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? 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. Now that the entry-level MacBook Pro costs only £150 more than the MacBook Air the decision is simple, or is it?... In this article we look at the different features in the two 13-inch MacBook models - the 13in MacBook Air and the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display and answer whether it is worth spending £150 more to get the pro model.

Wondering when Apple will update the MacBook Air - in this article we look at the rumours and speculation surrounding the launch of the rumoured Retina MacBook Air.

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

The 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 11-inch MacBook Air is 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 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. 

2012 MacBook Air, 13-inch dimensions

  • Height 1.8 cm
  • Weight 1.57 kg 

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.

The MacBook Air pricing starts at £849, so that's a £250 saving, however, if you wanted to compare like for like, the 13-inch MacBook Air pricing starts at £949, just £150 less than the Retina display model.

What do you get for your £150? The key differences are a faster processor (2.4 GHz compared to 1.3 GHz) and Intel Iris Graphics as opposed to the Intel HD Graphics.

MacBook Air, 13-inch, £949

  • 128GB PCIe flash storage
  • 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • 4GB memory
  • 12 hour battery

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 for just £150 more you can get a lot more power and features from the MacBook Pro with Retina display. 

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Power and processors 

The 1.3 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: 2.6 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.

MacBook Air, 13-inch - price & processor

  • 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, £949
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz 

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 new entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro looks like it should be slower than last year'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.

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

One key difference between the two generations is the fact that the new models use Intel's new Haswell processors rather than the older Ivy Bridge processors.

For example, in Geekbench 3, the 13-inch 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 last year’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 the obvious choice, but note that when the Mac needs to power up Turbo Boost should make a big difference. 

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

Apple claims 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 last year's machine.

In our battery tests back when the new MacBook Air models launched 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.

2012 MacBook Air, 13-inch

  • 7 hour battery 

2013 MacBook Air, 13-inch

  • 12 hour battery 

MacBook Air, 13-inch, £949

  • 12 hour battery 

MacBook Pro, 13-inch, £1,099

  • 9 hour battery 

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 13-inch MacBook Air options include the £949, 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 £180 more at £1,129. You are paying £180 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 £130, and 8 GB memory for £80. There's a 512 GB flash storage option on the high-end model for an additional £240. 

MacBook Air line up

  • £949: 1.3 GHz, 4GB memory, 128GB storage
  • £1,129: 1.3GHz, 4GB memory, 256GB storage

Build-to-order options:

  • £130: 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 MacBook Air costs £1,579 (£660 less) and comes with 1.7 GHz Intel Core i7, 8 GB RAM and 512 GB flash storage.

£2,239: MacBook Pro

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

£1,499: MacBook Pro

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

£1,579: MacBook Air

  • 1.7 GHz Intel Core i7, 8 GB RAM and 512GB 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 £1,499. In other words, pay £80 less and get a faster processor (although it's i5, not i7) and Retina display. 

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.

MacBook Air

  • 1,440-x-900 resolution

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.

[Read: Is Retina Display worth the money?]

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 new 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 MacBook Air features the less powerful Intel's HD Graphics 5000, although these showed a marked improvement on the HD Graphics 4000 from the previous generation. 

MacBook Pro Retina line up

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

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 previous year's model, but 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.

MacBook Air

  • £949: 128GB storage
  • £1,129: 256GB storage
  • + £240: 512GB flash storage (£1,369)

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 £1,369, so you might as well pay another £130 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. 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

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

Before Apple launched the new MacBook Pro with Retina display range we would have whole-heartedly recommended the MacBook Air. However, the addition of the lower priced £1,099 entry-level Retina MacBook Pro means that the Pro laptops are now a much more attractive option. We wonder if the next MacBook Air range will include a lower-cost option too because right now it's tough to justify the prices in comparison to this low priced Retina option.