M2 MacBook Air vs. M1 MacBook Air: Should you wait to buy?
While Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is normally used to announce updates for software products, Apple also announced a new MacBook Air and the M2 chip inside of it at its 2022 event.
Usually, it’s easy to recommend the new model over the old one. But in this case, the M2 MacBook Air feels more like a completely new model rather than a replacement of the old one. And since Apple continues to sell the original M1 MacBook Air, the answer to the question of which you should buy isn’t so simple.
Right off the bat, the M2 MacBook Air drops the iconic wedge shape that made the Air famous. Instead, the M2 version adopts the same squared-off sides and rounded edges as its bigger brothers, the MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch. While it does lose a bit of flair (and extreme thinness), it does make the MacBook line more consistent.
The new M2 MacBook Air chassis also continues to live up to its namesake by being only 2.7 pounds and 0.44 inches thin. It’s perfect for those who prize portability over raw power (though it has plenty of that as we’ll see later). It should be noted: The M2 MacBook Air is just 0.1 pounds lighter than the M1 MacBook Air.
The keyboard on the M2 MacBook Air isn’t that different from the M1 version, but does look more in line with the larger MacBook Pro models. This includes the Touch ID button being slightly different than the M1’s, as well as the full-size function keys along the top.
While the stereo speakers on the M1 MacBook Air flank either side of the keyboard, the M2 MacBook Air places its four-speaker setup in-between the keyboard and the hinge. This new speaker setup also includes support for Spatial Audio, both through Dolby Atmos in the built-in speakers and through dynamic head tracking using the high-end Apple AirPods products.
The display has been widened ever so slightly from 13.3-inches on the M1 Air to 13.6-inches on the M2 Air. That change is because of the reduced bezel size, both along the side edges and the top. That means, yes, the new MacBook Air includes a notch, which the old one does not. The screen also has rounded edges along the top corners.
Tucked into the notch is an improved 1080p webcam, bumped up from the 720p option on the M1 MacBook Air. You might be enticed to use Apple’s new Continuity Camera with the M1 MacBook Air, which converts your iPhone into a webcam. On the M2 MacBook Air, that probably won’t be necessary.
The panel itself has also been upgraded to a 2560 x 1660 Liquid Retina display, which Apple says is the biggest and brightest ever on a MacBook Air. Liquid Retina is certainly a bump up from the M1 MacBook Air, but don’t expect the same eye-popping look of the Super Retina XDR, which is the mini-LED panel saved for the iPad Pro and MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch).
This display does support up to a billion colors and has an increased brightness to 500 nits. That’s compared to the 400 nits possible with the M1 MacBook Air. Both displays have True Tone technology.
When it comes to ports, both the the M1 and M2 MacBook Air have the same arrangement: Two Thunderbolt 3 ports that support USB 4 and USB 3.1 Gen 2 speeds. Both devices are capable of supporting just one external display, however.
There’s also a combo headphone mic jack on the M2 MacBook Air that Apple says supports high-impedance headphones, which the M1 MacBook Air does not.
The one major difference is the inclusion of the MagSafe 3 magnetic charging port on the M2 version. For some, that itself is enough to justify buying a new MacBook Air. The main benefit is that it frees up one of the two USB-C ports for other purposes rather than charging. Don’t worry, though, you can still charge the laptop using the Thunderbolt ports.
Both laptops also support the same Wi-Fi 6 wireless standard, as well as Bluetooth 5.0.
Performance and battery life
Other than the display and overall design, the M2 chip inside of the newest MacBook Air is what separates it from its predecessor.
Like the M1 version, the M2 MacBook Air is fanless, owing to the power efficiency of the M2 chip. Apple says the M2 chip is up to 1.4 times faster than the previous M1 model while still getting up to 18 hours of battery life.
While a 1.4x increase in power is measurable, it’s not that much. In fact, the M2 seems to be more of a refinement of the M1 rather than a true generational leap. Still, the M2 MacBook Air benefits from being manufactured on a “second-generation 5nm” process node.
This means an overall 18% faster CPU, 35% faster GPU, and 50% more memory bandwidth as compared to the M1, now up to 100GB per second.
Importantly, the M2 MacBook Air has the same media engine used in the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros, which the M1 MacBook Air lacks. The media engine supports hardware-accelerated ProRes encoding and decoding.
We’ll have to test all of this ourselves before we can make a judgment call on just how much more performant the M2 is, but suffice it to say, you’ll get improved performance out of the M2.
The M2 MacBook Air allows you to configure your laptop with an extra 8GB of RAM for a total of 24GB, whereas the M1 MacBook Air is stuck at a maximum of 16GB. Storage options, though, are the same — both starting at 8GB and maxing out at 2TB.
Buy now or wait?
That leads into pricing and whether it’s a good time to buy one.
The base M2 model starts at $1,200 and sports an 8-core CPU, 10-core GPU, and 8GB of unified RAM. That’s $200 more than the base M1 model with a 7-core GPU.
The M1 MacBook Air was already a capable machine for everyday computing, productivity, and even video editing. Those who already have an M1 Air probably don’t need to upgrade unless you really want the MagSafe connector.
However, those still holding on to an Intel-based MacBook Air may want to consider upgrading as Apple touts a 15x increase in power over the older Intel models.
Those who don’t already own a MacBook and are interested in buying one should probably just get the M2 model over the M1 if you can swing the extra $200. You’ll have more options when it comes to CPU/GPU/memory and benefit from performance increases.
That said, the M1 MacBook Air is still plenty fast for most people and that says a lot about Apple’s engineering prowess.