Are Apple’s new MacBook Air M3 laptops worth it? I’ve tested them to find out

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Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

The MacBook Air with M3 aims to offer the perfect balance of simplicity and excellence, continuing a decades-long trend. Ever since 2008, Apple’s best MacBooks have ranked as some of the top laptops by offering the textbook-definition of a thin and light powerhouse. In 2022, Apple finally updated that laptop’s looks with the MacBook Air M2, debuting a thinner and lighter design.

This year, in addition to upgrading the internal specs, including Apple’s latest class of processors, the company’s thrown a bone to those who are sick of fingerprints and extended an olive branch to folks with multiple external monitors. But we had to see if this year’s model holds up the wedge-shaped legacy, so I put it through the rigors of CNN Underscored’s tests and used it as my personal entertainment device. Keep scrolling to find out why I’m going to be recommending it to family going forward.


Apple MacBook Air M3

Apple
Apple

Apple’s ultra-portable laptop is updated with the M3 chip for slightly speedier performance, in addition to offering dual external monitor support and much more.


From $1,099 at Amazon
From $1,099 at Best Buy
From $1,099 at Apple


What I liked about it

M3 performance continues Apple Silicon excellence

As I tested both the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Air M3 laptops, I routinely forgot I was using Apple’s entry-level notebooks. These laptops handled both my workload and free-time computing admirably as I put this review together and relaxed thereafter. From researching in a few dozen Chrome and Safari tabs to attending meetings in Zoom, editing images in Pixelmator Pro and managing my projects in Todoist, everything just worked. All along, Carrot Weather snarkily informed me of incoming storms, and I jammed out to my playlists in Apple Music with nary a hiccup. The only maintenance I had to do was prune the apps in the 13-inch MacBook Air’s dock when the icons got too small.

The third-generation of Apple’s own laptop processors also impressed in benchmarked tests, in which we put the MacBook Airs up against our favorite Windows laptops: the Dell XPS notebooks. But since the 2024 Dell XPS laptops with 14th Gen Intel CPUs aren’t out yet, we could only compare against yesteryear’s models, making these score differentials a bit more understandable.

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

On the CPU-based Geekbench 6 benchmarks that measure overall performance, Apple’s M3 MacBook Airs beat the 13th Gen Intel CPU-equipped Dell XPS 15 (even though that laptop has up to four times as much memory). That said, the XPS 15 took wins in the Shadow of the Tomb Raider benchmark and Geekbench 6’s Compute test, which also factors in graphics performance, two areas where that dedicated GPU comes in handy.

The mixed performance in Shadow of the Tomb Raider on the MacBook Air M3 is explained by the fact that the 15-inch version we tested had 16GB of memory (twice that of the 13-inch Air) and an extra pair of GPU cores in the M3 chip. So, while the 15-inch MacBook Air ran Lara Croft’s adventure at a playable rate, the 13-inch Air failed to meet our 30 frames per second threshold.

I saw the 15-inch MacBook Air M3 notch another win when I played the recently released and quite demanding game Baldur’s Gate 3. The 13-inch model defaulted to sub-Full HD resolution (1470 x 956) at low settings, which made me cringe a little at the thought of inferior-looking gameplay. But when the medium graphics setting made my green-skinned monster look too choppy while simply walking, I settled for low … which was playable but still visually unimpressive.

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

Switching over to the 15-inch MacBook Air M3, which ran the game at 1710 x 1107 on medium graphics, looked smoother, though I still saw the graphics tear a bit as the creepy elf Astarion pulled a knife on me. This wasn’t surprising, as I saw similarly middling performance in Baldur’s Gate 3 on the 14-inch MacBook Pro M3 and much better visuals on the 16-inch MacBook Pro with the beastly M3 Max chip. Check out our MacBook Pro M3 vs. MacBook Air M3 face-off for a full comparison of Apple’s current crop of laptops.

We also ran Geekbench 5’s tests to see how these laptops stack up against previous-generation models. Both models of the MacBook Air M3 notched a modest 20% to 25% step-up from the MacBook Air M2 scores and an even larger gap over the 12th Gen Intel processor-based Dell XPS 13 Plus. We look forward to testing the 2024 XPS laptops once they’re out.

A thin and light design that still looks and feels fresh

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

I will always appreciate the wedge-like design of the genre-defining MacBook Air (which Apple just retired, as it no longer sells the MacBook Air M1), but I’m very happy with these improbably thin MacBooks. And as much as the notch at the top of the display was an eyesore at first glance, I quickly forgot that it was there. Except, of course, when I used it alongside a display that didn’t have one.

The only physical change in the MacBook Air M3 comes in the dark-blue Midnight color, which benefits from Apple’s new fingerprint-resistant anodization tricks that debuted with the Space Black MacBook Pro M3 lineup. After days of gripping and moving these laptops around my apartment, coffee shops and the office, I saw the 15-inch Midnight MacBook Air M3 attract only a minimal amount of fingerprints, just like its pricier sibling. That’s a win when compared with its M2-based predecessor, which is an utter fingerprint magnet.

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

The 13-inch MacBook Air M3’s 0.4-inch-thick chassis slides under the Dell XPS 13’s 0.6-inch thick body, though the Air is a hair heavier. The bigger difference comes when you want more screen space, as the 15-inch MacBook Air is a mere 0.5 inches thick and 3.3 pounds, while the XPS 14 and XPS 16 are thicker and heavier.

Excellent battery life

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

These MacBook Airs offer pretty excellent battery life, especially for how thin they are. Our in-house laptop battery test — which loops a 4K video with the display at 50% brightness — drained the 15-inch M3 MacBook Air of a full charge in nine hours and 49 minutes, a little over half an hour longer than its predecessor. The 13-inch Air drained the battery about an hour faster.

The Dell XPS 15’s battery drained 79 minutes faster than the 15-inch M3 MacBook Air, while the XPS 13 Plus didn’t come close to either.

Support for two external displays — with a caveat

A single laptop screen can feel limited in terms of space, especially if you’re used to working on an external monitor. This makes the option to extend your Macbook Air’s screen to another display the kind of feature that some people might not even think about and that others have possibly lost sleep over. And a quick poke around online confirms that people were peeved about previous MacBooks that had limited external display support. That problem is (somewhat) solved for the MacBook Air, as you can now plug two monitors in using both the M3 MacBook Air USB-C ports. Apple told me that existing MacBook Pros M3 will be getting this feature in a later update.

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

How does this work in practice? I was able to connect a pair of 5K Apple Studio Displays to each MacBook Air M3, with a display plugging in to each machine’s two USB-C ports. It worked fine and there was no performance lag. Except, well, there’s a catch: The second external display only turns on if the MacBook Air’s lid is closed. So, yes, you would be looking at two larger external monitors, but you’re still limited to a two-screen experience, which is what you’d have if the MacBook Air was only connected to one monitor.

That said, if you have those extra-big screens, and many offices do, I bet you’ll love the screen-space bump you get. There are a couple of additional limitations, though: You’re allowed one monitor of up to 6K and another up to 5K, and refresh rates cap at 60Hz. So, while I bet people wish they didn’t have to close their MacBook Air to make this work, trading that 13.6-inch, 2560 x 1664-pixel panel or the 15.3-inch, 2880 x 1864-pixel panel for a 5K display is a good move if you can make it.

All the little things we love about MacBooks are intact

I also have to give Apple credit for all the little things. After its Macs were stuck in some slightly dark days (we try to forget the “butterfly” keyboard era), you can now expect practically all-around excellence from every single laptop Apple sells. It’s merely a matter of which machine is right for your budget and your needs.

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

The MacBook Air M3s produced strong sound, which I observed when blasting the Screaming Females song “Swallow the World.” Singer Melissa Paternoster’s soulful vocals hit perfectly while the crashing drum cymbals rung out delicately behind the powerful guitar riffs. The Liquid Retina displays of the MacBook Air M3s also provide stellar video, as I noted while watching the thrilling final act of Jordan Peele’s “Nope” in 4K. The detritus surrounding Brandon Perea’s character when he fell down was crisp, and the blues of the tarp covering him looked accurate as well.

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

You also won’t have issues being seen or heard clearly on webcam calls taken on the MacBook Air M3. I made calls on both with my colleague Mike Andronico, and he noted, “You look like you’re on a modern MacBook Air webcam, as you look good and sound clear.”

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

Oh, and Apple has upgraded the MacBook Air M3 for Wi-Fi 6E support, which enables faster connectivity. That speediness, though, requires a Wi-Fi router that works with that standard, so you’re just as likely to be future-proofing as anything else.

What I didn’t like about it

It’s not a must-have for modern MacBook owners

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

The MacBook Air M3 is somewhat of a hard sell if you already own an Apple Silicon MacBook. The new design may be alluring, but it’s not like the classic aesthetic was ever broken. Of course, those with the 13.3-inch MacBook Air M1 may desire the larger screen of the 15.3-inch MacBook Air M3, but aside from that, I’m not sure how much recent MacBook buyers need to upgrade. If you find your MacBook to be a little slower than you’d like, definitely consider getting the latest and greatest, or even an M3 Pro or M3 Max-enabled MacBook Pro.

This harkens back to two of the best things about MacBooks: They’re great and they last. For a laptop, it’s hard to ask for anything more. (That won’t stop me, though.)

I still want a USB-A port

I don’t enjoy fighting yesterday’s wars, but I’m one of the people who isn’t truly ready to give up on the old-fashioned, nonreversible USB port. Others (such as Dell) have followed Apple’s lead in ditching the boxy, rectangular USB-A port, but it’s still being used today. I don’t always want to be forced to rely on even the best USB-C hubs when I connect a USB receiver for the Logitech Wave Keys keyboard or plug in my Elgato Wave:3 (one of our favorite USB microphones).

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

Additionally, I understand that the MacBook Air is probably the last laptop that would get a USB-A port, given the laptop’s thin design. Maybe Apple could follow Dell’s lead and throw in one of its $19 USB-C to USB-A adapters for free?

How it compares

Bottom line

Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored
Henry T. Casey/CNN Underscored

The MacBook Air M3 is the continuation of tradition: Apple’s entry-level laptops are its best for most people. If and when my mom’s ready to upgrade from her Intel processor-based MacBook Air, I will just send her the link to this article and say, “You want the 15-inch MacBook Air so you can make the text bigger.” I’ll also advise her to upgrade the memory to 16GB of RAM — which should be the standard, but alas.

There’s no big leap and innovation in this year’s MacBook Air, just perks for the Midnight crowd and the folks with as many monitors as they have hands. And those things are neat, don’t get me wrong. But the MacBook Air M3 isn’t a big, flashy upgrade. It’s a slightly better version of the best laptop there is — and that’s all we need it to be. But if you don’t need a bigger screen and don’t care about fingerprints, consider the $999 M2 MacBook Air, which is now $200 cheaper than it used to be.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed price at the time of publication.

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