MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review

If you are looking for a new Mac laptop there are a number of factors to consider when deciding which model is the one for you. Should you buy the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro Retina? Do you need the Retina display? Would a lighter and cheaper model be better for you? How much power do you need from your Mac laptop?

In 2013 the answer to the question of whether to buy a 13-inch MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina display was a simple question of whether it was worth spending £150 more to get the pro model. However, Apple updated the MacBook Air on 29 April, reducing the price of the MacBook Air and making a minor tweak to the processor. The price change is the most sigificant factor as it makes the difference between the Air and Pro models much more pronounced. Indeed, we had anticipated this price change on the basis of the minor difference in pricing between the 2013 MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro with Retina display made the decision of which Mac laptop to buy so obvious that we couldn't understand who would choose the MacBook Air over the Retina Pro model.

However, back in 2013 there was just £150 difference between the 2013 13in models. So our advice was that if you are on the market for a new laptop it may have been worth paying a few pounds more and getting the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Now the price between the 13-inch models is £250, which is enough of a difference to make the question more of a challenge, so we have updated this article accordingly.

Apple has now launched a low-cost iMac that offers comparable specs and a comparable price. We compare the new entry-level iMac and the MacBook Air here. We also share our 5 reasons to buy a MacBook Air and 5 reasons NOT to buy a MacBook Air. Read our 11in MacBook Air benchmarks.

Watch our comparison of the 13-inch MacBook Air from 2013 and the 13-inch 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display. Apart from question of price many of the factors in the decision are still the same...

 

Wondering when Apple will update the MacBook Air to include a Retina display - in this article we look at the rumours and speculation surrounding the launch of the rumoured Retina MacBook Air which may still come this year.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Portability

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. We weigh up the differences between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

The 2013 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is 50 g lighter than the 2012 Retina MacBook, it's now just 1.57 kg.

The 2013 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is a bit heavier than the 13-inch, at 2.02 kg, but the same weight as the 2012 model.

Both models are just 1.8 cm thick. Last year the 13-inch model was a tiny bit thicker at 1.9 cm, the thickness of the 15-inch model hasn't changed.

2012 Retina MacBook Pro, 13-inch dimensions

  • Height 1.9 cm
  • Weight 1.62 kg

2013 Retina MacBook Pro, 13-inch dimensions

  • Height 1.8 cm
  • Weight 1.57 kg

The 2014 11-inch MacBook Air was 490 g lighter than the lightest Retina MacBook Pro, at 1.08 kg. While the MacBook Air gives the impression of being slimmer, it's still 1.7 cm at the thickest point, just a millimeter different. The 2013 11-inch MacBook Air weighs the same as the 2014 model.

The 2014 13-inch MacBook Air model is probably a farer comparison, and that weighs in at 1.35 kg, just 220 g less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina. The 2013 13-inch MacBook Air weighs the same as the 2014 model.

Read our review of the 2014 13in MacBook Air here and our review of the 2014 11in MacBook Air here.

2012 MacBook Air, 13-inch dimensions

  • Height 1.8 cm
  • Weight 1.57 kg 

2014/2013 MacBook Air, 13-inch dimensions

  • Height 1.7 cm
  • Weight 1.35 kg

Buying Advice

The MacBook Air is still the lightest, but the MacBook Pro is catching up and this means you no longer need to sacrifice power for portability.

[Watch our Which MacBook Air is best video]

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Price comparison

When it first launched in October 2012, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display started at £1,449. This was reduced to £1,249 a few months later when the range received a processor upgrade. Now the entry-level price is a much more compelling £1,099.

As of 29 April 2014, the MacBook Air pricing now starts at £749, this is £100 less than the 2013 model, which started at £849. That's a £350 saving between the entry level models, however, if you wanted to compare like for like, the 13-inch MacBook Air pricing starts at £849, £250 less than the Retina display model. Note: the price of the 2013 MacBook Air 13-inch was £100 more at £849, so back then the difference between the two 13-inch models was just £150. Now the difference is £250, which could allow you to purchase a separate screen which, although not Retina, would be bigger than 13-inches.

What do you get for your £250? The key differences are a faster processor (2.4 GHz compared to 1.4 GHz - 1.3GHz in terms of the 2013 model) and Intel Iris Graphics as opposed to the Intel HD Graphics.

2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch, £849

  • 128GB PCIe flash storage
  • 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • 4GB memory
  • 12 hour battery

2013 MacBook Pro, 13-inch, £1,099

  • 128GB PCIe flash storage
  • 2.4 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz
  • Intel Iris Graphics
  • 4GB memory
  • 9 hour battery

Buying Advice

The MacBook Air might be the cheapest option, but it's still worth considering paying just £250 more to can get a lot more power and features from the MacBook Pro with Retina display. However, you might prefer to keep your £250 and spend it on an external monitor so that you can hook your MacBook up to a second display.

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Power and processors 

The 1.4 GHz of the MacBook Air compared to the 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro looks like a big difference, although with Apple's Turbo Boost the difference is less pronounced: 2.7 GHz compare to 2.9 GHz. Turbo Boost is a function offered by Intel's processors that overclocks the core frequency when you are running an application that requires more power.

2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch - price & processor

  • 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, £849
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz 

2013 MacBook Pro, 13-inch - price & processor

  • 2.4 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, £1,099
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz 

You may also notice that that the Intel processor in the 2013 entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro looks like it should be slower than 2012's Retina MacBook Pro - 2.4 GHz compared to 2.5 GHz. Don’t be fooled by these numbers though, as gigahertz alone tells you as little about real performance. The same can be said when you compare the processor in the 2012 and 2013 MacBook Air models. The difference is the processor - Haswell rather than Ivy Bridge. The new MacBook Air for 2014 offers a even newer generation of Haswell processor.

2012 Retina MacBook Pro, 13-inch - price & processor

  • 2.5 GHz Core i5,  £1,249
  • 2.6 GHz Core i5, £1,449 

2013 Retina MacBook Pro, 13-inch - price & processor

  • 2.4 GHz Core i5, £1,009
  • 2.4 GHz Core i5, £1,249
  • 2.6GHz Core i5, £1,499

For example, in Geekbench 3, the 2013 13-inch MacBook Pro 2.6 GHz Core i5 with 8 GB of memory, scored 3113 points in the single processor test. For context, that’s within 5 percent of the result of 2012’s 2.7 GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which averaged 3254 points.

Buying Advice

If you want the best processor available then the MacBook Pro with Retina display is still the obvious choice, but note that when the Mac needs to power up Turbo Boost should make a big difference. We will soon be testing the new 2014 MacBook Air to see what difference the improved Intel processor in that model makes.

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Battery life

Another benefit of the Haswell processor is that it requires less power than the Ivy Bridge processor; as a result Apple has been able boost the battery life in the new models. Last year's offered 7 hours; this year battery life is at 9 hours, according to Apple. In our tests we found battery life to be even better.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina we tested actually lasted just shy of 10 hours – 9 hrs 55 mins in fact – in our tests. Note that our test procedure includes no natural pauses – and this is where new power savings are made in both the new Haswell chipset and in the OS X Mavericks operating system, so in practice you may get much more battery life. 

2012 Retina MacBook Pro, 13-inch

  • 7 hour battery 

2013 Retina MacBook Pro, 13-inch

  • 9 hour battery

Since the 2013 MacBook Air launch, Apple has been able to claim that the 13-inch MacBook Air offers battery life that will last a full working day. That's 12-hours for the new MacBook Air compared to seven hours for the 2012 MacBook Air.

In our battery tests back when the 2013 MacBook Air models we found that the battery life was even better than that claimed by Apple. In our MobileMark 2007 Productivity Test the MacBook Air ran for 13 hours and 57 minutes. We are yet to test battery life on the new MacBook Air lineup launched in April 2014.

2012 MacBook Air, 13-inch

  • 7 hour battery (claimed by Apple)

2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch, £849

  • 12 hour battery (claimed by Apple)

MacBook Pro, 13-inch, £1,099

  • 9 hour battery (claimed by Apple)

Buying Advice

If it's the maximum battery life you need then there is still a significant difference between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, it's how important those extra hours are to you that matters.

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: specs and build-to-order options

There are three 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro options available and two 13-inch MacBook Air options. There are also a number of build-to-order options across both ranges. You may, for example, wish to add more RAM at point of purchase because you will not be able to upgrade it later, and 4 GB may not prove to be enough in a few years time.

In the MacBook Pro Retina line up you have the £1,099, 2.4 GHz, 4 GB memory, 128 GB flash storage already mentioned. The mid-range model is also 2.4 GHz, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB flash storage for £1,249. The flagship 13-inch model offers 2.6 GHz, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB flash storage for £1,499. You can max out the top of the range 13-inch Retina model with a 2.8 GHz i7 processor for an extra £180, 16 GB RAM for £160, and 1 TB flash storage for £400.

MacBook Pro Retina line up

  • £1,099: 2.4 GHz, 4GB RAM, 128GB flash storage
  • £1,249: 2.4GHz, 8GB RAM, 256GB flash storage
  • £1,499: 2.6 GHz, 8GB RAM, 512GB flash storage

Build-to-order options:

  • £180: 2.8 GHz i7
  • £160: 16 GB RAM
  • £400: 1 TB flash storage 

The two 2014 13-inch MacBook Air options include the £849, 1.3 GHz, with 4 GB memory, 128GB storage and the top-of-the-range 1.3GHz, 4 GB memory, 256 GB flash storage option, which is £150 more at £999. You are paying £150 extra for a higher capacity flash drive; there is no other difference between the two models.

In both cases you can max out your processor to the 1.7 GHz Intel i7 for an extra £120 (this upgrade was £130 for the 2013 model), and 8 GB memory for £80. There's a 512 GB flash storage option on the high-end model for an additional £240. 

2014 MacBook Air line up

  • £849: 1.4 GHz, 4GB memory, 128GB storage
  • £999: 1.4 GHz, 4GB memory, 256GB storage

Build-to-order options:

  • £120: 1.7 GHz i7
  • £80: 8 GB RAM
  • £240: 512 GB flash storage

So at the most maxed out, the 13-inch Retina display model costs £2,239 and comes with 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM and 1 TB flash storage. The ultimate build to order 2014 MacBook Air costs £1,449 (£790 less).  This build to order model comes with 1.7 GHz Intel Core i7, 8 GB RAM and 512 GB flash storage. In 2013 the ultimate MacBook Air would have cost £1,579.

Incidentally, that gives us two MacBooks at £1,449, with the only difference (other than the Retina display) being the processor - one an i5 the other an i7. Read about the difference between the i5 and i7 processor range here.

£1,499: MacBook Pro

  • Retina display, 2.6 GHz Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 512GB flash storage

£1,449: 2014 MacBook Air

  • 1.7 GHz Intel Core i7, 8 GB RAM and 512GB flash storage

£2,239: MacBook Pro

  • Retina display, 2.8GHz Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM, 1TB flash storage

Buying advice

As a point of comparison, the maxed out MacBook Air offers a similar spec to the high-end 13-inch Retina model, which is the same price at £1,499. In other words, pay the same and get Retina display, we will endeavour to run tests on the i5 and i7 processors to see what a difference the higher rated i7 processor makes. 

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: screen and resolution

The biggest difference between the Apple's two MacBook models is the display. The MacBook Air screens aren't Retina displays, so the pixel density is lower. The 13-inch Air has a native 1,440-x-900 screen resolution compared to the 2,560-by-1,600 resolution on the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina. That is nearly double the resolution in both axes as the familiar 1,280 x 800 size, and hits a pixel density of 227 ppi (pixels per inch) that makes individual pixels invisible to the eye at reading distances.

However, the screen on the Air is by no means inferior to the vast majority of laptop screens.

2014 13-inch MacBook Air

  • 1,440-x-900 resolution

2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display

  • 2,560-by-1,600 resolution

The Retina MacBook Air features a LED-backlit display, but only the Retina 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. The MacBook Pro with Retina display and the 13in MacBook Air both offers a 16:10 ratio rather than the 16:9 screens that most other laptops use, including the MacBook Air. We think 16:10 is the best for laptop productivity and comfort.

Buying advice

If you need the best screen available then the Retina MacBook Pro is unbeatable. In a few years from now we expect all of Apple's devices will feature Retina displays. Indeed, Apple may have plans to introduce a new MacBook Air with a Retina display at some point in 2014.

[Read: Is Retina Display worth the money?/ Will Apple release a Retina MacBook Air?]

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Graphics and games

Improved graphics performance is one of the key changes for the Haswell processor line. The 13-inch MacBook Pro has always relied on Intel integrated graphics, unlike the high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which offers switching graphics processors to balance performance with battery economy.

This 2013 Retina MacBook Pro features Intel Iris Graphics, which can use 1024 MB of system memory.

Note that along with the NVIDIA graphics card in the high-end 15-inch model, the 15-inch MacBook Pros feature Iris Pro Graphics, which includes its own dedicated DRAM to accelerate performance.

In our tests the regular Intel Iris graphics proved capable of playing the Batman: Arkham City benchmark at an average of 31 fps at High detail using the screen’s ‘native’ resolution of 1,280 x 800 pixels. Reducing detail to Medium actually changed little, rewarding us with an average of 32 fps.

The 2014 MacBook Air features the less powerful Intel's HD Graphics 5000, as did the 2013 model, although these showed a marked improvement on the HD Graphics 4000 from the 2012 generation of MacBook Air. 

MacBook Pro Retina line up

  • 13-inch: Intel Iris Graphics
  • 15-inch: Intel Iris Pro Graphics 

2014 & 2013 MacBook Air line up

  • Intel HD Graphics 5000

Buying Advice

The 13-inch MacBook Air is without a doubt better for playing games than the 2012 model, but the 2014 model is unlikely to offer much of a difference when compared to the 2013 model. If you want to play games on a MacBook you are best advised to consider the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: capacity concerns, flash verses HD

The MacBook Air is available with a choice of 128 GB or 256 GB flash storage, as well as a 512 GB build-to-order option. The MacBook Pro with Retina display offers 128 GB, 256 GB and 512 GB flash storage, and a 1 TB build-to-order option.

2014 13-inch MacBook Air

  • £849: 128GB storage
  • £999: 256GB storage
  • + £240: 512GB flash storage (£1,239)

2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display

  • £1,099: 128GB flash storage
  • £1,249: 256GB flash storage
  • £1,499: 512GB flash storage
  • + £400: 1TB flash storage (£1,899) 

Some people will have no problem fitting their data within the 128 GB capacity of the low-end models. However, there will be plenty of people with ever increasing photo and media libraries who are concerned that even 256 GB isn't enough storage for their needs and they may wish to turn to the Retina MacBook Pro, rather than pay £240 for the build-to-order option on the Air. Especially when you consider that the £240 extra brings the price of the 512 GB Air to £1,239, so you could pay another £260 and get the £1,499 512 GB Retina MacBook Pro with its faster processor and extra RAM.

If it's the maximum storage you need, at the minimum cost, you could opt for the old MacBook Pro with its 500 GB hard drive. That non-Retina model costs £999, but we advise that if you really need the extra storage space you consider a separate external hard drive.

Storage needs aside, the PCIe-connected solid-state flash plays a huge role in the performance of both the MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro. This new PCIe technology bypasses the usual Serial ATA interface entirely and offers significantly faster data throughput.

Apple claims this next-generation PCIe flash storage is up to 9x faster than a traditional 5400-rpm notebook hard drive (as found in the non retina MacBook Pro) and up to 45 per cent faster than the flash storage in the 2012 MacBook Air.

All this adds up to a big change in speed and reduced startup times. For more information on the differences between a Flash or SSD verses a HDD hard drive read our which is the best storage to have in a Mac feature.

Buying Advice

Flash storage has increased in capacity over the past few years to the point where for most users the capacity of the entry level MacBooks will be adequate. Those who really feel the need for extra storage are advised to get an external hard drive and take advantage of the quicker start up and faster access times for flash storage. 

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Ports and peripherals

If you are looking for a laptop with a built in optical drive your only choice is the old £999 MacBook Pro without Retina diaplsy. However, we don't think that an optical drive is necessary in these days of software and music downloads and movie streaming. If you really need that optical drive, we suggest that you factor in the cost of an Apple Superdrive, which costs £65.

Both the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and the 13-inch MacBook Air offer an SDXC card slot for downloading photographs from your memory stick. Both models also offer two USB 3 ports each. The Retina MacBook Pro features two Thunderbolt 2 ports, to the Air's one Thunderbolt port. The Pro also offers an HDMI port, while you'll need Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter for the Air.

Retina MacBook Pro

  • Two Thunderbolt 2 ports
  • Two USB 3 ports
  • HDMI port
  • SDXC card slot

2013 MacBook Air

  • Two USB 3 ports
  • Thunderbolt port
  • SDXC card slot
  • HDMI audio and video output via third-party Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter

Buying Advice

We know that a lot of people are attached to the CD and DVD but we think that sacrificing the optical drive for a slimmer, lighter laptop is a good move on Apple's part. The big difference is the inclusion of Thunderbolt 2 on the Retina MacBook Pro, verses the Thunderbolt 1 on the Air. For now, while few peripherals use Thunderbolt, this will make little difference. If you are likely to be plugging your laptop into your TV you might prefer the ease of the HDMI port on the Retina MacBook Pro, you'll need a separate adaptor for the Air.  

OUR VERDICT

In 2013, when Apple reduced the price of the MacBook Pro with Retina display range, we stopped recommending the 13-inch MacBook Air on the basis that there was only £150 difference in price between the £1,099 entry-level Retina MacBook Pro and the entry-level 13-inch 2013 MacBook Air. However, Apple has now rectified this by introducing a lower price on the MacBook Air range - and about time too - so it is no longer so hard to justify the prices of the MacBook Air against the low priced Retina option. It's great to see Apple reducing prices across its MacBook Ranges. Now the old MacBook Pro without Retina display is looking very overpriced at £999.

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