Review: Apple’s M2 MacBook Air

The M2 MacBook Air’s fanless design, battery life, and clear bright screen — along with its impressive performance per watt — makes for a machine you’ll use productively for years.

Apple, Apple Silicon, M2, Mac, MacBook Air
Apple

I’ve spent some time using one of the new M2-based MacBook Air laptops introduced at WWDC 2022. It delivers everything Apple promises — and if you’re looking for a notebook, but don’t need the horsepower of a MacBook Pro, you still get plenty of power and performance in this Mac.

Ending an era in bright silence

The MacBook Air (a review model from Apple) dispenses with the classical (and hugely popular) wedge shape that helped define the range. Apple’s newest machine is slim (0.4 inches high), occupies 20% less volume than before, and sports a design that very much brings it into line with the aesthetics across Apple’s range – rounded corners, thin, rectangular. I see it as similar to (but thinner than) a MacBook Pro. These design decisions matter because the MacBook Air is Apple’s most popular notebook, which de facto means it is also the company’s most popular Mac. (The assumptions is that Apple’s notebooks outsell its desktops by at least two to one.) The MacBook Air is also fanless, which means no matter what you ask it to do, it will be quieter than a whisper in the silence of the night.

The Mac weighs just 2.7 pounds. Dimensions are 0.4-in. by 12-in. by 8.4-in. The last-generation model with an M1 chip weighs 2.8-pounds and is roughly the same size, though 0.6 inches at the thickest point. (The last ever Intel model weighed 2.75 pounds and was about as thick. You’d be forgiven to see some consistency here.)

Open it up and you’ll find a beautiful self-illuminating Magic Keyboard with a full set of function keys and Touch ID. As a Butterfly Keyboard veteran, I find it a joy to use a decent keyboard with comfortable action. The screen is splendid, too — a 13.6-in. Liquid Retina display with P3 support for a billion colors at 500 nits of brightness. You get much more display, too, as the Mac has thinner bezels. The only compromise is the appearance of a notch to hold the 1080-pixel webcam and mic.

For the record, I have no problem with that notch; I quite like it — and it does add a few pixels to the 16:10 display.

While the display is not as bright as the XDR ProMotion displays in the high-end MacBook Pros, it is a big improvement over the M1 screen and a leap forward in contrast to the last-generation Intel MacBook Air.

  • M2 MacBook Air: 13.6-in. Liquid Retina display, 2560x1664-pixel resolution, 500 nits, P3 Wide color, True Tone.
  • M1 MacBook Air: 13.3-in. LED-backlit with IPS, 2560x1600-pixel resolution, 400 nits, P3 Wide color, True Tone.
  • Intel MacBook Air: 13.3-in. Retina display, 2560x1600-pixel resolution, 400 nits, TrueTone.

While it’s tempting to simply compare this Mac with the last available model, the truth is that with millions sold, it’s going to be MacBook Air users still on Intel chips who are likely to be the biggest cohort purchasing these machines. They get a larger, brighter display and a processor that delivers a major increase in performance. If they use Photoshop, they’ll see huge performance benefits from a move to Apple Silicon.

MacBook Air M2

How's the M2 chip's performance?

I opened 27 Safari tabs (I refuse to use Chrome unless I must); an 18-track GarageBand project; watched an Apple TV show in picture-in-picture mode; played a YouTube video in Safari; had Apple Music playing; and used Pixelmator to render a series of effects on an open 10GB image (with Mail open and while working on an 18-track GarageBand project).

Usually, that’s more than enough activity to make an Intel Mac stutter, certainly after 20 minutes. (If you need a Mac to handle more intense computational tasks such as professional image or movie editing, programming, or data analytics, then a MacBook Pro likely makes more sense.) But the M2 MacBook Air I tested didn’t struggle at all. It didn’t even get warm, meaning it's equal to any task most of us would throw at it.

Oh, one more thing — if you don’t push the Air to the limit, you can expect up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing and 18 hours of video playback on a single charge. Even with all the work I asked the Mac to do, the battery held up. You can use the Air all day and still have enough left in the tank to watch a movie in the evening. When you do, the four-array speakers provide a beautifully balanced and detailed sound at a decent volume, though I doubt you’ll get complaints from the neighbors.

M2 MacBook Air test data

Attempting to quantify the performance, I ran a series of Geekbench 5 tests; these returned results in line with the aggregated data published on that site: Single Core performance, 1,882; multi-core, 8,696.

In very broad strokes, that means you’re getting performance on par with a 2019 Mac Pro with an Intel Xeon chip, faster than an M1 iMac and in the same ballpark as most M1-powered MacBook Pro systems

How does it compare with the last-generation Intel MacBook Air?

That system delivered single core performance of 1,053 and 2,811 multicore with the Intel i5 chip. On paper, at least, anyone upgrading from an Intel Air will see an immediate and obvious boost in performance. If you’re considering equipping your team with these machines, that makes for an immediate productivity benefit that will help keep staff happy, too.

What fast are the M2 Air's read/write speeds?

There have been multiple reports that the entry-level model with a 256GB drive uses a single SSD chip, which makes for slower read/write speeds. The MacBook Air in hand was not that model; it offers 1TB of storage, so this limitation is not reflected in my test results.

However, it is important to note that the 256GB model will deliver slower read/write speeds, so I recommend you upgrade to the 512GB or 1TB alternatives instead.

So, what did I experience? Blackmagic disk speed tests showed a write speed of around 4145MBps and read speeds circa 2627MBps at 1GB stress. At 5GB (maximum load), writes fell to around 2400MBps, while read speeds held steady. That’s in a test suite, of course, and in my experience actual performance remains faster than I’ve experienced with the M1 Macs, which frankly blew me away.

Your experience may vary, of course, and I do suggest that anyone needing really fast read/write speeds for work may well be running tasks more suitable to one of Apple’s Pro series.

Memory bandwidth for the Unified Memory has reached 100GBps in the M2 Air, up from 68.25GBps in the M1. That’s a nice improvement, but don’t neglect that the M1 Pro chip offers 200GBps. So if memory bandwidth matters to you, you might need to go Pro. For most of us, the air beats expectations.

Apple's M2-powered MacBook Air Apple

Apple's newest MacBook Air is powered by the new M2 chip.

What M2 MacBook Air model did I test?

I tested an 8-core Air with a 10-core GPU equipped with 16GB of memory and the aforementioned 1TB flash storage. This is not a standard model; both the storage and memory are upgrades. As tested, this Air I sells for $1,899 — $700 more than the entry-level M2.

Apple’s decision to loan me this particular configuration for review suggests that if you are in the market to buy one, it makes sense to pay for the extra RAM if you want equivalent performance. Eagle-eyed readers will note that the $1,899 price means the cost falls just $100 short of the 14-in. MacBook Pro with an M1 Pro chip. Of course, getting the 10-core CPU in the Pro will cost an additional $600 for a total $700 additional spend.

Confusing, isn't it?

Apple now offers Macs in so many build-to-order configurations that the actual price structure has become opaque. This makes it harder to decide what you need and always leaves just enough temptation to spend a little more.

Apple makes great computers, but is also very, very good at creating upsell opportunities, which is what I think is happening here.

Are there any M2 Air problems?

As I write this, reports are emerging to claim these Macs get scratched easily. I can’t comment on that as I’ve not experienced it. But it's worth considering when choosing from the four available colors (Silver, Space Gray, Starlight, and Midnight). In general, dark aluminium shows blemishes more.

Another complaint is that the Mac will only run a single external display, albeit at 6K.

The inclusion of just two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports could be a dealbreaker for some, though for me this pain is compensated for by the addition of a braided cable and MagSafe 3 port. MagSafe, of course, is a charging port that should automatically decouple from the Air\ in the event someone trips over the power cable.

The value of that protection is not lost on anyone who has ever dropped a Mac. Displays make such a remarkable sound when they hit the floor — though it’s usually hard to hear above your own screaming.

And that brings me to the FaceTime camera. It’s great that Apple has upgraded this to 1080p, at last. It’s an improvement that should have taken place a long time ago, but does mean that remote and hybrid workers will come across better in the next team meeting, warts and all.

Who should buy the M2 MacBook Air?

If you already have an M1 MacBook Air, you probably don’t need to upgrade to the M2. If you’re running an Intel Mac of almost any kind, however, you’ll achieve an immediate performance boost when you move to Apple Silicon.

Always get the best Mac you can afford. When you do, accept that Apple will introduce a better model of what you just acquired years before you are ready to upgrade. You should also pay for additional memory, as this is one of the best ways to boost performance and future-proof your device.

Don’t neglect that Apple still offers the M1 MacBook Air for just $999. This is an excellent price for an also excellent machine, and if you’re looking for a second Mac, or a machine to make available as a resource to desktop-based teams, that may well be the way to go. Yes, the M2 model is better, but the M1 remains a huge improvement above older laptops, including Intel-based MacBook Pros.

In general, if you're looking for a notebook to become your regular ride, for most users the M2 MacBook Air’s fanless design, fantastic battery life and clear bright screen — and its impressive performance per watt — add up to a machine you’ll use happily and productively for years.

No wonder Mac share is increasing in both consumer and enterprise markets.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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