MacBook Air vs Pro: Which should you buy?

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro — comparison shot
(Image credit: Future/Apple)

The Apple MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro buying decision is tricky because both are great laptops, but they excel at different things and come in multiple sizes. 

As the name suggests, the MacBook Air range is the lightest and most portable lineup of laptops Crew Cupertino make. Currently, you can buy the Air in three flavors. 2020's M1 MacBook Air (starting cost $999), 2022's M2 MacBook Air 13-inch (starting cost $1,099) and this year's M2 MacBook 15-inch (starting cost $1,299). 

When it comes to the MacBook Pro range, that's exactly what you're getting: Pro-user level power. The beefiest lineup of laptops Apple makes are available in a number of sizes, and come with either the Apple M2 chip or new Apple M3 chipset. Released this past January, the M2 MacBook Pro 14-inch's starting launch price was $1,999, while the M2 MacBook Pro 16-inch started at $2,499. With the new M3 Pro models releasing on November 7, expect these slightly older machines to be discounted during Black Friday 2023 season.

With the new M3 Pro models releasing on November 7, expect these slightly older machines to be discounted during Black Friday 2023 season"

As for the new M3 MacBook Pro, your options are the base M3 chip 14-inch model that starts at $1,599. If you're a professional creator, you might want to take advantage of the increased power of the Apple M3 Pro and M3 Max silicon. These chips are available in the M3 MacBook Pro 14-inch (starting price $1,999 for the M3 Pro model/$3,199 for the M3 Max version). There's also the larger M3 MacBook Pro 16-inch, with the M3 Pro model starting at $2,899 and the M3 Max edition costing a whopping $3,499 for its starting configuration.

The remaining elephant in the room when it comes to this Air vs Pro face-off revolves around persistent rumors regarding the M3 MacBook Air. Though we don't know much about the specs of this yet to be announced laptop, it looks likely to launch in the first half of 2024.

With all that out of the way, here's everything you need to know to find the best MacBook for you when choosing between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro — design

(Image credit: Future/Apple)
Swipe to scroll horizontally
Row 0 - Cell 0 DimensionsWeight
M1 MacBook Air12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches2.8 pounds
M2 MacBook Air11.97 x 8.46 x 0.44 inches2.7 pounds
M2 MacBook Pro 14-inch12.31 x 8.71 x 0.61 inches3.5 pounds
M2 MacBook Pro 16-inch14.01 x 9.77 x 0.66 inches4.7 to 4.8 pounds
M3 MacBook Pro 14-inch12.31 x 8.71 x 0.61 inches3.4 to 3.6 pounds
M3 MacBook Pro 16-inch14.01 x 9.77 x 0.66 inches4.7 to 4.8 pounds

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 Air has a tapered-wedge design, as it always has.

The new MacBook Pros deliver slim bezels and ditch the Touch Bar in favor of a dedicated function row (we say good riddance). There's a notch at the top for the 1080p webcam, but it's not too distracting. They come in the same silver and Space Gray shades as their Air counterparts. 

The M2 MacBook Air 2022 has a design that's more akin to the 2021 MacBook Pros, ditching the tapered design. It also has thinner bezels and a notch for the camera. The M2 MacBook Pro has the exact same design as its M1-powered predecessor. 

Predictably, the new M3 MacBook Pro rocks the same dimensions as the M2 model, although it gets a new color, in the form of the alluring new 'Space Black' — though this shade is exclusive to models with M3 Pro and M3 Max chips.  

MacBook Pro 14-inch 2023

The 14-inch MacBook Pro is still fairly portable, despite weighing over 3 pounds. (Image credit: Future)

While the M1 MacBook Air's teardrop (it's more like a wedge than a rectangle) design is iconic, our 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 it comes to portability, the 2.7-pound MacBook Air 2022 is the lightest,  followed by the 3.3-pound 15-inch Air. But the 14-inch MacBook Pro is still fairly portable at 3.5 pounds. The 16-inch goes to 4.8 pounds, depending on configuration.

Winner: MacBook Air for portability, MacBook Pros for slimmer bezels

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Ports

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro — ports

The new MacBook Pros offer the most ports, including HDMI and SD Card slot. (Image credit: Future/Apple)
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Row 0 - Cell 0 Ports
M1 MacBook Air2 Thunderbolt, 3.5mm headphone
M2 MacBook Air2 Thunderbolt / 1 USB-4, 3.5mm headphone
M2 MacBook Pro 14-inch3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe, 3.5mm headphone
M2 MacBook Pro 16-inch3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe, 3.5mm headphone
M3 MacBook Pro 14-inch3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe, 3.5mm headphone
M3 MacBook Pro 16-inch3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe, 3.5mm headphone

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 Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. The newer M2-powered machines share the same number of ports, but they're Thunderbolt 4/USB4.

The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros deliver the most ports, including three Thunderbolt 4 ports, an HDMI port and SD Card slot. Plus, there's MagSafe charging. 

Winner: New MacBook Pros

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Display

MacBook Air vs Pro - display

Every Air and Pro has a great display. (Image credit: Future/Apple)
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Row 0 - Cell 0 Screen
M1 MacBook Air13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)
M2 MacBook Air13.6 inches (2560 x 1664)
M2 MacBook Pro 14-inch14.2 inches (3024 x 1964) mini-LED
M2 MacBook Pro 16-inch16.2 inches (3456 x 2234) mini-LED
M3 MacBook Pro 14-inch14.2 inches (3024 x 1964) mini-LED
M3 MacBook Pro 16-inch16.2 inches (3456 x 2234) mini-LED

The Retina displays in the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro are both sharp and colorful, and while it's close, there's a reason to go Pro: brightness.

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) got even brighter. The M2 MacBook Pro achieved 474.6 nits of standard brightness, while the MacBook Air 2022 achieved 489 nits, per our testing.

On color output, though, the M1 laptops are more similar. The Air (M1) netted a 114.3% sRGB rating from our colorimeter, which slightly beats the 110.6% rating we got from the M1 13-inch Pro. The later models are just as good if not better.

The 2021 and 2023 MacBook Pros take display quality to the next level with their Liquid Retina XDR displays. They're rated for 1,000 nits of brightness and our testing confirms that they do get that bright (at least, when viewing HDR content) thanks to their mini-LED technology, which also offers superior colors and contrast. Plus, you get a 120Hz ProMotion display for smoother performance.

If you're obsessed with having the best display possible in your MacBook, you may want to cough up for the new M3 MacBook Pro, which Apple claims boasts a 20% brightness boost over its M2 predecessor when handling SDR content.

Winner: 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Keyboard

MacBook Air Keyboard

(Image credit: Future)

All of the MacBooks you can buy offer Apple's Magic Keyboard, which delivers strong tactile performance and comfort.

The MacBook Air doesn't feature a Touch Bar, and it's perhaps telling that the 14-inch MacBook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro have ditched the Touch Bar for a dedicated function row of physical keys.

The MacBook Pro gets the nod in this category, as ultimately its full size function keys are simply that much easier to type on than the half-sized variants you get with the MacBook Air. 

Winners: MacBook Pro

MacBook Air vs Pro: Performance

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro — performance

The newest MacBook Pros are not only performance beasts, they can play a select catalog of high-quality games. (Image credit: Future/Apple)
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Row 0 - Cell 0 CPUGPURAM
M1 MacBook AirApple M1 (8-core)Integrated 7-core M1 GPU | Integrated 8-core GPU8GB to 16GB
M2 MacBook AirApple M2 (8-core)Integrated 8-core M2 CPU | Integrated 8-core GPU8GB to 24GB
M2 MacBook Pro 14-inchM2 Pro/Max Up to 12-core CPU | Up to 38-core GPUUp to 38-core GPU16GB to 96GB
M2 MacBook Pro 16-inchM2 Pro/Max Up to 12-core CPUUp to 38-core GPU16GB to 96GB
M3 MacBook Pro 14-inchM3 (8 core), M3 Pro (Up to 12 cores), M3 Max (Up to 16 cores)M3 (8 core), M3 Pro (Up to 18 cores), M3 Max (Up to 40 cores)M3 (8GB to 24GB), M3 Pro (18GB to 96GB), M3 Max (48GB to 128GB)
M3 MacBook Pro 16-inchM3 (8 core), M3 Pro (Up to 12 cores), M3 Max (Up to 16 cores)M3 (10 core), M3 Pro (Up to 18 cores), M3 Max (Up to 40 cores)M3 (8GB to 24GB), M3 Pro (18GB to 96GB), M3 Max (48GB to 128GB)

Apple's older M1-based MacBook Air and Pro are still plenty fast for basic work and browsing the web. On the Geekbench 5 multi-core CPU benchmark, which evaluates CPU performance, MacBook Air (M1, 16GB RAM) scored a 5,962 and the Pro (M1, 16GB RAM) netted a pretty similar 5,925.

They were both demolished by the more recent 2023 MacBook Pros, however. On the same Geekbench 5 benchmark test, M2-powered Pro and Max chips earned excellent scores between 14,939 and 15,044.

As the M3 MacBook Pro isn't quite out yet at time of writing, we've not had the chance to put it through our usual rigorous review testing. However, Apple claims its new M3 silicon is up to 40% faster than the M1 Pro, although less impressively, only 10% faster than the M2 Pro.

On the Handbrake video transcoding test converting a 4K video to 1080p, the M1 MacBook Pro had a time of 7:44, beating the Air's 9:15 time. The larger MacBook Pros won over both, with the 2021 MacBook Pro 14-inch having a time of 4:51 and the 16-inch laptop transcoding in 4:48. The newer 2023 models with their M2 Pro and Max chips did even better, knocking out the task in 4 minutes flat (4:04). The M2 MacBook Pro isn't quite as fast, but it still delivered impressive results by transcoding a video in 6:51. The MacBook Air 2022 was just slightly behind the latter, delivering a time of 7:52.

The SSD on the M1 Air is impressive, with BlackMagic SSD Disk Speed Test read rates producing a respectable 2,692 MBps. However, the 2023 M2 MacBook Pros trounced this figure, with the 14- and 16-inch scoring 5,319/5,717 (respectively).

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro — performance

(Image credit: Future/Apple)

While testing Sid Meier’s Civilization VI: 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. 

Unfortunately, the M2 MacBook Pro isn't much better than its M1 predecessor when it comes to gaming, yet that should hopefully change with the more gaming-focused M3 MacBook Pro. Apple's latest chipset contains an enhanced GPU that sports Dynamic Caching; a feature that allocates memory in real time then uses that exact amount of memory for specific tasks. This should almost certainly help the M3 Pro when it comes to handling demanding modern games.

There are other advanced graphical features debuting on the M3 too, like hard-ware accelerated ray tracing and mesh shading. In less tech-heavy speak, this should result in more realistic lighting and greater detail in environments. We've already tested out Baldur's Gate 3 and Lies of P during our M3 MacBook Pro hands-on review, and the results blew us away. 

Winner: MacBook Air for value, MacBook Pros for performance

MacBook Air vs Pro: Battery life

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Row 0 - Cell 0 Battery life
M1 MacBook Air14:41 of web browsing (M1, tested) | Up to 18 hours of video playback (M1, claimed) | 9:31 (Intel, tested)
M2 MacBook Air14:06 (tested)
M2 MacBook Pro 14-inch14:06 (tested)
M2 MacBook Pro 16-inch18:56 (tested)
M3 MacBook Pro 14-inch22:00 (untested)
M3 MacBook Pro 16-inch22:00 (untested)

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 (which tasks it with endlessly surfing the web 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.

The 2021 MacBook Pros trounce these numbers. During our testing, the MacBook Pro 14-inch lasted for 14:08 while the MacBook Pro 16-inch endured for 15:31. Meanwhile, the13-inch MacBook Pro with M2 beats them with a remarkable 18 hours and 20 minutes tested battery life. 

However, the 16-inch MacBook Pro 2023 with its M2 Max chip takes the cake by lasting nearly 19 hours (18:56) in our battery test. That makes it one of the best laptops for battery life we've reviewed at Tom's Guide.

In the laptop space, MacBooks remain king when it comes to staying power. And if Apple's claims that the new M3 MacBook Pro can go for 22 hours without running out of juice, you're unlikely to see a laptop boasting longer battery life anytime soon. 

Winner: MacBook Pro 

MacBook Air vs Pro: Audio

While the MacBook Air offers great stereo sound, the new MacBook Pros are on another level thanks to their six-speaker setup that boasts a pair of tweeters and two sets of force-canceling woofers. 

In layman's terms, the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models provide more bass along with an octave lower sound for an even more robust audio profile. Plus, the new MacBook Pros support Dolby Atmos through their speakers as opposed to just headphones.

Winner: MacBook Pro 

MacBook Air vs Pro: Value and price

MacBook Air vs Pro: Value and price

(Image credit: Future)

The MacBook Air with M1 is still the value leader with its $999 starting price.

By contrast, the starting price of the M2 MacBook Pro 14-inch is $1,999. Now while that's a hefty outlay, you get a much faster Pro chip, larger and superior 14-inch mini-LED display with 120Hz refresh rate, a sharper 1080p webcam and more ports for your money. But you'll likely need to have a demanding workload to appreciate all of these benefits.

The M2 MacBook Pro 16-inch is the ultimate Apple laptop for people who need the biggest display, and it's priced accordingly at $2,499. And you'll get a longer-lasting battery. As we've mentioned throughout this article though, bear in mind Apple is on the cusp of releasing its M3 MacBook Pro lineup, so the prices of the (hardly old) M2 Pro models are likely going to come down sharply in early Black Friday 2023 deals

Winner: MacBook Air 

MacBook Air vs Pro: What should you buy?

This is somewhat tricky since different users have different needs. At the risk of sounding cliche, there are MacBooks for everyone.

The M2 MacBook Air is the best MacBook for most people, delivering awesome performance and longer battery life in a fairly portable design. If you can spare the extra cash, the more recent M2 MacBook Air 15-inch is also worth considering due to the impressive portability for its screen size. 

If you need a laptop that is up to the most demanding of daily computing tasks, the range of MacBook Pro models Apple sells are well worth buying if you need that extra horsepower. 

At time of writing, the M2 MacBook Pro 16-inch is the ultimate splurge machine for power users for those who want the most screen real estate they can have at home and on the go.

Of course, that's going to quickly change with the imminent release of the M3 MacBook Pro series, where if you want to go for the absolute best of the best, you can assemble an M3 MacBook Pro 16-inch with M3 Max for a staggering $4,999 if you somehow need 128GB of RAM... sorry, 'unified memory'. 

Remember, if you want to save a bit of money, you can likely pick up an older variant of the model you want (a 2022 MacBook Pro 14-inch instead of a 2023 model, for example) at a cheaper price without sacrificing much in terms of performance. Whatever you choose, make sure to swing by our guide to the best MacBook deals before you buy so you can be sure you're getting the best deal possible! 

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.

  • gerardw
    The article reads like the MacBook Air and 13-inch MI Pro have identical ports (2 thunderbolt /usb-c). Why does the scorecard assign 4 points for ports to the Pro and only 3 to the Air?
    Reply
  • pictonic
    Depends how you value graphics, MBP has a better. brighter, screen than Air but it is probably OK for most purposes. Is that worth +£300 to you?
    Reply