Apple offers the M2 chip in 2 different but very similarly priced laptops, the 13″ MacBook Air and the 13″ MacBook Pro. Which one should you buy? This comparison between the two machines can help you decide.
The M2 chip launched in the 13″ MacBook Pro in June of 2022, and in the MacBook Air a few weeks later in July. As it’s been almost a year, there are rumors that we could see an update for either machine to the M3 chip pretty soon, which you may want to wait for if you can. If you need to buy before that happens, then these two computers are the latest non-Pro level Apple Silicon laptops currently available.
Design, Screen, Dimensions
The MacBook Air saw a huge redesign compared to the M1 version, while the 13″ MacBook Pro kept the same design as the M1 version. The M2 Air takes design inspiration from the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros with the flatter shape and also the screen with a notch.
The Air has 4 color options, while the Pro only has 2. Both are available in Space Gray and Silver, while the Air also has Midnight and Starlight as choices.
When it comes to size, the Air’s height is 28% thinner than the Pro’s, while the width is the same, and the depth is just a tenth of an inch longer, so the footprint is nearly identical. For the weight, the Air is about 10% lighter at 2.7 lbs versus 3 lbs.
When it comes to ports, the M2 MacBook Air has an advantage. Both the Air and the Pro have 2 Thunderbolt 3 / USB 4 ports, along with a 3.5 mm headphone jack with “advanced support for high-impedance headphones”. However, the MacBook Air also features a dedicated MagSafe 3 charging port, which frees up one of the 2 Thunderbolt ports for other peripherals while plugged in, which can be a big deal.
Built-in and External Displays
The M2 Air’s screen is 13.6 inches with a resolution of 2560×1664, while the 13″ Pro’s screen is slightly smaller at 13.3 inches with a resolution of 2560×1600. The extra 64 vertical pixels on the Air is used for the notch, so they are both effectively 16:10 aspect ratio screens. However, the Air’s screen has slightly better color reproduction, claiming 1 billion colors versus the Pro’s “measly” millions of colors.
Both the M2 Air and Pro computers support only “One external display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz” over the Thunderbolt port. If you need more, you’ll have to upgrade to an Pro-level or higher chip.
Keyboard and Trackpad
There is another screen on the 13″ MacBook Pro’s keyboard, the infamous Touch Bar that Apple has decided to no longer continue on its other laptops. The physical function keys on the Air are full-height, including the larger Touch ID button.
For the speakers, the MacBook Air’s redesign comes with a four-speaker sound system and a 3-mic array for input. The Pro only has 2 speakers, though it claims high dynamic range, and the three-mic array is supposed to be studio-quality. Both have spatial audio support. All said, the speaker sound quality may not be much different between the 2 machines, while the mics on the Pro may be slightly better.
One area the MacBook Air has a clear advantage is the webcam, which is 1080p. The MacBook Pro’s webcam is only 720p.
Wireless and Bluetooth
When it comes to wireless, both the Air and Pro are identical in supporting Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0.
M2 (Air) vs M2 (Pro)
Now let’s talk about the heart of the machine, the M2 chip. Unsurprisingly both the M2 MacBook Air and 13″ MacBook Pro use the same M2 chip. However, the Air’s base model has an 8-core CPU with 4 performance and 4 efficiency cores, and an 8-core GPU. The GPU can be upgraded to 10 cores for $100 extra, which is actually the same and only configuration found in the MacBook Pro.
For CPU performance, we would not expect to see differences since both are the same chip and 8 cores, and that’s exactly what we see in Geekbench where single-core scores are at mid 2500’s and multi-core scores in the high 9500’s.
While the 10-core GPU has 25% more cores, you probably won’t get perfect performance scaling. Looking at the Geekbench 5 Metal scores, the 8-core GPU MacBook Air scores around 26000, while the 10-core Air and Pro score around 30000, a difference of 15%.
The fact that most MacBook Air entries were for the 8-core GPU and very few for the 10-core GPU indicates that not many choose to upgrade the GPU cores. The $100 upgrade is an 8.3% increase over the base model price of $1200. Since you get no extra CPU performance and just 15% extra GPU performance, it’s not necessary a great deal.
Another reason you may not want to choose the GPU upgrade is because of thermal throttling. The M2 MacBook Air is passively cooled with no fans, which is great most of the time since it’s completely silent. However, this also means that the M2 chip can get really hot when put under load, and performance starts dropping. Since the 10-core GPU consumes more power, it will start to overheat even quicker, leading to a smaller performance gain than you might expect. In fact, the 10-core can even perform worse than the 8-core in certain cases, like this Shadow of the Tomb Raider benchmark.
Thermal throttling affects not only GPU, but also CPU performance. The MacBook Pro is actively cooled with a fan, which lets it run longer at max performance levels without throttling. This report says the M2 Air loses about 25% in multi-core tests compared to the Pro. However, this doesn’t mean the M2 MacBook Pro is immune to throttling. Indeed, there were some reports that it can also reach extreme temperatures and thermal throttle as well.
Taking a step back, though, I don’t think thermal throttling for either the Air or the Pro is that big of an issue for the target customer these laptops are going for. The usual tasks that you’d be doing shouldn’t sustain loads long enough for throttling to kick in, and if you do need to render a large file on occasion, it’s ok to wait a bit longer for it to finish.
If it’s not ok for you wait, then that means you should actually be looking at a more powerful, and also more expensive, computer. The exception to this is that casual users may also want to game sometimes, which you can certainly still do, if the game is even supported on Mac. Since games are all built differently, try to look for benchmarks to see if the game you want to play actually runs better on the 10-core GPU M2 chip if going with the Air. Power users who also want to game on their Macs will likely want to upgrade to Pro or Max level chips anyway, as those have a LOT more GPU power.
Since it’s the same M2 chip, both MacBooks come with 8 GB of unified memory by default, which can be upgraded to 16 GB for $200, or 24GB for $400. That’s a consistent memory price of 8 GB for $200 for each tier.
Similarly, both Air and Pro come with 256GB of storage in the base models, and can be upgraded to 512GB, 1TB, or 2TB. Because the storage is being upgraded from 256GB and not 0, the actual price per terabyte for each upgrade tier is $800, $533, and $457.
$800 per terabyte makes this SSD storage upgrade the most expensive part of these Macs, and I’d highly recommend trying to work with external storage instead. Just get enough internal storage for your apps and working files you need on the go, and store your large files more permanently on external drives, other computers, or network attached storage systems. 4TB SSDs can be had for around $200, which is only 6% of the cost per terabyte that Apple is charging for the 512GB upgrade.
On these M2 MacBooks, there is another reason to upgrade the internal storage, however, and that would be read and write speeds. With the M2 computers, Apple only includes half the number of storage chips per SSD at the 256GB capacity, meaning sequential read and write speeds can be half as fast as the 512GB or larger SSDs. They are even slower than the base model 256GB SSDs in the M1 computers, as those had multiple storage chips as well.
However, these SSDs are still plenty fast for everyday tasks, and random read/write performance has improved in the M2 generation as well compared to M1. Unless you have a disk intensive workload, in which case you might not want to pick up a non-Pro M2 computer anyway, I wouldn’t place too much importance on SSD speed differences when deciding whether to upgrade the storage, but rather on how much internal storage capacity is needed.
Battery and Power
When it comes to battery life, the 13″ MacBook Pro has a slight advantage. The M2 Air has a 52.6-watt-hour battery that gives 15 hours of wireless web and 18 hours of video playback. The Pro has a 11% larger batter at 58.2-watt-hours, which gives 17 hours or 13% more wireless web usage, and 20 hours or 11% more video playback time. The slightly better usage compared to battery size on the Pro could be attributed to the slightly larger screen on the Air.
The charging situation on the Pro is simple: you get a 67W USB-C power adapter. However, on the Air, the base model with 8-core GPU actually comes with a 30W adapter, but you can upgrade to a 35W dual USB-C compact power adapter, or a 67W adapter, both for $20. Alternatively, you get the adapter upgrade of your choice included for free if you upgrade to a 10-core GPU for $100 and to 512GB of storage for $200 or higher.
Interestingly, the 67W adapter allows the M2 Air to fast charge, going from 0 to 50% charge in around 30 minutes, but this is NOT advertised as a feature for the MacBook Pro.
Now let’s talk about the price. The base model M2 MacBook Air starts at $1199 USD, while the 13″ M2 MacBook pro starts at $1299. However, since the Air has the $100 chip upgrade option, including that to make the specs the same between the Air and Pro actually places both at the same price of $1299. That means both machines cost the same, so the one you buy should mainly be a consideration of feature differences.
Who Should Buy Which One?
So who should buy the Air and who should buy the Pro? Everyone… and no one, respectively. Well, ok, it’s not actually that extreme. But for the primary buyer that these computers are targeting as the “affordable” (in Apple’s lineup at least), basic everyday laptop, both machines will likely serve your needs from a performance standpoint.
That means the Air has several advantages over the Pro, including a slightly bigger and more colorful screen, being thinner and 10% lighter weight, has a better camera and possibly speakers, has full-height function and Touch ID keys, a dedicated MagSafe charging connector that can double the number of usable Thunderbolt ports, and can cost $100 less with the 8-core GPU option.
Yes, the Pro has some advantages as well, including better sustained performance due to active cooling, 11% more battery life, and maybe a slightly better mic. The Touch Bar has mostly been received negatively, so it doesn’t really count. Of these advantages, performance and microphones really aren’t that applicable for the target audience. Anyone who prioritizes performance or recording quality should get a more powerful machine and a dedicated microphone. That means the only really useful benefit of the 13-inch Pro is the extra battery life, but both the Air and Pro have really good battery life, so I don’t see the extra bit coming in handy that often.
In summary, for the majority of people who are considering these two machines, I think the M2 MacBook Air is the overall winner and the best one to go for. Those who should go for the 13-inch Pro likely have a very specific use case where a little bit of extra performance is needed and the budget is extremely tight so getting a 14-inch MacBook Pro (even a used M1 Pro model) isn’t feasible.
So if the M2 MacBook Air seems like the clear winner for most people, you might wonder why Apple continues to offer the 13″ M2 MacBook Pro model. Well, the 13-inch Pro re-using the same design as prior models means minimal additional effort and cost was needed to launch this product, and it let’s Apple use and start the MacBook Pro name at a lower price point, making a “Pro” machine more accessible, even if it really shouldn’t be classified as one.
There is also another marketing reason, though. In my previous video comparing the M1 and M2 MacBook Airs, I talked about the compromise effect that causes us to gravitate toward choosing the middle option. Besides the M2 MacBook Air and 13″ MacBook Pro, Apple still offers the M1 MacBook Air at the lowest end, making this a choice set of 3 options with the M2 MacBook Air in the middle.
Another principle at work here, however, is the decoy effect, also known as attraction effect or asymmetric dominance effect.
As our comparison showed, the 13″ MacBook Pro doesn’t really seem like a great value for most people. It does have some wins, but for most customers considering a laptop in this price range, the M2 MacBook Air can be considered to be dominating the 13″ MacBook Pro.
For both reasons mentioned, the 13″ M2 MacBook Pro’s existence actually helps push people to pay the extra $200-$300 to upgrade to the M2 MacBook Air from the M1 MacBook Air. Now that you know, you can try to remind yourself to be rational and compare the product’s capabilities with your real needs when deciding on a purchase to ensure you get the most value for your money. That’s true for expensive tech purchases and for everyday purchases at coffee shops or restaurants.