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The Apple MacBook Air conundrum: M1 or M2?

Should you spend wisely on the far from obsolete Apple MacBook M1 Air or is the M2 Air’s extra oomph worth the premium?

The 2022 ground-up redesign around the new M2 chip shows the MacBook Air juggernaut is in no mood to slow down. (Apple)

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The MacBook Air is Apple’s most popular laptop, for good reason. For years, the wedge-shaped device has remained the category-defining standard for ultraportable design, a go-to choice for anyone who needed a solid, reliable everyday laptop…if you had the budget. In 2020, when Apple updated the 2020 MacBook Air with the first-generation M1 chips, the performance and longevity gains saw the Air top practically every “best of” list yet again. The 2022 ground-up redesign around the new M2 chip shows the MacBook Air juggernaut is in no mood to slow down.

Interestingly, Apple hasn’t discontinued the M1 MacBook Air, retailing a single base variant M1 Air ( 99,900) alongside the base variant M2 Air ( 1,19,900). Therein lies the MacBook Air conundrum—is the new model worth it or should you spend (and save) wisely on the far from obsolete M1 Air?

Pick up the new M2 MacBook Air if…

…you want the new ‘mini MacBook Pro’ design.

Let’s face it—the tapered wedge design of the M1 Air (and many Airs prior) was getting a little long in the tooth so the switch to the modern, squared-edge design à la the iPad Pro, the iMac and the 14-inch/16-inch MacBook Pro was long overdue. The older model may have been thinner than the M2 Air at its thinnest but the latter’s uniform thickness (0.44 inches) is thinner overall and 20% smaller by volume (not to mention 50g lighter), while packing in a marginally bigger display. The MacBook Pro inspiration continues on the screen, with a notch on top of the display, so you will have to make your peace with that.

…you care for a better display and audio.

The M1 Air had a perfectly usable display with support for the P3 wide color gamut but the M2 Air amps it up by thinning out the screen bezels to fit in a marginally bigger display (13.6 inches vs 13.3 inches on the M1 Air) in almost the same physical footprint. Crucially, the M2 Air’s screen gets 25% brighter (at 500 nits) than the M1 Air, which makes it better for use outdoors or in bright environments. The notch houses a much improved 1080p webcam (over the M1’s 720p), an overdue upgrade for video calls, particularly if the ambient light is less than ideal. The sound setup also sees an upgrade to a fuller, four-speaker setup with support for Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos. The 3.5mm headphone jack now has support for high-impedance headphones, which does away with the need for an external amplifier for high-end headphones.

The Apple MacBook Air with the M2 processor is displayed as visitors take photos of it, Monday, June 6, 2022, following the keynote presentation of Apple's World Wide Developer Conference on the campus of Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California.
The Apple MacBook Air with the M2 processor is displayed as visitors take photos of it, Monday, June 6, 2022, following the keynote presentation of Apple's World Wide Developer Conference on the campus of Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California. (AP)

…you need the extra port, fast charging.

A hugely underrated feature on the new M2 Air is the return of the MagSafe charging port, which, like earlier, can easily snap on magnetically or detach as easily. That way, if someone were to trip over the power cable, your laptop wouldn’t be hurled across the room. Using the MagSafe port for charging also frees up the M2 Air’s two USB-C ports, so you could connect accessories, an external monitor or a hard disk—on the M1 Air, you would have to sacrifice one of the ports if you needed to plug into a power outlet. While battery life isn’t significantly different on the M2 Air, the ability to charge to 50% in just 30 minutes with an optional 67W (or higher) power adapter is certainly welcome.

…you need the gains in performance* (*conditions apply)

Unsurprisingly, the M2 chip on the new Air, which is based on the A15 Bionic chip from the iPhone 13, sees performance improvements in benchmarks over the M1-equipped Air, but those differences are marginal when you compare the M1 Air base variant (7-core graphics) with the 8-core graphics on the base M2 Air. You would have to upgrade to the higher spec ( 1,49,900) variant to see the big jump in graphics performance. If you want to take advantage of the M2’s new top-tier 24GB memory option for large media files, you will have to spend another 40,000 over the base 1.2 lakh price point. Then there’s the issue of the slower storage on the base M2 Air variants, with Apple using a single 256GB SSD chip instead of a pair of 128GB SSD chips, as was the case on the base M1 Air.

Those two chips on the base M1 Air could be accessed simultaneously, making read and write operations nearly twice as fast as the base M2 Air. The M2 chip on the Air occasionally runs hot enough that the computer has to throttle performance (due to the Air’s fanless design) till temperatures are reined in, which somewhat negates the performance boost one would expect from the newer, faster chip. And while this doesn’t necessarily impact usability on a day-to-day basis, ever so often, the older M1 model could run cooler and faster (for a sustained duration) than the new M2 Air base variant…while also costing 20,000 less.

The MacBook M1 and M2: a comparison.
The MacBook M1 and M2: a comparison. (Source: Apple)

Opt for the older M1 MacBook Air if…

…you prefer more bang for your buck.

Look, 1.2 lakh isn’t a small amount for a new laptop, so if you are looking to get on the Apple Silicon bandwagon without breaking the bank, the M1 Air is still an excellent option. Even a year and a half after its launch, it continues to leave similarly priced competitors trailing in everyday workflows. Using the base M1 Air and the base M2 Air interchangeably over the past month for everyday browsing, lightweight video editing and streaming content, I found no perceptible difference between the two in daily use.

Sure, the revamped design and the marginally larger, brighter screen with smaller bezels on the M2 Air are a joy to behold, but that could be matched by saving all that extra cash. And if you are coming from an older MacBook without Apple Silicon, the M1 Air itself would yield a massive improvement in performance.

…you prefer the older wedge design.

There’s a reason the wedge-shaped design of the original Air has inspired a generation of me-too ultraportables—the iconic design still has some life left in it (plus it’s the only one available in a gold colour variant!). The keyboard is great, the screen is sharp and bright enough, battery life is good for a day’s worth of work and macOS runs swimmingly well on the laptop. What’s not to like?

Making your older MacBook last longer

If you want to hold on to a 2017-18 Air, you could start with caring for the laptop. It may sound obvious but all the protective cases and sleeves cannot replace treating your laptop with that little bit of respect and care—for example, opening the lid in a rough manner or tossing the laptop carelessly on a couch can, over time, lead to a loosening of hinges and parts. Avoid harsh cleaning agents to wipe the screen; use a microfibre cloth to wipe it down and use a mild cleaning solution for the body. Brush the ports down ever so often.

Use the battery wisely: It can last for a good four-five years, the trick is not to drain the battery needlessly, particularly all the way down to zero per cent. Consider enabling Optimized battery charging on your Mac, which learns your daily charging habits and delays charging past 80% when your Mac is plugged in, to save battery health and reduce charging stresses on the battery (you can, of course, ask to charge to full if you know you are going to have a full, unplugged day ahead). If your workflow allows, you could also try using the Safari browser, which uses much less energy than the gas-guzzling Chrome browser.

Some more housekeeping: Try and avoid filling the SSD storage on your Mac to the brim. Not only does write performance suffer when there’s insufficient space, you also squeeze the machine on virtual memory (when the laptop uses storage as RAM), further slowing down your MacBook. Installing the latest software updates brings performance and security improvements even to older Macs, so don’t skip these.

Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets at @2shar.

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