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Apple’s new MacBook Air is a near-perfect update, but don’t rule out the older model

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A new MacBook Air running M2 chip is seen displayed during Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, June 6, 2022.
Peter Dasilva | Reuters

Apple‘s new $1,199 MacBook Air, with its latest processor, the M2, launches in stores Friday. I’ve been testing it for a week, and I think it’s the MacBook most people should buy.

The 2022 MacBook Air offers the biggest redesign to the MacBook since 2010. It ditches the tapered shell of earlier models and is 20% smaller by volume than its predecessor, thanks to updated internals. It has a larger screen, a faster processor, better speakers, an updated camera and more.

Apple’s Mac revenue jumped 15% year over year to $10.4 billion in the second quarter, largely due to its M1 processor and a slew of new Macs that run on it. The MacBook Air with M2 will help the unit keep that momentum, especially as the back-to-school season nears.

Here’s what you need to know about it.

What’s good

Apple typically sends a high-end MacBook Air for testing, but this year it sent me the entry-level $1,199 model. That means I get to try out the version I think most people will end up buying. You get a lot of bang for your buck here for a laptop that should last you many years. Given the design and updated features, such as MagSafe, it almost feels like a MacBook Pro Lite. That’s a good thing.

The first thing you’ll notice is the new, thinner design. I like that it feels balanced and light but has a more refined design similar to the 14-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,999.

Kif Leswing/CNBC

Apple upgraded the screen from a retina display to a liquid retina display that’s brighter and more colorful than the prior model. There’s a notch at the top just like on the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros, but the notch hasn’t bothered me when I use the 14-inch MacBook Pro I own.

The speakers sound good. I thought the stereo speakers on the last model were solid, but the M2 MacBook Air has two additional speakers, for a total of four, which makes movies and music sound fuller. But they still fall short of the incredible speakers you get if you’re willing to spend almost twice as much for the 14-inch MacBook Pro.

I love the keyboard. It’s back to the tried-and-true version from that of the M1 MacBook Air. Typing is easy, and it doesn’t have flaws like the old butterfly version, which felt too shallow, and was prone to repeat key presses and stuck keys.

Kif Leswing/CNBC

MagSafe is here, too, just like on the 14-inch MacBook Pro. That’s the small magnetic charging cable that pops onto the side and easily pops back out. So, if you trip on the cord, the whole MacBook won’t come smashing off your desk. You can also charge the laptop using one of two Thunderbolt USB C ports. You can fast charge it up to 50% in 30 minutes if you buy Apple’s 67-watt charger for $59.

The charger should have been included in the entry-level model, but Apple offers it for free if you step up to the 512GB version. I prefer fast charging, and the charger worked well, so I suggest buying it.

The M2 chip was plenty fast for my needs, such as running lots of tabs in Safari, playing music, watching movies or light gaming. I thought the M1 was great, too, so people coming from that chip may not notice a huge difference unless you’re timing things such as video rendering speeds. And, if you’re the sort of person who really needs a ton of speed, you should just get the 14-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple promises 18 hours of battery life with the screen set at about 50% brightness. I did a video rundown test, just looping a movie nonstop until the battery died, and got just over 17 hours. I was streaming the movie and had things such as the keyboard lights on, which both impact battery life. It will get you through a work day and beyond, and you’ll definitely have plenty of battery life to watch movies throughout an entire flight.

What’s bad

Kif Leswing/CNBC

The name of the M2 chip can be confusing: It’s faster than the M1, but it’s not more powerful than the M1 Pro or M1 Max in the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro. And it’s more limited than those chips. You can add only one external monitor, for example, as opposed to two with the M1 Pro or four with the M1 Max. That’s the same limitation as the M1 chip, and it’s a bummer for people like me who usually run two extra monitors.

Apple also finally upgraded the camera from 720p to full 1080p HD. It’s better, but I think it could be sharper — for example, my skin looked overly smooth. And things such as lights in the background showed visible streaks. Standalone webcams with bigger lenses are still the better option if you want to look your best for video chat.

Should you buy it?

Kif Leswing/CNBC

This is the MacBook most people should buy. You don’t need to upgrade if you have the M1 model, but it’s definitely a big bump from the older Intel versions.

In fact, Apple still sells the 2020 M1 MacBook Air for $999. I think the extra $200 is worth it for a newer computer that will be supported longer and has faster charging, a better webcam, better speakers, an updated design and more. But you shouldn’t rule out the more affordable older option if you want to save money. It’s still a fantastic laptop.

I bought the more expensive 14-inch MacBook Pro when it launched last year because it has more ports, better speakers and an even nicer display, but it has way more processing muscle than I’ll ever need. The new MacBook Air with M2 is about half the price, it’s lighter, has a great screen and speakers and a processor that will last you for years. I’d have purchased this instead if it had launched at the same time.

WATCH: Apple unveils MacBook Air with new M2 chip

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