To find out, we did a little test: On a clear morning in August, we set up the new 2020 M2 MacBook Air and the comparable M1 model so that I could use them both without knowing which was which. And despite my geek bravado, even I couldn’t see the difference consistently.
Here’s how it went and everything else you need to know about the new MacBook Air.
Is it really faster than the previous one?
We embarked on a series of blind tests that we thought represented what most people would need their computer for at some point.
First, surf the web. I installed Chrome on both machines and jumped between the same 10-15 tabs while playing the same 4K YouTube videos in the background. They both seemed to handle the load equally well, although people who like to keep dozens of tabs open are likely to see both machines struggle. (Pro Tip: If you’re in the market for a new computer, get the most RAM you can afford.)
Next on the list were video calls – with a twist.
Apps like Snap’s Snap Camera, which puts silly – and sometimes very sophisticated – filters on your face, a machine can be heavily loaded. That can be especially true when using it while streaming or chatting in a Zoom conversation. Neither computer seemed to bat a proverbial lash as I went wild with the filters, and at one point proclaimed that – based purely on the satisfying shaking physics of my potato face – I should use the M2 model. I was wrong.
It wasn’t until we started editing videos that we really started to feel the difference between these two computers.
When it came time to export our 4K video clips at a much lower resolution, the M2 Air finished a few minutes earlier than last year’s model. That may not sound like much, but those moments add up quickly when you’re working on larger projects, or many projects in a row. But then again, if that’s the kind of thing you do a lot, you’re better off with a MacBook Pro anyway.
Further testing – including games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and a slew of traditionally nitpicky benchmarks – confirm the M2 Air is the better performing machine. It just takes extra work to see that speed in action – work that many people may not notice right away.
For people who mainly rely on their computers for tasks such as: surfing the web and watching movies, the difference in chip may never be obvious. If I just described you, a cheaper M1 Mac would probably suit you just fine.
If recommending last year’s model feels a bit odd to some people, it’s because Apple’s entire laptop lineup is a bit odd right now.
The Air is one of two new laptops to use Apple’s M2 processor, which (as we’ve seen) has some advantages over the 2020 M1 chip. But last year, Apple started building computers with different versions of the M1 – the M1 Pro and M1 Max – which outperform the M2.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the M2 was meant to set a new standard. Years of iPhone launches have taught us that the new-numbered model is a bigger step forward than the same-numbered model, plus a modifier. But despite what the new part number suggests, the M2 isn’t the fastest, best processor you’ll find in an Apple laptop; it’s just the newest.
Stranger still, the next step up from this MacBook Air is the M2 MacBook Pro – in every way it’s the faster machine, but since it still uses an old design, it doesn’t really feel like an upgrade.
Of course, no one ever buys a new laptop just for the chip in it. And in this case, the rest of the pack is arguably just as important as the M2 itself.
- The screen. At 13.6 inches diagonal, this “Liquid Retina” display is the largest screen Apple has ever crammed into an ultraportable laptop. (That means it’s easier to squeeze even more things onto the screen at once.) And while it’s not as fancy as last year’s updated MacBook Pros’ screens, it’s a bit brighter than the previous model’s.
- An improved webcam. The previous MacBook Air had a notoriously crappy webcam, which stinged even more as Apple released the laptop as people got used to hiding in place due to Covid-19. Thankfully, Apple has significantly improved the quality this time around, meaning you won’t look like a blurry, pixelated mess on your next Zoom call.
- Great battery life. Perhaps the biggest benefit of Apple’s shift to its proprietary processors is that its laptops can last longer on a single charge. I’ve been able to use the M2 MacBook Air for over 10 hours during busy work days and still have enough power to last the next morning. That’s a huge improvement over Apple’s older models — at best, my last Intel MacBook Pro peaked for about seven hours — and it’s slightly better than the M1 model’s battery.
- The notch. Not only is it weird to glimpse it all day long; it also takes up space in the macOS menu bar that other apps sometimes use. And other laptop manufacturers have almost perfected the look of the edge-to-edge display without having to rely on large camera cutouts.
- The new “Midnight” finish. Apple’s latest MacBook Air comes in a new dark blue finish called “Midnight,” which sounds fun and mysterious until you realize it picks up palm and fingerprints in a jiffy. (Apple pointed us to the clean support page if this bothers you.)
- The higher starting price. The most basic M2 MacBook Air, with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage, starts at $1,199. That’s $200 more than the M1 MacBook Air — a laptop still worth considering — costs today.
The M2 MacBook Air is a sleek, powerful machine and a great option if you haven’t upgraded your laptop in a few years. But if you mainly rely on your computer for web browsing, office/school work, and Netflix, then the $999 M1 MacBook Air is more than enough and probably will be for a while.
So who should pay the $200 premium for the M2 model? I’d say mainly people who want a better webcam and a nicer screen, although the extra horsepower tucked away here gives you a little room to grow in as your needs change.