Fanless vs. Active-Cooled M2: 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 seminal laptops: the 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro, and in the redesigned MacBook Air. The laptops have a lot in common, but despite both using the M2, the chip is slightly different, and implemented in different ways, in each one.

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


The M2 MacBooks (So Far): Configuration and CPU Nuances

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

(Credit: Molly Flores)

However, of the two review units we tested, neither one is the base model. For the MacBook Pro 13-inch, our test system has a little extra memory and larger storage, while the M2 MacBook Air also has the boosted 10-core GPU and same 16GB of memory and 1TB of storage. Both test configurations sell for $1,899.

One benefit of having the two models with such similar configurations is that we can safely compare them head-to-head, without having to worry about memory or storage differences having an impact on the performance.

The M2 Apple MacBooks We’ve Tested

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

The MacBook Pro 13-inch, on the other hand, uses a pair of fans, actively drawing in cool air and forcing out the hot. That’s an important difference, since the active airflow can be sped up when needed, and used to maintain cooler temperatures even when the hardware wants to get hot, such as when running multiple demanding tasks.

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

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An Apple M2 Showdown: Fanless vs. Active-Cooled MacBook Performance Compared

For each aspect of performance we looked at both systems’ test results, but we also looked at a couple of other systems to add context. For the most part, we compared against either the M1 version of the MacBook Pro or the M1 MacBook Air, if only to illustrate how the M2 has advanced over its predecessor. 

(Credit: Brian Westover)

For one graphics test, 3DMark, we also compared the M2 with the M1 Max version of the Mac Studio desktop. This was done largely because we had the data for this fairly new test, but also because it demonstrates exactly where the M2 sits for serious graphics applications—and how much more power is available if you’re willing to go with the more capable variants of the M1 like the M1 Pro or the M1 Max. The M2 may be a lot better than the M1 on the GPU front, but it’s not replacing those higher-end chips, not by a long shot.

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

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

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

Outside of particularly demanding applications, like media editing, you’ll see very little difference between the two systems in day-to-day use. Geekbench is one of the few tests where the two M2 systems are nearly identical, coming within 17 points of each other. But the differences were marked on the Cinebench and HandBrake tests, where the extended time those tests took are reflected in the better performance of the active-cooled MacBook Pro.

Next we looked at a handful of browser-based tests, to see how well-suited the M2 chip is to web-based school and work use. 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). 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 exercises the GPU. All of these tests yield a numeric score; higher numbers are better. 

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In all three tests, the M2 systems offered a noticeable step up from 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 enough, the M2-based Air actually outperformed the M2 MacBook Pro in WebXPRT 3. On the other two, though, the actively cooled Pro edged out 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 boasts more GPU cores than the M1 did, that does translate into some improvement, which we dig into in more detail in our analysis of M2 graphics performance.

For this comparison, we looked to 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 not identical by a long shot, with the MacBook Pro delivering dramatically better scores than the M2 Air across all three graphics tests; active cooling beating passive cooling.

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

Finally, though it’s not purely the result of the processor, Apple has definitely emphasized the M2’s power efficiency and the longer battery life you’ll get from it. But in our battery rundown tests, which uses a looped 720p video playing 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 sizable margin in the case of the Air.

The M2 Air died first, lasting nearly 17 hours, while the M2 MacBook Pro, which has more room in the chassis for a larger battery (58.2 watt-hours, compared with the Air’s 52.6 watt-hours), lasted almost 22 hours. Both are great and provide all-day battery life, but it’s not nearly as impressive as the M1 generation, which wowed us with some of the longest battery times we’ve seen, even smashing through the 24-hour barrier in the case of the M1 Air.

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Apple M2: Great Everyday Performance Gets Better

Before we call out a winner for the best M2 MacBook so far, it is worth noting how well the M2 delivers on nearly every promise Apple made for the new chip. It offers faster, smoother processing for everyday tasks, and more GPU muscle for tasks like editing video or playing a few games. And the power efficiency still yields impressively long battery life.

(Credit: Molly Flores)

If you’re looking to upgrade an older Intel MacBook, it’s an easy win—the performance gains alone are worth the price of admission. If you’re starting to tire of your M1 MacBook, it’s not so clear-cut. You’ll get better performance, but you’ll sacrifice a bit of battery longevity.

And if you need more serious processing and graphics power for professional use or media work, then the older M1 Pro and M1 Max are still better options, for now. With a potential M2 Pro and M2 Max (or the equivalent) coming sometime in the next year or two, the CPU power rankings will change. But for now, the M2 is a step up from the bottom, not a contender at the top.


Verdict: Is the Apple M2 Better in the MacBook Air, or the MacBook Pro?

When it comes to pure performance, the numbers tell the story: The MacBook Pro 13-inch (the 2022 M2 version) is the better performer measured against the 2022 MacBook Air. The added cooling fans and larger battery translate into better peak performance when stressed on a given task over longer periods, and longer time away from the charger.

(Credit: Molly Flores)

Still, for most people, the M2 MacBook Air is the Mac laptop we recommend. The performance differences won’t be noticeable for all but the small minority of users who regularly push their processors to the limits, making the two systems nearly identical in daily use. Plus, the MacBook Air offers a fresh new design that’s thinner and lighter, and it even has a better display. It’s just the better laptop for the money, which is why the Air earns our Editors’ Choice award, and the MacBook Pro 13-inch does not.

But based on scores alone, it’s clear that the MacBook Pro 13-inch offers the better instance of the M2 chip. It’s merely a question of whether that’s enough to base your buying decision on. To get 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?

Source: https://www.pcmag.com/news/fanless-vs-active-cooled-m2-how-does-apples-cpu-fare-in-the-new-macbooks

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