Who would have thought we’d reach an age where there would be a legitimate purchasing decision between a MacBook Air and a super-powerful desktop Mac?
That’s exactly where we are now, and this particular decision is one that I have a feeling plenty of people will be mulling over right now.
If you’ve found this guide, you sit among that crowd. I feel for you – you’re probably a bit dazed and confused by Apple’s increasingly bloated Mac line-up. It’s led you to a situation where you’re trying to work out if you should buy the latest MacBook with the latest chip, or spend a little more on a desktop Mac that was apparently the latest and greatest thing a few short months ago.
Thanks to the emergence of Apple silicon for the Mac and its most recent incarnation announced at WWDC this year, the lines drawn between each model are increasingly faint. Despite this, when it comes to finding the right Mac for you, the clues are there – I promise.
Why make this comparison?
To confuse matters further, we now have a brand-new chip – the M2. It has faster single and dual-core speeds and better graphics performance than the M1. But it’s only available (currently) in the MacBook Air and the WeirdBook (the 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro).
When stacked up against the Mac Studio, that M2 MacBook Air looks rather tempting, doesn’t it? But what would be the better machine for you?
As always, I’m not going to turn to benchmarks for this comparison. This is all about sussing out the type of user you are and considering the real-world impact of owning either one of these devices.
When it comes to base specs, there’s quite a chasm between the M2 MacBook Air and the Mac Studio; you’ll need to find another £750/$800 if you opt for Apple’s desktop powerhouse.
However, if you bite the bullet and take that route, you get an awful lot more for your money. You’ll get the M1 Max chip, 32GB of unified memory (versus the eight in the M2 MacBook Air), 16 additional graphics cores, and 256GB more internal storage. You even get a built-in SD card slot.
The closest the M2 MacBook Air can get to the base-spec Mac Studio is if you opt for the 10-core GPU version with the maxed-out 24GB of unified memory. That model comes with the same 512GB of internal storage as the base-spec Mac Studio, and it’ll cost you £1,949/$1,899.
If you’ve been playing around with Apple’s configuration tool for these two Macs, I’m not surprised at all if you’re totally at a loss about how to spend your money.
To make life a little easier, I think there are two main considerations when comparing the M2 MacBook Air and the Mac Studio: the difference between the chipsets on offer and the practicalities of each machine.
M2 vs M1 Max
The M2 and M1 Max are very different chips (the M1 Ultra, which is also available in the Mac Studio, is another matter entirely, and entirely off-topic for this comparison).
Although the M2 is, predictably, a faster chip than the regular M1, it still pales in comparison to the M1 Max. This comes down to the number of performance cores and the memory bandwidth available – two areas in which the M1 Max beats the M2. For example, the M1 Max has eight performance cores, versus the M2’s four, and 400GB/s memory bandwidth, which is 300 more than the M2.
The M1 Max can also support double the unified memory of the M2, has a GPU twice as big and features two media engines. In fact, the only area in which the M2 beats the M1 Max is with the neural engine, which is a newer, 40%-faster generation in Apple’s latest chip.
This boils down to one simple fact: if you undertake heavy graphical, audio, or programmatic work on your Mac, the Mac Studio is going to deliver far better bang-for-buck. This is particularly the case if you’re using the machine to generate an income.
However, there are some other factors to take into account.
Beyond the chipsets, the M2 MacBook Air and Mac Studio are vastly different computing platforms.
There’s the obvious: one is a laptop, the other is a desktop machine. This skews the pricing comparison considerably because the base-spec price for the Mac Studio will increase with the addition of a display, keyboard, and mouse or trackpad (it only comes with a power cable, after all). The M2 MacBook Air delivers everything you need in one incredibly convenient package.
You can throw an M2 MacBook Air into your backpack, head to a coffee shop, and complete your latest video edit or a round of app bug fixes without a single cable in sight. Sure, there’s a trade-off in horsepower (a big one, as I’ve just demonstrated) but whether or not that will bother you depends entirely on the type of user you are, the work you’re undertaking, and how quickly you need to finish each project.
Both the M2 MacBook Air and the Mac Studio are practical machines in their own right. The former is ultimately portable, yet the Mac Studio offers loads more connectivity and even has a built-in SD card reader. The deciding factor is therefore the type of user you are, and which set of practicalities matter the most to you.
In my pricing comparison, you may have noted that I didn’t go beyond the base spec for the Mac Studio. This is for one very good reason: once you start to customise the Mac Studio, it takes Apple’s desktop Mac into an entirely different plane of reality – one that is far removed from the M2 MacBook Air.
The line drawn between these two machines is, indeed, a bit thicker than the rest, but comparing Apple’s latest MacBook Air with the Mac Studio is entirely justified for a great many buyers.
To summarise, it comes down to:
- the flexibility of your budget;
- how much multi-core performance your workload requires;
- your appetite for a laptop with limited connectivity but ultra-portability; and
- your appetite for a desktop with brilliant connectivity but zero portability.
Which one are you going for?