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MacBook Air vs Pro: What's the best MacBook?

MacBook Air vs Pro
(Image credit: Future)

Picking between MacBook Air vs Pro used to be easy, and now that's not exactly true. As noted in our MacBook Air review and MacBook Pro 13 (2020) review, Apple finally replaced its 'Butterfly'-switch keyboards for more reliable keys across all of its notebooks. 

Formerly, the 16-inch MacBook Pro was the only laptop with the new keyboard, giving it an edge on its smaller siblings. But now, the performance, price and battery life of each laptop give shoppers plenty of reasons to pick one over the other. Plus, the Air now has a lower starting price and beefier specs. 

Is that enough to make us look away from the mightier MacBook Pros? Not only are the Pros available in two different sizes, they offer higher-end processors and (on the pricier models) more ports. And that 16-inch MacBook Pro? It sounds better than probably any laptop you've ever heard.

If you're making your next buying decision based around the impending Apple Silicon Macs, your buying decision isn't exactly as clean cut as it was a few weeks ago. We now have seen reasons to believe they may not arrive this year. Those who aren't dead set on getting a Mac should look at our Surface Laptop 3 (15-inch, Intel) review, as it's a minimalist notebook that even an Apple user can appreciate.

Here's everything you need to know before choosing between the MacBook Air vs Pro, to find the best MacBook for you.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Specs 

MacBook Air13-inch MacBook Pro16-inch MacBook Pro
Starting price$999 $1299$2399
Screen13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)13.3 inches (2560 x 1600) 16 inches (3072 x 1920)
Battery life9:31 10:2110:55
ProcessorIntel 10th Gen Core i3, i5 and i7Intel 8th Gen Core i5 and i7, and 10th Gen Core i5 and i79th Gen Intel Core i7 and i9
GraphicsIntel Iris Plus GraphicsIntel Iris Plus Graphics 645 and Intel Iris Plus GraphicsAMD Radeon Pro 5300M (4GB), Radeon 5500M (4GB or 8GB)
Storage256GB to 2TB256GB to 4TB512GB to 8TB
Memory8GB, 16GB8GB, 16GB, 32GB16GB, 32GB, 64GB
Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports22 to 44
Touch BarNoYesYes
SecurityTouch IDTouch IDTouch ID
Internal KeyboardMagic KeyboardMagic KeyboardMagic Keyboard
AudioStereo speakers, Dolby Atmos supportStereo speakers6-speaker array, Dolby Atmos support
Dimensions11.9 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches14.1 x 9.7 x 0.6 inches
Weight2.8 pounds3.1 pounds4.3 pounds

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design

(Image credit: Future)

Incredibly similar, like fraternal twins, 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 little things, though, might make a difference for you.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro is big and brash, but a masterful achievement, with Apple getting a larger screen into 15-inch MacBook Pro's chassis by slimming down the bezels. By contrast, the Air and 13-inch Pro have slightly larger bezels, which we'd love to see shrunk a tad.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Design and ports

(Image credit: Future)

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 you look at their measurements, these laptops are again more alike than different. Of course the 16-inch Pro is a larger machine, but it's got the same 0.6-inch thickness as its 13-inch counterparts. Naturally, it's also a little heftier, at 4.3 pounds  vs the 2.8-pound MacBook Air and the 3.1-pound 13-inch MacBook Pro. 

Winner: It's a draw

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Ports

If you want plenty of ports, the MacBook Air is not the best choice. It offers only two Thunderbolt 3 ports. The same thing goes for the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. However, the premium $1,799 MacBook Pro 13-inch comes with four Thunderbolt 3 ports while also stepping you up  to a faster Core i5 CPU.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro has four USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports standard — and they're on both sides of the laptop. The MacBook Air and the entry-level MacBook Pro 13-inch which keep their ports on the left, which can be annoying to work around and creating a lot of cable management work. 

Winner: 16-inch MacBook Pro

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Display

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Display

(Image credit: Future)

We've got another really close race here. The Retina displays in the MacBook Air and 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 maxes out at 386 nits of brightness, while the MacBook Pro (13-inch: 485 nits; 16-inch: 429 nits) got even brighter.

On color output, though, they're more similar. The Air netted a 113% sRGB rating from our colorimeter, which is in fighting distance of the 114% rating we got from both the 13-inch and 16-inch Pro.

Winner: 13-inch MacBook Pro

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Keyboard

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Keyboard

(Image credit: Future)

Apple's MacBooks have had a keyboard issue in recent years, when the company made a new 'butterfly'-style key mechanism that was both a bit too shallow and also controversial because of reliability issues that led to a repair program, and people blowing air into their keyboards. 

And after 3 years of using that keyboard in all of its MacBooks, Apple gave up on the butterfly keys and switched them out for the Magic Keyboard (similar to its external keyboard of the same name) keys, which are frankly so great that they should have been used all along.

And even though it took Apple a while — the 16-inch MacBook Pro came out in Nov. 2019, and it took until May 2020 for the 13-inch MacBook Pro to ditch the Butterfly switch keys — all MacBooks now have the same Magic Keyboard.

The Air also wins for those who, like me, don't really see the real value in the OLED Touch Bar, and prefer the physical Function keys, which are much harder to accidentally activate. 

Winners: It's a draw

MacBook Air vs Pro: Performance

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Performance

(Image credit: Future)

This isn't much of a fight. MacBook Pros have faster U-series Intel processors, while the MacBook Air has a slower Y-series processor that is optimized for everyday tasks and battery life. The Air and 13-inch Pro make do with Intel Iris Plus graphics, but the 16-inch MacBook Pro offers discrete AMD graphics.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro we tested is equipped with a 9th Gen Core i9 processor and 32GB of RAM, the 13-inch Pro has an 10th Gen Core i5 CPU  with 16GB of RAM and the 2020 Air (Intel Core i5-1030NG7 processor with 8GB of RAM) has a weaker i5 chip and half to a quarter of the memory.

On Geekbench 5, which measures overall performance, the 16-inch MacBook Pro scored 7,250, more than twice the Air's 2,738 score. The 13-inch Pro fell in the middle, at 4,399.

A similar war of speeds is seen in SSD performance. On the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, the read speeds from the 13-inch MacBook Pro (2,060 MBps) and its 16-inch MacBook Pro (2,540 MBps) leave the Air's 1,301.9 MBps read speed score in the dust. 

Again, the Pros win in video testing transcoding a 6.5GB 4K video to 1080p in 8 minutes on the 16 inch and 12:43 on the 13-inch Pro, while the Air posted a time of 27:10.

We only saw impressive gaming performance from the 8GB Radeon 5500M GPU in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which ran the Rise of the Tomb Raider game benchmark at a workable 27.2 fps (resolution set to 1920 x 1200, "very high" graphics). 

The MacBook Air (integrated Intel Iris Plus GPU) posted a weak score of 7 on the Sid Meyer’s Civilization VI test.

Winner: 16-inch MacBook Pro

MacBook Air vs Pro: Battery life

Again, it pays to go Pro. This time, the margin isn't as vast, as the MacBook Air posted pretty a good battery life result (web surfing at 150 nits) time of 9 hours and 31 minutes. The Pros, however, lasted more than an hour longer, with the new 13-inch MacBook Pro posting a time of 10:21 and the 16-inch MacBook Pro going a bit longer, to 10:55.

Winner: Both MacBook Pros 

MacBook Air vs Pro: Audio

While the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook offer great sound — we've enjoyed everything from Jay-Z's "Lucifer" to "Night Running" by Cage the Elephant and Beck on them — the 16-inch Pro is on another level.

The bigger MacBook Pro's sound is so much stronger, in fact, that it fooled someone from another room, who didn't believe the song playing (311's "Beautiful Disaster") was coming from a laptop. That's because the 16-inch MacBook Pro has a six-speaker setup with force-cancelling woofers that the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Air lack. 

All three of these MacBooks support Dolby Atmos playback, setting a strong standard for audio quality.

Winner: 16-inch MacBook Pro

MacBook Air vs Pro: Value and price

MacBook Air vs Pro: Value and price

(Image credit: Future)

Apple went years without a new sub-$1,000 laptop, and the company has finally changed that. Yes, the new MacBook Air is only $1 under that thousand-dollar cap, but Apple's decision to cut the price of the Air by $100 also comes with the company doubling its default storage to 256GB — an upgrade also seen in the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, which now starts at 256GB of storage, despite staying at the same $1,299 price. 

Annoyingly, you need to spend an extra $500 to get the 13-inch MacBook Pro with 10th Gen CPUs, a pricey upgrade that PC makers like Dell don't make you choose at the checkout. Another bit of frustration: in late May, we discovered that upgrading the 13-inch MacBook Pro's memory from 8GB to 16GB now costs twice as much -- going from $100 to $200. We're deducting a point from the 13-inch MacBook Pro's value score for this change.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro defaults to 512GB of storage, but it also starts at $2,399 — more than twice the MacBook Air's price. And while some might think that machine is worth its speed, it's just priced too high from most consumers. It's truly for pros only.

Winner: MacBook Air

MacBook Air vs Pro: Scorecard and winner

MacBook Air13-inch MacBook Pro16-inch MacBook Pro
Design (10 points)777
Ports (5 points)345
Display (15 points)101211
Keyboard (15 points)151515
Performance (10 points)7810
Battery life (10 points)7910
Audio (5 points)335
Value and price (25 points)241511
Overall (100 points)767274

And that was a nail-biter, folks. The new MacBook Air takes this face-off. It is the best Apple laptop for most people and arguably the best laptop for most people period.

But, this close a score emphasizes how some folks will still think to get the MacBook Pro over the MacBook Air. If they want the longest battery life or the fastest performance, I couldn't blame them. Having more ports on the premium 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is another plus.

MacBook Air vs Pro: Scorecard and verdict

(Image credit: Future)

I used to advise people to avoid the 13-inch MacBook Pro, as I was waiting on the newly announced 2020 refresh. Now that we've reviewed it, our only major gripe is how you need to pay a lot more for a modern CPU. The MacBook Air vs Pro debate is closer than ever, with both laptops becoming more equal, which each winning in different ways. 

But, for now, when someone asks you which MacBook they should buy, the conversation still starts with the MacBook Air. If neither feel right for right now, look to October 27, 2020, as that's the current rumored date for the Apple Silicon MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro.