The M2 MacBook Air is here, and just like the M1, Apple has two options to choose from, one with an 8-core GPU and one with a 10-core GPU. We’ve been testing both models here at Macworld, the advanced model that starts at $1,499 (the model we tested and reviewed here has 1TB of storage and 16GB of RAM for $1,899) and the entry-level model with 256GB of storage, which costs $1,899. 1,199.
That’s a pretty big difference in price, which led us to wonder what exactly you’re getting for the extra money. Turns out you’re getting quite a bit.
With two fewer GPU cores, less RAM, and an SSD configuration that seems suboptimal for read and write speeds, the cheaper MacBook Air faces several hurdles trying to compete with its more expensive sibling. In some cases we were surprised by the worst that worked, but there were also some pleasant surprises.
Read on to find out how the top-end and entry-level versions of the M2 Air performed in our speed and performance benchmarks. Wherever possible, we’ve included equivalent scores for the 256GB version of the MacBook Air M1 released in 2020 and the quad-core Intel i5 model released the same year.
M2 MacBook Air: raw processing power
We start by looking at processing power using the Geekbench 5 and Cinebench R23 CPU benchmarks. We weren’t expecting much of a difference here, given that our 2022 Airs have the same processor with the same number of CPU cores, although the top-end model we tested had double the RAM (16GB vs. 8GB).
A promising start, with the entry-level Air trailing close behind its more expensive sibling in all four tests (it was never more than 2.2 per cent behind) and showing gains of up to 16.5 per cent on the 2020 M1 Air. , the 256GB Air scored slightly higher than the 1TB model in Cinebench’s multicore component, though this was less than 1 percent and probably just an anomaly.
MacBook Air M2: Real World Tasks
CPU benchmarks give you an idea of how fast a machine is on paper, but we want to know how these Macs will perform in the real world. We set them up with our usual battery of stabilization, export, and encoding tasks in iMovie and HandBrake 1.5.
There was hardly any difference in speed from the M2 Airs when exporting a 4K file on high settings, but in all other tests we saw a significant performance loss when using the cheaper model. Export in ProRes settings took 27.6% longer. Meanwhile, stabilizing an iMovie clip took an alarming 43 percent longer; in fact, we had to wait longer than when we used the 2020 M1 model (which was also an entry-level unit and was only $999).
In our HandBrake tests, the 256GB model was slower than the 1TB version by 27.2% and 20.4%, respectively. In both cases, it was closer in speed to the M1 model than its own brother.
M2 MacBook Air: Disk Speeds
We tested the read and write speeds of our review Macs using Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. We were particularly interested to see how the base Air fared in this test, following reports that its SSD is up to 50 percent slower in read speeds and 30 percent slower in write speeds. (The explanation, based on machine teardowns, is that Apple uses a single 256GB chip instead of two 128GB ones like last year.)
The 256GB Air couldn’t refute these dire predictions. Read speeds were 47.9% slower than the 1TB model on average, while write speeds were a staggering 50.2% slower, much worse than expected. In both cases, the entry-level Air is considerably slower than the 2020 model. You probably won’t notice the slowdown in normal everyday use, but for $1,199, we’re expecting much stronger SSD performance.
M2 MacBook Air: Gaming Performance
Finally, we tested the performance of the two Airs with a couple of demanding games: Rise of the Tomb Raider and Civilization VI. Both games include a benchmarking mode that allows you to measure the frame rate without the use of any additional software.
This is a test where Apple’s published specs for the two machines led us to expect a significant difference. In a nutshell, the 1TB Air we tested has a 10-core GPU, while the 256GB model has only 8 cores, so expect lower frame rates.
However, the test results were slightly mixed. Tomb Raider’s numbers were largely predictable, with the 8-core Air 43 percent behind on high settings and 26 percent behind on medium settings. (In both cases, frame rates for the entry-level M2 were lower than the 2020 M1.) But the cheapest model far exceeded its weight in Civilization, with performance comparable to 1TB. MacBook Air with M2 on High settings and slightly better on Medium.
The higher-end Air is undoubtedly a better gaming machine, but the loss of two GPU cores doesn’t seem to hurt the cheaper model as much as expected. However, performance is likely to vary from game to game, so we advise caution if you plan on enjoying a specific graphically demanding title.
It’s no surprise to find that this year’s $1,199 MacBook Air has less impressive performance than the higher-end model. What is more worrying is how many slowest it is when it comes to disk read and write speeds (about 50 percent each, based on our tests) and in real-world stabilization, export, and encoding tasks.
It’s always tempting to go for the cheapest configuration of a new Apple product so you can enjoy the new design and processor for as little money as possible. When it comes to the MacBook Air M2, though, we’d advise against this, as tests suggest you’ll be getting a machine that in some ways doesn’t perform any better than a cheaper 2020 model, and in some ways worse. True, you’re getting a bigger and better screen, MagSafe and a new design, but the M2’s performance boost just isn’t there.
If you decide to buy the new Air, and we’d recommend paying more for the upgraded configuration, make sure you find the lowest price by checking out our guide to the best MacBook Air deals. Or just grab an M1 Air and save a couple hundred bucks.