15-inch MacBook Air review: perfect balance
by Samuel Buchmann
Want to buy a Mac, but not sure which one’s right for you? You’ve come to the right place. Here are my recommendations for each use case.
Being on the Editorial Team, I examine each new Mac in detail. In this guide, you’ll learn which one I recommend for which use case. I’m limiting myself to Apple’s current lineup. This list is intended as a guide, not gospel. Your preferences and demands when it comes to computers may vary. My rule of thumb is: don’t get a more expensive device than necessary – and avoid getting one with potential future uses in mind that may not materialise. If you want to future-proof yourself, opt for a higher performance class instead.
This is especially relevant for working memory. Apple’s chips handle RAM very efficiently, delegating to the SSD when overloaded. However, if you permanently rely on this mechanism, it can shorten the lifespan of your SSD. So, if you know you chronically have 50 Chrome tabs open or otherwise need massive amounts of memory, you’re better off taking the next level up of RAM than recommended here. Stress on «chronically» – the SSD can easily handle occasional spikes.
This is the latest version of this guide. I’ll update it when Apple releases new Macs. You’ll find the previous version published in June here.
The 15-inch MacBook Air is my favourite laptop from Apple’s range. It’s beautiful, thin and light. And it still has plenty of workspace, long battery life and is fast enough for office use. What’s more, Apple’s held back with the price. The new Air is a perfectly balanced device for students and anyone who needs an office laptop. With the 15-inch version, you can get away without having an external screen in many situations.
The standard version with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD offers enough performance for web browsing, video calls, YouTube, e-mailing and writing articles. If you have large Lightroom catalogues or use Photoshop, I recommend upgrading to a 16 GB RAM and 512 GB SSD. You’ll then only reach the limit with very computationally intensive applications or video projects. For everything else, the Air hits the value-for-money sweet spot. If you’re not in a rush, wait for the successor version with the M3 chip. Expected to hit the shelves in spring 2024, it’s likely to boast even longer battery life.
The three-year-old M1 MacBook Air with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD is still a solid recommendation for everyday use in 2023. It feels quick during office use, is small, light, and silent. Not only that, but the battery lasts all day. The best thing about the M1 MacBook Air? The base version costs just 900 francs.
«But isn’t there a newer generation?» some of you may be wondering. Yes, the 13-inch M2 MacBook Air is newer and slightly better. But it’s also more expensive. The display is ever so slightly larger and brighter, and I do like the MagSafe connector. Apart from that, the advantage is negligible in everyday use. The additional graphics performance provided by the M2 chip won’t be of any use to you in the office. And, due to the new architecture, the SSD is actually slower in the new-generation base version with 256 GB than in the old model. If you don’t absolutely insist on having the new design, save yourself the extra cost.
The Mac Mini is the solution for all office workers with a fixed workstation. Even the base version with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD offers enough performance for office applications – and for a pleasantly low price tag. Throw in a budget monitor, mouse and keyboard – et voilà, you have a solid setup for around 1,000 francs. Since the chip’s active cooling system prevents it from ever clocking down, the M2 Mac Mini can also easily be used to edit the odd RAW image or short videos.
Let’s say you need your laptop for work that doesn’t just involve word processing and e-mails. Perhaps you also edit photos in Lightroom and Photoshop. In doing so, you might use complex filters or want clipping masks to be enhanced automatically. Or maybe you’re a video editor who doesn’t want to worry about whether your computer can handle the size of your project and the resolution of your camera.
In this case, I’d go for a 16-inch MacBook Pro – with the M3 Pro chip and 18 GB of RAM. Thanks to the HDMI 2.1 port and SD card reader, annoying dongles are a thing of the past. The large display allows me to work comfortably on the go, and my programs all run quickly and smoothly thanks to the M3 Pro. Only tasks like exporting video would be even faster with the more powerful M3 Max. On the flip side, the MacBook with the more efficient M3 Pro is the absolute king of battery life. While not a bargain, it is a hassle-free allrounder.
Are you a photographer? Is sorting, developing and editing images part of your job? Then I recommend you get the M2 Pro Mac Mini with 16 GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD – along with a good AdobeRGB display like the BenQ PhotoVue SW321C. If you prefer a mobile setup, go for the M3 Pro MacBook Pro mentioned above. However, it’ll run you nearly twice as much. When it comes to the Mac Mini, it’s not worth waiting for an M3 Pro version. The only difference is that the new chip requires less power.
Even the version linked above with a 10-core CPU and 16-core GPU is sufficient for image editing. Lightroom exports RAW images quickly and even complex Photoshop tools work smoothly. The M2 Pro Mac Mini already comes with a minimum of 16 GB of RAM. More than enough – unless you have very high-res, multi-layered images in Photoshop. On the other hand, I do recommend upgrading the SSD to 1 TB. After all, you want to be able to store your current project on the drive without it filling up immediately.
If you want to do professional programming or music production on macOS, I’d snag the 14-inch M3 Pro MacBook Pro. Your applications mainly need processor power. Whether you opt for 14 or 16 inches is a matter of taste. If you commute between your home office and company office and have external screens in both places, the 14-inch model is the perfect combination of light weight and good performance. If your projects are on the small side and you don’t keep a plethora of browser tabs open at once, 18 GB of RAM is probably enough. If not, go for 36 GB.
As a rough-and-ready rule, if you have to ask if you need the 40 GPU cores of the M3 Max, the answer is «no». This level of performance is only worth it in exceptional cases. For example, if you produce videos professionally, your workflow includes raw footage in 8K or you work with After Effects. Or if you regularly use 3D rendering programs like Blender, which eat up graphics power.
If you’re in this target group, the M3 Max will speed up your work considerably, not least because this large chip also offers twice the number of video encoders. Two each for H.264/HEVC and ProRes. If you have a fixed workstation, the M2 Max Mac Studio is cheaper, but at the expense of some performance. The [M2 Ultra], on the other hand, is even faster than the M3 Max MacBook Pro, but definitely overkill in most cases.
Since elaborate projects involve large files, you should upgrade the SSD to at least 2 TB. Unless you’re working directly from a fast network drive, that is. In terms of working memory, 48 GB is sufficient in most cases. You can probably judge for yourself whether you’ll need more on an ongoing basis.
None of the Apple computers out there at the moment are truly «bad». That being said, some are less impressive than other models. If you ask me, Apple had some nerve releasing the Mac Pro. Despite providing exactly the same performance as the Mac Studio with the same chip, it costs an absurd 3,000 francs or 3,500 euros extra. Just for a few connections and PCI Express slots. Ports that just a tiny number of professionals need for things like special sound cards.
I’m a little disappointed with the M3 iMac, Apple’s only all-in-one option, which comes at a hefty price if you shun the basic version with its poor cooling and slow SSD. Despite its relatively small 24-inch display, the iMac costs more than 2,000 francs or euros. I’d rather go for the Mac Mini and hook it up to an external monitor. If you do that, in the future, you’ll be able to replace the computer and keep the screen.
The new entry-level MacBook Pro model containing the standard M3 chip falls between a rock and a hard place. If you want a computer for office use alone, I reckon the 15-inch MacBook Air is the better deal. And if you’re after high performance, you’re better off paying a little extra and getting the M3 Pro.Header image: Samuel Buchmann