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The Apple M2 is a half-step forward… and that’s OK
The new chip makes perfect sense for the new MacBook Air, but not so much for the new MacBook Pro - why is that?
As it was largely expected to, Apple chose to reveal the next member of its own processor family during this year’s WWDC: the M2 is also what many were expecting, more or less, as it is based on the same architecture and the same manufacturing process. The bad news: it’s not the generational step forward Apple would like consumers to think. The good news: it’s enough of an improvement as to make at least one of the two new laptops built around it a very attractive proposition. As for the other… not so much.
So, first things first: the M2 is indeed more of an M1 Plus, as multiple sources had indicated before WWDC. It’s an enriched version of the original M1 that features the same number of CPU cores, an additional 2 GPU cores, higher-clocked unified memory plus a more capable Neural Engine. It also supports more system memory overall (24GB up from 16GB) at a higher bandwidth, it features a bit more L2 cache (16MB from 12MB), while its Media Engine component supports ProRes and ProRes RAW in 8K (the original M1 didn’t). Apple claims that the M2 offers “up to” 18% more CPU power and “up to” 35% more GPU power than the M1, which is not all that impressive until one realizes that it does so in pretty much the same power envelope — meaning that the M2 is even more power-efficient than the already insanely efficient M1. Battery life, in other words, should be as long or even longer.
To be clear, the M2 really isn’t a “new generation” chip and its modest performance gains may seem a bit deceptive from a marketing standpoint. The M1 Pro and M1 Max are way more powerful than the “vanilla” M2, which is obviously something Apple avoided mentioning. But what the M2 does is raise the bar of minimum performance for an entire line-up of 2022–2024 devices, paving the way for much more powerful variations in the process. It’s hard not to get excited about a Mac Pro based on an M2 Extreme chip arrangement, for instance. It’s rather fitting, though, that the first Apple computer to make use of the M2 is a mainstream one: the redesigned MacBook Air, which will more than meet the needs of millions of people even in its simplest configuration.
The new MacBook Air does not come in the rainbow of colors rumors claimed for more than a year (they are just four but well-chosen), nor does it use all that white from the M1 iMacs. Design-wise it’s aligned to last year’s MacBook Pros but it is extremely thin, extremely light and “modernized”, with slimmer bezels and even the screen notch for the Pro models’ webcam. Its chassis features just the Magsafe power connector, two Thunderbolt/USB-C ports and a 3.5 mm audio jack with support for high-impedance headphones, while its keyboard offers a full row of function keys and a TouchID button. Its screen is somewhat larger (13.6 inches) and quite bright (500 nits) while its sound system is also improved. It even supports fast charging via the optional 67-Watt power adapter.
It’s obvious that, at $1199 at its simplest configuration, the M2 MacBook Air is not as competitively priced as it once was — and a 16GB RAM/512GB SSD upgrade pushes it past the $1500 price limit — but for many, many people this is practically all they will ever need from a laptop. With its improved GPU and Media Engine it’s even good enough for photo and video editing (which is more than anyone could say for MacBook Air models past) while being almost overkill for all the “everyday stuff” mainstream consumers spend 90% of their time doing. It simply is one of the best laptops Apple has ever made and one that will sell really well for a very long time.
This also puts the new 13-inch MacBook Pro — also based on the M2 — in an awkward position. This is pricier (starting at $1299) while it’s based on the old MacBook design, it’s bigger and heavier, its screen has thicker bezels and its webcam is the old, 720p, terrible one. It features a somewhat larger battery, it will offer marginally better performance (because of its active cooling instead of the Air’s passive one) and it still features the Touch Bar (does anyone still want that thing on their laptop?), but these are hardly reasons to go for this instead of the M2 MacBook Air. Maybe Apple knows something yours truly doesn’t, but since an upgraded (16GB/512GB), more pro-oriented M2 MacBook Pro 13 goes for just $200 less than the similarly specced but fully featured M1 Pro MacBook Pro 14, is there a point?
In the context of expectations prior to WWDC it’s hard not to feel a bit disappointed — not because of what was announced, but of what wasn’t. Many truly felt that this was as good an opportunity as any to unveil the new Mac Pro (but the situation regarding the M1 Extreme or M2 Extreme chip arrangement it will supposedly be based on is still rather hazy). Others fully expected that Apple would talk about realityOS, the operating system its VR/AR glasses will be using, for the first time, even in broad terms. Others still thought that several different new models of an M2-based Mac Mini would show up.
None of the above made an appearance but, truth be told, the M2 MacBook Air made up for that: as the laptop that will define what mainstream thin-and-lights are able to do in 2022 and 2023, it’s already one of the most noteworthy products of the year. At least on that front, Apple delivered.