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The case for buying the M2 MacBook Air over the M3 model

The MacBook Air on a white table.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

Apple’s MacBook Air M2 recently stood at the top of our list of best laptops, and for good reason. It’s incredibly well-built, exuding an elegance that few laptops can match. It’s also plenty fast for productivity users, and its GPU is optimized for creators. Its keyboard, touchpad, and display are all top-notch.

Enter the MacBook Air M3, which (hint) took over the MacBook Air’s place on that list. The upgraded chipset offers even faster performance, particularly in GPU-intensive apps, and the M3 model supports an additional external display (with the display closed). It’s $100 more, but is that uptick in price justified? Let’s dig in.

Specs and configurations

  Apple MacBook Air M3 Apple MacBook Air M2
Dimensions 11.97 inches x 8.46 inches x 0.44 inches 11.97 inches x 8.46 inches x 0.44 inches
Weight 2.7 pounds 2.7 pounds
Processor Apple M3 (8-core) Apple M2 (8-core)
Graphics 8 GPU cores
10 GPU cores
8 GPU cores
10 GPU cores
RAM 8GB
16GB
24GB
8GB
16GB
24GB
Display 13.6-inch 16:10 Liquid Retina IPS 2560 x 1664 13.6-inch 16:10 Liquid Retina IPS 2560 x 1664
Storage 256GB SSD
512GB SSD
1TB SSD
2TB SSD
256GB SSD
512GB SSD
1TB SSD
2TB SSD
Touch No No
Ports 2 x USB-C with Thunderbolt 4
1 x 3.5mm audio jack
2 x USB-C with Thunderbolt 4
1 x 3.5mm audio jack
Wireless Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3 Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.3
Webcam 1080p 1080p
Operating system macOS Sonoma macOS Sonoma
Battery 52.6 watt-hours 52.6 watt-hour
Price $1,099+ $999+
Rating 4 out of 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars

The Apple MacBook Air M3 maintains the previous pricing of the M2 model it replaces. That means it starts at $1,099 for a base M3 chipset, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. MacBooks perform better with 16GB of RAM, which is a $200 upgrade, but the 256GB SSD no longer suffers the performance penalty of the previous model’s smallest storage option. So, the extra $200 to upgrade to 512GB isn’t as necessary. Fully configured, the MacBook Air M3 is $2,299 for an upgraded M3, 24GB of RAM, and a 2TB SSD.

The MacBook Air M2 replaces the M1 model as the entry-level MacBook but with a price drop. It’s now priced at $999 for a base M2, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. The same caveats apply regarding RAM and storage. Fully configured, the higher-end MacBook Air M2 costs $2,199.

You can save $100 by going with the MacBook Air M2, and it’s a great choice for the extremely budget-conscious buyer. However, anyone who wants the upgraded CPU and GPU performance of the M3 will find their money well-spent.

Display and ports

The screen of the MacBook Air on a table.
Digital Trends

Both laptops offer the same display, a 13.6-inch IPS display running at 2560 x 1664 and pumping out up to 500 nits of brightness. In our testing of the MacBook Air M2, the display provided very good color width at 100% of sRGB, 90% of Adobe RGB, and 100% of DCI-P3, with very good accuracy at a Delta-E of 1.08 (1.0 or less is indistinguishable to the human eye). The MacBook Air M3’s display is every bit as strong.

One very important change to the MacBook Air M3 is its support for two external displays when the lid is closed. That’s a significant improvement over the MacBook Air M2, which only supported one external display with the lid open or closed. While the MacBook Air M3 is also limited to a single external display when the built-in display is in use, the ability to use two high-resolution (up to 5K at 60Hz) displays when the lid is closed will please those who want more screen real estate. For some people, that alone is a reason to spend extra money on the new model.

It should be noted that if you open the lid of the M3 MacBook Air, it will automatically shut off one of your external monitors. As noticed by Marques Brownlee, that means you won’t be able to use the MacBook Air keyboard and touchpad in this setup — you’ll need to use external peripherals. There are also reports that performance is reduced while the lid is closed due to thermal restraints.

I’ll also mention wireless connectivity here, as it’s one of the only other changes between these two laptops. The M3 MacBook Air gets the upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E, whereas the M2 is still on Wi-Fi 6. It’s not a huge difference,  but rather some future-proofing to make sure you get the highest internet speeds if you plan to upgrade your router anytime soon.

Performance

Bladur's Gate 3 being played on the M3 MacBook Air.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

Of course, the most significant change is the Apple Silicon M3 chipset upgrade, which provides a significant uptick in performance thanks to a switch to a 3nm process. In Geekbench 6, the M3 was 19% faster in single-core performance and 20% faster in multi-core. That is a significant increase and will provide significantly faster productivity performance.

In the Cinebench R24 GPU test, the improvement was more stark. The M3 GPU was 76% faster than the M2 GPU, thanks to various improvements that include built-in hardware mesh shading support and ray tracing and the new Dynamic Caching memory system. We didn’t test either chipset using any live games, but Apple says the new chipset’s graphics provide up to 60% faster frame rates in No Man’s Sky over the M1 and up to a 60% improvement in Final Cut Pro. In our own testing, the M3 MacBook Air should be capable of playing many AAA games.

Finally, the M3 has a faster 16-core Neural Engine that should help speed up AI functionality. That’s an increasingly important specification, and it makes the MacBook Air M3 more competitive with laptops using the Intel and AMD Neural Processing Units (NPUs).

Geekbench 6 single/multi
Cinebench R24 (GPU)
Apple MacBook Air
(M2)
2,606 / 10,024 1737
Apple MacBook Air
(M3)
3,102 / 12,078 3,049

Portability

A side of the MacBook Air showing the ports.
Digital Trends

Both laptops are very small and relatively light machines that will fit into any backpack and won’t wear you down. There’s no difference between the two in their portability — but they’re two of the thinnest laptops you can buy right now.

The MacBook Air M2 has excellent efficiency and some of the best battery life in a 13-inch laptop today. We saw 18 hours of web browsing and 21 hours looping our test video, which is twice as long as the Windows laptop average. You’ll get not just all-day longevity but battery life that lasts well into a second day of typical use. The M3 MacBook Air is every bit as long-lasting at around 19.5 hours of web browsing.

Design

The MacBook Air on a table in front of a window.
Digital Trends

The MacBook Air M3 retains the stunningly thin CNC-machine aluminum chassis at just 0.44 inches thick and weighing 2.7 pounds. The display bezels are small, thanks to a controversial notch in the display for the webcam, making for a pleasantly dense and very small laptop. The chassis is solid and exudes quality, while the lid is just the tiniest bit bendable. Note that the MacBook Air M3 also has a 15-inch model that’s incredibly thin at 0.45 inches and light at 3.3 pounds.

The same colors are available as before, including Silver, Starlight, Space Gray, but now there’s a new option in Midnight. The more fingerprint-resistant (almost) black color first debuted on the M3 MacBook Pro, and is now available on the MacBook Air as well. Aside from the new color, the MacBook Air M3 and M2 are identical in appearance — and gorgeous. Few laptops offer the same elegance and fastidious design.

The Magic Keyboard remains in place with its large keycaps, plenty of key spacing, and the same snappy, precise switches that aren’t the deepest around but are still the most comfortable. The Apple Force Touch haptic touchpad is the same size and provides the best haptics on a laptop, thanks to the additional functionality provided by the Force Click feature.

Wired connectivity is also the same, with dual USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4 support and a 3.5mm audio jack. Power is provided by a MagSafe 3 connection that protects against accidental spills and keeps the USB-C ports available when charging. The webcam is also unchanged, providing the same 1080p resolution and software tools.

Is the M3 MacBook Air really worth it?

The MacBook Air on a table in front of a window.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

There’s much less of a difference between the M3 MacBook Air and the M2 MacBook Air than in the previous generation. The two laptops look identical (minus the Midnight color option) and offer a very similar overall package. In the past, only $100 separated the M2 MacBook Air from the M1 MacBook Air despite having a completely different design.

So yes, the MacBook Air M2 remains a great laptop for $999 if your budget is tight — especially since it’s often selling for $899.

The MacBook Air M3 is certainly worth the $100 if you can actually benefit from the extra GPU performance (and multi-display support), but as a basic laptop, you won’t find a better option for under $1,000 than the M2 MacBook Air.

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