Apple’s new MacBook Air has picked up both critical and commercial acclaim. The first reviews have highlighted the new design, long battery life, and welcoming software; while the volume of pre-orders has seen waiting times grow to four weeks.
Look below the surface, and you’ll find that not all is perfect in the MacBook Air, and it’s important to know what impact Apple’s decisions will have on your MacBook Air experience
Let’s start with the good. Apple has essentially lifted the baseline performance of the M2 MacBook Air (and the M2 MacBook Pro). In day-to-day use, web browsing, media playback, social media apps, and office work, these laptops are going to be super smooth… although, to be fair, almost any laptop family that has an entry-level price of $1199 is going to have a similar baseline for the core consumer apps.
If you are looking for a laptop that will keep you on top of life, then you shouldn’t have any significant problems with any of Apple’s Macs in general, and no issues with this MacBook Air in particular.
You’re also going to pick up a laptop with a new design language that can sit alongside the fashionable end of the Windows 11 laptop market… a thin angular case, a screen that dominates as much of the potential viewing area as possible, long battery life, a large and expansive touchpad, physical function keys… it’s all here.
And that includes the problematic side as well because much as the manufacturers would want us to believe different, no laptop is perfect.
Let’s talk about the new Apple Silicon chipset in the M2. This has contributed to lifting up the baseline performance, but there are issues when the M2 is put under load and asked to do some heavy work, such as rendering video. Test on the M2 MacBook Pro showed that even with the cooling fan running at full power, the MacBook had to throttle performance to stop the chip from overheating. The M2 MacBook Pro is taking longer than the M1 MacBook Pro to conduct the same task.
Unfortunately, the M2 MacBook Air suffers from the same problem – perhaps not surprising given it is running the same M2 chipset. What is surprising is that Apple has put itself in the situation where the new machine – a machine that may be focused on the consumer but is advertised as having the power to do what you need it to do – has less potential for hard work than its predecessor.
The CPU is not the only area where Apple has apparently skimped on specifications. While the entry-level with 256 GB storage offers the same space as the M1 MacBook Air’s 256 GB model, Apple has consolidated the storage into a single NAND chipset on the M2 Air, compared to twin 128 GB NAND chipsets in the M1 Air.
With only a single chip compared to the dual chips of the previous model, the throughput of data to the M2’s SSD is half that of the M1 Air. While this doesn’t carry over to the models with higher levels of storage, for the regular consumer who’s just going to ‘get a laptop, one of those Apple ones’, Tim Cook and his team are offering a slower macOS laptop.
The official comment from Apple is that this weakness in the Air’s SSD is compensated by the strength of the other components around it:
“Thanks to the performance increases of M2, the new MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro are incredibly fast, even compared to Mac laptops with the powerful M1 chip. These new systems use a new higher density NAND that delivers 256GB storage using a single chip. While benchmarks of the 256GB SSD may show a difference compared to the previous generation, the performance of these M2-based systems for real-world activities are even faster.”
That’s as it may be, but Apple made a deliberate choice – for whatever reason – to offer a slower 256 GB for consumers. It’s worth noting that Apple’s decision has not slowed down the more expensive 512 GB model.
Finally, there’s the issue of the battery and the charger. Thanks to the aforementioned ARM-based Apple Silicon the battery life on the MacBook Air is pretty much best in class; ARM offers lower power requirements compared to similar tasks on Intel-based machines on top of the efficiencies you can find when the OS only has a very small number of hardware configurations to work with (unlike Windows, which needs to work with everything under the sun).
No, I’m talking about charging the battery. We’re not yet at the iPhone stage where Apple can get away with not shipping the MacBook with a charger, but it feels like we are getting close. Buy the entry-level MacBook Air, and you’ll find a basic 30W charger in the box. Go for a higher model and you’ll find a slight specs bump and a 35W charger. This is Apple’s new USB-C charger with two ports so that you can charge both your Mac and your iPhone or iPad – there’s just enough power to do this (slowly); it’s a nice thought for those travelling light.
If you want to use the MacBook Air to its full potential in terms of charging, you’re going to need to buy another charger – specifically Apple’s 67W charger. This is normally $59, and while this isn’t as painful as the $150 required for the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro fast chargers, it’s still an additional cost imposed by Apple. You can upgrade the charger at the point of sale to either the 35W or the 67W for $20, but this feels like a salami-slicing move from Apple to extract as much money as possible outside of the headline price.
There’s little doubt that Apple has strived to make this MacBook Air the best MacBook Air yet. And in normal use, Apple’s trimming of the specs and the bill of material will not make a huge difference. The MacBook Air is not sold as an average laptop. It’s sold as one of the best Apple laptops it has ever made, with a potent mix of power, potential, and ease of use.
Showstoppers? No. Something to be aware of? Most definitely. Apple’s choice to reduce the potential of the M2 chipset, to offer lower read and write speeds on the entry-level MacBook Air, and to nickel and dime those looking to make the most of the laptop’s feature set, feel decidedly un-Apple.