MacBook Air vs Pro: Which should you buy?

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

The Apple MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro buying decision is difficult because both are fantastic laptops that are better than ever thanks to the latest Apple silicon. Comparing the devices is tough but important because you need to know exactly what each is capable of when deciding which one is right for you.

The choice is complicated because there are now multiple great models available in the lineup. Though they were released in 2020 and are a bit long in the tooth now, the MacBook Air M1 and the entry-level MacBook Pro M1 still deliver decent performance and battery life thanks to Apple's inaugural M1 chip. 

There's also the MacBook Pro 14-inch 2021 and MacBook Pro 16-inch 2021, both of which offer M1 Pro/M1 Max chips that are more powerful than the M1, a larger, brighter mini-LED display, more ports and a sharper 1080p webcam housed in a notch which extends down from the top bezel of the screen.

Plus, updated models have been released with the power of the newer Apple M2 chip. These include the M2-powered MacBook Pro 13-inch and MacBook Air 2022, as well as the new MacBook Pro 14-inch 2023, MacBook Pro 16-inch 2023 and MacBook Air 15-inch. These laptops appear nearly identical to their predecessors, but the upgraded M2 chips under the hood give them a bit more speed.

That remarkable speed and power efficiency is what grants the latest MacBooks their place on our best laptop list. As we've seen in our MacBook Air with M1 review and MacBook Pro with M1 review, equipping these MacBooks with Apple silicon has given them surprising speed and crazy battery life. And as we've seen in our Apple M2 benchmark tests, the latest processor is even more powerful than the regular M1.

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: Specs

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Header Cell - Column 0 MacBook Air (2020)13-inch MacBook Pro (2020)14-inch MacBook Pro16-inch MacBook Pro13-inch MacBook Pro (2022)MacBook Air M214-inch MacBook Pro (2023)16-inch MacBook Pro (2023)
Starting price$999 $1299$1,999$2499$1,299$1,199$1,999$2,499
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-LED13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)13.6 inches (2560 x 1664)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)14:08 (tested)15:31 (tested)18:20 (tested)14:06 (tested)a14:06 (tested)18:56 (tested)
ProcessorApple M1 (8-core)Apple M1 (8-core)Apple M1 Pro, M1 Max (10-core)Apple M1 Pro, M1 Max (10-core)Apple M2 (8-core)Apple M2 (8-core)Apple M2 Pro, M2 Max Apple M2 Pro, M2 Max
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-coreIntegrated 8-core M2 CPU | Integrated 10-core GPUIntegrated 8-core M2 CPU | Integrated 8-core GPUM2 Pro/Max Up to 12-core CPU | Up to 38-core GPUM2 Pro/Max Up to 12-core CPU | Up to 38-core GPU
Storage256GB to 2TB256GB to 4TB512GB to 8TB512GB to 8TB256GB to 2TB256GB to 2TB512GB to 8TB512GB to 8TB
Memory8GB, 16GB8GB, 16GB, 32GB16GG, 32GB16GB, 32GB, 64GB8GB to 24GB8GB to 24GB16GB to 96GB16GB to 96GB
Ports2 Thunderbolt 2 Thunderbolt3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe2 Thunderbolt/USB4, headphone jack2 Thunderbolt / 1 USB-4, 1 headphone3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe3 Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe
Touch BarNoYesNoNoYesNoNoNo
SecurityTouch IDTouch IDTouch IDTouch IDTouch 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 supportStereo speakers, Dolby Atmos support, 3-mic arrayFour-speaker sound system, patial audio and Dolby Atmos support6-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 inches11.94 x 8.36 x 0.61 inches11.97 x 8.46 x 0.44 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 pounds3.0 pounds2.7 pounds3.5 pounds 4.7 to 4.8 pounds

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design

MacBook Air with ports showing

(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.

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.

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, 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 2.7-pound MacBook Air 2022 is 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 4.8 pounds, depending on configuration.

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

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

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Ports

MacBook Pro 14-inch 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 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 Display

Even the M1 MacBook Air still has a great 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. 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.

Winner: 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Keyboard and Touch Bar

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, 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 Pro 14-inch 2023 gaming Resident Evil Village

The newest MacBook Pros are not only performance beasts, they can play a select catalog of high-quality games. (Image credit: Future)

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, the new MacBook Air (M1, 16GB RAM) scored a 5,962 and the new Pro (M1, 16GB RAM) netted a pretty similar 5,925.

They were both demolished by the larger MacBook Pros, however. On the same Geekbench 5 benchmark test, the 14-inch M1 Pro-powered MacBook Pro scored 12,477 while its 16-inch counterpart scored 12,683. The newer M2-powered Pro and Max chips did even better, earning the 2023 Pros scores between 14,939 and 15,044.

Though not as powerful as the Pro and Max chips, the M2 processor is still a beast. On Geekbench 5.4, the MacBook Pro 2022 scored 8,911 on the multicore portion of the test, while the MacBook Air 2022 scored 8,919.

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 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 SSDs on the M1 Pro (13-inch) are impressive, 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. However (and it should be no surprise at this point), the new MacBook Pros trounced them all with 14-inch and 16-inch 2021 models scoring 5,321/5,314, whereas the newer 2023 models scored 5,319/5,717 (respectively). The M2-powered MacBook Pro scored 2,794, which puts it between the old and new M1 chips.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Apple Silicon MacBook Pro

(Image credit: 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. The 14-inch MacBook Pro with M1 Pro achieved 46 fps on Civilization VI while the 16-inch M1 Max-powered MacBook Pro got as high as 47 fps. Their newer M2-powered 2023 siblings did even better, hitting nearly 60 fps with no trouble. 

The new MacBook Pros have an obvious edge here due to their beefier chips. Unfortunately, the M2 MacBook Pro isn't much better than its M1 predecessor when it comes to gaming.

Winner: MacBook Air for value, MacBook Pros for performance

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 (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.

Winner: The MacBook Pros

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: MacBook Pros

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 and it arguably gives you more bang for your buck in terms of performance than the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Both the old and new 13-inch Pros give 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 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 somewhat tricky since different users have different needs. At the risk of sounding cliche, there are MacBooks for everyone.

The MacBook Air is the best MacBook for most people, delivering awesome M1 performance and longer battery life in a fairly portable design. If you can spare the extra cash, the new MacBook Air is also worth considering due to its versatility and improved performance.

The 2020 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. Because of that, the new M2 MacBook Pro looks more than enticing for budget-conscious folks. But if you need power above all, 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.

If you want pure horsepower or simply want the latest models available, the new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros might be best for you. Of course, you'll need to decide (or justify) if their respective $1,999 and $2,499 starting prices are within your budget. But if money is not an object, these are the MacBooks to get.

Remember, if you want to save a bit of money you can likely pick up an older variant of the model you want (a 2021 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?
  • 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?