The M2 MacBook Air is here and like the M1, Apple has two options to choose from, one with an 8-core GPU and one with a 10-core GPU. We tested both models here at Macworld, the entry-level 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 $1,199. costs.
That’s a pretty big price difference, which left us wondering what exactly you get for that extra money. It turns out you get a lot.
With two fewer GPU cores, less RAM, and an SSD configuration that doesn’t seem optimal for read and write speeds, the cheapest MacBook Air faces several hurdles when trying to compete with its more expensive sibling. In some cases, we were shocked at how much worse it performed, but there were also some pleasant surprises.
Read on to find out how both the top and entry-level versions of the M2 Air fared in our speed and performance benchmarks. Where possible, we’ve included equivalent scores for the 256GB version of the M1 MacBook Air released in 2020, and for the quad-core Intel i5 model released the same year.
Table of Contents
M2 MacBook Air: Raw processing power
We started by looking at processing power using the Geekbench 5 and Cinebench R23 CPU benchmarks. We weren’t expecting a huge difference here, as our 2022 Airs have the same processor with the same number of CPU cores, although the top model we tested had twice as much RAM (16GB vs. 8GB).
A promising start, with the entry-level Air tracking close to its more expensive sibling in all four tests (it never lagged more than 2.2 percent) and showing gains of up to 16.5 percent on the 2020 M1 Air. In fact, the 256GB Air scored slightly higher than the 1TB model in Cinebench’s multi-core component, although it was down by less than 1 percent and probably just an anomaly.
M2 MacBook Air: Real World Tasks
CPU benchmarks give you an idea of a machine’s speed on paper, but we want to know how these Macs will behave in the real world. We’ve set them up with our usual set 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 every other test we saw significant performance loss when using the cheaper model. Exporting with ProRes settings took 27.6 percent longer. Stabilizing an iMovie clip, meanwhile, took a whopping 43 percent longer; we actually had to wait longer than when using the 2020 M1 model (which was also an entry-level model and cost just $999).
In our HandBrake testing, the 256GB model was 27.2 percent and 20.4 percent slower than the 1TB version, respectively. In both cases, it was closer to the M1 model in speed than its own sibling.
M2 MacBook Air: Disk Speeds
We test the read and write speeds of our test Macs with Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. We were especially curious how the base Air fared in this test, after reports that the SSD is up to 50 percent slower at read speeds and 30 percent at write speeds. (The explanation, based on the machine’s disassembly, is that Apple is using a single 256GB chip instead of two 128GB chips like last year.)
The 256 GB Air was unable to refute these poor forecasts. Read speeds averaged 47.9 percent slower than the 1TB model, while write speeds were a whopping 50.2 percent slower, much worse than expected. In either case, the entry-level Air is significantly slower than the 2020 model. You probably won’t notice the slowdown in normal day-to-day use, but for $1,199 we expect much stronger SSD performance.
M2 MacBook Air: Gaming Performance
Finally, we looked at the performance of the two Airs with some demanding games: Rise of the Tomb Raider and Civilization VI. Both games include a benchmarking mode that allows you to measure frame rates without the use of additional software.
This is a test where Apple’s own publicly released specs for the two machines led us to expect a significant difference. Simply put, the 1TB Air we tested has a 10-core GPU, while the 256GB model only has 8 cores, so lower frame rates are to be expected.
However, the test results were somewhat confusing. Tomb Raider numbers were largely predictable, with the 8-core Air lagging 43 percent on high settings and 26 percent behind Medium. (In both cases, frame rates for the entry-level M2 were lower than for the 2020 M1) But the cheaper model punched well above its weight on Civilization, performing on a par with the 1TB. MacBook Air with M2 on high settings and slightly better on medium.
The top-end Air is undoubtedly a better gaming machine, but the loss of two GPU cores doesn’t seem to hinder the cheaper model as much as expected. However, performance is likely to vary from game to game, and we’d recommend caution if there’s a specific graphically demanding title you’re planning to enjoy.
Unsurprisingly, this year’s $1,199 MacBook Air underperforms the more expensive model. What’s more disturbing How much slower it is when it comes to read and write speeds (about 50 percent in each, according to our testing) and on real-world stabilization, export, and encoding tasks.
It’s always tempting to go for the cheapest configuration of a new Apple product in order to enjoy the new design and processor at the lowest possible cost. As for the M2 MacBook Air, though, we’d advise against it, as testing shows you’re getting a machine that doesn’t outperform a cheaper 2020 model in some respects, and worse in a few. Granted, you get 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 recommend paying extra for the upgraded setup – 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 few hundred dollars.