M1 or M2 MacBook Air: Which is best for you? [Video]

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The M2 MacBook Air brings a totally refreshed design and new chip to Apple’s entry level laptop. But at an increased price with a slower SSD and possible overheating, is it worth it to choose the M2 Air over the cheaper M1 Air?

M2 MacBook Air vs M1 MacBook Air Video

Design

This time around, the MacBook Air got an all-new design. Taking strong cues from the 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros, the M2 Air has moved to a squared-off design from the previous wedge-shape – it’s a bit thinner at its thickest location than the M1 Air. I like the design, with my only complaint being that I find it a bit harder to pick up than the M1 Air. The curved wedge shape of the M1 MacBook Air made it really simple to lift up on the front edge, while the front is a bit too flat for me to easily get my fingers under with the M2 Air.

Ports

This is the most straight-forward comparison – the M2 bring the return of MagSafe to the MacBook Air. In addition, the 3.5mm headphone jack was updated to have improved support for high-impedance headphones. Otherwise, the laptops each have two USB-C ThunderBolt ports on the left side. On the M2, the returned MagSafe port opens up one of the Thunderbolt ports whenever you’re charging.

M1 and M2 MacBook Air Ports

Keyboard and trackpad

The M2 Air’s keyboard has a slightly different feel to me than the M1 Air’s keyboard, but the change isn’t significant, and I can’t say that I have a preference one way or the other. The main improvement with the M2’s keyboard is that the function row, which had been half-height keys, is now full height keys. I notice the larger top row of keys most when I am going to use the Touch-ID sensor. It has the same round, recessed sensor as the larger 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros. The trackpad on the M2 Air also got slightly wider than that of the M1 Airs, and it has a different haptic click. I prefer the haptics of the M1 trackpad, but the M2’s trackpad is still fantastic.

Screen, notch, and camera

The screen of the new M2 Air is a step up over the M1 Air. It got slightly larger overall, with a thinner top bezel, but the horizontal resolution is the same. That thinner top bezel does mean that the M2 MacBook Air gains a notch like the larger MacBook Pros before it. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me, but sometimes when programs have a lot of menu items, some of them get pushed over to the right side, and at that point it tends to feel a bit cluttered up top.

That notch houses an improved camera as well; the 720p FaceTime camera of the M1 Air has been replaced with a 1080p FaceTime camera on the M2 Air. It’s an improvement, as you can see in the video, but if you want an even better camera, you can use Continuity Camera with MacOS Ventura.

The M2’s screen is also 100nits brighter than the M1 Air’s screen, which can help out a bit when its bright out. It still leaves the miniLED display tech and high refresh-rate to the higher end 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros.

SSD Slowdown

One of the two main “issues” with the M2 MacBook Air has been the decreased speed of the SSD on the base model. With the switch to M2, Apple moved from using 128GB NAND chips to using 256GB NAND chips, so now the base M2 laptops only have a single chip. This leads to a significant decrease in SSD read and write speeds. This will be noticeable when transferring particularly large amounts of data, but could also become noticeable as a slow down when the 8GB of RAM on the base model fills up and the computer has to use the SSD to swap out data. Even with the slower benchmarked speeds of the base M2, most people won’t notice a difference in real world use – especially if you’re just using the M2 Air for document editing, video playback, web browsing, and the like.

M1 vs M2 Performance

But what about in terms of the M2’s actual CPU performance? Well, that’s another case of “most people won’t notice a difference in real world use.” In benchmarks, the M2 Air performs moderately better than the M1 Air, but the M2 Air also has a much smaller heat spreader. Neither laptop has a fan for an active cooling system, but the M1 Air had a much larger metal heatsink. This means that under heavy, continuous workloads, both laptops will get hot and eventually throttle. Once again, though, with how efficient the chips are, and the fact that neither of these laptops is designed to be a workstation replacement, that shouldn’t impact most people.

M2 MacBook Air (left) and M1 MacBook Air (right) internals

Some people who really want to get a bit of extra performance from the M2 have performed the same thermal pad mod that was possible with the M1 Air, but that’s not recommended.

The biggest performance improvement with the M2 over the M1 is the result of the improved media engine. The H264 and H265 hardware encoders of the M1 are joined by hardware encoders for ProRes and ProRes Raw. If you work with a lot of video, you’ll know the performance improvements that can come with hardware accelerated encoding. So if you plan to work with ProRes video on the go, and want a thin-and-light machine, the M2 Air has a solid leg-up.

M1 Air, M2 Air, or M1 Pro?

There is no one answer that will work for everybody. If you have an M1 MacBook Air, and you are already happy with it, I would stick with that unless you really value the new design and MagSafe. If you are still on an older Intel machine, the M2 MacBook Air is a great option. It will be more than powerful enough for most use cases while being an extremely portable, and silent, laptop.

If you are planning to make the move to Apple silicon at last, I would also consider the possibility of a used M1 MacBook Air. New, the M1 MacBook Air is already $200 less than the M2 Air. If you go used, you can pick one up for around $800 – $400 less than the starting price of the M2 Air, which is a fantastic bang-for-the-buck. Performance wise, most use cases won’t see a major difference in performance between the M1 and M2 Air, so it might be worth saving that $400 to you.

And, finally, if you know you will be constantly editing video on your machine, or you’ll otherwise put your laptop though a high-power, sustained workload, I would consider going instead with the 14-inch M1 Pro MacBook Pro. It will have even more ports, a larger screen, a more powerful chip, and an active cooling system. It’s not even that much more expensive than the M2 Air, all things considered. The 14-inch MacBook Pro starts out with 16GB of Ram and a 512GB hard drive and regularly sells for $1,799 at Amazon. The same storage and memory configuration on the M2 Air brings it up to $1,599, and if you upgrade from the 8-core GPU to the 10-core GPU that brings you up to $1,699.

There isn’t necessarily any “wrong” answer here. Each of the laptops are well suited to their audience – it’s just figuring out which one of those audiences you’re in.

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