With the MacBook Air having been recently refreshed, it's a tempting time to buy – but are you sure that it's not the MacBook Pro you need instead? With a new version of Apple's most popular Mac out, it's high time we pitted the MacBook Air 2020 vs the MacBook Pro, and took a fresh look at which is the better buy for an Apple laptop: the cheaper, lighter option or the more expensive, powerhouse option? We'll explain everything you need to know.
Of course what's right for one laptop buyer isn't necessarily right for another, and so we'll break down the differences between these two ranges so you know exactly what you're looking at. You'll also need to decide how you're going to be using your new computer, so you can make the best decision based on the information we'll give you.
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MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: keyboard and design
The MacBook Air is the smaller and lighter laptop of the two... hence the name. When closed, at its thinnest point it's 0.41 cm thick, compared with 1.49cm (0.59 inches) for the 13-inch MacBook Pro and 1.62 cm (0.64 inches) for the 16-inch MacBook Pro. However, it's worth noting that the MacBook Air is actually 1.61cm (0.63 inches) at its thickest point, so it's actually slight thicker than the 13-inch MacBook Pro. But its tapered design leaves it feeling slimmer and more handle-able overall.
The MacBook Air weighs in at 1.29kg (2.8 pounds), compared with 1.37 g (3.02 pounds) for the 13-inch Pro and 2kg (4.3 pounds) for the 16-inch Pro. Again, note that the difference between the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro isn't huge.
The most important physical difference between the different models here is the keyboard. Two of the models use Apple's new (and widely loved) Magic Keyboard – those are the MacBook Air and 16-inch MacBook Pro. This new keyboard feels great to use – there's a good amount of feedback and a pleasant amount of travel.
But the 13-inch MacBook Pro uses the older butterfly keyboard, which had a very short travel and clicky feel that a lot of people disliked. We actually found it perfectly fine to use in practice, but that's kind of a personal thing, and it certainly wasn't universally favoured. But, crucially, it also proved to have reliability issues over time, and all laptops that come with it are covered with a special longer-term keyboard replacement program if needed (which is always a not-great sign).
We expect there to be a new MacBook Pro seen that switches to the new keyboard, but for now, it's a really important thing to note – those who'll do a lot of typing on the go should lean towards either the Air or the bigger MacBook Pro right now.
All three have excellent trackpads, though – this is one area Apple nailed a long time ago, and never missteps on.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro finds room for noticeably bigger and more impressive speakers than you get on either the MacBook Air or the 13-inch MacBook Pro… or almost any laptop we've tried, really. They're genuinely impressive, and not in a mealy-mouthed 'well, they're good for laptop speakers' way. The other two laptops do have decent speakers for laptops.
There are also some differences in terms of the ports you've got available, which will get on to shortly. Finally, while all these laptops come in either silver or space grey, only the MacBook Air offers a gold option – and it's a really nice colour.
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: display
The comparison is really close when it comes to the display. Both the MacBook Air and the smaller MacBook Pro have a 13.3-inch screen running at a 2560x1600 resolution – though the Pro does use a wider colour gamut, and is slightly brighter (500 nits versus 400 nits).
The difference doesn't matter much if you're just doing document work (though the extra brightness makes the Pro easier to see in bright light such as sunlight), but the broader colours and boosted brightness matter for creative work.
The larger MacBook Pro sports a 16-inch screen running at a 3072x1920 resolution (with the wider colour gamut and extra brightness), which gives a lot more room to work.
The single most important thing (in our opinion) is that all three models support True Tone, which changes the colour balance of the screen to match the lighting of the room you're in, so you don't get that off-putting thing of a screen appearing blue when the light around you is yellow. This is kinder on the eyes in the evening, and helps you to just colours more easily – we wouldn't want to live without it.
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: specs and options
Apple gives you a plethora of options when it comes to kitting out the latest MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros. The MacBook Air first: you start off with a 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Intel Core i3 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz), 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. That's for the base version, which costs £999/$999.
There is a model that's a step up, though, giving you a quad-core 1.1GHz 10th-gen Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost to 3.5GHz), 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. That costs £1,299/$1,299 and we think it's a good option if you want a bit more head-room for your tasks. The base version is good for web browsing, document work and basic photo and video editing, for example, but if you wanted to get fancier with Photoshop, 4K video or programming then we'd suggest the quad-core version. Getting the extra power plus double the storage for that upgrade fee seems like a good deal to us.
You can configure your MacBook Air further – you can go up to 16GB of RAM and a maximum of 2TB of storage. Graphics are provided by integrated Intel Plus chips on all 2020 MacBook Air models, which is a significant step up over previous versions of the Air.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is the next step up in power. At its cheapest, you get a 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz), 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and integrated Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645. At its most expensive, you can get up to a 2.8GHz quad-core 8th-gen Intel Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 4.7GHz), 16GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage, plus Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655.
These specs are one reason we think the MacBook Pro 13-inch is due an update (on top of the keyboard) – it's two generations behind on the processor, and Apple now appears to have moved to making 256GB its storage minimum, so the fact that you still get a measly 128GB here means these are unlikely to be around too much longer.
The top-end 16-inch MacBook Pro configurations start out at a 2.6GHz 6-core 9th-gen Intel Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz), 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and Radeon Pro 5300M 4GB graphics. The next model up gets you a 2.3GHz 8-core 9th-gen Intel Core i9 (Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz), 16GB of RAM, 1TB of SSD and Radeon Pro 5500M 4GB graphics.
If you really want to trick the laptop out, you can go all the way up to a 2.4GHz 8-core 9th-gen Intel Core i9 processor (Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz), 64GB of RAM, a massive 8TB of storage, and Radeon Pro 5500M 8GB graphics.
The attached prices shoot up accordingly, of course. That top-end 16-inch MacBook Pro is an absolute beast, but overkill unless you're rendering video or doing something equally demanding – for most casual computing use, the lower specs on the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro will do you just fine.
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: features and ports
All these MacBooks are going to come running the latest versions of macOS, Catalina. They'll also get all updates for the foreseeable future. From a software point of view, they all have the same features and capabilities, and access to the same applications.
The less powerful components of the MacBook Air equal longer battery life: Apple quotes 12 hours of wireless web use and 13 hours of iTunes video watching. That beats out the quoted 10 hours of wireless web use and 10 hours of iTunes video watching for the MacBook Pro models.
The MacBook Air features two Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) ports, plus a 3.5mm headphone jack. That matches the base version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but if you buy a more powerful version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro you instead get four Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports and a headphone jack.
With the 16-inch MacBook Pro, all models come with four Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports, plus a headphone jack. You might need a dongle or a hub (or two) whichever model you opt for.
It's worth noting that all of the MacBook Pros include the Touch Bar, and the MacBook Air doesn't. The Touch Bar is a touchscreen that runs across the top of the keyboard in place of the function keys, and it can display custom controls depending on the app you're in – or it can display a set of standard controls of your choosing. These can be quite handy when they're shortcuts or give you access to fine-grained sliders or other options that would normally be buried a couple of clicks deep. But we wouldn't call the Touch Bar essential by any means – a lot of people just don't use it.
Both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models include Touch ID fingerprint security. That makes life much easier for logging in, and for verifying your identity for online security.
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: pricing and verdict
Both the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro will give you a very good Apple laptop experience – it's just a question of how much power you're going to need (and how light you want your laptop to be while you're lugging it around).
At the top end, the 16-inch MacBook Pro can be kitted out with ludicrous amounts of power, memory and storage, and it gives you that extra screen real estate to work with as well.
The 13-inch model offers an impressive level of performance too, though you don't get the discrete graphics options that you do with the bigger laptop, and its processor options are slightly outdated.
On the other hand the MacBook Air is lightweight and a little bit cheaper too (check out the widgets on this page for the latest prices). If you're more of a casual computer user then you can save yourself some money with a cheaper option – remember the macOS software is the same on all these models.
The scale of price and performance is clear to see as you move up from the MacBook Air to the MacBook Pro, despite there being some potential crossover where the higher-tier MacBook Air has a quad-core processor that appears not far off the power of the base level 13-inch MacBook Pro's processor. But the most constrained chassis of the new Air means that processor will hit its thermal limits fairly quickly, while the MacBook Pro has more room to manoeuvre. And if you step up the higher-tier 13-inch MacBook Pro, you get a major boost in speed even while staying at quad-core.
But the good news is that there are plenty of configuration options along the way, so you should be able to find an Apple laptop that meets your needs.