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Does Apple's M3 chip obsolete the M1 and M2? Here's when to upgrade - and why

The M1 and M2 Macs are still awesome, current, well-tested, and well-functioning machines. But let's dive a little deeper.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Mac Studio M2 Ultra ports
Jason Hiner/ZDNET

As soon as Tim Cook faded from the screen, my wife turned to me and asked, "M3, huh? So, does that mean all our new Macs are now obsolete?" We had just finished watching the shortest Apple event in history, where the M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max processors were announced, along with a new MacBook Pro and iMac.

Over the past two years, we've upgraded all of our company Macs (about a dozen of them) from Intel to M1 and M2 architectures. My wife's computers are now M2-based, while I'm running a very highly equipped M1 Max Mac Studio, as well as a bunch of M1-based Mac minis and an M1-based MacBook Air.

Also: Apple's M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max chipsets: Everything you need to know

We spent quite a lot on these machines. My wife's main machine is a maxed-out M2 MacBook Air, which was ZDNET's Product of the Year for 2022; let me tell you, maxing out Mac storage and RAM doesn't come cheap.

My wife's concern about potential obsolescence is valid. Fortunately, it's nothing to worry about. In fact, ZDNET Editor-in-Chief Jason Hiner writes today that "Apple's desktop-class MacBook Pros have leapt forward again with M3. But remember the latest M2 MacBook Air still offers pro-level performance with a more impressive form factor and price tag."

In short, the M1 and M2 Macs are still awesome, current, well-tested, and well-functioning machines. But let's dive a little deeper. Why would you upgrade fo the M3?

Reasons to upgrade

I regularly upgrade my machines. I'm always chasing the chance to save time. So if I thought that these new devices would give me an extra hour or so in my day, I'd leap at it. But I'm sticking with my M1s because I'm not feeling it.

By "feeling it," I mean that my current machines aren't making me miserable. And believe me, I've known misery. Back before Apple's spate of upgrades in 2018, the company let the Mac product line languish for years. My work productivity suffered, and I contemplated moving my entire work stack to the PC, which would be a major effort because I use some special purpose software -- Final Cut Pro and Keyboard Maestro, among others -- that is Mac only and forms the basis of my productivity.

Finally, when Apple did a full sweep upgrade, first to a new Intel Mac mini in 2018, and then to Apple Silicon, I was all over it. Because I needed that long-awaited performance.

Also: Migrating to M1 Macs: How I'm upgrading my small fleet of older Apple desktops and laptops

Let's look at the main reasons to upgrade a computer. These are general guidelines for making any upgrade decision, not just for the Mac or for the latest M3. They will work for the M3 decision as well.

Performance leads the pack.

If you're feeling a performance pinch: When you feel it, you know it. Are those Final Cut renders taking so long that you feel like you'll wither before they're complete? Does it take forever to do something in Photoshop? Is your programming environment sluggish? When you feel like your machine is holding you back, it's time to upgrade.

If you need a different configuration: Macs come with storage and RAM soldered on the mainboard. While you can hang an external drive off of the machines, it's not as fast as internal storage.

Also: Buying a used Mac laptop: How to avoid scams and find the best deals

We recently replaced my wife's M1 Mac mini with an M2. But we didn't do it because of the M2. Her M1 was a base model, with just a tiny bit of RAM and storage. When we bought the M1, that's all she needed. But she was doing a lot more graphics and needed the extra RAM and storage. So, the upgrade was justified.

That M1 Mac mini is still a fine machine. We moved it into the bedroom and hooked it up to the TV there.

If you need a new feature that your current machine is lacking: One of the reasons I moved from using my M1 MacBook Air as my primary machine to the Mac Studio was multi-monitor support. I could only hang one spare monitor off the Air. I have three monitors hanging off the Mac Studio.

You might want to upgrade if you need a laptop with a bigger display. Or if you need more ports or a variety of different ports. I wouldn't necessarily plunk down an extra two grand for a Mac Studio just for the front-facing SD card slot, but I find it incredibly useful. It's a feature on my upgraded computer that I use every day.

Also: The Apple products you shouldn't buy this month 

If performance has declined: With mobile devices, battery life declines over time. I have upgraded laptops when the battery life just wasn't long enough to be useful. This is different from the performance pinch talked about before. In that case, your demand for performance has increased. In this case, the existing performance has gotten worse.

If your device is no longer compatible: This is when the applications or the operating system have left your machine behind. We still have one Intel Mac mini in service, and it works fine. The latest MacOS, Sonoma, still runs on it. But the writing is on the wall. Next year's MacOS (which I fervently hope is called Fresno) will probably no longer support that Intel Mac mini.

By the way, it's not just the obvious things, like OS changes, that might push an upgrade. I had a Mac mini that couldn't support the latest OS, and Gmail and Chrome refused to run. I would have been happy running an older OS version, but when the main tools I used all day stopped running, that machine had to come out of service, and a new machine was purchased to replace it.

M1 and M2 are far from obsolete

Unless you're jumping from a base M1 to something like an M3 Max, you're unlikely to feel a major performance gain moving from one Apple Silicon generation to another. But if you're running an Intel Mac, that's a whole other consideration. There, you'll see a huge performance boost and you'll find everything runs faster and smoother.

Also: How to update every Apple device (iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac, more)

My recommendation -- for those of you with M1 and M2 machines -- is not to worry about M3 unless one of the reasons above speaks to you. As for me, I'm not feeling any slowdown on my M1 machines, especially my well-configured Mac Studio. Until I start to feel some level of frustration over performance or capability, I'm staying with the hardware I have.

What about you? Are you planning on jumping on the M3 bandwagon? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter on Substack, and follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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