Review: Apple's New MacBook Air With M2 Processor
What exactly does the M2 do better than the M1? Here's what we found on first look.
About a year and a half ago, Apple released an updated version of the MacBook Air.
While it largely resembled the models that came before it, it marked the debut of the M1 processor, the company’s first homegrown chip for laptops and desktops. Just like that, the days of relying on Intel to supply the beating heart of Apple’s computers were done.
This latest MacBook Air looks distinctly different.
Instead of the familiar wedge shape the line has sported since Steve Jobs took the original incarnation out of a brown envelope during its 2008 debut presentation, the Air is now one uniform, rectangular slab. If you’ve seen either the current 14-inch or 16-inch MacBook Pro, you’ll know what to expect.
While I’m going to miss the old reliable wedge, it’s fair to say the design was beginning to feel a little dated, especially when placed next to the aforementioned MacBook Pros.
With the new design comes a full-sized function key row (the M1 Air has half-sized keys) and a broader choice of colors, including silver, starlight (sort of a champagne gold), space gray (dark gray), and midnight (a cross between navy blue and dark gray). If social media chatter is any indication, midnight appears to be the early favorite.
The second thing you’ll notice is the notch.
As with the 2021 MacBook Pros, the new Air has a small cutout in the display where Apple has placed an improved 1080p webcam (more on that later).
The great notch debate—is it too intrusive or not?—dates back to the introduction of the iPhone X in 2017: In my experience, it’s hard not to notice it at first, but it does tend to bleed into the background the more you use the device, especially if you use a dark desktop wallpaper.
The display itself remains very pleasing to the eye, though colors appear to lack the pop you see on the MacBook Pro. We’ll have more to say about all that once our testers review the screen for color accuracy.
Apple claims the display can get significantly brighter than the M1 Air’s, too, and while I didn’t measure this number in nits (I’ll wait for our lab experts to do that), I was able to use the M2 Air comfortably outdoors in the mid-July sunshine.
One last thing about the display: While it is technically a smidge bigger than the one on the previous generation Air (13.6 inches versus 13.3 inches, measured diagonally, just like on a smartphone or TV), I saw no noticeable difference in my day-to-day use. When I put the new and old laptops side by side, that added third of an inch amounted to about one extra line of text on a webpage or Word document. Nice, but not really a game-changer.
Apple has also improved the port selection. The older Air has one headphone jack and two USB-C ports, but one of those ports is occupied any time the laptop is plugged into an outlet. Not so with the M2 Air, which has one headphone jack, two USB-C ports, and one dedicated MagSafe port for charging the device. That means you’re less likely to need a dongle once you start reaching for an external mouse, an SD card adapter (unlike with the MacBook Pro, there’s no built-in SD card slot here), or some other accessory.
The last big upgrade (besides the processor itself) is the webcam, which leaps from 720p to 1080p. You can see the difference when you place the two Airs side by side, but it’s not what I’d call transformative; more like, “Yes, of course, this $1,200 notebook should have a 1080p webcam.” In any event, it’s a welcome upgrade if only to save you the time and effort of having to shop for a standalone webcam.
How the M2 Compares With the M1 in Daily Use
I purchased an M1 MacBook Air the day it was released in November 2020, so I’m pretty familiar with the model’s strengths and limitations. And the M2 Air behaves so similarly it can be hard to tell them apart.
Whether that’s disappointing or not depends largely on your perspective.
If you’re shopping for a brand-new laptop for the first time in three years, it will be hard not to be wowed by the M2 Air. But, if you’re thinking of upgrading from the M1 Air, you’re likely to be far less impressed with the performance gains.
Consider the stuff you typically do on a laptop: Maybe you spend a few minutes every morning reading your email before shifting to Facebook or Twitter to see what people are saying about the day’s news. Then maybe you throw on a podcast or playlist while wrapping up a couple of documents for work: You’ve got a PowerPoint deck due at noon and a Word document to edit by the end of the day. Add in some video calls, yet more email, and a last-minute request to edit a podcast and you’ve more than earned your nightly YouTube session.
Okay, maybe I’m describing more or less what my day looks like, but I’d wager it’s relatively close to the average person’s in terms of software use and tasking.
So how does the M2 Air handle all of that? Great, actually! Is it any better than it is with the M1? Hope you’ve got a stopwatch handy.
Let’s start with browsing the web. Even taking into account the crazy state of the web, with performance-sapping auto-playing video and ad trackers embedded in every other page, the M2 handles that chore with ease. No slowdowns, stutters, sitting around waiting and wondering if your laptop has crashed while trying to load last night’s baseball scores.
Apple can’t fix what the web has become, but the M2 Air makes browsing about as pleasant as can be.
Now let’s try something a little more challenging: spreadsheets.
For a big project here at CR, I recently found myself buried inside some truly gargantuan spreadsheets. We’re talking thousands upon thousands of rows of data that had to be analyzed and cross-referenced with other sets of data. It’s sorta fun, in a way, but also pretty taxing on your CPU. Even my gaming desktop struggled to load these spreadsheets smoothly.
Not so on the M2, which was able to fly through them with ease, rendering each cell quickly and without error.
I then did a little multimedia work.
Specifically, I wanted to see how long the M2 would take to edit a couple of audio tracks for a personal podcast project and then how long it would take iMovie to spit out a 1080p version of a 4K test video shot on my iPhone.
For podcasts, I typically use Audacity to edit the audio, mainly because a) it’s free; and b) I’m used to it. So how long did it take the M2 to take two separate, 30-minute audio tracks and turn them into a single 192kpbs stereo MP3? A grand total of 10 seconds. That same project with my M1 Air? Try 11 seconds.
So, yeah, faster, but not something to write home about.
The video experiment was a little more interesting.
Using the latest version of iMovie downloaded from the Mac App Store, the M2 Air was able to take a one-minute long, 4K 60-frames-per-second video and turn it into a one-minute long 1080p, 30-frames-per-second video in 22 seconds. That same file on my M1 Air? 26 seconds.
Four seconds may not seem like a lot, but if your life revolves around editing video—perhaps you’re a budding YouTuber or about to enter film school—that may well represent a significant improvement once you start spending hours a day working on video and audio tracks.
Should You Buy the M2 MacBook Air?
There’s not one simple answer, especially without the final test results from our labs.
First, I’m not sure there’s enough here to warrant upgrading from an M1 Air, particularly if you rarely venture beyond everyday apps like Chrome, PowerPoint, Slack, and Word. Even if you were to sell your M1 Air and use the cash to pay for the M2, that seems like a lot of work for a computer that’s quite similar.
But if you’re upgrading from an older laptop, the M2 Air is certainly worth considering. For $1,200, you get a powerful laptop that will likely give you many years of reliable service, considering how well Apple laptops rate in our reliability surveys.
Depending on your budget, you might also want to consider a 14-inch MacBook Pro, which has more ports, a better display, and offers better performance than the M2 Air—though we won’t know exactly how much better until our test results on the latter are in. But with pricing for the Pro starting at $2,000, it’s probably overkill if you don’t do much multimedia work.
Allow me to offer another suggestion.
Apple sells the base model M1 Air as a certified refurbished model for $850, complete with 1-year warranty. You even get to experience the joy of opening a brand-new box, directly from Apple!
And if you do in fact prefer a new laptop, we’ve found that the M1 Air goes on sale for $900 fairly regularly at retailers like Amazon and Best Buy.