Has M2 made the M1 MacBook Air a better option?

(Apple)

WWDC 2022 not only announced the successor to the M1 chip, but also the first major MacBook Air redesign in four years. Whilst there are improvements across the board, a couple of Apple’s choices do raise the question: Is the M2 MacBook Air actually a better buy than the M1 version?

When M1 launched in December 2020 I ditched my still relatively new Intel MBA because all the noise in the industry was clear: the future of processing was coming up Apple. This was a big move for me – 7 months after a pretty hefty outlay on one, solidly performing device I went out and spent almost the same amount on… well exactly the same device. Albeit with a slightly different piece of silicon in it.

It’s a decision I don’t regret in the slightest. The M1 MBA is in my opinion still one of the best ultrabooks available in the market, 18 months after its launch. In the same period of time Window’s laptop manufacturers have gone through several design iterations and processor generations; only now starting to catch up on the MBA in terms of an all round ultra portable laptop package.

Like many then, I’ve been keeping half an eye out for the next iteration of the MBA, rumoured to wield the fabled M2 Apple Silicon. On the 6th of June at WWDC, Tim Cook and co revealed to the world the new M2 MBA, and whilst its improvements across the board, its not the clean sweep I was hoping for.

What’s Changed

This isn’t a full technical comparison of the two devices, for that go and check out… every other tech reviewer ever.

The headline change (literally in the name) is the new M2 chip. More supported RAM, more GPU cores, better support for 4/8K streaming. Generally harder, better, faster stronger – and these are all good things.

It’s hard to say what upgrade this will be in real terms, because Apple is the best product marketing company on the planet and loves itself a legally-but-not-always-practically accurate graphic. It sure looks sweet as for the promotional material, but bear in mind the quoted “1.4x faster video editing performance” improvement on the M1 comes with enough caveats that it shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Always read the small print! (Apple)

The silicon isn’t the only improvement though. The chassis has been modernised to reflect the new MacBook Pro look (more on that shortly), doing away with the distinctive MBA wedge that’s been around for a decade and reducing the overall device volume. MagSafe charging makes a return alongside two Thunderbolt 4 ports and the headphone has been improved to support high impedance audio. Even the much maligned webcam has received a 1080p upgrade, coupled with four speaker, spacial audio supporting system.

Other changes are more visual, with the 100 nit brighter display extending ever so slightly to 13.6 inches, albeit at the cost of a Pro/iPhone style notch. Apple has done away with the not-so-popular gold colour this year, instead adding “Midnight” and “Starlight” to its line up.

The changes are almost exclusively positive, with Apple adding rather than taking away in all departments, albeit to varying degrees. For example, the “Liquid Retina technology that supports 1 billion colours in the P3 Gamut” would appear to be exactly the same technology in the M1 MBA, only with the word “liquid” in front of Retina, and even drops the PPI very slightly. Apple’s marketing would have you believe the M2 features a significant screen upgrade, but instead they are marginal improvements to brightness and size.

Always read the label! (Apple)

This isn’t to moan – marginal upgrades in every department can still add up to a significant uplift overall. The looming spectre at the MacBook feast though: Do these improvements justify the M2 MBA’s biggest single change?

The Price of Progress

The M2 MBA starts at $1199.00, £1249.00 or €1499.00 in the US, UK and EU respectively. As we say down my way; that’s money.

Living in the UK and not being super knowledgeable on overseas markets (but seeing from internet chatter its a similar situation) I’ll focus on UK pricing. £1249.00 is for the base 8 core CPU/GPU M2 with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage. This is fine for day to day web browsing and the like, if not a bit stingy in 2022.

To go up to the 10 core GPU model will cost you £100, whilst doubling SSD and RAM will come at £200 a pop. That means the best M2 chip in an MBA with 16GB RAM and a 512GB SSD will come in at £1749.00.

A tale as old as time (Apple)

As a point of comparison, the base model of the M1 Pro MacBook Pro 14 with the same spec is currently available at third party retailers for £1735.00. The new Dell XPS 13 Plus, the company’s flagship ultrabook, is available with Intel’s new 12th gen i7 and the same RAM/SSD combo for £1498.99 from Dell themselves – and with Dell you can guarantee a “12% off all laptops” sale is only ever around the next corner.

I may be getting ahead of myself though. Ultimately the base option is cheaper than the XPS 13 Plus base offering (albeit with half the SSD) and not far off other premium devices from Microsoft, Lenovo and HP. Its still a feature packed and powerful device, against most premium Windows laptops out there it’s still a competitive product on its own merit.

The meaningful conflict comes from within its own ranks. The M1 MBA currently retails at £999.00. At the time of writing the silver model is available on Amazon for £899, with even better offers found in the wild.

This means in real terms it will cost you at least £350 more to pick up the M2 MBA over its older M1 sibling, a price increase of almost 40%.

For Better and For Worse

To be clear – the M2 MBA is a superior machine, and doubtless a great option to have available for those who absolutely want the latest and greatest tech. Apple are product specialists after all – and the M2 MBA is undoubtedly a great product. With the education discount the M2 MBA will likely shed $100/£100/€100 or so, reducing the gap somewhat, but to some degree the damage has already been done by the M1’s pedigree.

This is because the M1 MBA has been undoubtedly one of the easiest laptop recommendations to make over the past 18 months. A powerful, fanless, thin and light laptop with great screen, keyboard/touchpad, speakers and battery life for under £1000? I found myself selling the device to life long Windows users because frankly, it was better than anything Windows laptop manufacturers were offering in this bracket.

The recommend for the M2 MBA may still come… its just harder to make at this price point. Even at base line RRP, a circa 25% price lift for quality of life updates across the board is not automatically justifiable for the majority of people. Yes my photo editor friend might be interested in the advanced capabilities of M2. Sure my rich mate might only buy the latest Apple products so he will get it anyway.

Can’t deny, it looks good (Apple)

But realistically – do any of these features substantially change the usability of this device enough to justify a 25-40% uplift on the M1? I’m not so sure. The M1 is plenty powerful enough for 90% of productivity and web browsing use cases. The 100 nit additional brightness is nice to have but most won’t see the difference. The aesthetic change is more efficient, but some will prefer the classic wedge design, even if that means living with a larger bezel and general footprint. The volume and 50g weight reduction won’t change what bag it fits into. MagSafe is handy on one hand leaving another Thunderbolt port free, but on the other I use a dongle with power delivery, so rarely if ever use both ports anyway. It would just be another cable to carry.

Even the webcam – a much maligned “fault” of the M1 MBA, is not going to be a meaningful upgrade for the majority of people. Tech reviewers love to slam laptop webcams, but they kind of miss the point. Laptop webcams are for business calls and zoom calling your Nan – not for filming HD quality content. Even if most people had good enough internet for 1080p streaming a conference call, they still put a blur filter on to hide the pile of laundry in the background. Apple are seemingly looking to deliver a “use your iPhone as a webcam” function anyway, reducing the problem for those that experience it.

MacBook Air or Pro Lite?

The second point of comparison is upward, to it’s beefier and slightly older MacBook Pro 14 with the M1 Pro. I’m not going to consider the M2 Pro 13 at present, as apart from Touch Bar fanatics and M2 test benches I still can’t fathom why it exists.

Though we don’t yet have third party benchmarks, the expectation is that the M1 Pro will still hold a significant performance gain over the M2. It would be highly unusual for Apple to make its own Pro line up redundant less than a year after release by a cheaper offering.

A striking resemblance (Apple)

At the base configuration the M2 MBA is far cheaper, but as highlighted above the same RAM/SSD config puts these devices in the same ballpark at around £1750 when considering third party sellers. Whilst it may not be an equivalent comparison on the face of it, it’s a use case worth thinking about. After all most high end phones have 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSDs nowadays, and whilst Apple’s steadfast refusal to allow expandability is now the norm, a future proofing buyer may consider the upgrade.

At this price point it’s an interesting comparison. The Pro 14 is more powerful, has more ports, a better, bigger screen and only really comes at the cost of 350g and a slightly larger footprint. Whilst I definitely wouldn’t recommend someone kitting out the M1 MBA with the both upgrades (costing £1399), it isn’t an easy recommend for the M2 either. You would have to say at that price point the Pro 14 is the more versatile device and more sensible purchase, even if running on the M1 tech. It’s an odd position to not recommend a specced out Air, because the Pro becomes a better deal. Not that Apple cares, they get your money either way.

In my view the M2 MBA loses some of the Air charm in trying to look like it’s more serious Pro sibling. The angular visuals and dogmatic adoption of the notch could end up dividing opinion in those Air fans who thought the Pro looked blocky rather than sleek.

So should I get the M2 MacBook Air?

The simplest answer is: Yes, but only if you really want the M2 MBA. Duh right? Let me explain.

Is it worth it? (Apple)

Person 1: “Can you recommend a decent laptop?”

I would not recommend the M2 MBA to a person who is simply looking for “a laptop recommendation.” The M2 MBA does not trump its older M1 sibling in terms of value or functionality to the degree its worthwhile for most people. A £350 difference is quite staggering, and swiftly propels what was an excellent value proposition into the realm of premium product.

So if you are someone who;

  • is after a good value all round day to day laptop,
  • Not obsessed with technical specs;
  • likes MacOS; and
  • is debating if M2 is worth the cost and the wait times,


in my view
, I would go with the M1 MBA and save yourself some money.

Person 2: “I can’t wait for M2!”

There are however plenty of people out there who have been holding off on their daily driver upgrade for M2 – the next evolutionary step in Apple silicon. For those people I would say that ultimately this is a better system, and you likely aren’t buying a dud by picking up this device. Only time will tell with third party benchmarks as to performance, but even if the theme of marginal improvements carries over to the M2 chip this will still be a strong device.

So if you’ve been specifically waiting for this release – its probably good enough that you won’t be disappointed in buying it.

Of course if you pray at the alter of Steve Jobs and swear by the silver apple you are one of the evangelists who, let’s be honest, will probably buy this anyway. You can add it to the stack of every other MacBook you’ve bought over the years.

Person 3: “But is it better than my M1 MacBook Air?”

This is the hardest crowd to answer satisfactorily, and the group I belong to. I bought my M1 MBA on release and have been nothing but happy with it. So it stands to reason that an improvement in every department would be well worth the upgrade?

Well as you can tell from the blog, I’m not sold. At the end of the day the best device is the one you own already – and if that’s doing the job for you then I don’t see a reason to upgrade other than luxuries and small comforts. If the base model came with more storage or RAM it would make for tougher decision, but as it stands it would be a pretty significant outlay for marginal gains in my real world use case.

That being said, if money is no issue, or you simply must have the latest Apple tech then go nuts. Alternatively, if your region has a decent second hand market you may be able to recoup over half of the cost back of the M2 MBA by selling your current device. I wouldn’t bother going to Apple for a trade in, who offered £330 credit for my perfectly functioning M1 MBA.

Conclusion

The M2 MBA looks to be a great device that will have pleased a lot of people by ticking many of the positive improvements some were hoping for. That being said – the hefty uptick in price may be a bit too much to swallow for the casual consumer, with improvements not as meaningful as the leap from Intel to M1.

For now I will wait for M2 benchmarks and hands on reviews, whilst also keeping an eye on how pricing and the rest of the Mac line up over the remainder of 2022. It could be that the M2 MBA reaches a more attractive price as the market settles, or the M2 Pro line up comes in at a point making it a better deal for me personally.

What do you think? Will you get the M2 MacBook Air? Let us know in the comments below.

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