Last week, I travelled to London for a couple of days with nothing more than my M2 MacBook Air for tech company.
This might sound rather unadventurous, but for someone who typically carries two MacBooks and an iPad, it was more than a little unnerving – not least because I had some video editing to do while away.
It didn’t go to plan. At all. And it has prompted me to follow up on that disappointing experience today (not least because you lot desperately wanted me to).
What happened last time?
I’ll cut to the chase – the M2 MacBook Air let me down, big time.
Twelve months earlier, I’d found myself tired, jet-lagged, and desperately sifting through the remnants of Apple’s 2021 MacBook Pro launch in a Montreal hotel. Before heading to a much-needed deep sleep, I needed to shoot, edit, and publish my reaction video to Apple’s latest event. Time was tight. My energy was low.
The only computer I had to hand for this mad-dash production process was my trusty M1 MacBook Air – the base model version with just 8GB of unified memory and seven cores of graphical power.
It smashed the job with barely a stutter.
You’d therefore forgive me for assuming that the successor to that wonderful little laptop would at least match its forefather, pound-for-pound when put through a similar video editing test.
It didn’t. The M2 MacBook Air failed miserably as soon as I attempted to edit the same 4K Sony footage the M1 version had so easily handled during that fraught October night of content creation in Canada.
It was that bad, in fact, I had to give up. The constant beach-balling, stuttering, and dropped frame warnings made the simple job of adding some b-roll to my latest video impossible.
Time for a re-test!
I can’t really claim credit for this follow-up test. Knowing myself as well as I do, I’d probably have chalked it down to experience, apologised to my audience for originally suggesting that the base model M2 MacBook Air was as competent as its predecessor, and moved on.
But you wouldn’t let me do that, would you? Oh no, you wanted to see a follow-up test involving the M1 MacBook Air. You wanted to know if this was just a momentary blip, or whether the base model M2 MacBook Air really is gimped in some way.
Quite rightly, too. This does deserve further exploration. So, that’s what I did last night.
Thankfully, I’d retained the Final Cut Pro project which had prompted the M2 MacBook Air to wave its white flag last week. This meant I could run a comparative test on the M1 MacBook Air to see if the issue was hardware or software related.
This is the configuration I was working with for both tests:
- MacBook Air (M1 or M2)
- Final Cut Pro
- No apps running in the background
- 10-bit, 4:2:2, 4K footage from a Sony FX3 camera
- External SanDisk Extreme Pro SSD (containing both the footage and the Final Cut Pro library)
- Battery power
There was one difference, which I freely admit could be quite significant. The M2 MacBook Air is running macOS Ventura, whereas the M1 version is still on macOS Monterey.
It’s also important to note that, as always, I didn’t run any benchmarks during this test. In fact, it wasn’t a test in the truest sense of the word – it was simply me undertaking my normal video editing process. In this instance, that simply consisted of working on a nearly-complete video which simply needed some b-roll adding to the existing a-roll edit.
This really is simple stuff. The footage I’m working with is relatively gnarly and will put lower specced laptops through the wringer, but as demonstrated by the base model M1 MacBook Air in that Montreal hotel room, we’re living in very different times.
How did the M1 MacBook Air perform?
As suspected, the M1 MacBook Air didn’t exhibit any of the issues I experienced with the M2 version. It responded almost immediately to my inputs and I didn’t receive a single dropped frame warning message.
It felt almost as slick as my M1 Max-powered, £3,700 16-inch MacBook Pro. Indeed, it performed in the exact same way it had done 12 months previously, and, as a result, I’d have had no qualms taking it with me on the road for on-the-go video editing (which is exactly what I’ve done today during another trip to London).
I turned my attention back to the M2 MacBook Air, fully expecting it to run like the dog it had momentarily morphed into last week. Alas, things were marginally better this time around. There were no dropped frame warning messages, and it felt almost workable.
However, it still wasn’t as responsive as the M1 version. There was a noticeable lag between my inputs and the Final Cut Pro response. This was most noticeable (and most annoying) when hitting the space bar – something you do constantly while editing in order to start and stop the footage.
To broaden the test. I decided to open a couple of apps in the background on both laptops – namely Safari with one tab running Notion, and an instance of Spark Email.
This is where the base model M2 appears to struggle. It’s not something I’ve encountered before while running multiple apps, but when you throw a heavyweight like Final Cut Pro into the mix, the user experience begins to deteriorate. Those gaps between me asking Final Cut Pro to do something and it actually doing it lengthened, and the whole system felt like it was constantly on the verge of crapping out.
The M1 MacBook Air? No such trouble. It continued to sail through the 4K editing process with the exact same apps open. Once again, it felt like a much more powerful machine.
Your responses to my report last week tell their own story.
“I hope you’ll follow up on this issue, because it’s an important one. What seems glaring to me is that it makes no sense…”
“My first thought on reading about the frame drops was maybe this was an SSD issue but further digging reveals the M2 model has a smaller heat sink.”
“The M2 [MacBook] Air is more powerful than many pre-Apple Silicon MacBook Pros. If it can’t handle 4K video editing that’s worth investigating.”
“…if the base M1 can handle it, the M2 should be able to at least handle the same amount as the M1. That and a price increase makes this unacceptable.”
“It reinforces my decision to purchase the 14 inch MacBook Pro M1 Pro instead of the Air M2.”
I ran out of time to run another test with matching operating systems, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The M2 chip clearly has an issue with multitasking when you throw into the mix a more significant task such as video editing.
This might be down to the memory configuration, as suggested by Max Tech and others during their initial, vigorous testing of the new MacBooks. It could also be down to the alleged smaller heatsink, as noted by one of the commenters above.
I genuinely have no idea what the root cause is, but I do know that I no longer trust my base model M2 MacBook Air with anything other than the run-of-the-mill writing and admin duties it has been undertaking since I bought it. In that realm, it’s a superstar – I cannot fault it.
But as a machine I can rely on to help me out in a pinch when I need to edit video on the road? No chance. That job will still have to fall to the M1 MacBook Air for now.
You’re all correct, though – this isn’t right, is it?
Tnx for this interesting test, but it is not completely comparable, because the M1 is running on macOS Monterey and the M2 on Ventura. Also, do you use any plugins for FCPX? Maybe it’s an incompatibility issue. I would like to see this test redone with the same operating system. Keep us posted!
It’s a shame you don’t have a M2 with the 512GB to compare with to see if the issue of the 256GB slowness mentioned so much when the M2 came out is the problem.
It’s Ventura. Ever since I upgraded my M1 Pro, it has had issues. Same for latest iPadOS on my older Pro 11 inch. I honestly think this year’s OS releases needed to go back to the drawing board.
Until you put both Airs on the same OS with the same version of FCPro with plugins of course you have not tested or compared the two. IMHO Apple’s quality control has gone seriously downhill. On average I wait 6 months + to upgrade.