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M3 MacBook Pro buying advice: Who it's really for (and who should stick with M2 MacBook Air)

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.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
MacBook Air and MacBook Pro on Energy Yellow background

MacBook Air on top of MacBook Pro.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Less than a year after upgrading the MacBook Pro from M1 to M2, Apple unleashed a new version with the latest M3 processor, which promises a 50% performance boost from the M1 models and 11x the performance of the fastest Intel-based MacBook Pros. But should you buy one? It depends on what laptop you're upgrading from and how extreme performance will impact your daily workload.  

Also: MacBook Pro (M3 Max) review: A desktop-class laptop for an AI-powered age

More than ever, the Apple Silicon-based MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch models are the go-to machines for special effects artists, graphic designers, video editors, 3D animators, audio engineers, software developers, biomedical researchers, industrial designers, and other high-end creatives and professionals.  

If you have one of the M2-based MacBook Pros released in early 2023, then it certainly doesn't make sense to upgrade to M3. By comparison, the two high-end models with M3 Pro and M3 Max are a modest step up, with the same design and form factor, and only a new color -- Space Black -- to differentiate them from the M2 models.

If you have an M1-based MacBook Pro (first released in October 2021) then it's also very unlikely you need to upgrade. Or, put another way, it's unlikely that upgrading would provide you with a noticeable boost in performance. The exceptions to that will likely be at the very highest end of multimedia production and graphics use. For example, Apple claims that the new M3 models offer 2.5x faster graphics rendering than the M1 models. If you have high-priority workloads where every moment you save means time and money, then an M3 upgrade from M1 could offer you the ROI to justify an upgrade.

Also: M3 MacBook Pro with top-of-the-line specs? You'll be surprised at how far it is under $10,000 

My work machine is a 16-inch MacBook Pro running the M1 Pro processor and I regularly use it to process high-megapixel RAW images in Adobe Lightroom, edit photos in Adobe Photoshop, and edit short-form video clips in Adobe Premiere. There's almost nothing I throw at that can slow it down. The only time I've seen it blink is when I've recently been trying some of the AI features in Adobe Creative Suite, such as the Denoise filter in Lightroom. So, if you see a lot of AI work in your future, then that could be a reason to invest in one of the fastest M3-based Macs, for example.  

Apple's M3 chip details

But all things considered, the most likely M3 MacBook Pro upgrade candidates are if you are coming from an Intel-based MacBook Pro, are coming from an older MacBook Air and are now doing more intense multimedia tasks, or you're a professional upgrading from a Windows PC and are looking for a high-end Mac to handle powerful graphics workloads.  

And before you plunk down your money for one of the M3 MacBook Pros, there's one last thing you should consider: You may be able to simply get away with the new M2 MacBook Air. It is lighter, more portable, and can save you at least $200. And it now has the performance and build quality to rival a MacBook Pro. In fact, the 2022 13-inch M2 MacBook Air blows away all of the previous Intel-based MacBook Pro computers in performance benchmarks -- as well as my own real-world tests. 

Here's a comparison between the maxed-out configuration of the 13-inch M2 MacBook Air and the base configuration of the 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro.

M2 MacBook Air

M3 MacBook Pro


13.6-inch Liquid Retina display, 60Hz, 500 nits of brightness

14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR display, 120Hz (ProMotion), 1,600 nits


Apple M2 chip with 8-core CPU, 10-core GPU, and 8GB RAM (unified memory)

Apple M3 chip with 8-core CPU, 10-core GPU, and 8GB RAM (unified memory)

Battery life

Up to 18 hours

Up to 22 hours

Ports and connectivity

Two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, 3.5mm headphone jack, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.3

Two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, HDMI port, SDXC card slot, 3.5mm headphone jack, Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.3




I took a 13-inch M2 MacBook Air to CES 2023 and used it to power through coverage spreadsheets, upload files, process a ton of photos, edit and publish videos, and of course, put together a lot of stories -- all on the go from lots of different locations across Las Vegas. The only thing I missed from my regular 16-inch M1 MacBook Pro was the larger screen when editing video in Adobe Premiere.  

Also: Why Apple's Mac Studio with M2 Ultra is the Tesla Model S Plaid of computers

I think most people will find that the M2 MacBook Air now has plenty of power, durability, and versatility to satisfy most professionals -- even if they used to carry a MacBook Pro. Today's M2 MacBook Air is as powerful as yesterday's Intel-based MacBook Pros, while today's M3 MacBook Pros are as powerful as yesterday's Intel-based Mac Pro desktops.  

There are professionals out there who used to lug desktop computers on the road with them when traveling on-site for video production, audio engineering, 3D modeling, etc. Since the arrival of the M1 MacBook Pros -- especially powered by the Max chips – these machines have been powerful enough to handle desktop-level workloads.  

Meanwhile, all boats have also risen with Apple silicon. The MacBook Air is more pro than ever, especially with the arrival of the new design in the M2 MacBook Air, which now includes a MagSafe charging port plus two Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports. And it now comes in both 13.6-inch and 15.3-inch configurations.  

Holding up the MacBook Air 15-inch in Starlight

The 15-inch M2 MacBook Air is professional, durable, and outperforms Intel-based MacBook Pros.

June Wan/ZDNET

So let's compare the M2 MacBook Air 13-inch with the new base-level M3 MacBook Pro 14-inch in comparable configurations. The base M3 MacBook Pro 14-inch comes with an 8‑core CPU, 10‑core GPU, 16‑core Neural Engine, 8 GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage for $1,599. A 13-inch M2 MacBook Air with those same specs costs $1,399.  

Also: Professionals should buy Apple's cheapest M3 MacBook Pro for one reason, and one reason only

At those configurations, these are very similar machines with likely very comparable performance for most tasks. The M2 MacBook Air is 25% thinner, 20% lighter, and $200 (12%) less expensive – so it's easier on your back and budget. Meanwhile, the advantages of the base-level M3 MacBook Pro are the built-in ports for HDMI and SD cards, slightly nicer speakers and microphones, upgraded GPU from M3, and a nicer XDR display (1600 nits brightness vs. 500 nits in the Air, 120Hz ProMotion, and 3024 x 1964 resolution vs. 2560 by 1664 for the Air).  

ZDNET's buying advice

So the M3 MacBook Pro model makes sense if you're doing HDR graphics work, if you regularly give presentations and need to plug into projectors and TVs, if you're a photographer doing a lot of work downloading photos from SD cards, or if you work outside a lot and need a brighter display. The M2 MacBook Air is likely sufficient for nearly everyone else.  

Enterprise buyers and IT departments should take note as well. Apple has finally discontinued its lowest-price 13-inch MacBook Pro (with the Touch Bar) in favor of the base-level M3 14-inch MacBook Pro. And while many organizations have long preferred to deploy MacBook Pros, the M2 MacBook Air has pro-level build quality and pro-level performance in a small, more budget-friendly package that is plenty powerful enough to meet the needs of most professionals.  

Naturally, I'll have more to share after trying the new M3 MacBook Pro models. Stay tuned to ZDNET for more insights. 

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