MacBook Air M3 vs MacBook Air M1: Should you upgrade?

MacBook Air M3
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The MacBook Air M3 has arrived. This update refreshes both the 13-inch MacBook Air M2 and 15-inch MacBook Air with the current Apple M3 chip — promising enhanced performance over previous models. Spec bump aside, the laptops retain the same design as their predecessors, which makes them among the lightest machines in their size categories.

With the MacBook Air M3 launching on March 8, the MacBook Air M1 is officially dead as the company no longer sells it on its online store. Apple’s most affordable laptop has occupied a spot on our best MacBooks and best laptops lists since it came out in 2020 due to the value it offered. Now with the MacBook Air M2 at $999, it seems there’s no room for the M1 MacBook Air, though you should be able to find it at retailers like Amazon and Best Buy for a while. 

The 13- and 15-inch MacBook Airs are the new kids on the block while the 13-inch MacBook Air M2 is now Apple’s cheapest notebook. That being the case, should you upgrade to the MacBook Air M3 if you own a MacBook Air M1? Below, we’ll detail reasons for and against upgrading.

MacBook Air M3 vs MacBook Air M1: Specs

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Header Cell - Column 0 13-inch MacBook Air M315-inch MacBook Air M3MacBook Air M1
Price $1,099$1,299$999
CPU8-core8-core 8-core
Display13.6-inches (1 2560 x 1,664)15.3-inch (2,880 x 1,864)13.3‑inch (2,560 x 1,600)
Ports2x Thunderbolt 4/USB-C, 1x MagSafe port, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack2x Thunderbolt 4/USB-C, 1x MagSafe port, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack2x Thunderbolt 3/USB-C, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack
Size11.97 x 8.46 x 0.44 inches13.40 x 9.53 x 0.45 inches12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches
Battery lifeUp to 15 hoursUp to 15 hoursUp to 15 hours
Weight2.7 pounds3.5 pounds2.8 pounds
ColorsMidnight, Starlight, Space Gray, SilverMidnight, Starlight, Space Gray, SilverGold, Silver, Space Gray

MacBook Air M3 vs MacBook Air M1: Reasons to upgrade

M3 power

MacBook Air M3

Apple debuts the new M3 MacBook Air laptops. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The most obvious reason to upgrade from an M1 MacBook Air to one of the new M3 models is the power provided by the M3 chip.

According to Apple, the new MacBook Air is 60% faster than the MacBook Air M1 and up to 13 times faster than even the fastest Intel-powered MacBook Air. You can get a MacBook Air with an M3 chip packing a 10-core GPU that’s, according to Apple, 65% faster than M1 for graphics performance. It also has an 8-core CPU (4 performance, 4 efficiency) that’s 35% faster than M1 for computing performance. The M3 chip supports up to 24GB of unified memory, compared to 16GB for the M1 Air.

M3 packs an enhanced Neural Engine meant to accelerate machine learning (ML) models. This Neural Engine is up to 60% faster than in the M1 series, says Apple. M3 processors also have an advanced media engine that provides hardware acceleration for video codecs like H.264, HEVC, ProRes and ProRes RAW. The media engine also supports AV1 decoding for better video streaming.

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LaptopChipset (core count)Unified memory (RAM)Max Storage
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M3 Max)M3 Max (16-core CPU / 40-core GPU)128GB8TB
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3 Pro)M3 Pro (11-core CPU / 14-core GPU)18GB512GB
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3)M3 (8-core CPU / 10-core GPU)16GB1TB
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M2 Max)M2 Max (12-core CPU / 38-core GPU)96GB4TB
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M2 Pro)M2 Pro (10-core CPU / 16-core GPU)16GB512GB
MacBook Pro (M2)M2 (8-core CPU / 10-core GPU)16GB1TB
MacBook Air 15-inch (M2)M2 (8-core CPU / 10-core GPU)16GB512GB
MacBook Air 13-inch (M2)M2 (8-core CPU / 10-core GPU)16GB1TB
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M1 Max)M1 Max (10-core CPU / 32-core GPU)64GB2TB
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Pro)M1 Pro (10-core CPU / 16-core GPU)32GB1TB
MacBook Pro (M1)M1 (8-core CPU / 8-core GPU)16GB1TB
MacBook Air (M1)M1 (8-core CPU / 8-core GPU)16GB1TB

Thanks to the M3's GPU, the new MacBook Air supports hardware-accelerated mesh shading and ray tracing, which delivers more accurate lighting, reflections, and shadows in games. As we discussed in our review of the 14-inch MacBook Pro with M3, these features make games like Lies of P and Baldur’s Gate 3 look absolutely stunning on Apple’s hardware.

The M1 chip offered a significant boost in power over older Intel MacBooks but we didn’t see such a wide gulf between the M1 and M2 chip — as our M2 benchmarks demonstrated. However, there’s a bigger difference between the M3 and M1 chips. If you want what should be the most powerful MacBook Air yet, then you should upgrade from the MacBook Air M1 to the M3.

Updated design 

MacBook Air M3

The new 15- and 13-inch MacBook Air laptops share the same design as their M2-driven predecessors. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The next reason to upgrade from an M1 MacBook Air to an M3 Air is for the updated design. While the M1-powered laptop isn’t offensive to the eyes, its once-iconic tapered design now makes it seem like a relic from a bygone era. In contrast, both the M2 and M3 MacBook Airs feature the sleek and minimalist build introduced with 2021’s MacBook Pro 14-inch and MacBook Pro 16-inch.

Though the M2 and M3 MacBook Air 13-inch are 20% smaller than the previous Air in terms of volume, they have a bigger 13.6-inch display thanks to the laptops’ thinner bezels. The Air M3 has a notch at the top of the screen, which could be distracting to some since the notch breaks the aesthetics by stretching down to the bottom of the Menu bar.

The 2.7-pound unibody aluminum chassis balances durability and lightness. The M3 laptop also comes in four colors: Starlight, Silver, Space Gray and Midnight. The latter utilizes the same fingerprint-resistant technology introduced in last year's MacBook Pro 14-inch M3 Pro and MacBook Pro 16-inch M3 Max laptops.

If you want a more modern-looking notebook, then you should upgrade to the MacBook Air M3.

Better display 

MacBook Air M3

The MacBook Air M3 (pictured above) features the same stunning display as its M2-powered counterpart. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Like its predecessor, the new MacBook Air M3 has a 13.6-inch (2,560 x 1,664) Retina display, which Apple claims can hit 500 nits of brightness. In our lab tests, the Air M2 averaged 489 nits of brightness and peaked at 495 nits with HDR content. It also registered 107% of the sRGB color gamut and 75.9% of the more demanding DCI-P3 color space. Apple hasn’t said anything about an upgraded panel for the M3 Air, so I suspect we’ll see similar results to the M2 model.

The old MacBook Air M1 has a 13.3-inch (2,560 x 1,600) Retina display. According to our colorimeter test, it produced 114.3% of the sRGB spectrum and delivered up to 365.8 nits of brightness. While the Air M1 produced a tad more of the sRGB color gamut, the Air M2 is decidedly brighter. The new laptop also has a higher pixel count due to its larger screen.

I won’t say the M1 Air’s display looks bad, because it doesn’t. But given what we know about the M3’s panel, it should provide a better viewing experience. 

MacBook Air M3 vs MacBook Air M1: Reasons not to upgrade

Apple MacBook Air M1 (late 2020) review

The humble MacBook Air M1 (pictured above) still delivers great performance and exceptional battery life. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

M1 Air offers excellent performance and battery life 

The M3 chip certainly delivers better performance than M1, based on our testing. If that's your priority, you should consider getting the new M3-powered 13- and 15-inch laptops. However, if you don’t need the performance boost M3 provides, you might be better off sticking with the MacBook Air M1 you currently own.

The MacBook Air M1 is still great for general use — including writing, work, video streaming and light gaming. And while the M1 chip isn’t exactly new, its performance is sometimes better than the best Windows laptops in its price range. Its nearly 15 hours of battery life also embarrasses even the latest Windows machines.

MacBook Air M3 vs MacBook Air M1: Outlook

To summarize, upgrade to the MacBook Air M3 if you want a laptop with beefier hardware, more power for AI-enabled tasks and a sleeker, more modern design. Conversely, stick with the MacBook Air M1 if you’re still happy with what it provides. If you’re new to MacBooks, then the $999 MacBook Air M2 serves as a great entry point.

We’ll have full reviews of both 13- and 15-inch MacBook Air laptops soon. At that time, we’ll see if these machines are worthy updates for the lineup. We’ll update this post accordingly, so stay tuned.

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Tony Polanco
Computing Writer

Tony is a computing writer at Tom’s Guide covering laptops, tablets, Windows, and iOS. During his off-hours, Tony enjoys reading comic books, playing video games, reading speculative fiction novels, and spending too much time on X/Twitter. His non-nerdy pursuits involve attending Hard Rock/Heavy Metal concerts and going to NYC bars with friends and colleagues. His work has appeared in publications such as Laptop Mag, PC Mag, and various independent gaming sites.