Fanless vs. M2 with active cooling: How does Apple’s CPU fare in the new MacBooks?


Apple’s newest processor, the M2 chip, has arrived in two 2022 models of its landmark laptops: the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the redesigned MacBook Air. The laptops have a lot in common, but while both use the M2, is the chip implemented in each slightly differently and in different ways.

So which of the two new M2-powered MacBooks offers better performance? After testing both, we are ready to compare the numbers and give you the answer.

The M2 MacBooks (so far): Configuration and CPU nuances

In theory, the cheapest 13-inch MacBook Pro should easily outperform the cheapest M2 MacBook Air, since the Air starts with an eight-core GPU (offers the 10-core GPU as an optional extra) and the MacBook Pro 13 only comes with the 10-core core version.

(Image credit: Molly Flores)

However, neither of the two test devices we tested is the base model. For the MacBook Pro 13-inch, our test system has slightly more memory and larger storage, while the M2 MacBook Air also has the beefed-up 10-core GPU and the same 16GB of memory and 1TB of storage. Both test configurations cost $1,899.

One advantage of the two models with such similar configurations is that we can certainly compare them head-to-head without worrying about memory or storage differences impacting performance.

The M2 Apple MacBooks we tested

Apple MacBook Air (2022, M2)

Apple MacBook Pro 13 inch (2022, M2)

One thing that needs clarification though: the cooling systems in these two laptops, which take two very different approaches. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13-inch offer two packages for the same M2 chip. The biggest difference between the two new MacBook models – far more important than any cosmetic differences – is how they cool the M2 chip inside. The Air sticks to passive cooling, letting natural airflow and some heatsinks do the job of keeping the CPU from getting too hot.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro, on the other hand, uses a pair of fans that actively draw in cool air and push out the hot air. This is an important difference as active airflow can be accelerated when needed and used to maintain cooler temperatures even when the hardware wants to get hot, e.g. B. when performing multiple demanding tasks.

Both the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air have built-in ventilation, but Apple’s design team hides them well. Instead of visible air vents next to the keyboard or on the bottom of the laptop, both MacBooks retain what appears to be a seamless metal shell. The vents are actually built into the hinge, hidden but with plenty of air space. And in the case of the MacBook Pro 13-inch, it also allows airflow for that pair of fans.

An Apple M2 Showdown: A comparison of fanless and actively cooled MacBooks

For every aspect of performance, we looked at the test results of both systems, but we also looked at a few other systems to add context. For the most part, we’ve been comparing either the M1 version of the MacBook Pro or the M1 MacBook Air, if only to illustrate how the M2 has performed over its predecessor.

Apple MacBook Pro 13 inch (2022, M2) from the front

(Image credit: Brian Westover)

For a graphics test, 3DMark, we also compared the M2 to the M1 Max version of the Mac Studio desktop. This was mostly because we had the data for this fairly new test, but also because it shows exactly where the M2 sits for serious graphics applications – and how much more power is available if you’re willing to settle for the more powerful variants to choose from the M1 like the M1 Pro or the M1 Max. The M2 might be a lot better than the M1 on the GPU front, but it doesn’t replace those high-end chips, far from it.

We’ll get to the 3DMark results below. First, let’s look at three CPU-intensive productivity benchmark tests: HandBrake 1.4, Cinebench R23, and Geekbench 5.4. Of the three, Handbrake is the test that best relies on real-world applications, as it is a timed test that converts a short 4K video clip into a smaller 1080p file. Faster times are better, and differences here will translate directly into performance and differences in experience when working with media files.

The second test is Cinebench R23, which uses Maxon’s Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene and test multi-core and multi-threaded processing. It’s a stress test for multi-core processors, and higher numbers mean better peak performance.

The third productivity test is Primate Labs’ Geekbench Pro, which simulates a wide range of office tasks and apps ranging from PDF rendering to speech recognition to machine learning.

Outside of particularly demanding applications such as media editing, you will hardly notice any difference between the two systems in everyday use. Geekbench is one of the few tests where the two M2 systems are nearly identical, only 17 points apart. However, the differences became apparent in the Cinebench and HandBrake tests, where the longer duration of these tests is reflected in the better performance of the actively cooled MacBook Pro.

Next, we looked at a handful of browser-based tests to see how well the M2 chip fared for web-based use at school and work. We start with JetStream 2, which combines 64 JavaScript and WebAssembly benchmarks to measure a browser’s suitability for advanced web applications. We also use Principled Technologies’ WebXPRT 3 (a browser-based test of HTML and JavaScript throughput). The last is the Basemark Web 3.0 test, which combines low-level JavaScript calculations and tests using popular JavaScript frameworks and Document Object Model and CSS features with WebGL graphics content that trains the GPU. All of these tests result in a numerical score; higher numbers are better.

In all three tests, the M2 systems offered a noticeable improvement over the already good performance of the M1 chip, making the new systems a great choice over the M1 if you can afford the higher prices. Interestingly, the M2-based Air actually outperformed the M2 MacBook Pro in WebXPRT 3. With the other two, however, the actively cooled Pro has replaced the passive Air.

Which M2 MacBook has better graphics performance?

The other area of ​​interest for the M2 chip is graphics performance. Since the M2 has more GPU cores than the M1, this translates into some improvement, which we’ll detail in our analysis of the M2’s graphics performance.

For this comparison, we looked at 3DMark Wildlife Extreme, which runs natively on Mac and Apple’s Metal graphics API, and GFXBench, a cross-platform GPU performance benchmark.

Here the differences were stark. The M2 processors in the Air and Pro may be the same silicon, but performance was far from identical, with the MacBook Pro delivering dramatically better scores than the M2 Air in all three graphics tests; Active cooling beats passive cooling.

Recommended by our editors

But for serious graphics users like professional media creators, going for the more powerful (and higher quality) Macs like the 16-inch MacBook Pro or Mac Studio is still a better option. (The M1 Max chip beats the M2 pretty decisively.)

While this isn’t just a result of the processor, Apple has definitely emphasized the power efficiency of the M2 and the longer battery life you can get from it. But in our battery rundown tests, which play looping 720p video until the battery dies — admittedly not a test that encompasses the subtle aspects of mixed performance and hybrid-core designs — the M1 models delivered better battery life, and by a significant margin in the case of the Air.

The M2 Air died first, lasting almost 17 hours, while the M2 MacBook Pro, which has more room in the chassis for a larger battery (58.2 watt-hours compared to the Air’s 52.6 watt-hours), lasted almost 22 hours. Both are great and offer all-day battery life, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as the M1 generation, which has impressed us with some of the longest battery life we’ve seen, and in the case of even hitting the 24-hour mark M1 broke through air.

Apple M2: Great everyday performance just got better

Before we name a winner for best M2 MacBook yet, it’s worth noting how well the M2 delivers on almost every promise Apple has made about the new chip. It offers faster, smoother processing for everyday tasks and more GPU power for tasks like editing videos or playing some games. And the power efficiency still results in an impressively long battery life.

Apple MacBook Air laptop

(Image credit: Molly Flores)

If you’re looking to upgrade an older Intel MacBook, this is an easy win – the performance gains alone are worth the price of admission. If you’re tired of your M1 MacBook slow, it’s not so clear cut. You get better performance but sacrifice a bit of battery life.

And if you need more serious processing and graphics power for professional use or working with media, the older M1 Pro and M1 Max are still better options for now. With a potential M2 Pro and M2 Max (or equivalent) hitting the market sometime in the next year or two, the CPU performance rankings will change. But for now, the M2 is a step down, not a competitor at the top.

Conclusion: Is the Apple M2 better in the MacBook Air or in the MacBook Pro?

When it comes to raw performance, the numbers tell the tale: the MacBook Pro 13-inch (the 2022 M2 version) is the better performer compared to the 2022 MacBook Air. The additional cooling fans and larger battery result in better peak performance, when they are engaged in a specific task for long periods of time and are away from the charger for a longer period of time.

Apple MacBook Air (2022, M2)

(Image credit: Molly Flores)

Still, for most people, the M2 MacBook Air is the Mac laptop we recommend. The performance differences will only be noticeable to the small minority of users who regularly push their processors to the limit, making the two systems nearly identical in day-to-day use. MacBook Air also features a fresh new design that’s thinner and lighter, and it even has a better display. It’s simply the better laptop for the money, which is why the Air deserves our Editors’ Choice award and the MacBook Pro 13-inch doesn’t.

But based on the results alone, it’s clear that the MacBook Pro 13-inch offers the better instance of the M2 chip. The only question is whether that is enough for the purchase decision. For our full take on the matter from a full laptop perspective, check out 13-inch MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Which M2 Apple Laptop is Better in 2022?

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