MacBook Air (2022) Hands-On: You Can Ignore the MacBook Pro 13

MacBook Air (2022) Hands-On: You Can Ignore the MacBook Pro 13
MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)

Excuse the cliché, but the MacBook Air feels grown-up. I’m thinking it’s the shape — gone is the iconic slanting edge, replaced in favour of stout straight lines. Now the Air looks like the MacBook Pro, and with its larger 13.6-inch screen, more like the premium Pro than its smaller but M2-touting counterpart. You might not notice the subtle design change, but you will certainly form some opinion about the two new colour options.

Joining Space Grey and Silver are what Apple calls Starlight and Midnight. The lighter colour is a very subtle gold while the darker version is a dark blue that looks black under certain lighting conditions. I wasn’t able to take these laptops outside, but something tells me direct sunlight against the recycled aluminium chassis will reveal shades that were hidden under artificial lighting.

MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)

While these are nice additions, I can’t help but feel cheated. The blame belongs to me for believing early MacBook Air rumours that suggested we’d get the same vivid rainbow hues as the iMac. Apple isn’t ready to ready to have fun with its laptop yet, and I’m tired of waiting. Oh well: at least the new colours aren’t lighter and darker grey.

I always felt the wedge shape made the MacBook Air look thinner than it really was. While this new model doesn’t feel any thicker, it doesn’t feel much thinner either despite being only 0.5 inches tall from wherever you measure (that is slightly thinner than the previous version). It weighs 1 kg, shaving off 0 kg despite having a larger screen.

Where the colours are what I first noticed on the exterior, the notch above the screen is what caught my attention upon opening the lid. It’s not a big deal, really, but I can’t help but wonder why it needs to be there in the first place. It’s become a signature design element across Apple devices, and well, I prefer my screens without strange black rectangles interrupting the top edge.

MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)

The screen does seem notably larger, though we’re only stepping up from 13.3 inches to 13.6 inches. It looks great, too. The “Liquid Retina” panel is brighter — by 25% for up to 500 nits, Apple claims — and the colours are accurate and punchy. Still, this is an IPS screen, so while it now supports the P3 wide colour gamut for a billion colours, it didn’t look as good as the OLED panel on the Yoga 9i I brought to WWDC. A quick word on sound quality: the new Air has dual tweeters and a pair of woofers that push sound through tiny holes hidden between the deck and the lid. I got a very brief listen and they sounded decent — crisp and clear though not quite loud enough to fill a large room (note: I’ll need to do more testing before forming any definitive options).

MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)

I usually shudder at the word “proprietary,” but not this time, because the new MagSafe connector on the left side frees up an extra Thunderbolt port when you’re charging the laptop. Do I wish it had a third universal charging port with a standard USB-C adaptor? Sure, but at least the braided MagSafe cables look durable and can be colour-matched to the laptop. And of course, MagSafe automatically disconnects should you or your dog accidentally trip over the cord. As for the other ports, you get a pair of Thunderbolt connectors on one side and a high-impedance 3.5mm headphone jack that my Sennheiser HD650s are dying to plug into.

I can’t upload the selfie I took at WWDC, but I can tell you that the quality of the upgraded 1080p webcam was above average. Mind you, this was in Apple’s well-lit theatre as the sun streaked through dangerously clear glass on a perfect summer day in California. The photo wasn’t taken in my depressingly dark cave of an office under aggressively orange-tinged artificial lighting. The real test comes later, though Apple says the webcam delivers a 2x low light improvement over the old Air, so I’m optimistic.

MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)

The Magic Keyboard and Force Touch trackpad felt familiar. The keyboard now has full-height shortcut keys (they are a tad taller) and the fingerprint sensor was also expanded and has a raised circular outline.

Then there are the invisible changes made on the inside. While I couldn’t run any benchmarks, Apple ran me through a few impressive demos that flaunted the performance of the MacBook Air’s M2 chip. I took some notes: CPU performance is an 18% increase over the previous generation, GPU speeds are up to 35% faster than before, and the MacBook Air can play back 11 4K or two 8K streams simultaneously, whereas the M1 could do about five 4K streams before throttling.

MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)

For the more technical bits, the M2 processor is based on the same 5-nanometre technology as the M1 but everything is elevated. Memory support was boosted from 16GB to 24GB, the GPU scales up to 10 cores (up from eight) while the CPU has up to eight cores, and memory bandwidth goes up to 100GB/s, a 50% improvement over M1.

Increasing performance didn’t hurt battery life thanks to the efficiency of Apple’s custom processor. The company claims the MacBook Air will last for 18 hours on a charge during video playback or 15 hours of continuous web browsing. Apple is typically honest about those runtimes, so you can expect real-world runtimes to be within a few hours of the web browsing estimate.

MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)MacBook Air M2 2022 (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)

You’ll get an option to choose from up to three different chargers with this laptop. New this year is a dual-port 35W USB-C power adaptor that lets you charge the laptop and a second device simultaneously. There is also a 67W USB-C fast charger that juices up the MacBook Air to 50% in 30 minutes. Standard is a 30W charger that comes with the base model. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t hesitate to spend another $US20 ($28) for the faster option.

Overall, the new MacBook Air is a nice upgrade over the previous model. It has a larger display, faster performance, a brighter, more colourful display, and a modern (though not notch-free) design. I’m bummed about the colours — they’re nice but not particularly exciting — and the shift away from the iconic wedge design means the MacBook Air loses some character that differentiated it from the others.

But at $1,899, the MacBook Air with M2 is looking like a better deal than the $1,499 MacBook Air with M1, which Apple is keeping around for a while longer. More importantly, it makes me question why anyone would buy the $1,999 MacBook Pro — and why Apple continues to sell it.