MacBook Air vs Pro comparison, which should you buy?

MacBook Air vs Pro comparison, which should you buy?

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Apple’s MacBook lineup offers impressive performance and at first glance, the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro seem quite similar. They have the same CPU/GPU, same ports, same FaceTime camera, and more. However, the more powerful 2021 14-inch MacBook Pro may complicate your decision. Let’s take a closer look at the MacBook Air vs Pro to see what differentiates these MacBooks and help you decide which to buy in 2022.

Beyond the larger screens, the all-new 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pro notebooks feature a refreshed design, mini-LED display backlighting, the return of I/O including HDMI, SD card slot, and MagSafe, and the removal of the Touch Bar.

And of course, they have more power than ever with the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. If you’re on the fence between the 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pro, check out our detailed guide.

But if you know you want a compact 13 or 14-inch MacBook, read on for our in-depth Air vs MacBook Pro comparison. Also, keep in mind there is a new MacBook Air in the works that could arrive as soon as summer 2022.

Initial reactions to Apple unveiling the new M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in late 2020 included confusion about the point of continuing to offer both since they appear so similar.

While it is impressive and somewhat confusing that the $999 base M1 MacBook Air has the same CPU/GPU and neural engine as the $1,299 and higher M1 MacBook Pro, there are some notable differences that are worth considering before making a decision.

And with the 14-inch M1 Pro/Max MacBook Pro available there are even more differences.

MacBook Air vs Pro hardware comparison

You’re getting the powerful and efficient M1 chip with 2020 MacBook Air and Pro machines with 4 high-efficiency cores and 4 high-performance cores for the CPU. But interestingly enough, it’s actually a 7-core GPU on the base MacBook Air models instead of the 8-core on the higher end Air configurations and all the MacBook Pro models. My colleague Ben Lovejoy wrote an explainer on what’s happening with that.

Beyond the slight GPU difference, you’re getting active cooling with the MacBook Pro. That’s notable as it allows the notebook to maintain high performance under sustained loads for longer.

For the 14-inch MacBook Pro, you get the M1 Pro or M1 Max chip with the option for more CPU and GPU cores, increased RAM, full HD 1080p FaceTime camera, and more.

 13″ MacBook Air (2020) 13″ MacBook Pro (2020) 14″ MacBook Pro (2021)
Processor M1 – 8-core M1 – 8-core M1 Pro or M1 Max – 8 or 10-core
Storage Up to 2TB Up to 2TB Up to 8TB
RAM 8 or 16GB 8 or 16GB 16 to 64GB
Graphics 7-core 8-core Up to 32-core
Neural engine 16-core 16-core 16-core
FaceTime camera 720p 720p 1080p
Speakers Stereo speakers with wide sound Stereo speakers with high dynamic range 6-speaker high-fidelity
Mics 3-mic array Studio-quality 3-mic array Studio-quality 3-mic array
Thermal management Fanless Active cooling with fans Active cooling with fans

Maybe more minor in the big picture, but both MacBook Pro models features high dynamic range with stereo speakers and the mics are “studio-quality.”

It’s great to see Wi-Fi 6 support all models. However, it’s just a 720p FaceTime camera on the 2020 MacBooks. Apple says it’s improved the image quality with its image signal processor. But to get the full HD 1080p FaceTime camera, you’ll need to buy the new 14-inch MacBook Pro.

You’re going to see awesome performance for everyday computing with all three of these computers but if you lean toward heavier workflows, the new MacBook Pro is the winner.

If you have medium to light workflows, the MacBook Air is a great choice for portability and those who are more price sensitive.

MacBook Air vs Pro display comparison

MacBook Air vs Pro - display

If screen brightness is important to you, chalk up another point for the MacBook Pro with its 500-1600 nits brightness vs 400 nits on the MacBook Air.

The new MacBook Pro’s up to 1,000 sustained nits brightness (1,600 peak) may be just for HDR content, but you’re still getting up to 120Hz refresh rates with ProMotion, mini-LED backlighting, and even thinner bezels.

13″ MacBook Air (2020) 13″ MacBook Pro (2020) 14″ MacBook Pro (2021)
Actual screen size 13.3″ 13.3″ 14.2″
Resolution 2560 x 1600 2560 x 1600 3024 x 1964
Aspect Ratio 16:10 16:10 16:10 + notch
PPI 227 227 254
Nits (brightness) 400 500 Up to 1000 sustained, up to 1600 peak
Retina display
Liquid Retina XDR display
ProMotion (up to 120Hz)
mini-LED backlit
True Tone
P3 wide color

The new 14-inch MacBook Pro display does include a notch at the top center of the display for the 1080p FaceTime camera. But unlike the iPhone, the notch doesn’t include Face ID hardware/support on the new MacBook Pro notebooks.

MacBook Air vs Pro I/O comparison

The difference between the 2020 Air and Pro with the rest of the I/O not covered above is the Touch Bar coming on the MacBook Pro and dedicated row of function keys (new ones too for dictation, spotlight, more) on the MacBook Air.

One downside with the 2020 MacBooks is support for just 1 external display up to 6K at 60Hz.

In contrast, the 14-inch MacBook Pro offers much more I/O including 3 USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, HDMI, SDXC slot, MagSafe, and support for up to 3 external displays.

 13″ MacBook Air (2020) 13″ MacBook Pro (2020) 14″ MacBook Pro (2021)
Magic Keyboard
Touch ID
Touch Bar
USB-C/Thunderbolt ports 2 2 3
SDXC card reader
MagSafe charging
Bluetooth 5.0 5.0 5.0
Wi-Fi Wi-Fi 6 ( Wi-Fi 6 ( Wi-Fi 6 (
External display support 1 external display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz 1 external display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz Up to 2 external displays with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz (M1 Pro) or Up to 3 external displays with up to 6K resolution and 1 external display with up to 4K resolution at 60Hz (M1 Max)

Size, weight, and finish comparison

As you’d expect, the MacBook Air is the lightest machine with the 13-inch MacBook Pro weighing a touch more, and the 14-inch naturally being the heaviest.

The MacBook Air is also the thinnest notebook from Apple with its tapered design. And if the gold color is appealing, keep in mind it’s only available with the MacBook Air.

13″ MacBook Air (2020) 13″ MacBook Pro (2020) 14″ MacBook Pro (2021)
Weight 2.8 lbs. (1.29 kg) 3 pounds (1.4 kg) 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg)
Thickness 0.16-0.63 in. (0.41-1.61 cm) 0.61 inch (1.56 cm) 0.61 inch (1.55 cm)
Width 11.97 inches (30.41 cm) 11.97 inches (30.31 cm) 12.31 inches (31.26 cm)
Depth 8.36 in. (21.24 cm) 8.36 inches (21.24 cm) 8.71 inches (22.12 cm)
Display size 13.3 in. (33.78 cm) 13.3 inches 14.2 inches
Finishes Silver, space gray, and gold Silver or space gray Silver or space gray

Battery life comparison

MacBook Air vs Pro - battery life

Real-life use shows massive battery life gains for Apple Silicon MacBooks compared to the old Intel models. However, keep in mind you probably won’t see exactly the Apple ratings of up to 15-20 hours without compromises like turning down display brightness, etc.

But in any case, the power efficiency and battery life improvements are big with Apple Silicon!

13″ MacBook Air (2020) 13″ MacBook Pro (2020) 14″ MacBook Pro (2021)
Wireless web battery 15 hours 17 hours 11 hours
Video playback 18 hours 20 hours 17 hours
Included power adapter 30W USB-C 61W USB-C 67W or 96W USB-C + MagSafe
Battery capacity 49.9Wh 58.2Wh 70Wh
Fast charging

Pricing comparison

Across the different configurations, it’s a $300-$1,000 difference between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

Stocked models are the 256GB/8GB RAM and 512GB/8GB RAM configurations for the 13-inch Air and Pro. Models with 16GB RAM for the 2020 Air and Pro are custom orders.

And the 14-inch MacBook Pro base model starts at $1,999 with M1 Pro chip, 16GB RAM, and 512GB SSD.

Model/price 13″ MacBook Air (2020) 13″ MacBook Pro (2020) 14″ MacBook Pro (2021)
256 / 8GB $999 $1,299
512 / 8GB $1,249 $1,499
256 / 16GB $1,199 $1,499
512 / 16GB $1,399 $1,699 $1,999
1TB / 16GB $1,599 $1,899 $2,499
1TB / 32GB $2,899
Custom builds Up to $2,049 Up to $2,299 Up to $5,899

MacBook Air vs Pro wrap-up

Hopefully, you’ve got clarity now on which MacBook is right for you. If you value the most power, active cooling for extended heavy workloads, a brighter screen, and more ports, the MacBook Pro is the way to go.

Meanwhile, if you have light to medium performance needs, and prefer the lightest machine with great battery life, the MacBook Air is the choice starting at a really reasonable $999.

But don’t forget about the possibility of a refreshed MacBook Air in the coming months. If you know you’d like an Air but don’t need it immediately, it could be worth waiting to see if a new model arrives this summer or fall.

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