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15-inch MacBook Air (M3) review: Apple's best laptop gets better

15 inch MacBook Air 2024Image: Foundry

At a glance

Expert’s Rating

Pros

Still an outstanding performer in its classExcellent battery lifeGreat combination of price, features, and performance256GB SSD is now two NAND chips, maintaining performance

Cons

Dual external display support requires closed lidPricey memory upgrades

Our Verdict

The MacBook Air gets a nice performance boost, thanks to the M3 chip upgrade. The new dual external display support is a compromise, but it’s a welcome change in production environments. Overall, the M3 MacBook Air succeeds in continuing in its role as the laptop for everyone.

Price When Reviewed

$1,299 (base)

Best Prices Today: Apple 15-inch MacBook Air (M3, 2024)

RetailerPriceAmazon$1,199View DealB&H$1199View DealAdorama$1299View DealApple$1299View DealApple United States$1299View DealBest Buy$1299View DealPrice comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwideProductPricePrice comparison from Backmarket

Over the years, we’ve touted the MacBook Air as the laptop for just about anyone–it’s an ideal combination of performance, features, and price. It became even more compelling when Apple redesigned it and upgraded to the M2 chip in 2022 and released a 15-inch M2 model in 2023.

The MacBook Air now joins the M3 party that Apple started last fall. It’s practically the same laptop as before—besides the chip upgrade, there are only two other new features in the new M3 MacBook Air. A lot has not changed with the Air, and neither has our perception of the laptop: The MacBook Air continues to be the best laptop choice for just about anyone interested in Apple’s ecosystem.

This review originally appeared on Macworld.com.

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Specifications

The MacBook Air gets an upgrade from the M2 to the M3 chip. It does not have options for the M3 Pro or Max chips; for that, you need to look at the MacBook Pro. Our guide to the M3 chip series provides more insight into the differences between the different M3 chips.

The 15-inch MacBook Air in this review is the most expensive standard configuration in Apple’s lineup. It can be customized with more memory and a larger SSD, which raises the price.

Foundry

Here are the specifications of the laptop in this review:

CPU: M3 with an 8-core CPU (4 performance cores, 4 efficiency cores), 16-core Neural EngineGPU: 10-core GPUMemory: 16GB unified memory (100GBps memory bandwidth)Storage: 512GB SSDDisplay: 15.3-inch Liquid Retina LED backlit display with IPS; 2880-by-1864 native resolution at 224 pixels per inch; 500 nits brightness; P3 color; True TonePorts: 2 Thunderbolt 4/USB-C; MagSafe 3; 3.5mm audioNetworking: Wi-Fi 6E (802.11ax); Bluetooth 5.3Weight: 3.3 pounds (1.51 kg)Dimensions: 0.45 by 13.40 by 9.35 inches (1.15 by 34.04 by 23.76 centimeters)Battery capacity: 66.5WhPrice: $1,699

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Performance

20 percent boost over M2 MacBook AirSimilar performance to M3 MacBook Pro

This update to the MacBook Air is all about the speed bump that’s provided by the new M3 chip. Our benchmarks look at how it compares to the previous M2 as well as the other M3 Macs that Apple offers.

Geekbench 6.2.2 benchmarks

We use Geekbench 6 to check the general, overall performance of a Mac. In both the Single-Core and Multi-Core tests, the M3 MacBook Air was 20 percent faster than the M2 MacBook Air–a typical boost from one chip generation to another.

Compared to the M3 MacBook Pro, you can see that the M3 MacBook Air offers practically the same performance. That’s expected since they have the same chip. The major difference is that the MacBook Air does not have fans, while the MacBook Pro does. So, on heavy-duty tasks that put more pressure on the chip, the MacBook Air may throttle down a little in order to maintain a proper operating temperature. It takes a lot to make the MacBook Air do this, so most folks need not worry.

Cinebench 2024 benchmarks

Cinebench 2024 is a test that performs 3D rendering–the heavy-duty task that was just mentioned above. While a MacBook Air probably isn’t a primary tool for those who use such software, its performance doesn’t totally rule it out. This benchmark gives us a good point of comparison with the other Macs–and it shows that the M3 MacBook Air can handle its own during these tasks.

HandBrake 1.7.3 video encode

We used HandBrake to encode the Tears of Steel video from 4K to a 1080p H.265 file. When doing the encoding completely in software using the H.265 (x265) video encoder, the M3 is a healthy 26 percent faster than the M2. When using the available hardware acceleration through HandBrake’s H.265 (VideoToolBox) encoder, the M3 was 17 percent faster.

iMovie 4K video benchmarks

We exported a 10-minute 4K video at two settings in iMovie to gauge CPU performance. The M3 was 24 percent faster than the M2 when exporting the file using the ProRes codec. When we changed the quality setting of the export to High, the M3 advantage shrunk to 11 percent.

Blackmagic Disk Test

Testing the speed of the 512GB SSD in our review unit, the results between the M3 and M2 are practically the same. One interesting point of comparison between the M3 and M1 results–the M1 MacBook Air we tested had a 256GB SSD, which is implemented as a single NAND chip, while the M3’s 512GB SSD is a pair of NAND chips. As we detail in the “Price and availability” section below, two chips are better than one, and you can see that here.

Apple used a single 256GB chip in the M1 and M2 MacBook Air, but that’s changed with the 256GB SSD in the M3 MacBook Air. According to a teardown by Max Tech, Apple is now using two chips for the 256GB SSD. That’s a huge win for the customer because using just one NAND chip can cut performance by half–but that won’t happen with the 256GB SSD in the M3 MacBook Air. Hurray!

Geekbench 6 Compute benchmarks

Geekbench’s Compute benchmark tests GPU performance using Metal or OpenCL APIs. The M3 shows a slight 4 percent improvement that you probably wouldn’t notice. So it’s safe to say that the M3 and the M2 MacBook Airs offer the same GPU performance.

The M3 does provide a significant, noticeable boost over the M1: 44 percent. It’s another aspect of the M3 MacBook Air that makes it an enticing upgrade from the M1 MacBook Air.

Videogame benchmarks

Rise of the Tomb Raider and Civilization VI are older games written for Intel and not optimized for Apple’s Metal graphics API. That could explain why the M3 and M2 results are the same–these games aren’t taking advantage of any Metal API optimizations that are available. Game Mode for macOS still activates, though, it does it automatically when a game launches.

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Design and build

Same design and build as the M2 MacBook AirNew Midnight color option with anodization seal

Apple introduced the current MacBook Air design with the 2022 M2 model. While it doesn’t mirror the MacBook Pro design exactly, it looks so similar that at a glance you may not be able to tell the difference. Maybe you spend a lot of time in the Apple Store and have developed a keen sense of the MacBook colors and can use that to instantly identify which is which. But the MacBooks speak the same design language.

In fact, the Apple “translated” a feature of the Space Black MacBook Pro to the Midnight color option of the MacBook Air. That model now has the same “breakthrough anodization seal” that Apple says reduces fingerprints. The laptop in this review is Starlight, not Midnight, so I wasn’t able to check on the seal but I did review a Space Black MacBook Pro, and the seal works–it doesn’t prevent fingerprints completely, but they’re not very apparent and they’re easy to wipe away. It helps maintain Apple’s design aesthetic.

Besides Midnight and Starlight, the MacBook Air is also available in Silver and Space Gray. That’s four color options, compared to the only two available for the MacBook Pro.

Foundry

Overall, the design and build are what you’d expect from Apple: well-thought-out, durable, and stylish. However, it’s not the unique wedge shape that was synonymous with the MacBook Air and garnered favor among Air users. If that’s what you really, really want, you can find the last wedge-shaped Air, the discontinued M1 MacBook Air, in the Apple Certified Refurbished Store or through third-party retailers with remaining stock.

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Ports and connectivity

Same ports as the previous modelNew ability to support two external 4K displays (with a caveat)

Here are the ports on the MacBook Air: two Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports, a MagSafe 3 charging port, and a 3.5mm audio jack. That’s it. With the Air, Apple takes the approach that this laptop prioritizes mobility, as opposed to the MacBook Pro which is a mashup of mobility and desktop Mac sensibility. So that means fewer ports on the Air.

If you’re reading this thinking, “But I need to connect more than two devices” then consider investing in a USB-C hub. Consult our guide to USB-C hubs and adapters to help find one. Check with the hub manufacturer to see what each one can do because there will be limits as to how many devices you can connect, or even the type of devices (like external displays) you can use.

Speaking of external displays, this leads us to the other new feature that was mentioned at the intro of this review. The M3 MacBook Air can now support two external 5K displays each running at a 60Hz refresh rate. However, the Air must be closed to do this. If you open the laptop with two external displays connected, one of them will have its video signal cut off and fed to the laptop display. We have a separate article that explains how dual external displays on the M3 MacBook Pro work. See the video below.

#id664164c3130ab .jw-wrapper::before { content: “M3 MacBook Air external displays” !important; }

On the surface, this seems like a boon, but the closed laptop means the Air’s keyboard and trackpad can’t be used, so an external keyboard, mouse, and/or trackpad needs to be connected. If this compromise isn’t acceptable then your only option is to invest in a M3 Pro or M3 Max MacBook Pro, which supports more displays with the laptop open. Or you can get an older M2 Pro or M2 MacBook Pro and spend a little less money. Learn more about the external display support for the MacBooks.

Wireless connectivity for the MacBook Air is through Bluetooth 5.3 and tWi-Fi 6E (802.11ax), the third new MacBook Air feature, which is an upgrade from Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) in the M2 MacBook Air. Networking speed will be a bit faster, and faster is always good.

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Display and speakers

Liquid Retina displaysSix-speaker system

Apple uses Liquid Retina (LED) displays for the MacBook Air, which are a step down from the Liquid Retina XDR (mini-LED) displays in the MacBook Pro. But no one looks at a MacBook Air display and thinks it’s bad or unacceptable–for everyday use, the MacBook Air looks pretty dang good.

Foundry

The 15-inch MacBook Air has a six-speaker system with force-cancelling woofers. (The 13-inch Air has a four-speaker system.) It’s not the same system as the 14-inch MacBook Pro, which has a “high fidelity” six-speaker system with woofers. The Air’s speakers don’t sound as clean as the Pro, but they do sound good and have a nice amount of oomph for a thin laptop. Spatial Audio on music or video with Dolby Atmos is supported, too. The 3.5mm audio jack supports high-impedance headphones.

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Camera

1080p FaceTime cameraContinuity Camera is still a far better option

I’ve reviewed quite a few M-series MacBooks and most of them have the same 1080p FaceTime camera. Since it’s the same camera, the comments I have about the M3 MacBook Air’s camera are the same: it’s much better than the 720p camera Apple used for a long time, and it’s fine, but it could be so much more.

You probably won’t be embarrassed by the camera’s image quality during a video conference. But if you’re using it to record a video of yourself, you’ll want something better. That better camera is in your pocket on your iPhone. You can use macOS’s Continuity Camera feature that lets the iPhone connect to the laptop as a webcam.

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Battery life & charging

All-day (and then some) battery life35W dual-port adapter includedColor-matched USB-C to MagSafe cable included

Apple didn’t change anything with the battery in the M3 MacBook Air, so it’s still officially rated for up to 18 hours of video playback. Our battery test is a video that plays on a loop until the battery runs out, with the display set at 150 nits. The M3 Air lasted almost the same amount of time as the M2 MacBook Air–about 19 hours. Apple is very consistent about its battery life, and the expectation is that during regular use, you’ll have no problem using the Air all day without having to plug in. 

Movie playback battery test

Apple includes a 35W power adapter with two USB-C ports, so you can plug in an iPhone, iPad, or other device and charge it along with the MacBook Air. The MagSafe cable that Apple includes is braided and feels much more durable than the old, rubberized ones.

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Keyboard and trackpad

Backlit keyboard with full-sized Function keysTouch IDForce Touch trackpad with Multi-Touch support

The M3 MacBook Air has the same keyboard and trackpad as the M2 Air. The backlit keyboard has full-sized Function keys and a Touch ID button in the upper right corner. It’s a good keyboard and the trackpad is stellar.

15-inch M3 MacBook Air: Price & availability

The pricing for the M3 MacBook Air is the same as its M2 predecessor. There’s one minor difference: the $1,699 Air in this review is now offered as one of three standard configurations. With the 15-inch M2 MacBook Air, Apple offered two standard configurations at $1,299 and $1,499, both with 8GB of memory–if you customized the $1,499 model to 16GB of memory, it would be $1,699. As a standard configuration, that means you’ll probably be able to get it on sale at Amazon soon enough.

Foundry

And really, 16GB of memory (whether you want the 13- or 15-inch MacBook Air or even a MacBook Pro) is what we recommend. Unfortunately, the upgrade from 8GB to 16GB is an additional $200, which is very pricey considering how much RAM modules go for nowadays. But you have to pay it because users can’t add more memory to the Mac after purchase. The $1,599 M3 MacBook Air also comes with 8GB of RAM, to jump to 16GB, you need to buy one of the M3 Pro and Max machines that start at $1,999. We’re hoping this changes with the M4.

Should you buy the M3 MacBook Air?

The MacBook Air is a great laptop, especially for users who prioritize mobility. Thanks to Apple silicon, it can handle whatever task you need to do, whether it’s as simple as using a word processor while being online with a gazillion Safari tabs open, or a bit more complex with iMovie and GarageBand, or pro-level work with a video production tool or software development.

If you are still(!) using an Intel MacBook, I enthusiastically encourage you to upgrade to an M-Series laptop. If you upgrade to the M3 MacBook Air, you’re going to love-love-love the performance and perhaps even kick yourself for waiting so long. I realize that some users are in a position where their dependence on Intel is based on tools that are an absolute necessity, but if you can find an alternative that’s M-series friendly, see what you can do to adopt it. This is the third generation of M-series, and it’s stable, reliable, and works.

If you have an M2 MacBook Air, the only major reason why you’d upgrade to the M3 is because of the dual external display support. Yes, the 20 percent performance boost is nice (faster is always better), but in everyday tasks, you won’t really notice it. But if you can never get enough speed and you’re willing to spend the money, go for it.

M1 MacBook Air owners have more to consider. The performance increase between the M1 and M3 is enough to widen eyes and there’s also the design change that was actually introduced with the M2 MacBook Air. The new laptop does feel a bit bigger than the old design, but the screen is bigger. The M1 Air is still a good laptop and holding on to it is understandable–but so is upgrading.

Foundry

Whatever your situation, if you do decide to invest in the M3 MacBook Air, we strongly recommend getting at least 16GB of unified memory. With more memory, the laptop won’t depend as much on using the SSD for memory swapping, which helps with performance. Unfortunately, that means spending at least $1,299, but the extra up-front cost will be worth it.

This review originally appeared on Macworld.com.

Best Prices Today: Apple 15-inch MacBook Air (M3, 2024)

RetailerPriceAmazon$1,199View DealB&H$1199View DealAdorama$1299View DealApple$1299View DealApple United States$1299View DealBest Buy$1299View DealPrice comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwideProductPricePrice comparison from Backmarket

Roman has covered technology since the early 1990s. His career started at MacUser, and he’s worked for MacAddict, Mac|Life, and TechTV.

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