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MacBook Air M1 vs M2: Which Is Best For You?

The M2 MacBook Air updates Apple’s entry-level laptop with a completely new design and a new chip. But, at a higher price, with a slower SSD and the possibility of overheating, is the M2 Air worth it over the cheaper M1 Air?

Design

The MacBook Air received an entirely new design this time around. Taking cues from the 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros, the M2 Air has transitioned from the previous wedge shape to a squared-off design – it’s slightly thinner at its thickest point than the M1 Air. My only complaint is that it is a little more difficult to pick up than the M1 Air. The curved wedge shape of the M1 MacBook Air made it very easy to lift on the front edge, whereas the front of the M2 Air is a little too flat for me to easily get my fingers under.

Ports

This is the most obvious comparison: the M2 brings MagSafe back to the MacBook Air. Furthermore, the 3.5mm headphone jack has been improved to support high-impedance headphones. Aside from that, the laptops have two USB-C ThunderBolt ports on the left side. When charging, the returned MagSafe port on the M2 activates one of the Thunderbolt ports.

Trackpad and keyboard

The keyboard on the M2 Air feels slightly different to me than the keyboard on the M1 Air, but the difference isn’t significant, and I don’t have a preference one way or the other. The main change to the M2’s keyboard is that the function row, which previously had half-height keys, now has full-height keys. When I’m about to use the Touch-ID sensor, I notice the larger top row of keys the most. The sensor is the same round, recessed shape as the larger 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros. The M2 Air’s trackpad is also slightly wider than the M1 Air’s, and it has a different haptic click. I prefer the M1 trackpad’s haptics, but the M2 trackpad is still fantastic.

Display, notch, and camera

The new M2 Air’s screen is an improvement over the M1 Air’s. It grew slightly in size overall, with a thinner top bezel, but the horizontal resolution remained unchanged. Because of the thinner top bezel, the M2 MacBook Air, like the larger MacBook Pros before it, gains a notch. It doesn’t bother me most of the time, but when programs have a lot of menu items, some of them get pushed over to the right side, and it starts to feel a little cluttered up top.

That notch also houses an improved camera; the M1 Air’s 720p FaceTime camera has been replaced with a 1080p FaceTime camera on the M2 Air. As you can see in the video, it’s an improvement, 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, which can be useful when it’s bright outside. The mini LED display technology and high refresh rate are still reserved for the higher-end 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros.

SSD Slowness

One of the two main “issues” with the M2 MacBook Air has been the slower speed of the base model’s SSD. Apple switched from 128GB NAND chips to 256GB NAND chips with the M2 transition, so the base M2 laptops now only have a single chip. As a result, SSD read and write speeds are significantly reduced. This will be noticeable when transferring large amounts of data, but it may also be noticeable as a slowdown when the 8GB of RAM on the base model runs out and the computer has to swap out data on the SSD. Even with the slower benchmarked speeds of the base M2, most users will not notice a difference in real-world use, especially if you’re only using the M2 Air for document editing, video playback, web browsing, and the like.

Performance of M1 vs M2

But what about the actual CPU performance of the M2? That’s another case of “the majority of people won’t notice a difference in real-world use.” The M2 Air outperforms the M1 Air in benchmarks, but the M2 Air also has a much smaller heat spreader. Although neither laptop has a fan for active cooling, the M1 Air has a much larger metal heatsink. This means that both laptops will get hot and eventually throttle under heavy, continuous workloads. However, given the efficiency of the chips and the fact that neither of these laptops is intended to be a workstation replacement, this shouldn’t be a problem for most people.

Some people who want to get some extra performance out of the M2 have done the same thermal pad mod that was possible with the M1 Air, but it is not recommended.

The improved media engine is responsible for the M2’s biggest performance boost over the M1. The M1’s H264 and H265 hardware encoders are joined by ProRes and ProRes Raw hardware encoders. If you work with a lot of videos, you’re probably aware of the performance boosts that hardware-accelerated encoding can provide. So, if you intend to work with ProRes video on the go and prefer a thin-and-light machine, the M2 Air has a strong advantage.

M1 Pro, M2 Air, or M1 Air?

There is no single solution that will work for everyone. If you already have an M1 MacBook Air and are satisfied with it, I would recommend sticking with it unless you value the new design and MagSafe. If you’re still using an older Intel machine, the M2 MacBook Air is an excellent choice. It will be powerful enough for most use cases while remaining extremely portable and silent.

If you are finally going to switch to Apple silicon, I would look into purchasing a used M1 MacBook Air. The M1 MacBook Air is already $200 less expensive than the M2 Air. If you go used, you can get one for around $800 on eBay – $400 less than the M2 Air’s starting price, which is a fantastic value. Most use cases will not notice a significant difference in performance between the M1 and M2 Air, so it may be worth saving that $400 to you.

Finally, if you know you’ll be constantly editing video on your machine, or putting your laptop through a high-power, sustained workload, I’d recommend the 14-inch M1 Pro MacBook Pro. It will have more ports, a larger screen, a faster chip, and an active cooling system. All things considered, it’s not much more expensive than the M2 Air. The 14-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,799 and comes standard with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB hard drive. The same storage and memory configuration on the M2 Air costs $1,599 and upgrading from the 8-core GPU to the 10-core GPU costs $1,699.

There is no “wrong” answer in this case. Each laptop is well suited to its audience; it’s just a matter of determining which one you are.

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