MacBook Air vs Pro: What should you buy?

The MacBook Air vs Pro conversation is evolving at a remarkable pace, even as these laptops grow more and more similar. Right now Apple’s 13-inch laptops are better than ever, thanks to recent upgrades like the new Magic Keyboard that replaces the controversial ‘Butterfly’-switch keyboards for more reliability.

Plus, Apple’s reaping the rewards of ditching Intel’s processors for its own Apple silicon and the results are staggering, ensuring both have a high slot in our best laptop list. As we’ve seen in our MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review and MacBook Pro 13 (M1, 2020) review, the future of the Mac has surprising speed and crazy battery life.

But this is a gradual move from Intel chips. The higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro (the 4-port model) and the 16-inch MacBook Pro have both yet to get Apple silicon, still only available with Intel inside. Word is that 12-core Apple Silicon-powered Macs could arrive as early as March, as Apple has an M1X chip in the works.

But is the M1 chip enough to make us look away from the fastest Intel-based MacBook Pro? Both the Air and Pro gained gain huge improvements in performance and battery life, and the results below speak for themselves.

The latest rumors suggest that the MacBook Air 2021 and upcoming MacBook Pros will breathe even more new life into the product line. One common trait expected in the next MacBooks is the return of MagSafe magnetic charging. 

The Pros will likely get more ports, with the SD memory reader coming back in the MacBook Pro 16-inch 2021. Oh, and don’t expect the 13-inch Pro to last long. Rumors abound that a new MacBook Pro 14-inch 2021 is on the way as well. 

Here’s everything you need to know before choosing between the MacBook Air vs Pro, to find the best MacBook for you.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Specs 

MacBook Air 13-inch MacBook Pro 16-inch MacBook Pro
Starting price $999 $1299 $2399
Screen 13.3 inches (2560 x 1600) 13.3 inches (2560 x 1600) 16 inches (3072 x 1920)
Battery life 14:41 of web browsing (M1, tested) | Up to 18 hours of video playback (M1, claimed) | 9:31 (Intel, tested) 16:32 of web browsing (M1, tested) | Up to 20 hours (Apple M1, claimed) | 10:21 (Intel, tested) 10:55 (Intel, tested)
Processor Apple M1 (8-core CPU, 16-core Neural Engine) Apple M1 (8-core CPU, 16-core Neural Engine) | Intel 10th Gen Core i5 and i7 9th Gen Intel Core i7 and i9
Graphics Integrated 7-core M1 GPU | Integrated 8-core GPU Intel Iris Plus Graphics AMD Radeon Pro 5300M (4GB), Radeon 5500M (4GB or 8GB)
Storage 256GB to 2TB 256GB to 4TB 512GB to 8TB
Memory 8GB, 16GB 8GB, 16GB, 32GB 16GB, 32GB, 64GB
Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports 2 2 (M1) or 4 (Intel) 4
Touch Bar No Yes Yes
Security Touch ID Touch ID Touch ID
Audio Stereo speakers, Dolby Atmos support Stereo speakers, Dolby Atmos support, 3-mic array 6-speaker array, Dolby Atmos support
Dimensions 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches 14.1 x 9.7 x 0.6 inches
Weight 2.8 pounds 3.0 pounds 4.3 pounds

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design

(Image credit: Future)

While the new MacBook Pro and Air now feature Apple’s M1 chip under the hood, they both bear the same incredibly similar (like fraternal twins) look. The MacBook Air and Pro share machined aluminum shells, come in silver and Space Gray, and all have the little lip at the front of the base, for easily opening the screen. The little things, though, might make a difference for you — the Air has a tapered-wedge design, as it always has.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro is big and brash, but a masterful achievement, with Apple getting a larger screen into 15-inch MacBook Pro’s chassis by slimming down the bezels. By contrast, the Air and 13-inch Pro have slightly larger bezels, which we’d love to see shrunk a tad.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design and ports

(Image credit: Future)

While the MacBook Air’s tear-drop (it’s more like a wedge than a rectangle) design is iconic, my favorite distinct feature about the Air is its gold color option, which just looks so much more attractive than the light and dark silver options. 

When you look at their measurements, these laptops are again more alike than different. Of course the 16-inch Pro is a larger machine, but it’s got the same 0.6-inch thickness as its 13-inch counterparts. Naturally, it’s also a little heftier, at 4.3 pounds  vs the 2.8-pound MacBook Air and the 3.0-pound 13-inch MacBook Pro. 

Winner: It’s a draw

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Ports

If you want plenty of ports, the MacBook Air is not the best choice. It offers only two Thunderbolt 3 ports. The M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro also has only two USB-C ports (though the Intel models still sold by Apple have four), though they start at $1,799, $500 more than their more-modern M1 versions.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro has four USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports standard — and they’re on both sides of the laptop. The MacBook Air and the entry-level MacBook Pro 13-inch which keep their ports on the left, which can be annoying to work around and creating a lot of cable management work. 

If you want an HDMI port built into your next MacBook, then we’ve got good news for people with patience. Word has it that Apple’s putting HDMI back in the MacBook Pro.

Winner: 16-inch MacBook Pro (Intel)

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Display

MacBook Air vs Pro: Display

(Image credit: Future)

We’ve got another really close race here. The Retina displays in the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are both sharp and colorful, and while it’s close, there’s a reason to go Pro: brightness. 

The below ratings, though, come from the Intel (and not M1-based) MacBook Air and Pro. The only notable thing that’s changed in the new Apple M1-based MacBooks is that they have support for the Wide color (P3) spectrum, which was once limited to the 16-inch MacBook Pro. Apple also rates the Pro as having a 100-nit brighter screen than the Air. 

Based on our lab test results, the MacBook Air (M1) maxes out at 365.8 nits of brightness, while the M1 MacBook Pro (13-inch: 434.8 nits) and the Intel-based 16-inch (429 nits) got even brighter.

On color output, though, they’re more similar. The Air (M1) netted a 114.3% sRGB rating from our colorimeter, which slightly beats the 110.6% rating we got from both the M1 13-inch Pro, while the 16-inch Intel Pro is close at 114%.

Winner: 13-inch MacBook Pro (Intel)

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Keyboard

MacBook Air vs Pro: Keyboard

(Image credit: Future)

Apple’s MacBooks have had a keyboard issue in recent years, when the company made a new ‘butterfly’-style key mechanism that was both a bit too shallow and also controversial because of reliability issues that led to a repair program, and people blowing air into their keyboards.

And after 3 years of using that keyboard in all of its MacBooks, Apple gave up on the butterfly keys and switched them out for the Magic Keyboard (similar to its external keyboard of the same name) keys, which are frankly so great that they should have been used all along.

And even though it took Apple a while — the 16-inch MacBook Pro came out in Nov. 2019, and it took until May 2020 for the 13-inch MacBook Pro to ditch the Butterfly switch keys — all MacBooks now have the same Magic Keyboard. The same goes for the new Apple M1-based versions.

The Air also wins for those who, like me, don’t really see the real value in the OLED Touch Bar, and prefer the physical Function keys, which are much harder to accidentally activate. 

Winners: It’s a draw

MacBook Air vs Pro: Performance

MacBook Air vs Pro: Performance

(Image credit: Future)

Apple’s claims of amazingly improved performance suggest the M1-based MacBook Air and Pro have been proven out in testing. On the Geekbench 5 benchmarks, the new MacBook Air (M1, 16GB RAM) scored a 5,962 and the new Pro (M1, 16GB RAM) netted a pretty similar 5,925.

On the Handbrake video transcoding test converting a 4K video to 1080p, though, the M1 MacBook Pro won with a time of 7:44, beating the Air’s 9:15 time and even beating the mighty 16-inch Pro’s time of 8:00. 

The SSDs on the M1 Pro (13-inch) are the fastest of them all, with BlackMagic Disk Speed Test read rates of 2,824.9 MBps, beating the 2,692 MBps from the M1 Air and the 16-inch Pro’s 2,540 MBps speed.

During the Sid Meier’s Civilization Gathering Storm test, the M1 MacBook Air notched 36.9 fps, slightly behind the M1 Pro’s 38.2 fps. Rise of the Tomb Raider (at Very High settings at 1440 x 900 resolution) ran at 29 fps on both M1 laptops. The Intel-based 16-inch Pro is no slouch, with a 27.2 fps score (at 1920 x 1200, Very High).

MacBook Air vs Pro: Apple Silicon MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Notably, Adobe Photoshop is finally a native application for M1 Macs, thanks to its March 2021 update. The app should run at 1.5X the speed as they did on Intel-based Macs, so expect a speed boost if you’re upgrading to either the MacBook Air or Pro.

Winner: 13-inch MacBook Pro

MacBook Air vs Pro: Battery life

Battery life is the other place where Apple’s move to its own M1 processors has delivered serious wins. The M1 MacBook Air lasted for 14 hours and 41 minutes on our battery test (web surfing at 150 nits), while the M1 Pro (16:32) lasted even longer. Both times leave the 16-inch MacBook Pro (10:55) in the dust.

Winner: 13-inch MacBook Pro

MacBook Air vs Pro: Audio

While the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook offer great sound — we’ve enjoyed everything from Jay-Z’s “Lucifer” to “Night Running” by Cage the Elephant and Beck on them — the 16-inch Pro is on another level.

The bigger MacBook Pro’s sound is so much stronger, in fact, that it fooled someone from another room, who didn’t believe the song playing (311’s “Beautiful Disaster”) was coming from a laptop. That’s because the 16-inch MacBook Pro has a six-speaker setup with force-cancelling woofers that the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Air lack. 

All three of these MacBooks support Dolby Atmos playback, setting a strong standard for audio quality.

Winner: 16-inch MacBook Pro

MacBook Air vs Pro: Value and price

MacBook Air vs Pro: Value and price

(Image credit: Future)

All of the M1 MacBook gains don’t come at a higher price — the below entry-level pricing and storage amounts still hold up.

Apple went years without a new sub-$1,000 laptop, and the company has finally changed that. Yes, the new MacBook Air is only $1 under that thousand-dollar cap, but Apple’s decision to cut the price of the Air by $100 also comes with the company doubling its default storage to 256GB — an upgrade also seen in the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, which now starts at 256GB of storage, despite staying at the same $1,299 price. 

Annoyingly, you need to spend an extra $500 to get the 13-inch MacBook Pro with 10th Gen CPUs, a pricey upgrade that PC makers like Dell don’t make you choose at the checkout. Another bit of frustration: in late May, we discovered that upgrading the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s memory from 8GB to 16GB now costs twice as much — going from $100 to $200. We’re deducting a point from the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s value score for this change.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro defaults to 512GB of storage, but it also starts at $2,399 — more than twice the MacBook Air’s price. And while some might think that machine is worth its speed, it’s just priced too high from most consumers. It’s truly for pros only.

Winner: MacBook Air

MacBook Air vs Pro: Scorecard and winner

Before we get to the current scorecard for Apple’s laptops, I’ll note that this can (and likely will) change once we’ve tested the Apple M1 versions of the MacBook Air and Pro.

MacBook Air 13-inch MacBook Pro 16-inch MacBook Pro
Design (10 points) 7 7 7
Ports (5 points) 3 4 5
Display (15 points) 10 12 11
Keyboard (15 points) 15 15 15
Performance (10 points) 9 10 10
Battery life (10 points) 9 10 7
Audio (5 points) 3 3 5
Value and price (25 points) 24 15 11
Overall (100 points) 80 75 69

And that was a nail-biter, folks. The new M1 MacBook Air takes this face-off. It is the best Apple laptop for most people and arguably the best laptop for most people period.

But, this close a score emphasizes how some folks will still think to get the MacBook Pro over the MacBook Air. If they want the longest battery life or the fastest performance, I couldn’t blame them. Having more ports on the premium 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is another plus.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Scorecard and verdict

(Image credit: Future)

I used to advise people to avoid the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and it’s getting harder to recommend over the Air. The MacBook Air vs Pro debate is closer than ever, with both laptops becoming more equal, which each winning in different ways. If you want the best battery life, though, that’s a solid reason to go Pro.

But, for now, when someone asks you which MacBook they should buy, the conversation still starts with the MacBook Air. That may stay true once we get M1-based MacBooks, which arrive on November 17, so stay tuned to find out how Apple’s move from Intel impacts its laptop lineup.

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