The MacBook Air is Apple’s least expensive and also lightest laptop, making it suitable for most people’s needs. There are rumors that there will be a MacBook Air powered by the upcoming M3 chip and with a larger 15″ display size option sometime in 2023. But until then, the M1 MacBook Air released in 2020 and the M2 MacBook Air released in 2022 are still the most current models you can buy.
We’re going to cover the key differences and figure out when you might want to choose one model over the other. Let’s get started!
The first thing you’ll notice when looking at the two machines is that they look, well, different. The M1 MacBook Air uses the familiar wedge-shape design that was updated in 2018 with the Retina Display. Apple redesigned the MacBook Air with the M2 release, making it flatter and more like the 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pros. The M2’s height is now uniform instead of changing and it is very slightly deeper, while the width is the same as the M1. The M2 is also slightly lighter at 2.7 lbs. versus 2.8 lbs.
The M1 Air has 3 color options while the M2 Air has 4. Both come in Space Gray and Silver, and the M1 Air features Gold, while the M2 Air adds options for Midnight and Starlight.
Staying on the outside, let’s look at the ports. Both computers have a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right side, and 2 Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C style ports on the left. The big difference is that the M2 MacBook Air has a dedicated MagSafe 3 charging port, though you can still charge over USB-C, which essentially makes it have 2 usable Thunderbolt ports instead of just 1 if you are plugged in and don’t use an expansion hub.
Wireless and Bluetooth
When it comes to wireless communications, both M1 and M2 MacBook Airs are identical in supporting Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0.
When it comes to audio, the M2 MacBook Air has a few advantages. The M1 has 2 speakers that support wide stereo sound and Dolby Atmos playback, while the M2 has 4 speakers and also supports Spatial Audio, both for the built-in speakers and AirPods. The M2’s speakers are also not on a grill like most MacBooks, but integrated between the keyboard and display. Reports indicate the M2 Air’s speakers sound a bit better, as expected, although not on par with the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros.
For microphones, both models have three-mic arrays, while the 3.5mm headphone jack on the M2 supports high-impedance headphones, something the M1 model lacks.
The camera on the M1 MacBook Air is only 720p, while the M2 model has a 1080p camera that Apple says delivers twice the low-light performance, so if looking good on video calls and meetings are a priority, the M2 has an advantage.
Keyboard and Trackpad
For input, the keyboard and touchpad on both M1 and M2 models are very similar, with Touch ID and Force Touch. However, the M1 Air’s keyboard function row is reduced height, while the M2 Air’s top row is sized like regular keys, making both the function keys and Touch ID easier to use. In addition, the trackpad on the M2 is about 1 centimeter or half an inch wider, though a tiny bit less tall due to the additional keyboard height. These keyboard and trackpad changes are pretty good, in my opinion.
The last major feature on the outside is the display. The M1 Air has a 13.3-inch screen with a 2560×1600 resolution and 400 nits of brightness. The M2 Air is slightly more in all areas, with a 13.6-inch screen, 2560×1664 resolution, and 500 nits of brightness. However, the M2 screen does have the notch at the top to explain the added vertical resolution like the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros. It’s designed to work with the Mac menu bar, though some may not like it.
In addition to the built-in display, both the M1 and M2 MacBook Airs support only ONE external display up to 6K @ 60Hz over Thunderbolt.
M1 vs M2: CPU and GPU
Now let’s get to the namesake difference between these computers, the chip. The M1 MacBook Air is powered by the first-generation Apple M1 chip, which comes with an 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU.
The M2 Air also has an 8-core CPU, but since it’s a newer generation chip, the performance characteristics will be different. Single-core performance sees the M2 about 10% faster than the M1, while multi-core performance is about 15% faster.
On the GPU side, there is a version of the M1 Air with an 8-core GPU upgrade, but that is no longer available as a customization option by Apple. The base M2 Air has an 8-core GPU, with the option to upgrade to 10 cores for $100 extra. Again, since the chip generations are different, performance differences aren’t just based on core count scaling.
It’s hard to tell how many GPU cores are on the reported Geekbench benchmarks since it’s not listed, but I looked for patterns to determine where the scores roughly fall for each configuration. I also ran Geekbench 6 Compute Metal benchmarks on my own base M1 MacBook Air to confirm the score ranges, and here are the results.
My M1 Air with 7-core GPU scored just over 30000. The M1 Air with 8-core GPU scores around 33000, consistent with findings that the performance difference is less than 10%. For the base M2 Air with 8 GPU cores, scores range from 38000-39000, which is 25-30% faster than the base M1 Air, or 15-18% faster than the M1 Air with 8-core GPU. Upgrade the GPU to 10 cores and the scores go up to about 45000, which is about 50% faster than the base M1 Air, 36% faster than the M1 Air with 8-core GPU, and 15% faster than the base M2 Air with 8-core GPU.
The $100 extra for 2 more GPU cores on the M2 Air is a 8% price increase for 15% faster GPU performance, but no extra CPU performance. Since CPU is more useful generally, the value is not quite there, but if you do GPU-intensive tasks, it can be worth it.
Another feature difference on the chip is the media engine, which is what Apple calls its hardware video encoding and decoding support. The M1 chip only has acceleration for H.264 and HEVC formats, while the M2 chip has the “full” media engine with added support for ProRes formats as well. Notably, this was something that only the M1 Pro and above chips had in the M1 generation, but now all M2 chips have it, including the non-Pro version.
When it comes to memory, the first thing to note is that the M2 MacBook Air advertises 100GB/s of memory bandwidth, while the M1 doesn’t advertise it all, but is actually 68.25GB/s. In most cases, you shouldn’t care about this number much, since you can’t use it to easily predict performance differences by itself.
Memory capacity, however, is an area to pay attention to. Both base model M1 and M2 MacBook Airs come with 8GB by default, but can be upgraded to 16GB for $200 more. That’s where the M1 stops, but the M2 can be upgraded to 24GB for another $200. That means the upgrade pricing is consistent for both models and tiers at $200 per 8 GB, or $25 per gigabyte.
8GB of memory can be enough for the majority of use cases, though if you are somewhat of a power user or enthusiast, 16GB could make for a smoother overall experience. That’s because having more memory will allow you to keep applications from swapping things in and out to the slower SSD storage if there are too many programs running or they are doing memory intensive tasks.
Speaking of storage, both base M1 and M2 MacBook Airs also come with 256GB of storage, and can be upgraded to 512GB, 1TB, and 2TBs.
While the upgrade pricing may seem consistent between tiers, it’s not. Since we’re upgrading from 256GB already, the 512GB upgrade tier means paying $200 for only 256GB of additional storage, which is actually a price of $800 per terabyte! The 1TB upgrade costs $533/TB, and the 2TB upgrade costs $457/TB.
Storage upgrade pricing is definitely the most expensive part of these computers, and I’d highly recommend considering whether external storage will meet your needs instead. Just get enough internal storage for your applications and working files you need on the go, and store your large files more permanently on either external drives, other computers, or network attached storage systems. These days you can get 4TB SSDs for around $200, which is a whopping 94% less expensive per terabyte than Apple’s 512GB upgrade.
There is another reason why you may want to upgrade the internal storage, however, especially on the M2 MacBook Air, and that would be read and write speeds. The M1 Air’s 256GB SSD has 2 storage chips of 128GB each, while the M2 Air has a single 256GB storage chip. Multiple storage chips allow parallel access, resulting in faster speeds.
This means the M2 Air with 256GB of storage has sequential read/write speeds up to 50% slower than the M1 Air. However, if you upgrade to 512GB, you get 2 storage chips again, so the gap disappears.
For most users, the internal SSD speeds are plenty fast anyway, so the primary reason you choose to upgrade the internal storage capacity should be because you need the extra space. Also, keep in mind that these are sequential speeds; other tests have shown that the M2 generation SSDs have better random read/write speeds compared to the M1, so many everyday tasks will be faster.
If you’re thinking that one reason to upgrade the storage capacity is to increase performance when the system needs to swap from memory to the SSD, you’re not wrong. But if you had to choose just one upgrade, that $200 is better spent to upgrade the memory instead to avoid swapping entirely, as memory is orders of magnitude faster than any SSD.
Battery and Power
Since these machines are laptops, they naturally have batteries and chargers. Apple claims the 49.9-watt-hour battery of the M1 MacBook Air supports up to 15 hours of wireless web or 18 hours of video playback. For the M2 Air, the 52.6-watt-hour battery actually has the same battery life claim, probably because the brighter, larger display consumes more power.
Where there’s a difference is in the chargers. The M1 Air has a 30W USB-C power adapter. Since the M2 Air has a dedicated MagSafe 3 charging port, the 30W USB-C power adapter and cable it comes with naturally has a MagSafe connection on one end. However, you can actually choose to pay $20 extra for either a 35W Dual USB-C Compact power adapter, or a 67W power adapter. A higher wattage means quicker charging speeds, and the 67W adapter allows the M2 MacBook Air to “fast charge” from 0 to 50% in 30 minutes. If you choose to upgrade the M2 chip to 10 GPU cores and the storage to 512GB or higher, then this $20 power adapter upgrade is thrown in for free.
One feature you won’t see or hear, luckily, is the noise level. Apple’s tech specs shows that the M1 MacBook Air emits 3 decibels of noise, while the M2 Air is actually slightly louder at 4 decibels. However, in practice these machines will both be silent, as they are both fanless computers. This is one area the power efficiency of the Apple Silicon chips really comes in handy.
Pricing and Differences Summary
Now that we’ve covered the differences, let’s talk about pricing. The base M1 MacBook Air starts at $999, while the base M2 Air starts at $1199. That’s a price difference of $200 or 20%, which gets you the following:
- A new body design that is 4% lighter
- The M2 chip with 10-15% faster CPU and 25-30% faster GPU performance over the base M1
- A screen that is slightly larger, brighter, and notched
- Full-height function and Touch ID keys + a wider trackpad
- Better speaker and headphone audio quality
- A better webcam that’s 1080p vs 720p
- A dedicated MagSafe charging port
- An SSD with faster random but slower sequential read/write speeds, unless you upgrade it to 512GB or higher
Who Should Buy Which One?
So who should buy which MacBook Air?
For most people who are budget conscious and just want a great computer that will handle their not too demanding tasks, the base M1 MacBook Air will likely serve your needs really well. It is simply a fantastic laptop for the everyday user, and even enthusiasts who are looking for a lightweight option to carry around for portable use.
If you’re a tech enthusiast with some budget to spare, or just want to best thin-and-light Mac laptop, then spending the extra $200 for the M2 MacBook Air is probably one of Apple’s most reasonably priced upgrade options. If it were only the chip’s performance difference, then it might just barely be worth it from a pure value standpoint. But everything else you get on top of that is nice to have for a more well-rounded experience. As a tech enthusiast myself, I would personally go for the M2 MacBook Air if I were to buy a laptop now.
Though nice-to-haves are just that, nice to have, but not essential. If you don’t need the various features and changes brought about by the M2 Air, then the M1 Air is still a perfectly good option, and saving some money is never a bad choice. If you already have an M1 Air, stick with it and wait to see what the M3 chip has to offer, unless you just love to eBay things.
As for spec upgrades, my default stance is to not get them unless you are sure you want or need something. If you aren’t sure, then I recommend buying the lower spec version (often the base model) from a place with a good return policy and trying it out first to see if it will meet your needs. You might be surprised at how capable the base models are, and it could end up saving you a lot of money.
If you do find yourself piling on upgrades because you need more performance, then maybe a thin-and-light laptop isn’t actually your priority. The price starts getting into the 14-inch MacBook Pro territory, so you should consider that as a possible alternative.
Why M1 and M2 Are Both Current
One unique thing about the MacBook Air versus other Macs is that both M1 and M2 chip options are still available for purchase directly from Apple as current products. With all the other Macs that have an M2 option, the previous M1-generation product is no longer being sold new by Apple.
Why does Apple do this? Well, the first reason is likely because Apple wanted to raise the base price of the MacBook Air with the M2 chip, but also wanted to continue capturing the “value” market and drawing attention by advertising a sub-$1000 starting price.
The second reason is likely to utilize a psychological principle called the compromise effect, which makes us more likely to choose the middle option within a set of products. People generally want to avoid the cheapest option since it’s probably not good enough, but the most expensive option is also splurging too much. The one in the middle is the safest choice that will probably be enough to meet your needs but also not cause you to overpay.
What does this have to do with the MacBooks? Well, notice that Apple offers not 2, but 3 MacBooks in this price range, the $999 M1 MacBook Air, the $1199 M2 MacBook Air, and the $1299 13″ M2 MacBook Pro. Because the M2 MacBook Air is in the middle, we are more likely to choose it as the least risky choice. Tricky, right?
Now that we know this, however, we can be careful and rationally compare the key differences between the models with our true needs to make sure we pick the right one. Think about that the next time you go to a coffee shop or restaurant with Small, Medium, and Large options.