MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison review

If you're looking to buy a new MacBook, there are always a few options to choose between - right now there's the MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro - with more options within each model.

Only two of them come in 13in sizes though, so if you know you want a laptop with a 13in screen, you've got to pick between the MacBook Air and the smaller size of MacBook Pro.

That means you've got a few decisions to make. Would you rather a lighter, more portable laptop? How much power do you need? Do you want a Retina display? How much are you happy to spend?

We're going to break down the differences and similarities between the two laptops step by step to help you decide which is right for you - though if you're still considering the regular MacBook too, you might find our general MacBook buyers' guide more helpful.

Once you've made your mind up, you can head straight to Apple to buy the MacBook Air or 13in MacBook Pro.

Price

Price is one area where there's a stark difference between the MacBook Air and the 13in MacBook Pro, as the former is undeniably cheaper.

The MacBook Air is available in two default configurations, priced at £949 and £1,099, the only difference being whether you opt for 128GB or 256GB of storage.

If you fully kit out the MacBook Air with a faster processor and an even larger 512GB SSD, the highest price you can hit is £1,384.

That might sound like a lot, but it's only a little more than the cheapest MacBook Pro, which is priced at £1,249 for a version without the Touch Bar. Upping the storage takes it to £1,449, and a fully upgraded non-Touch Bar version goes up to £2,449.

It's even more expensive if you want the Touch Bar model - that starts at £1,749, with another configuration at £1,949, and maxes out at a respectable £2,799.

Dimensions and weight

When it launched in 2008 the MacBook Air was the lightest laptop available. Over the years that followed, the weight of the MacBook Pro has also declined, so the difference is almost gone.

The 2017 13in MacBook Pro weighs 1.37kg, and is just 1.49cm thick, while the main body is 30.41 x 21.24cm.

You might expect the MacBook Air to be notably lighter and thinner, but you'd be surprised. It's 1.35kg - only fractionally lighter - and its thickest point is actually thicker than the Pro at 1.7cm - though thanks to its gradient, that decreases to 0.3cm at the end.

It's also ever so slightly bigger across, at 32.5 x 22.7cm.

If you're curious about how the 12in MacBook fits in to this, it weighs 0.92kg, and its dimensions are 28.05 x 19.65cm, and just 0.35-1.31cm thick.

Processor and RAM

The biggest difference between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro is processing power, where the 1.8GHz of the MacBook Air has to stand up to MacBook Pros at 2.3GHz or 3.1GHz - and those are just the default configurations.

You can upgrade the Air to a 2.2GHz processor if 1.8 just isn't enough for you, while options on the Pro depend on if you want the Touch Bar or not. Without, you can go up to 2.5GHz, but models with the Touch Bar can be upgraded up to 3.5GHz.

That's not even telling the whole story, and in fact the difference is even more stark. That's because the MacBook Air is still using the 2015 Broadwell processors, while the Pro is equipped with more modern Kaby Lake chips, which means the performance gap will likely be even greater than the clock speeds suggest.

There's a similar performance gap when it comes to RAM. At first glance the laptops look similar - all the default configurations come with 8GB - but there's a bigger gap than that suggests.

That's partly because the MacBook Pro models are configurable up to 16GB, but also because the Pro uses RAM running at 2133MHz, compared to 1600MHz, meaning even with 8GB in each the Pro still has a speed advantage.

We haven't yet been able to run benchmark tests on the laptops side by side to make a detailed comparison, but we'll update this article when we do. However, from the specs alone it's pretty clear that the MacBook Pro will seriously outperform the Air.

How much that matters depends on what you need the laptop for. If you do little more than surf the web stream TV shows and movies, and send emails, you probably won't notice a huge difference. If you're playing games, or doing intensive work like editing the next Hollywood blockbuster, then you will probably find the MacBook Air struggling at times.

Battery life

Where processor speed is clearly in the MacBook Pro's favour, another potentially critical feature is battery life, and this time it's the MacBook Air that wins - though not by much.

We haven't yet been able to run thorough battery tests on the latest models of the Air or Pro, but Apple's own tech specs suggest that the Air will last a bit longer.

The company claims that the Air can handle 12 hours of wireless web browsing or video playback - essentially a full day. That's compared to 10 hours of each from the 13in Pro - less, but not by a huge amount.

Screen and resolution

One of the biggest differences between Apple's two 13in MacBook models is the display. The MacBook Air doesn't have a Retina display, so the pixel density is lower. The Air has a native 1440x900 screen resolution compared to the 2560x1600 resolution on the 13in MacBook Pro.

In person you can definitely notice the differences between the two screens, so if you want the best quality display the Air will not be for you.

The MacBook Air features a LED-backlit display, but only the MacBook Pro adds IPS technology to this. The IPS panel means very wide viewing angles and richer, more accurate colours. In our tests we found it could cover 98 percent of the simple sRGB gamut, and 69 and 75 percent of NTSC and AdobeRGB.

Another thing to note is the aspect ratio. Both laptops use a 16:10 ratio, rather than the 16:9 screens that some other laptops use. We think 16:10 is the best for laptop productivity and comfort.

Graphics and gaming

Unlike the higher-spec 15in models, the 13in MacBook Pro follows the Air in exclusively using integrated Intel graphics - though they're not identical.

The Pro uses either Intel Iris Plus 640 or 650 (the latter with the Touch Bar), while the Air just has Intel HD Graphics 6000, which is a few generations behind.

In practical terms, it means that the Air won't really be usable for gaming or intense graphical work, while the Pro will - though it will still always be a compromise.

In terms of gaming, the Pro should be able to play modern games, though not on high graphics settings or with top frame rates. Realistically, the Air is limited to older games or simple indie titles.

Storage

Storage is one area where there's less of a difference between the two models.

The MacBook Air is available with a choice of 128GB or 256GB storage, as well as a 512GB build-to-order option.

The MacBook Pro offers 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB storage, and up to 1TB build-to-order option on all models. Both laptops use SSD (a.k.a. flash storage), meaning you can expect fast (and quiet) storage.

If storage is your chief concern, you can definitely get more for less with the Air. Upgrade to the 512GB hard drive runs the total cost to £1,249 - the same price as the cheapest Pro, which includes just 128GB.

On the other hand, if you know you're likely to need more than 512GB because you have serious storage needs, only the Pro will let you go up to 1TB - though even the cheapest 1TB spec still costs £2,049.

Ports and peripherals

Your preference between the two models when it comes to ports will depend a lot on how you feel about Apple's heavy push for the adoption of USB-C (a.k.a. Thunderbolt 3) as a universal standard.

The MacBook Air chassis is from before the big move to USB-C, so it packs a rather traditional set of ports: a MagSafe 2 for charging, two USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2, an SDXC card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The Pro is very different, because it's all about USB-C. Beyond a 3.5mm headphone jack, you either get two or four USB-C ports, depending on whether or not you opt for the Touch Bar. And that's it.

It's worth remembering that there are plenty of USB-C adapters and accessories on the market to expand the Pro's ports, allowing you to use HDMI, VGA, USB 3.0 and more. You'll also need those USB-C ports to take full advantage of any recent tech you own that uses the new standard.

It's also worth mentioning the addition of a Force Touch trackpad on the new MacBook Pro - a feature shared by the new MacBook but nowhere to be seen on the MacBook Air. 

The Force Touch trackpad is sensitive to varying degrees of touch pressure: you can set it to respond to harder/deeper presses to activate different features. It also provides haptic feedback - a tangible, tactile response that in theory allows you to 'feel' what you are interacting with, which means that you feel like you are pressing the trackpad in when actually the pad isn’t moving at all.

Speaking of touch-based hardware on a MacBook Pro - you have the option of having a Touch Bar and Touch ID also included. These two new additions are stand-out features of the recent models - they add productivity and security to the Pro line. This makes it particularly useful if you want to authorise payments on your MacBook Pro - now directly with your fingerprint.

The Touch Bar itself can be customised and be used alongside certain programs to provide a more personalised macOS Sierra experience. This new Touch Bar is a multi-touch strip replacing the F keys that can provide different contextual controls depending on the application open - though it doesn't yet have universal support.

OUR VERDICT

With a £300 price difference between the base models - and £800 if you opt for the Touch Bar - the difference between the Air and Pro is stark. Without a clear benefit when it comes to portability, and lower specs all round, the only clear reason to opt for the Air is if you're looking for a (relatively) budget MacBook option. If you're looking for the best performance and feature-rich MacBook, the Pro is the clear winner. However, if you're going to be using it only for documents and browsing the Air is still a capable alternative, and also rocks macOS Sierra - an impressive operating system.

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