What’s the difference between the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air?
Late last year, Apple introduced its M1 chip, and it debuted inside the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini. These quickly became some of the best Macs you can buy. Seeing as the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Air are now powered by the same processor, you might think these two devices are almost exactly the same, and you’d be almost right. However, there are some key differences between the Apple M1-powered MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.
Additionally, Apple released new MacBook Pro 2021 models, powered by the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. These new Macs not only come with upgraded chips, but they also include a chassis redesign that reintroduces the MagSafe charger and other ports. They’re available as 14 and 16-inch variants, and both come with thinner bezels and notched displays.
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First off, let’s take a look at the specs for all these devices. This lets us see most of the differences at a basic level.
|MacBook Air 13-inch||MacBook Pro 13-inch||MacBook Pro 14-inch||MacBook Pro 16-inch|
Design and ports: The original Apple M1 misses out on ports
MacBooks didn’t vary a whole lot in terms of design, until Apple released the redesigned MacBook Pro models earlier this year. The MacBook Air is naturally the thinnest and lightest of the bunch, but the MacBook Pro 13-inch isn’t substantially larger. The big difference is the MacBook Pro having more even thickness throughout, while the Air is a bit more wedge-shaped. Of course, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is much bigger and heavier than the other models. That’s because the 16-inch MacBook Pro has much more power-consuming hardware that requires more cooling and a beefier battery. The 13-inch MacBook Pro could probably have been smaller with the Apple M1 refresh, but Apple kept the exact same chassis — it’s just slightly lighter now.
As far as the rest of the design goes, these are all aluminum laptops that look fairly similar. All the MacBook Pro models come in the same color options, but the MacBook Air adds a Gold variant. That might be worth keeping in mind if you want something that stands out a bit more.
“If you’re planning to work in a multi-monitor environment, the Apple M1 processor is very limiting.”
The big differences come into play with the ports, though. Both the MacBook Air and the Apple M1-powered MacBook Pro only have two Thunderbolt ports, while the new M1 Pro/Max variants come with three Thunderbolt 4 ports, HDMI port, SD card slot, and more. Not only that, while the Thunderbolt ports have 40Gbps of bandwidth, the Apple M1 models can only connect to one external display, regardless of the resolution. Meanwhile, the new MacBook Pro 2021 models with M1 Pro/Max processors can support up to four external displays. If you’re planning to work in a multi-monitor environment, the Apple M1 processor is very limiting.
Another notable difference is the MacBook Air and new Pros don’t have a Touch Bar, while the 13-inch Pro model does. The Touch Bar on MacBooks gives users customizable quick controls, which can be tailored for different apps and scenarios. Things like media playback, a color picker, and more can be placed there. On the MacBook Air and new Pro models, you have the typical function keys in place of it. Otherwise, most elements are similar. There’s Touch ID on the power button, the keyboard uses a scissor mechanism, and all the models have a Force Touch trackpad. So if you really want a Touch Bar on your MacBook, the 13-inch Pro is your only option.
It’s also worth pointing out the camera. The new 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pro models come with an upgraded 1080p FaceTime camera. On the older models, you get a 720p camera instead. Apple’s M1 chip lineup improves the white balance, exposure, and dynamic range, thanks to the image signal processor on board. So the 720p camera on the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air will result in better image and video qualities, when compared to those of the 720p camera on retired Intel models. However, the new Pro models of this year bring a significant upgrade — 1080p. If you depend on video calls for work or studies, you might want to keep this in mind.
Display: The new MacBook Pro models are brighter
If you’re focused on finding the best display, you don’t have to look too hard. All the 13-inch MacBooks have the same exact size and resolution – 2560 x 1600 – for their Retina panels. Plus, they all come with a wide color gamut (P3) and True Tone support, so they should look great, but they’re not the best out there. The outliers are the 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pro models, which kick the resolution up to 3024 x 1964 and 3456 x 2234 respectively.
One of the most notable differences between the 13-inch MacBooks and the new Pros is in the brightness of the display. The display on the 13-inch ones can go up to 500 nits of brightness, and that’s better than the majority of laptops already. However, the MacBook Pro 2021 models can go up to 1600 nits of brightness, which is that much better. If you’re using your laptop indoors most of the time, you probably don’t need the extra brightness, but for working on the go, it can really help visibility under bright sunlight.
Performance: The MacBook Pro has active cooling
The 13-inch models of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air both have the original Apple M1 chipset, and it’s a big leap from previous models in their respective lines. Apple touts up to 3.5x faster CPU performance, 5x faster graphics, and 11x faster machine learning performance compared to previous Intel models. We can look to GeekBench to get an idea of how powerful the Apple M1’s CPU is.
The Apple M1-powered MacBook Air and Pro are pretty much neck and neck in terms of performance, far outclassing the Intel processors in the retired models. The Apple M1 is both powerful and efficient, so even though it doesn’t consume a lot of power, it’s still more powerful than an H-series Intel processor in some ways. You may look at that and think the MacBook Air is just as good as the Pro, but there’s something to keep in mind.
The Apple M1 chip doesn’t require active cooling, and the MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan, but the MacBook Pro does. The GeekBench benchmark is relatively short, so that doesn’t come into play for these results. In longer periods of usage though, the MacBook Pro will probably sustain its performance better than the Air because it has an active cooling fan. However, this is just a CPU comparison, and there are other things worth keeping in mind. For example, the base model of the MacBook Air only has a 7-core GPU, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro has an 8-core GPU.
There’s something else to consider, too. The 13-inch MacBook Pro and Air with Apple M1 are both limited to a maximum of 16GB of RAM and 2TB of SSD storage. That’s still a lot, but if you’re planning to store lots of video projects and work with memory-intensive apps, it’s quite limited. The 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pro models can have up to 64GB of RAM and 8TB of storage, thanks to the new M1 Pro/Max chips.
Something else that’s impressive is the battery life enabled by the Apple M1 chipset, despite its performance. The MacBook Air has the smallest battery of the laptops here, but it still claims up to 18 hours of movie playback on a charge. The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a slightly bigger battery and promises up to 20 hours on a charge. However, the 16-inch MacBook Pro promises up to 21 hours of movie playback.
Comparing the MacBook Air to the Pro in its original Apple M1-powered variant shows a significant number of similarities, and you have to carefully consider what you need the device for. The MacBook Air’s base model only has a 7-core GPU, so if you feel like you need the extra performance, you’ll need to spend almost as much as you would on a MacBook Pro. At the same time, the Pro has other benefits like a brighter screen and active cooling, which might help with sustained performance, especially if you’re using it for intensive tasks like video rendering.
However, the MacBook Air is lighter, and it’s safe to say it can still handle almost anything you throw at it if you’re using it for school. You might also want to consider the longer battery life on the Pro model, but to be fair, the 18 hours promised for the MacBook Air should already be enough to get you through any normal day.
“For college students or occasional users, the MacBook Air will most likely do a fantastic job.”
Bringing the M1 Pro/Max models into the mix makes things a bit more complex. These new MacBook Pro models take professional Macs to the next level. The power they offer isn’t aimed at average users. Instead, they’re for people who require plenty of resources and computing power for their projects. So if you’re an advanced audio, photo, or video editor, you might want to invest in one of these powerhouses.
For college students or occasional users, the MacBook Air will most likely do a fantastic job. If you’re a creative professional and considering the MacBook Pro, then it probably makes sense to look at the 14 or 16-inch models more because of the larger displays and upgraded SoC. With all the options available though, it’s always worth considering every tier to make sure you’re getting something that’s just right for you. If macOS isn’t your thing, check out our list of the best laptops out there, which is mostly focused on Windows PCs.
Which MacBook will you be buying? Let us know in the comments section below.