At Apple’s launch event in Cupertino, we had the chance to get our hands on Apple’s new MacBook Air. This is a completely redesigned model, with a new look and a brand new M2 chip. So how does it feel, and what kind of upgrade is it over the M1-equipped MacBook Air that’s still on sale?
Look and feel
Starting with the looks, it is 20% smaller in volume than last year’s model. This is thanks to a single-sided logic board, which is about half the size. Oddly enough, it is actually larger in surface area, albeit thinner. It’s only 11.3mm thin, but a bit deeper than the old one. Still, it feels great in the hand, adopting the design language found in the new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros.
There’s no MacBook Air logo below the screen, or anywhere, which seems to be the new way of working. It comes in 4 colors including silver, space gray and two new variants: Starlight and Midnight. Starlight has a sort of champagne look, while Midnight looks black in one light and dark blue in the other. This is the real standout color, but in our opinion it does show fingerprints, so you’ll probably have to erase it more than the others. It’s also worth noting that the gold color option is gone, so those wanting some extra bling are short on hands and will likely look to the more muted Starlight or silver color options.
Connections and power
As with the previous MacBook Air, there are two USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports, each with its own dedicated controller, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. However, the headphone jack is high impedance, so it should play well with higher quality headphones.
Otherwise, the new model has Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi 6, which is the same as last year, and unfortunately does not get Wi-Fi 6E.
Also new is the MagSafe charging port, along with a nice color matching cable. You don’t even get this on the top-of-the-line 16-inch MacBook Pro model. While the immediate benefits of MagSafe are that it will come off if you trip over the cable rather than pulling your Air off a table, it takes up quite a bit of space around the edge. It can also be up to 140 watts, but this is not a voltage the air will ever see. You can still charge with a USB-C cable if you prefer.
Speaking of ports, the two Thunderbolt connectors do not support setup with two external monitors. Apple says the MacBook Air only supports one external display, but it can have a resolution of up to 6K, like the hugely expensive Apple Pro XDR display. It seems the only way to get dual monitor support is to ditch the Air altogether and opt for the 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pros. It looks like the new 13-inch MacBook Pro can’t handle dual monitors either.
Apple has also introduced a number of charging options. The first is a new 35 Watt dual charger, so you can plug in two cables (USB-C on one end) and charge your MacBook Air and an iPhone, for example, at the same time. This is a Galium Nitride (GAN) charger, which means it is fairly compact for its total wattage. It splits the 35W in half for each device plugged into it, or full power if there is only one. Some have asked if any of the ports can be used for data, and no, they are for power only.
The new MacBook Air supports fast charging provided you use a 67 Watt charger. This means that you can fully charge half (50%) in 30 minutes. Of course you don’t get the 67 Watt charger as standard, or the 35 Watt dual charger for that matter. On the entry-level MacBook Air, you get a 30-Watt single cable brick, with no bells or whistles, so expect to add a little more $$ to the bottom line to upgrade your charging.
Bigger and brighter screen
The 13.6-inch Retina display looks very good, both thanks to the fact that it’s 13.6-inches instead of 13 on the M1 MacBook Air, and thanks to a 500NIT high-brightness panel. This is 25% brighter than the old model, and while there’s a notch at the top for the camera, the extra height complements the screen’s dimensions so it doesn’t take anything away. This new screen can handle 1 billion colors and has 4.2 million pixels, so it’s very nice and sharp. Although it’s a 10-bit panel, it doesn’t support High Dynamic Range (HDR) — you’ll need the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros for that — and it gets an 8-bit signal anyway.
Taking up the space in the notch, a new 1080P webcam features the ‘keep you in the frame’ Center Stage feature along with improved low-light clarity. Of course, if you want to improve the quality of your web camera even further, you can now wirelessly connect to an iPhone with the new Continuity Camera feature.
Interestingly, there are no speaker grilles on the MacBook Air. However, speakers are still there and are located under the keyboard, near the display hinges. This is a 4-speaker system with 2 woofers and 2 tweeters, and there is also support for Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos.
The keyboard felt solid during testing, and there are now full-height function keys and a full-sized fingerprint scanner like the one on the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
While the MacBook Air’s new look looks great on the outside, the big question is what kind of performance Apple’s new M2 chip gives it over the M1 version? Until we have a chance to run some benchmarks and do a full review, the short answer is it’s about 20 percent faster. However, it’s important to note that the M2 is also more efficient than the M1, so you get extra performance while using less power.
We witnessed a Photoshop demo, which processes complex filters on large photos up to 70 percent faster than the M1 MacBook Air. The new Air is also a very capable video editing platform, supporting up to 11 simultaneous streams of 4K ProRes video or 2 streams of 8K video in full quality when running Final Cut Pro.
Notable improvements for the M2 vs. M1 chip include faster performance cores, more efficient cores, and the addition of ProRes hardware decoders, in addition to H.264 and H.265. There’s also now 24 gigabytes of Unified Memory instead of 16, so applications have more memory to work with. More details about the new Apple M2 chip†
Thanks in part to the M2 chip, the battery life is impressive. The new Air has about the same as last year’s model, with 18 hours of video playback and 15 hours of web browsing. There’s also a larger battery, which is 52.6 watt-hours versus 49.9, or just over 5% larger. keep in mind that since the M2 is more powerful and efficient, it has to do more work per battery charge, thanks to the permeable Air.
Who is the new MacBook Air for?
Considering the M2 chip is quite capable, it’s hard to imagine this being an “entry-level” machine. As the M1 model remains on sale, it would be the entry-level model, and even then it should handle most day-to-day tasks ranging from web browsing to office apps to video streaming, photo and video editing.
The M2 can do even more, and there are both 8- and 10-core GPU variants to choose from. Since the M2 chip gets up to 24 GB of Unified Memory, you can choose a 10-core GPU and a 24 GB variant that can manage even more intensive content creation and development applications.
Since there’s also an M2-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro, you can take it one step further. The main technical difference between the new Air and the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is the active fan-driven internal cooling. The MacBook Air has no fan, which means it is completely silent. However, the 13-inch MacBook Air can keep the M2 chip cooler, meaning peak performance lasts longer, so if you have long rendering queues or large data sets, the 13-inch MBP is the better choice as it won’t throttle performance. due to excess heat. However, it still has the old case design and is in dire need of a refresh.
From here, the next step up is the 14 and 16 inch Mac Pros with the M1 Pro and then M1 Max chips. Apple says the M2 is the starting point for a new family of chips, which happens to be faster than the M1, but pro users should choose the M1 Max, M1 Pro and M1 Ultra variants. They will also take advantage of the powerful benefits offered by the more expensive laptops and the Mac Studio desktop.
So is the new MacBook Air with M2 the “all-day DIY device for everyone”? Given our quick hands with it, we’d say a resounding ‘yes’. It looks supermodel, is feather-light and portable, with a bright and spacious screen. Plus, it’s packed with power, has Sydney to LA battery life, and peacefully quiet operation. We’d like to think this should keep any regular laptop user happy, and then some.
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Valens Quinn traveled to WWDC in California as a guest of Apple Australia.
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