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The new MacBook Air is amazing — but I'm buying the MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro 2020 M1 chip
(Image credit: Apple)

I was eagerly anticipating the expected Apple silicon Macs announced at this past week's "One more thing," event. And then, Apple threw us a curve ball. While many (myself included) expected the focus to be on the higher efficiency and longer battery life, Apple zigged, when we expected them to zag.

Apple went all in on performance, declaring that the Apple M1 chip enables the new MacBook Air and new MacBook Pro to trounce not just their Intel-based predecessors but the vast majority of Windows laptops. These look like sure-fire candidates for top spots on our best laptops list.

And then the MacBook Air beekbenchmark leak showed that the new MacBook Air was obliterating its competition, posting numbers that should have Intel CPUs, and even that brawny 16-inch MacBook Pro, looking over their proverbial shoulders.

But even though the MacBook Air seems like it's got MacBook Pro-level speed right now, I'm gonna pay more for the Pro. Here's why.

The MacBook Pro gives you more

"Wait, why would someone buy the new MacBook Pro when the Air has the same processor?" But while both have the same M1 processor, they're not exactly going to be the same in how they're going to use that processor.

Specifically, the M1 in the MacBook Pro will probably be faster because it's got fans inside, cooling the M1 so it can deliver better sustained performance over longer periods. Instead of fans, the new MacBook Air's M1 processor has an "aluminum heat spreader," which means its M1 processor probably won't be pushed as hard, as its cooling solution isn't as active.

Apple Silicon MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

On top of that, the M1 MacBook Pro is rated for 2 hours of extra battery life, at 17 hours of web browsing to the MacBook Air's 15 hours. And of all the upgrades you can give a Mac (RAM, storage, etc), battery life is the one place where I'd always pay more. 

The M1 MacBook Pro also features a brighter screen (500 nits to the Air's 400 nits), and that screen brightness is another place where I'd actually value the difference. 400 nits, to me, is sort of the entry-level minimum for a premium laptop. But once you go above that, you get the strong image quality that leads to colors staying strong at a wider array of angles, and a laptop that's simply better for Netflix and YouTube. 

Last, but most certainly not least, the MacBook Pro's speakers support high dynamic rage, and the MacBook Air's do not. And while my next laptop may be plugged into the same speakers I connect to my record player, that's only when I'm at my desk. When I take my laptop to any other spot in my house (and anywhere else on earth, once this pandemic is over), I'm going to want my music and movies to sound as good as possible. 

I won't notice the new MacBook Air's perks

The biggest reasons to get the Air are for your budget and back. 

The entry-level MacBook Pro is $300 more expensive than the MacBook Air, and while that is a not-insubstantial amount of money, I want to buy a laptop for the next 8+ years. 

That's how long my current MacBook Pro has lasted, and when it comes to laptops I've got a very strong "invest in the future" mentality. The extra battery life mentioned above isn't just important for today, but for the inevitable long-term degradation of endurance, as 2 hours more today will mean some extra amount for each and every year going forward.

Apple MacBook Air 2020

(Image credit: Apple)

Spread out over 8 years? That's just around $3 per month. For everything I listed above, even if I end up upgrading after 4 years (which would convert to $6 per month), I'm more than willing to spend more up front for a laptop that I enjoy using that much more. 

And yeah, the MacBook Air is lighter than the MacBook Pro, at 2.8 pounds to the Pro's 3.0 pound chassis. But — again — I won't notice that. Why? I'm updating from a mid-2012 MacBook Pro (the first Retina display model), which weighs a whopping 4.5 pounds. 

Because of that, I've felt that the 3.0-pound 2020 MacBook Pro was more than light, and good enough for my next laptop. I'm surrounded by thin and light laptops in my work-from-home office, and while each of the ones that are around 3 pounds are light, I don't ever notice these smaller differences.

Outlook

I need a new MacBook, and I need to buy one soon. My 2012 MacBook Pro is showing its age more with each passing month, and it doesn't support macOS Big Sur. And since I've seen the writing on the wall for months now, I've been waiting for this moment.

And to look at the M1 MacBooks available,  I can see why the MacBook Air is probably the best MacBook for most people.

But when it comes to getting a laptop that will last through the decade — through to the PS6 and Xbox Series Z — the MacBook Pro's practically won me already. If our testing for our reviews turns out to match Apple's claims the M1-based MacBook Pro is the 13-inch MacBook for the future, thanks to its longer battery life, brighter screen and more detailed sound.

And this is why we review laptops (and why I don't pre-order something this expensive) and not just take manufacturers' word. Stay tuned for our new MacBook Air and new MacBook Pro reviews to find out how good these laptops are.

  • docsplendid
    All excellent points, but there's one more reason to prefer the air than weight and economy: ergonomics. The tapered front makes a HUGE difference for me in terms of how long I can use the keyboard/trackpad without injury. With a pro and its beefy front edge, I always end up using an external keyboard and mouse/trackpad, making it more of a desktop than a laptop.
    Reply
  • dberry4510
    I find it interesting that you didn't mention the touch bar, the most visible difference between and Air and a Pro. I have a 2018 Macbook Pro now, and I think the #1 reason to not have a Pro is that damn touch bar. I usually max out configuration and spend max $$$ for my laptops because the software I write is a huge cash cow and I don't need to be held back by cheap parts. While the touch bar is far from a cheap part, it does hold me back, requiring me to remap keys to what's available on the keyboard, and sometimes even causing errors due to non-presses, double-presses, and unintentional presses. That alone means I'm not likely to buy another Macbook Pro until I can get one with physical function keys.
    Reply
  • BDComer
    I ordered the Air actually. :) The $300 less is significant for me, as is the less weight. If the Pro could have been configured with more RAM, I probably would have went with it, but for most of the stuff I will do with the air, the possible extra speed of the pro isn't enough for the cost.

    And yes, the touch bar is a big negative for me. I had a 2017 Macbook Pro and hated the touch bar. (at least I had it until it blew up like a balloon. stupid battery failure and a machine that wasn't covered by their recall...)

    I do wish the air had a 500 nit display though.

    I'm supposed to get mine monday, I can't wait to see how the M1 does with my stuff. :)
    Reply
  • igotbigdreams
    bruh i literally have the same situation with you right now. my macbook pro mid 2012 had served me for 8 years from my high school days to becoming a developer and its still kicking but now i feel its calling for its rest. now i have long been anticipating the macbook pro silicon and it got way beyond my expectations.i hated iphones but being a mac user showed me the true value Apple delivers. anyways cheers to you
    Reply
  • jb-zr1
    I’m surprised no one mentioned the available memory differences. It looks like the Air maxes out at 8GB RAM but the Pro can be bought with 16GB (I was disappointed to see it couldn’t be ordered w/ 32GB, but if it could, it would probably be ridiculously expensive).
    Along the lines of enabling longer term use, 16GB provides much more room for multitasking, virtual desktops, etc. For average tasks like office docs, email, browsing, I’m sure 8GB is fine though.
    Reply
  • DavidGurney
    dberry4510 said:
    does hold me back, requiring me to remap keys to what's available on the keyboard, and sometimes even causing errors due to non-presses, double-presses, and unintentional presses. That alone means I'm not likely to buy another Macbook Pro until I can get one with physical function keys.

    You’re too kind. The Touch Bar is an embarrassing gimmick that degrades the functionality of the computer, and Apple’s brand. Along with its oft-cited defects (it goes to sleep; it’s not palpable; you’re not supposed to be looking at your keyboard all the time; etc.), but you can’t even make it useful by mapping arbitrary keys to it. For example, you can’t put a Delete key on it? And what’s with Apple’s bizarre refusal to put a real Delete key on its keyboards in the first place?
    Reply
  • cristianandersson
    jb-zr1 said:
    I’m surprised no one mentioned the available memory differences. It looks like the Air maxes out at 8GB RAM but the Pro can be bought with 16GB (I was disappointed to see it couldn’t be ordered w/ 32GB, but if it could, it would probably be ridiculously expensive).
    Along the lines of enabling longer term use, 16GB provides much more room for multitasking, virtual desktops, etc. For average tasks like office docs, email, browsing, I’m sure 8GB is fine though.
    You can purchase an Air with 16MB of RAM. It is in the options.
    Reply
  • luxetlibertas
    This is the very first generation of Apple silicon laptops, and amazing as they are, coming generations will be even more appealing. Buying the entry-level MacBook Air now for $999 instead of a future-proofed MacBook Pro 16GB+512GB for $1699 would afford an upgrade much sooner on the same budget. Of course, if money is no object then the Pro is a little bit better.
    Reply
  • mwerneburg
    dberry4510 said:
    I find it interesting that you didn't mention the touch bar, the most visible difference between and Air and a Pro.

    In my previous job I had to use a Macbook with a touch bar for coding. The lack of an escape key made it impossible to use 'vi'. Apple's taking the visual appeal of the product way too far. Let the phones be the fashion statements, laptops are for work.

    That said, these low-power, high performance chips being available in a commercial/consumer product is literally what the world needs.
    Reply
  • varase
    mwerneburg said:
    In my previous job I had to use a Macbook with a touch bar for coding. The lack of an escape key made it impossible to use 'vi'. Apple's taking the visual appeal of the product way too far. Let the phones be the fashion statements, laptops are for work.

    That said, these low-power, high performance chips being available in a commercial/consumer product is literally what the world needs.
    At least on my 16" MacBook Pro, though it has a touchbar the Esc key and the power button are physical buttons now on each side of the Touch Bar.

    Looking at an image on the Apple site, that appears to be the case with the MBP 13 as well.
    Reply