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MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro: What's the Difference? 2021

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Apple's current laptop line consists of the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. Thanks in large part to Apple's decision to move the Air and 13-inch Pro to its powerful M1 chipset, both MacBooks are more similar than ever. But while you can't go wrong with either, there are some significant differences to consider before you buy.

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Overall Findings

MacBook Air

Fantastic performance at entry-level price.

Sleek and lightweight with classic "tapered" design.

Comfortable keyboard.

Long battery life.

Super quiet with no internal fan.

MacBook Pro

Incredible performance with new M1 chip.

Stunning Retina display with slim bezel.

Touchpad-enhanced keyboard.

Easily runs demanding apps.

Available in 13-inch and 16-inch models.

Both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are great laptops that provide some of the best performance and battery life on the market. They even share many design features, including Retina displays and backlit keyboards.

While the Air is no slouch, the performance potential of the Pro is hard to beat. You can even upgrade to a 16-inch Pro if you're looking for a larger MacBook with more horsepower.

Current Models: Only the Pro Offers a 16-Inch Version

MacBook Air

13-inch w/Apple M1 Chip, 8-Core CPU and 7-Core GPU | 256GB Storage ($999.00)

13-inch w/Apple M1 Chip, 8-Core CPU and 7-Core GPU | 512GB Storage ($1,249.00)

MacBook Pro

13-inch w/Apple M1 Chip, 8-Core CPU and 8-Core GPU | 256GB Storage ($1,299.00)

13-inch w/Apple M1 Chip, 8-Core CPU and 8-Core GPU | 512GB Storage ($1,499.00)

13-inch w/2.0GHz Intel Core i5 Quad-Core Processor with Intel Iris Plus Graphics | 512GB Storage ($1,799.00)

13-inch w/2.0GHz Intel Core i5 Quad-Core Processor with Intel Iris Plus Graphics | 1TB Storage ($1,999.00)

16-inch w/2.6GHz Intel Core i7 6-Core Processor with AMD Radeon Pro 5300M | 512 Storage ($2,399.00)

16-inch w/2.3GHz Intel Core i9 8-Core Processor with AMD Radeon Pro 5500M | 1TB Storage ($2,799.00)

Apple's MacBooks have been Intel-based for years, but that all changed in November 2020 when the company released brand new Air and Pro models with proprietary M1 processors (the Mac Mini also received the new chipset). While the M1 is a significant technological leap forward for the MacBook brand, it's resulted in a bit of a confusing product line.

Currently, you can only purchase the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 chips. Both the higher-end 13-inch Pro with four USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports and the 16-inch Pro still use Intel chips. While the latter two are both excellent laptops, we recommend holding off on a purchase until Apple refreshes these models with custom chips (this update is expected to happen in 2021).

Design: Same Exteriors but Big Changes Under the Hood

MacBook Air

Available in Space Gray, Gold, and Silver.

Magic Keyboard with Touch ID.

720p Webcam.

2 Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports.

MacBook Pro

Available in Space Gray and Silver.

Magic Keyboard with Touch ID and Touchbar.

720p Webcam.

2 Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports (M1).

Up to 4 Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports (Intel 13-inch and 16-inch).

Despite sporting different interior hardware, the MacBook Air and Pro share many of the same exterior design features. Both have machined aluminum shells and only have two Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you want more ports, you'll have to spring for an Intel model.

You'll start to notice the differences when you open the Air and Pro up. Both MacBooks have massive trackpads and full-sized backlit Magic Keyboards keyboards—a welcome change from the cumbersome Butterfly keyboard found on older Air models. But the MacBook Pro comes equipped with a Touch Bar that replaces the keyboard's function keys.

Finally, there's the webcam, which leaves much to be desired no matter which MacBook you choose. Apple's laptops have never had the best webcams, so the fact both the M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro still have unimpressive 720p cameras is a disappointment. While these latest revisions reduce noise and offer a better white balance, it's still not a great camera overall. If you're planning to do many video calls with your MacBook, it might be best to look into purchasing a separate webcam rather than rely on Apple's low-quality offering. 

Display: The Air is Lighter but the Pro is Brighter

MacBook Air

13.3 inch screen (2560 x 1600)

12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches

2.8 pounds

MacBook Pro

13,3 inch screen (2560 x 1600), 16 inch screen (3072 x 1920)

12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches (13-inch), 14.1 x 9.7 x 0.6 inches (16-inch)

3.1 pounds (13-inch), 4.3 pounds (16-inch)

Both the Air and 13-inch Pro have Retina displays with 2560 x 1600 resolution, though our testing showed that the Pro has the edge in overall brightness (485 nits of brightness compared to 389 nits for the Air). Of course, you'll see a significant bump in resolution if you opt for the 16-inch Pro and its stunning 3,072 x 1,920 display.

Surprisingly, the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have identical dimensions. The Pro does have a bit more heft, though, with the 13 and 16-inch models weighing in at 3.1 and 4.3 pounds, respectively, compared to the Air's 2.8-pound frame. Nevertheless, you'll be getting a lightweight laptop no matter which MacBook model you get.

Performance

MacBook Air

Outperforms the XPS 13 and ZenBook 13 in Geekbench tests.

Over 14 hours of battery life.

MacBook Pro

13-inch Pro outperforms the XPS 13 and ZenBook 13 in Geekbench tests.

Over 18 hours of battery life.

No matter which MacBook model you choose, you'll get industry-leading performance and battery life relative to competing laptops on the market. 

The MacBook Air is the fastest entry-level laptop Apple has ever produced, and it can reliably run resource-intensive apps like Photoshop and Lightroom without a hitch. The MacBook Air (M1, 16GB RAM) slightly outperformed the new Pro (M1, 16GB RAM) in Geekbench 5 benchmarks. That said, we've found the MacBook Pro generally beats the MacBook Air in real-world usage.

The M1-powered MacBook Pro is currently one of the highest-performing premium laptops on the market, outperforming both the XPS 13 and Asus ZenBook in Geekbench 5 tests. The higher-priced MacBook Pro models come with more bells and whistles like additional Thunderbolt ports, but you may see a dip in performance because these models still run on Intel chips.

All MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models come with macOS Big Sur pre-installed, built from the ground up for the M1 chip. The biggest drawback with the M1 MacBooks is that there's currently no way to install Windows. While Microsoft may release an ARM version of Windows at some point, this is a pretty big drawback if you like running both Windows and macOS on your MacBook. In this case, you'll need to track down an older Intel-based MacBook Air model or spring for one of the higher-end MacBook Pros that don't have M1 chips.

Pricing

MacBook Air

$999 - $1,249

MacBook Pro

$1,299 - $1,499 (M1)

$1,799 - $1,999 (13-inch Intel)

$2,399 - $2,799 (16-inch)

No matter which model you choose, MacBooks aren't cheap. That said, the MacBook Air, in particular, has arguably never offered better value.

With an MSRP of $999 for the base model, the MacBook Air technically falls into the sub-$1000 laptop market. The base model comes with 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Combined with excellent performance and battery life, this makes the MacBook Air one of the best options available at its price point. 

Since the MacBook Pro comes in a few different configurations, its pricing is all over the map. The 13-inch M1-powered model starts at $1,299 and, except for a more powerful CPU and GPU, offers nearly identical features to the MacBook Air. For $500 more, you can upgrade to a 13-inch Pro with 10th-Gen CPUs, 16GB of RAM, and four Thunderbolt ports. Unfortunately, this model is still Intel-based.

The same is true of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at $2,399. While you'll get a boost in performance and default storage of 512GB, the 16-inch Pro is more than double the MacBook Air's price. For this reason, it's hard to recommend this model unless you're a genuine power user.

Specs

Here are side-by-side specs for the MacBook Air 13-inch, MacBook Pro 13-inch, and Macbook Pro 16-inch so you can easily see how they compare.

Product Name MacBook Air 13-inch (M1, 2020)Macbook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020) MacBook Pro 16-inch (Intel, 2019)Product Brand Apple Apple Apple Starting Price  $999.00$1,299.00$2,399.00 Weight2.8 lbs.3.1 lbs. 4.3 lbs. Dimensions 12 x 8.4 . 0.6 inches 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches 14.1 x 9.7 x 0.6 inches Warranty 1 year (limited) 1 year (limited) 1 year (limited)Platform  macOS Big SurmacOS Big Sur macOS Big Sur ProcessorApple M1 w/8-core CPU, 16-core Neural EngineApple 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 GPUIntel Iris Plus Graphics AMD Radeon Pro 5300M (4GB), Radeon 5500M (4GB or 8GB) Storage 256GB to 2TB256GB to 4TB 512GB to 8TB Memory 8GB, 16GB8GB, 16GB, 32GB 16GB, 32GB, 64GB Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports 2 2 (M1) or 4 (Intel) 4 Touch Bar No Yes Yes Security  Touch IDTouch ID Touch ID Audio Stereo speakers, Dolby Atmos supportStereo speakers, Dolby Atmos support, 3-mic array 6-speaker array, Dolby Atmos support ColorsSpace Gray, Gold, Silver  Space Gray, Silver Space Gray, Silver

Final Verdict

Choosing between a MacBook Air and MacBook Pro is more complicated than it's ever been.

Although it's still technically Apple's entry-level laptop model, the MacBook Air is no slouch in the performance department and more than holds its own against the 13-inch Pro in most areas. Given its lower price, excellent performance, and quiet, fanless design, the MacBook Air is the MacBook most people should choose.

That said, if you're a graphic designer, video editor, or anyone else who regularly uses resource-intensive apps, the MacBook Pro is worth the extra investment. If you need a top-of-the-line machine, though, you may want to wait for Apple to refresh all its Pro models with M1 chips. As good as the 16-inch MacBook Pro is now, it will only get better once the ARM architecture powers it.