the normal, processor-lite stuff I’ve noted before, and I didn’t once open Teams.
I now have two questions:
- Do I have a defective M1 MacBook Air battery?
- Has there been too much hyperbole about the battery?
My use constitutes ‘normal’ business stuff, right? Is this the reality of the M1’s battery capabilities?