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It’s never been harder to decide between the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Both laptops run on Apple’s all-new M1 chip, making them the first of the company’s notebooks to do so. The new chip introduces big gains in performance and battery life to Apple’s most portable laptops, signaling a big step forward for the Mac. It’s the beginning of what Apple expects to be a two-year transition period during which it will move its entire Mac line over to its own silicon.
Choosing between the new $1,299 MacBook Pro and $999 MacBook Air can be difficult since they both run on Apple’s M1 processor and come in very similar configurations in terms of memory and storage. But, there are a few important differences to keep in mind when deciding between the two, particularly when it comes to battery life and performance.
But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the MacBook Air is the right pick for everyone. The MacBook Pro comes with a few extras that could make it the better choice for professionals with specific needs, such as slightly longer battery life, higher-quality microphones, and most importantly, internal cooling fans. Now that you can also get the M1-powered MacBook Pro through Apple’s Refurbished Mac Store at a $200 discount, it may be a more compelling option for those in need of more power.
Not to mention, the Pro model has Apple’s Touch Bar, which is a thin touch-sensitive strip that replaces the function key row. But, that’s not enough of a reason on its own to recommend buying the Pro over the Air.
Still, for those seeking a general-purpose laptop that’s equipped for browsing the web, writing papers, watching videos, and some photo and video editing, the MacBook Air is the best choice.
One of the only differences when it comes to the processor is that with the MacBook Air, the base model comes with a 7-core graphics processing unit (GPU), while the MacBook Pro has an 8-core GPU in its entry-level configuration. That should give the base MacBook Pro a bit more of a kick when running games and other graphics-heavy programs.
Another important characteristic found on the MacBook Pro that the MacBook Air lacks is a cooling fan. The MacBook Air’s fanless design is a godsend for anyone who’s dealt with noisy, whirring fans that make your laptop sound like a jet engine once it’s under a little bit of stress.But the MacBook Pro’s fan likely means it’s capable of sustaining high performance for longer periods of time since it won’t have to throttle performance to cool off.
Overall, the M1 MacBook Pro feels a bit more powerful than the Air but is generally the same when it comes to daily tasks. While playing “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” on both laptops, I noticed the MacBook Pro was more responsive and capable of rendering graphics slightly more smoothly compared to the Air. Both laptops became reasonably — but not uncomfortably — warm after about 20 minutes of gameplay. The MacBook Air’s underside, however, felt warmer than the Pro’s did after five minutes of gameplay.
In my experience, the MacBook Pro can also encode video slightly faster than the Air, but not by a dramatic margin. On average, it took the MacBook Pro 52 seconds to encode a 25-second
MOV video into an MP4 file using the program Handbrake, while the MacBook Air accomplished the same task in an average of 57 seconds.
Both laptops scored about the same in a benchmark test called GeekBench 5 that measures how processors handle everyday tasks like checking email, playing music, and running apps. That’s not surprising considering they both run on the same M1 processor.
But on the Geekbench 5 test designed to evaluate how computers handle more complex graphics-oriented tasks, like gaming, image processing, and video editing, the MacBook Pro scored 19,453 on average while the Air scored an average of 16,987.
With that in mind, the MacBook Pro might be a better choice for those in need of a machine that can process heavy workloads for long stretches of the day.
Still, the M1 chip brings a big performance boost to the MacBook Air that makes it much more capable than its Intel-powered predecessor. Apple says the M1-equipped MacBook Air can has 3.5 times as much computing power, five times the graphics performance, and nine times the machine learning capabilities compared to the Intel-powered Air. Our own anecdotal performance tests show that the M1 processor is much speedier than its latest Intel counterpart, which you can read more about in our full review.
Battery life and features
Both machines should offer excellent battery life — I was able to get more than 12 hours out of the MacBook Air during my testing, and reviews of the MacBook Pro also suggest it provides impressive battery life that’s similarly long. However, Apple claims that the Pro should last slightly longer, offering 17 hours of battery life when browsing the web compared to the MacBook Air’s 15 hours.
Still, perhaps the biggest difference between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro is that the latter includes the Touch Bar. Apple launched the Touch Bar in 2016 as a way to expand the Mac’s user interface by providing useful, touch-friendly shortcuts above the keyboard. In addition to replacing the function key row, the controls shown in the Touch Bar can change depending on the app or program you’re using. When running Safari, for example, you may see controls that let you scrub through your open tabs.
It’s a novel idea, but the Touch Bar doesn’t bring enough to the experience to justify buying the MacBook Pro over the Air. If you do decide on the Pro, do so because of the other benefits it brings in more important areas, like performance or battery life.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Airotherwise have a lot in common. Both come with two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, Apple’s new and improved Magic Keyboard, a 720p webcam that uses the image signal processor in Apple’s chipset, storage options that start 256GB and top out at 2TB, and Touch ID.
But, there are some subtle differences when it comes to the speakers and microphones. The MacBook Pro’s speakers support high dynamic range, unlike the MacBook Air’s, which should enable the Pro to maintain clear audio at its loudest and lowest levels. That should put the 13-inch Pro in a middle ground between the Air and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which offers superb, boisterous audio for a laptop of its size, thanks to its six-speaker sound system.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro also has microphones that are slightly better than the Air’s. Apple describes them as studio quality microphones with high-signal-to-noise ratio, which the Air lacks.
Design and display
That hasn’t changed with the M1-powered MacBook Air; the base on Apple’s thin-and-light laptop still has that familiar teardrop-like look. The MacBook Air is also available in a gold color option in addition to silver and space gray, while the MacBook Pro only comes in those latter two colors.
True to its name, the MacBook Air is also slightly lighter than the MacBook Pro, weighing 2.8 pounds compared to the 3-pound MacBook Pro.
Like the Air, the MacBook Pro also looks just like its predecessors, which is to say that it has a sightly thicker build that’s uniform at its base compared to its cheaper and lighter sibling.
When it comes to display quality, the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are once again very similar. Both laptops have screens measuring 13.3 inches in size with resolutions of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, and they both support P3 wide color and Apple’s True Tone technology. That feature allows the screen to adjust the display’s color to match the lighting in your surroundings, often making the screen look less blue.
Overall, the MacBook Air is a better value, especially for those looking for a general purpose laptop. Even though it’s $300 cheaper, it doesn’t make big scarifies when it comes to performance or configuration options. That’s significant because the previous entry-level version of Apple’s Intel-powered MacBook Air felt underpowered since it came with just a dual-core Intel Core i3 chip.
But, there are still some reasons why the MacBook Pro may be the right fit. Since it has a fan-based cooling system and an extra core in its GPU at the base level, it might be a better choice for those who need to execute strenuous tasks for long periods of time and still want a lightweight laptop. The Pro also has slightly longer battery life and other quality perks, like higher-quality microphones and speakers.
All told, the MacBook Air is probably the right choice for most people, offering performance that isn’t much different than Apple’s professional-grade laptop at a lower price. The MacBook Pro is better suited for those who need a bit more performance, slightly longer battery life, and better microphones and speakers in a portable laptop.