M3 MacBook Air Review Technology Redefining and Performance

There’s a tipping point when a computer goes from being useful to actually killing your productivity. This is where I’m at with my Intel-based 16-inch MacBook Pro, which I use for work. Testing the updated MacBook Airs with Apple’s M3 chips only made its performance shortcomings that much more apparent. I mean, there’s a good reason Apple keeps pitting the M3’s performance gains against older M1- and Intel-based MacBook Airs: Those are the people who stand to gain the most by upgrading.

That’s not to say the M3 silicon isn’t also an improvement over the M2, because it is. It’s just that the performance differences are overall modest, but graphics performance does get a notable bump, similar to the 14- and 16-inch M3 MacBook Pro models we reviewed last year. In fact, the base 14-inch MacBook Pro has the same M3 chip that’s standard on the updated 15-inch MacBook Air and an upgrade on the 13-inch. And while creators looking for a big power boost will likely want an M3 Pro or Max chip, the regular M3 is well-suited for the Air’s eminently portable design, and it absolutely trounced my Intel MacBook Pro.

The rest of the M3 MacBook Air is great too and pretty much the same as the M2 models — another reason those with M1 and earlier models will want to consider upgrading.

The same, but also better

The new Airs start at a similar US price as before: $1,099 (£1,099, AU$1,799) for the 13-inch Air with 8GB of unified memory and 256GB solid-state drive. The 15-inch Air, also with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, starts at $1,299 (£1,299, AU$2,199). From there you can increase memory to 16GB or 24GB and storage to 512GB, 1TB or 2TB. The base M3 on the 13-inch model has eight CPU and eight GPU cores. You can upgrade to an M3 with a 10-core GPU for $100 or, if you add more memory or storage ($200 each), Apple also the 10-core GPU M3 to the configuration. This chip is also standard on the 15-inch size. Both chip versions have a 16-core Neural Engine to accelerate AI and machine learning tasks.

The base 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage seem stingy given the $1,099 starting price. While, in our experience, the MacBook Air runs well on 8GB of unified memory, it will limit what you can do and the overall performance longevity of the laptop. Storage can always be bolstered with external drives or cloud storage, but there’s no such option for memory. If you can afford the extra $200, get 16GB of memory.

All of the key features and design elements introduced with the M2 redesign are carried over to the M3 MacBook Airs. So that means things like the fanless body made from recycled aluminum, the beautiful Liquid Retina displays, the excellent 1080p FaceTime camera, the great-sounding speaker systems, MagSafe 3 charging and dual Thunderbolt-USB 4 ports, are all part of the M3 Air package. The colors are the same as before too — midnight, starlight, silver and space gray — and the midnight finish has an anodization seal to reduce fingerprints.

However, that also means things like the camera notch at the top of the displays, the fact that there’s Touch ID on the keyboard but still no Face ID to match the iPhone and iPad, and that the MagSafe connector and both USB-C ports are crowded on the left side, so there’s no option to charge from the right side, are still here too. Changes like these typically wouldn’t get made until there’s another major redesign, so I didn’t expect them. That doesn’t make them any less detracting for me, though.

M3 MacBook Air Review Technology Redefining and Performance

Apple did make two feature additions with the M3 chip update. One is a move from Wi-Fi 6 to 6E, which translates to faster wireless speeds, assuming you have a router that supports it. The other change is to display support. Prior models of the MacBook Air supported extending to only one external display.  With the M3 MacBook Airs, you can connect two external displays directly to the Thunderbolt USB-C ports, which will also power the MacBook.

However, doing this comes at the cost of the MacBook Air’s display; the lid must be closed in order to drive both external monitors. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue, unless you typically use your laptop’s keyboard and trackpad while working on an external display. For me, the bigger hiccup is the loss of Touch ID on the Air’s keyboard. You can just open and close the lid to use Touch ID, but I use mine so much during the day that that would get old really fast. The better option is to get Apple’s Magic Keyboard with Touch ID, and while you’re at it, pick up a Magic Trackpad or Mouse to complete the package.

But that’s pretty much it for new features for the M3 Airs. And if you’re looking for big differences between the 13- and 15-inch models, there really aren’t any. Aside from the obvious size difference and that the base M3 chip on the 15-inch has a 10-core GPU, there’s also a difference in their speakers. The 13-inch has a four-speaker sound system, while the 15-inch has six speakers with force-canceling woofers. Both sound remarkably good. Seriously, I’ve listened to hundreds of laptop sound systems over my years of reviewing, and few sound as good.

So again, if you already have an M2 MacBook Air, the reasons to upgrade are limited. If you’re a creator or want to play more demanding games — we played a little Baldur’s Gate and Death Stranding, for example — trading in an M2 Air for a shiny new M3 MacBook Air might make sense. On the other hand, for M1 MacBook Air or Intel-based Air owners (or Intel MacBook Pro owners for that matter), the reasons to upgrade are plentiful.

We’ve only had the new Airs for a few days, but we were able to run our benchmark tests and the performance essentially matches that of the 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro we tested late last year. The M3 Air is generally faster than the M2 Air, but again, it’s the graphics performance that really shines. And my work laptop, a 2019 Intel-based MacBook Pro, was no match for the M3.

For good measure, we also tested a new Lenovo Slim 7, which is a 14-inch OLED laptop with an Intel Core Ultra 7 processor, integrated Arc graphics, 32GB of memory and a 1TB SSD for around $1,000. Its performance pretty much matches the M3’s except for, again, graphics, where the Lenovo was competitive with… the M1 MacBook Air from 2020, so Intel clearly still has some work to catch up there.

Anyway, if you’re wondering about battery life, we frankly haven’t been able to fully test that in the short time we’ve had the new models. These will likely run close to the 18 hours Apple claims; the 14-inch M3 Pro ran for nearly 19 hours in our tests. That’s also why we haven’t put a final rating on this review.

Regardless, the M3 MacBook Air, either size, is an easy recommendation. If you’re ready to upgrade from an older MacBook Air, either the M2 or M3 models will be a significant improvement. The 13-inch M2 MacBook Air is now the $999 entry-level model, and Apple has discontinued the 15-inch M2 Air, so you can probably find some good deals on that right now. But if you plan to use your MacBook Air for STEM work, or design work, or rendering video or editing raw photos, the M3 is the better choice, and you should get at least 16GB of memory.

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