Cricut Explore Air 2 vs Explore 3: What’s the Difference?

The Cricut Explore Air 2 and Cricut Explore 3 are two excellent machines for cutting materials like paper, vinyl, and fabric. They both have a similar price point and offer many of the same features. However, there are some differences between these two machines to consider before you make your purchase.

The Cricut Explore 3 cuts faster than the Explore Air 2, allows matless cutting and has a larger cutting capacity. Also, the Explore 3 has a different finish, the smart dial is gone and there is not a tablet holding slot. There is also the option to add a roll holder to the Explore 3.

I’ll cover in more detail the similarities and differences between these two machines so that you can make an informed decision when you have to choose between them.

cricut explore 3 vs explore air 2

Cricut Explore Air 2 vs. Cricut Explore 3: Main Differences

As I mentioned, the speed, matless cutting, extra accessories, cutting capacity, and device tray differentiate the Cricut Explore 3 from the Cricut Explore Air 2.

Cricut Explore 3

Cricut Explore Air 2

Max Cutting Width

11.7 inches*

11.5 inches

Max Cutting Length

12 feet*

23.5 inches

Mat Less Cutting




2x Faster than Explore Air 2*


Material Cut Settings

Smart Set dial and Design Space

Design Space


Yes - white & colored materials

Yes - white materials only

Roll Holder Compatible



Cutting Force

350 grams

350 grams




Cartridge Slot



Material Guides



Colors Available




Cricut Design Space

Cricut Design Space




*With Smart Materials

Here is a detailed overview of the main differences between the two:


The Cricut Explore 3 can cut twice as fast as the Explore Air 2 making it the ideal pick by any crafter who wants to complete multiple projects within shorter time frames. It’s important to know the faster speeds are only when Cricut’s Smart Materials are used.

If you are using non-Smart Materials the cutting speed is the same between the two machines.

Matless Cutting

Unlike its predecessor, the Cricut Explore 3 can perform matless cutting. This is a significant improvement for crafters who want to work with only one material and never need to change the mat as they switch materials.

For matless cutting the Explore 3 uses Smart Materials. These materials come in different types, including Smart Vinyl, Smart Paper Sticker Cardstock, and Smart Iron-On.

Smart Materials will help you out in many ways. For example, your machine can calculate just the right amount of Smart Material needed for your project. It can then check there is enough material loaded to cut out your project.

The Explore 3’s rollers grip and load the material so that the sensors can know how much is loaded. The Cricut Design Space software also takes this allowance into account when estimating how much material is needed.


The Explore 3 features two new accessories: a roll holder and a larger portable trimmer.

The new roll holder is only compatible with the Cricut Explore 3 and Cricut Maker 3. It helps feed Smart Materials into the Explore 3 and keeps them lined up.

It comes in handy for those who want to cut long designs using Smart Materials, like Smart Vinyl and Smart Iron-On without using a cutting mat.

It allows you to unroll your roll of Smart Material without using a mat or table and provides an easy way for the device to grab onto. Your machine can easily load just the right amount of material for your project without unrolling the entire roll of material.

The larger portable trimmer is necessary due to the increased width of Smart Materials. The portable trimmer doesn’t need to be used with the Explore 3 or Maker 3 specifically but with the wider width of the Smart Materials, 13 inches, a larger trimer is needed.


Another distinction between the Explore Air 2 and the Explore 3 is in their noise levels. Although the Explore Air 2 is quiet, the Explore 3 is super quiet.

Cricut has also improved on this aspect, so you don’t have to worry about waking the kids while you craft late into the night.

Maximum Cutting Width and Length

In terms of cutting capacity, the Explore 3 allows material width of up to 13 inches (33.02 cm) when Smart Materials are used. In contrast, the Explore Air 2 offers a maximum material width of 12 inches (30.48 cm).

The maximum cutting width of the Explore 3 is 11.7 inches when Smart Materials are used. Otherwise, the max cutting width is 11.5 inches when a cutting mat is used, the same as the Explore Air 2.

However, the difference becomes clearer when you consider the maximum cut lengths they allow. With the Explore 3, you can cut materials up to 12 ft (3.6 m) long with the use of Smart Materials.

In contrast, the Explore Air 2 comes with a maximum cut length capacity of 23.5 inches (58 cm) due to the cutting mat, which is significantly lower than what the Explore 3 offers. If a cutting mat is used with the Explore 3 then the max cutting lengths are 11.5 inches or 23.5 inches based upon the length of the mat. 

Print Then Cut Capability

Print then cut is a cool feature that lets you print an image or design onto your material, usually paper or cardstock, then cut out around it using your cutting machine.

Cricut has upgraded the sensors in the Explore 3. It now allows you to print on both white and colored paper and then cut. This is a significant improvement from the Explore Air 2, which only allows you to print on white paper.

Physical Differences

There are several physical differences between the Explore 3 and Explore Air 2. The finish and colors available are different between the two machines. Also, there is more storage, a slot for a tablet or phone, and guides for smart materials built-in.

The Explore 3 only comes in mint and a mostly matte finish, with some glossy details around the bottom. The Explore Air 2 comes in a ton of different glossy colors.

The device tray gives you a handy place to store your phone or tablet during a cut. The tray isn’t a docking station, just a slot that gives a secure place to hold your device. But there is a USB port nearby if you need to charge your device during a cut.

Smart Set Dial

The Explore Air 2 featured a Smart Set dial on top of the machine to let you manually select between some of the most common materials used. There was also a “Custom” option to let you pick or customize your cut setting in Design Space

The Explore 3 no longer has the Smart Set dial. Instead, it has buttons like the Cricut Maker and Maker 3. All material settings will be selected in Cricut Design Space.

explore air 2 smart set dial

Cartrige Slot

The cartridge slot is no longer present on the Explore 3. Instead, there is a storage cup that provides you with extra space to store your accessories.

The decision to remove the cartridge slot was likely driven by the fact that Cricut has not made cartridges for many years. Most users who have cartridges have already linked them to their Design Space account and once the cut files are connected to your account you will have access to them on any of your cutting machines.

If you need to connect a cartridge to your account and do not have a cartridge slot check out my article, How to Connect Cartridges in Designs Space. You can also talk to Cricut support about connecting cartridges to your account.

Material Guides

Another difference between the two machines is the material guides on the front panel. Cricut added to the Explore 3 guides on the front lower panel to help guide in the Smart Materials for matless cutting.

These guides are not present or necessary on the Explore Air 2.

Explore 3 material guide

Similarities Between the Cricut Explore Air 2 and the Cricut Explore 3

Despite their differences, the Explore Air 2 and Explore 3 share many similarities. They have the same cutting force, 350 grams. They are also the same size and weight. Read my full review of the Explore Air 2 to find out all the details.

Bluetooth Compatible

Both devices offer Bluetooth compatibility, which means that you can connect your cutting machine to a computer or phone without the hassle of a cable. Because of that, both devices come in handy when you need to declutter your space or use as few cables as possible.


The Explore Air 2 and Explore 3 are compatible with all the same tools. Neither will work with the Adaptive tool sets that work with the Maker machines. Compatible tools include:

  • Fine point blades
  • Deep point blades
  • Bonded fabric blade
  • Foil transfer tool
  • Scoring stylus
  • Pens and markers


Since both the Explore Air 2 and Explore 3 have the same cutting force they can both cut the same materials. This means you have over 100 different materials you can cut with your machine.

These machines will do a great job of cutting materials like vinyl, iron on, and cardstock. Check out all the different materials these two machines can cut in my article, What can the Explore Air 2 cut?

Cricut Explore Air 2 vs. Cricut Explore 3: Pros and Cons

Explore Air 2– Bluetooth compatible
– Can cut a wide range of materials
– Easy to Use
– Affordable
– Has Cartridge Slot
– No device tray
– Cuts slower than Explore 3
– Limited to white materials for Print-Then-Cut
– Max cutting length of 23.5 inches
– Needs a cutting mat
Explore 3– Can cut twice as fast as Explore Air 2
– Can cut a wide range of materials
– Can perform matless cutting
– More storage options
– Compatible with Smart Materials
– Cut designs up to 12 feet long
– Easy to use
– Bluetooth compatible
– Expensive add ons
– Smart Materials are more expensive

Explore Air 2 vs. Explore 3: Which Is Best for You?

Overall, the Cricut Explore 3 is the best pick if you want to make big projects, use the matless cutting feature and Print-Then-Cut on colored and patterned materials. The Cricut Explore Air 2 is perfect for those on a budget who still want all the features of a full sized cutting machine and don’t mind using a cutting mat.

My favorite place to buy Cricut machines and accessories is directly from the Cricut website. They frequently have sales on their machines, tools and materials, plus free shipping. Don’t forget to check the clearance section for awesome deals on materials.

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Who should buy the Cricut Explore Air 2

The Cricut Explore Air 2 is best for people who want to create without paying a high price. It has some great features that crafters have been using and loving for many years.

It has a smaller maximum cutting length due to the mat size but it’s not a big deal if you don’t frequently work on big projects.

Check the latest price of the Cricut Explore Air 2 on the Cricut website.

Who should buy the Cricut Explore 3

If you are looking for a cutting machine that has some great new features but is still affordable, I recommend the new Cricut Explore 3.

It has an updated, intuitive control panel, offers matless cutting, more material options of Print-Then-Cut and can cut designs up to 12 feet in length.

The Cricut Explore 3 has proven to be significantly faster than its predecessor and quieter in comparison, thanks to the updates made by Cricut engineers while developing this model.

Check the latest price of the Cricut Explore 3 on the Cricut website.

explore 3

Bottom Line

The Cricut Explore Air 2 and the Cricut Explore 3 are great machines that offer their own advantages. Both are Bluetooth compatible, over 100 material options and provide quality cuts.

That said, if you want a machine with faster cutting speeds, matless cutting capabilities, super-quiet operation, and a longer cutting length, then go for the newer version, the Explore 3. If you prefer something that offers a decent value for the money at a lower price, opt for the Explore Air 2.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I Need a Computer To Use a Cricut Cutting Machine?

You do not need a computer to use a Cricut machine. A smart device that is Bluetooth compatible is required to use a Cricut cutting machine. The Cricut Design Space App has all images and settings needed for cutting with your machine.

However, you need an internet connection to download the Design Space app from the App Store if you’re using an iOS device and Google Play Store if you’re using an Android device.

Can I Use My Own Images With Cricut?

You can upload and add your own images to Cricut Design Space. Cricut Design Space allows users to upload images in JPG, SVG, PNG, BMP, DXF, and GIF formats for free and converts them into shapes you can cut.

Do I Need To Update My Cricut?

You need to update your Cricut device regularly. Cricut releases firmware updates, which are small software updates for their machines, to ensure it’s always working at its best. You can download firmware updates through Cricut Design Space and then install them on your device.

Diane Davies

Diane loves to craft and create. She enjoys experimenting with her Cricut Maker and Accuquilt GO! She also dabbles in jewelry making and crocheting. She is also passionate about sewing.

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