Apple gets in on the AI PC hype, claims fanless M3 MacBook Air is fab for LLMs

Plus a new anodization seal should make Midnight edition more resilient to gamer grease

Four months after Apple launched its M3 processors alongside refreshed MacBook Pros, the chips have finally arrived on the iGiant's fanless ultra lite laptops.

Apple refreshed its 13-and 15-inch MacBook Air devices Monday, adding support for base M3 silicon, though if you want the beefier M3 Pro or Max chips you'll have to step up to something with active cooling — as well as faster Wi-Fi 6E and support for more displays.

The notebook itself hasn't changed much since its M2 design refresh in 2022. We took a look at that machine not too long ago and were particularly impressed by its battery life. The M3 Air still claims the same 18 hour battery life, dual Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports, and can be had in four shades of anodized aluminum. Apple says the midnight color now features a "breakthrough anodization seal" which should help fend off fingerprints — a common complaint with the previous model.

So, apart from being less smudge-prone, most of the improvements are under the hood. Digging into the spec sheet, we see the $1,099 base-model 13-inch comes equipped with eight CPU and GPU cores, 256GB of flash storage, and an anemic 8GB of unified memory. But, if you buy Apple's claims, that's the equivalent of 16GB on a Windows PC because efficiency.

The base-model 15-inch Air will set you back $1,299, which gets you the larger display and slightly faster 10-core GPU, but otherwise the CPU, memory, and storage config are identical to its smaller sibling.

In terms of performance, Apple says you can expect the M3 to be about 60 percent faster than the M1 Air.  We took a closer look at Apple's performance claims and architectural improvements behind them when the chips launched last October. However, we recommend taking Apple's claims with a grain of salt, particularly for sustained workloads that are likely to strain the fanless design. We'll have to wait for a full tear-down down to see if Apple has modified the heat spreader.

In addition to the higher performance, Apple also highlighted the notebook's 16-core Neural Engine, which it claims makes the Air the "world's best consumer laptop for AI." To be clear the inclusion of an NPU isn't new to the M3, but with everyone hyping AI PCs, it seems like Apple may be under pressure to talk up such hardware capabilities.

On that AI note, Apple suggests using Pixelmator Pro to automatically enhance images, remove background noise from video in CapCut, or solve math problems in Goodnotes 6. They highlighted the ability to run large language models (LLMs) and diffusion models locally "with great performance."

It should be noted that the ability to run LLMs on Apple Silicon isn't new. In fact we've tested a 16GB M1 MacBook Air running the Llama 2 7B LLM using Ollama, and it actually performs quite well.

With that said, if you are looking at picking up an M3 Air to run LLMs, we highly recommend configuring the Air with a bit more memory, especially if you want to run LLMs without bottlenecking your system. Generally speaking, at Int8, a common data type for inferencing, you need about 1GB RAM for every billion parameters. However, practically speaking, techniques like quantization can allow models like Meta's Llama 2 7B to run using half or less that.

Unfortunately, configuring the M3 with more memory isn't cheap. An additional 8GB will set you back $200 while you'll pay an extra $400 for the 24GB spec. Storage isn't cheap either. Jumping up to the 512GB model will cost an extra $200 while maxing it out at 2TB will cost you $800. Maxing out the 15-inch machine with 24GB of RAM and 2TB of storage would run you $2,499.

And like past MacBook Airs there's no upgrading it after the fact with the SSDs soldered down to the board and memory co-packaged alongside the SoC.

In addition to the faster M3 silicon, the notebook also adds support for faster Wi-Fi 6E connectivity and the ability to connect two external displays, albeit only when the notebook's lid is closed. Display support has long been a criticism of Apple's M1 and M2 silicon which, with the exception of the Mac Mini, only support one external monitor. If you needed more, you'd have to step up to one of the Pro or Max variants.

The M3 MacBook Air is due out Friday, March 8. However, if you're not ready to take the leap, the 13-inch M2 model will be sticking around a while longer at a reduced price of $999.

The venerable M1 Air, however, has all but disappeared from Apple's website, though you may still be able to find one in their refurbished store for a while yet. ®

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