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MacBook Air vs Pro: Which should you buy?

MacBook Air vs Pro - Apple Silicon
(Image credit: Apple)

The MacBook Air vs Pro conversation is evolving at a remarkable pace, even as these laptops grow more and more similar. Right now both of these Apple laptops are better than ever thanks to the M1 chip and Magic Keyboard.

Things just got more complicated with the introduction of the $1,999 MacBook Pro 2021 14-inch, which offers even more powerful M1 Pro/M1 Max chip options, a larger mini-LED display, more ports and a sharper 1080p webcam. There's also a new 16-inch MacBook Pro 2021 with all of the same upgrades plus a larger, sharper display and longer battery life.

In the meantime, 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 with M1 review and MacBook Pro with M1 review, upgrading these MacBooks with Apple's M1 chip has given them surprising speed and crazy battery life.

Here's everything you need to know to find the best MacBook for you when choosing between the MacBook Air vs Pro. And stay tuned for our full reviews of the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros. 

MacBook Air vs Pro: Specs

MacBook Air13-inch MacBook Pro14-inch MacBook Pro16-inch MacBook Pro
Starting price$999 $1299$1,999$2499
Screen13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)14.2 inches (3024 x 1964) min-LED 16.2 inches (3456 x 2234) min-LED
Battery life14:41 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)17 hours of video playback (rated)21 hours video playback (rated)
ProcessorApple M1 (8-core)Apple M1 (8-core)Apple M1 Pro, M1 Max (10-core)Apple M1 Pro, M1 Max (10-core)
GraphicsIntegrated 7-core M1 GPU | Integrated 8-core GPUIntegrated 7-core M1 GPU | Integrated 8-core GPU 16-core or 32-core 16-core or 32-core
Storage256GB to 2TB256GB to 4TB512GB to 8TB512GB to 8TB
Memory8GB, 16GB8GB, 16GB, 32GB16GG, 32GB16GB, 32GB, 64GB
Ports2 Thunderbolt 2 Thuderbolt3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe
Touch BarNoYesNoNo
SecurityTouch IDTouch IDTouch IDTouch ID
AudioStereo speakers, Dolby Atmos supportStereo speakers, Dolby Atmos support, 3-mic array6-speaker array, Dolby Atmos support6-speaker array, Dolby Atmos support
Dimensions12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches12.31 x 8.71 x 0.61 inches14.01 x 9.77 x 0.66 inches
Weight2.8 pounds3.0 pounds3.5 pounds 4.7 to 4.8 pounds

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design

(Image credit: Future)

The M1 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. 

MacBook Pro 2021 bezel with notch

(Image credit: Apple via YouTube)

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 it comes to portability, the 2.8-pound MacBook Air is still the lightest followed by the 3-pound 13-inch MacBook Pro. But the 14-inch MacBook Pro is still fairly portable at 3.5 pounds. The 16-inch goes to 4.7 pounds. 

Unfortunately, the new MacBook Pros are limited to Silver and Space Gray.

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

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Ports

MacBook Pro 2021 at Apple event

The new MacBook Pros offer the most ports, including HDMI and SD Card slot. (Image credit: Apple event via YouTube)

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 new 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

(Image credit: Future)

 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.

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 the M1 13-inch Pro.

The new 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 offer mini-LED technology for superior colors and contrast. Plus, you get a 120Hz ProMotion display for smoother performance. 

Winner: New MacBook Pros

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Keyboard and Touch Bar

MacBook Air vs Pro: Keyboard

(Image credit: Future)

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

The MacBook Air doesn't feature a Touch Bar, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro does, and this OLED bar frankly doesn't offer a lot of value. It's perhaps telling that the 14-inch MacBook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro ditch the Touch Bar for a dedicated function row of physical keys.

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 in 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.

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.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Apple Silicon MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

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.

We've yet to test the new MacBook Pros, but they promise dramatically better performance. The MacBook Pro with M1 Pro delivers 10 cores (up from 8 cores on the M1) as well as a 16-core GPU (up from 7 cores). For example, Apple says that the MacBook Pro 2021 has up to 70 percent faster CPU performance.

Both the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros also support an even faster M1 Max chip with up to 64GB of unified memory and a 32-core GPU. 

Winner: MacBook Air for value, new MacBook Pros for sheer speed

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.

The new MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch promise even longer endurance, as those laptops are rated for 17 hours and 21 hours, respectively. 

Winner: Waiting on testing

MacBook Air vs Pro: Audio

While the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro offer great stereo sound (the latter has more dynamic range) — the new MacBook Pros are on another level. 

That's because the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro offer a six-speaker setup. And you now get more bass along with an octave lower sound for even more robust audio profile. Plus, the new MacBook Pros support Dolby Atmos in speaker as opposed to just headphones. 

Winner: New MacBook Pros

MacBook Air vs Pro: Value and price

MacBook Air vs Pro: Value and price

(Image credit: Future)

The MacBook Air is still the value leader with its $999 starting price and it arguably gives you more band for your buck in terms of performance than the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Yes, the 13-inch Pro gives you longer battery life, but it may not be enough to justify the $1,299 price.

The MacBook Pro 14-inch represents a big jump in price over the 13-inch, but you get a lot for your $1,999. This includes a much faster M1 Pro chip, larger and superior 14-inch mini-LED display with 120Hz refresh rate, a shaper 1080p webcam and more ports. But you'll likely need to have a demanding workload to appreciate all of these benefits. 

The 16-inch MacBook Pro 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. 

Winner: MacBook Air

MacBook Air vs Pro: What should you buy?

This is a tough call as we need to test and review the new MacBook Pros to come to a verdict. But based on what we know now the MacBook Air is the best MacBook for most people, delivering awesome M1 performance and longer battery life in a fairly portable design.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro is still good, but it's outshined by the more premium 14-inch MacBook Pro and all of its upgrades. But we're guessing at least some shoppers will think twice about jumping from $1,299 to $1,999. The 16-inch MacBook Pro 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. 

  • 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?
  • 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?